That Was 2017, That Was

With 2017 coming to a close, I can’t resist the urge to look back and see what happened from my point of view. I had plenty of time to contemplate because the first seven months were largely spent getting over various surgery. I had thought the recovery periods would be good for creativity. With nothing else to do, I could write and advance some of my theoretical work, but it did not work but like that. What I found was that painkillers also seemed to kill originality. However, I did manage one e-novel through the year (The Manganese Dilemma), which is about hacking, Russians and espionage. That was obviously initially inspired by the claims of Russian hacking in the Trump election, but I left that alone. It was clearly better to invent my own scenario than to go down that turgid path. Even though that is designed essentially as just a thriller, I did manage to insert a little scientific thinking into the background, and hopefully the interested potential reader will guess that from the “manganese” in the title.

On the space front, I am sort of pleased to report that there was nothing that contradicted my theory of planetary formation found in the literature, but of course that may be because there is a certain plasticity in it. The information on Pluto, apart from the images and the signs of geological action, were well in accord with what I had written, but that is not exactly a triumph because apart from those images, there was surprisingly little new information. Some of which might have previously been considered “probable” was confirmed, and details added, but that was all. The number of planets around TRAPPIST 1 was a little surprising, and there is limited evidence that some of them are indeed rocky. The theory I expounded would not predict that many, however the theory depended on temperatures, and for simplicity and generality, it considered the star as a point. That will work for system like ours, where the gravitational heating is the major source of heat during primary stellar accretion, and radiation for the star is most likely to be scattered by the intervening gas. Thus closer to our star than Mercury, much of the material, and even silicates, had reached temperatures where it formed a gas. That would not happen around a red dwarf because the gravitational heating necessary to do that is very near the surface of the star (because there is so much less falling more slowly into a far smaller gravitational field) so now the heat from the star becomes more relevant. My guess is the outer rocky planets here are made the same way our asteroids were, but with lower orbital velocities and slower infall, there was more time for them to grow, which is why they are bigger. The inner ones may even have formed closer to the star, and then moved out due to tidal interactions.

The more interesting question for me is, do any of these rocky planets in the habitable zone have an atmosphere? If so, what are the gases? I am reasonably certain I am not the only one waiting to get clues on this.

On another personal level, as some might know, I have published an ebook (Guidance Waves) that offers an alternative interpretation of quantum mechanics that, like de Broglie and Bohm, assumes there is a wave, but there are two major differences, one of which is that the wave transmits energy (which is what all other waves do). The wave still reflects probability, because energy density is proportional to mass density, but it is not the cause. The advantage of this is that for the stationary state, such as in molecules, that the wave transmits energy means the bond properties of molecules should be able to be represented as stationary waves, and this greatly simplifies the calculations. The good news is, I have made what I consider good progress on expanding the concept to more complicated molecules than outlined in Guidance Waves and I expect to archive this sometime next year.

Apart from that, my view of the world scene has not got more optimistic. The US seems determined to try to tear itself apart, at least politically. ISIS has had severe defeats, which is good, but the political futures of the mid-east still remains unclear, and there is still plenty of room for that part of the world to fracture itself again. As far as global warming goes, the politicians have set ambitious goals for 2050, but have done nothing significant up to the end of 2017. A thirty-year target is silly, because it leaves the politicians with twenty years to do nothing, and then it would be too late anyway.

So this will be my last post for 2017, and because this is approaching the holiday season in New Zealand, I shall have a small holiday, and resume half-way through January. In the meantime, I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas, and a prosperous and healthy 2018.

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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?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/opinion/ivan-krastev-is-putin-trying-to-teach-us-a-lesson.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1)
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.

The Auckland Housing Crisis – politics and economics in conflict.

I end my latest futuristic novel (editing in progress) with the protagonists searching for a better economic system. Now, some may say, we have an excellent one now, so what is wrong with it. The Auckland housing market illustrates one symptom that something might be wrong. Yes, by itself, apart from those living there, who cares about the Auckland housing market? The fact that other cities also have ridiculous house prices may indicate the problem is more general, even though the causes will probably be different in detail, but that in turn is not the problem, in my mind anyway.

The problem in Auckland appears to be simple. House prices are so high that many people are paying up to half their income in servicing mortgages, in short, they are working their butts off for the benefit of banks. A secondary problem is that right now we have record (ridiculously?) low interest rates, so what happens when these revert to more usual levels? Now the banks have a problem, but so does every other saver, because if the banks go bankrupt, the elderly lose everything and the economic system collapses. And it is not the poor who are in this position; the poor tend to be packed in like sardines into whatever accommodation they can find for they cannot afford a family home. The reason: there are not enough houses.

As to why not, the problem goes back to politicians. Some long time ago, local politicians decided that Auckland occupies too much area, and it needs to stop sprawling and go up. The advantages are obvious, if it happened. The denser the living area, the more successful is public transport. Currently, the sprawl makes it difficult to pay, or provide, so the automobile is king; well, up to a point, as one could argue at times the road system is more a slow moving parking lot. So what happened is that in a fit of enthusiasm, politicians passed regulations to stop the sprawl by not giving building permits outside certain limits. They also did not help by putting in a whole lot of building regulations, and started raking in money through fees for obtaining permits.

What they forgot was just because they insisted in going up, not everyone wanted to go up, but worse, nobody was particularly interested in providing the apartment blocks. That was partly because nobody was sure they would work, and some that were tried probably did not work. The reason why not was that developer greed took over, and they built to maximize return, and not to maximize desirability. Postage stamp sized apartments with few facilities are not big sellers! So, with no agreed design that was acceptable to the regulators, and probably serious legal/regulatory difficulties in trying to bring in something like terrace housing, what happened is, well, nothing. With immigration increasing, all we got was price being the allocation tool. Even then, when rules on obtaining new land were relaxed, it appears much of the potential land is “banked”; recently a small number of sections were released, and a huge number of people queued up to purchase them at over the average price for house and section elsewhere in the country. These were at the very edge of the city, and with rural land nearby, and the interesting thing was, the land was going for at least an order of magnitude more than its value as a productive asset. A final problem may well be that ever-increasing prices make a speculator’s heaven.

This is not “market failure”; the market is doing exactly what is expected. The politicians have imposed strategy, but they have done so without any idea whatsoever as to how it should be implemented, and this is plain incompetence. Strategy is incomplete unless there is a clear method for how it could be implemented, and that method must be practical. And that, to my mind, is the basic problem with modern politicians: they are never happier than when devising rules but they never consider the unintended consequences, and they are always happy to plan, based on what they think ought to happen based on inadequate analysis, but they seldom work out how to implement it to give the outcomes they expect. The exceptions are taxation and spending money.

So, what to do about it? In my “First Contact” trilogy, I had it that candidates putting their names forward for election to an office had to demonstrate that they had the necessary skills to carry out the functions of the office properly. Of course, the trilogy also had the underlying subplot or subtheme of why this would not work either. Fortunately, in my next book, it ends with the protagonists “forming a new Constitution”, but nothing that is in it is mentioned. Whether I shall ever do a follow-up depends on whether I can think of what it should be. If you have any thoughts, please comment.

What now for Ukraine?

As the situation in Ukraine seems to deteriorate, the question is, what now? Accurate information is, understandably, rather scarce but from a strategic point of view, most parties seem to be digging in, more with a view to making the problem worse than in improving it. The first step in forming a strategy is to have a clear goal, and from what I can make out, the various parties have goals that are essentially irreconcilable. My guess is that the following is approximately what the goals are, but I could be wrong. Poroshenko wants to exert control over all of what he claims is Ukraine on the basis he was elected president of it, except of course the parts that don’t want him were not given a vote. The leaders of Eastern Ukraine want independence from Poroshenko. Crimea is part of Russia again. The position of the US and NATO is less clear. They claim they want Ukraine united, but the real position may be that they want to put one over Russia, and have military bases close to Russia. Russia almost certainly wants fewer missiles aimed at it, and not in Ukraine, and additionally, it wants to support Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, who reports say either are or most certainly will be oppressed by right wing militias. Missing from all this is what do the average Ukrainian want? Do they all want the same thing?

The West has sent Ukraine various supplies to help those afflicted by the war, and sent them to Kiev, where they have been sent eastwards. From what I can make out, a very high per centage of these have been hijacked and looted. Further, the land near the separatists may or may not have Ukrainian regular soldiers present, but they most certainly have right wing militias and paramilitary groups. The separatists may or may not have irregular soldiers from Russia, and they may or may not have been supplied with weapons from Russia. Everyone says they have, but it should be recalled that there were a number of arsenals in Eastern Ukraine that are now under separatist control, and from what we can make out, most of the weapons used by the separatists are of Soviet age. Thus the BUK missile that brought down the airliner was designed and supplied up to thirty odd years ago.

So, what to do? Germany and France have apparently argued for a demilitarized zone between the east and west and a cease-fire. In my opinion, that is not going to work unless there are good troops there to enforce it. The problem with a cease-fire is that its only real purpose is to buy time until some permanent settlement is reached. Even in Korea, there is a permanent settlement, at least to the extent it has survived for nearly fifty years. But this will not work while the right wing militias want to bring the East to heel. The US is talking about giving Kiev better arms. What that will do, based on recent history, is to first better arm the militias, who are uncontrollable, and secondly they will be looted and sold off, and may well end up in terrorists hands. Worse still, if the US supplies military aid, Russia will be obliged to match it, which will merely escalate things. If the US sends “advisors”, or troops, Russia will match it. The danger of a real war breaking out if someone makes a mistake is only too obvious. Suppose a US weapon was used against Russians in Russia, now what?

So what should happen? My view is that the previous cease-fire was time wasted. What the West could do is to try to get Putin onside by promising not to have Ukraine in NATO and promising not to have missiles there, then offer Ukraine an independently monitored election, district by district, to decide what they want to happen. There must be sufficient external force to guarantee militias stand down, and clear instructions to the parties that undermining this process will not be tolerated. At the end of this, those districts that have a majority to secede should be permitted to do so. I know, people will say, this is interfering with a sovereign nation, but my response is, it is actually offering the people the chance to get what they want, not what various other parties that do not live there want. After the election, if any districts do secede, then there should also be financial assistance to permit those who do not want to be a minority in a district to move. In all probability, the numbers moving each way should be roughly equal. That would be expensive, but nowhere nearly as expensive as an all-out war.

What do you think?

The right stuff in politics

A week of calm has descended over Wellington, but we cannot have that can we? If the weather stays really calm, someone has to substitute, and in this case it was the politicians. In some of the futuristic ebooks I am self-publishing, one of the background themes is how governance can be manipulated by politicians. One way is by making misleading statements. How do you defend yourself against these?

We have had an example here. The problem: the cities of Auckland and Christchurch have house prices that are getting out of hand. There are several reasons for this, and the one I feel is the most likely to be determining the prices is that there are too few of them. In Christchurch, the reason is the recent earthquakes. Large areas of the eastern city have been found to be built on ground that rapidly liquefies, many of the services such as sewage have been hopelessly wrecked, and the authorities that be have declared that part of the city is not worth rebuilding, and rebuilding should occur elsewhere. The problem is, it has taken some time to get around to building enough houses to house about a quarter of the city’s population, so housing is really expensive. In principle, this is a transient problem, because eventually enough will be built and the prices should come down. The current high prices should reflect those who have money and want to get to the head of the queue. Whether that is right is another story.

Auckland has a different problem. New Zealand is currently experiencing significant immigration, the immigrants all land in Auckland and few go further. On top of that, there have been far too few houses built recently. The reasons are somewhat obscure, but it seems to be that the planners that be have decreed that Auckland is occupying enough area already, and it needs greater housing density, more apartments, etc, and to bring about that nirvana, it is not issuing permits outside certain boundaries. There is not much free land within the boundaries, and while the City Council no doubt thinks high-rise apartments are the way to go, nobody is building such apartments, possibly because a recent lot were not a financial success. That was probably because not everybody wants to live in postage-stamp sized apartments without somewhere to park a car.

Given such a problem, there is some evidence that speculators have descended and several thousand such houses have been purchased by foreign people who have no intention of living here. Presumably they will rent and resell at some time in the future. It is not clear how many such houses are purchased by foreign speculators.

Now enter politics. The Labour (opposition) leader has announced that if they win the next election they will ban foreigners from buying houses unless (a) they come to live in them, or (b) they build them. There are various responses to this. The right wing accuses them of being xenophobic. The prime Minister has said only a few per cent of the houses are bought by foreigners for investment, so it is hardly a big deal. To me, that is misleading. Those bought by foreigners are often bought at auction, and top auction prices tend to set expectations from sellers, especially when there is a clear shortage. If you know what someone else got for a comparable house, don’t you want something similar? Also, our Prime Minister made his own personal fortune as a trader, so he must know that it is the top few transactions that tend to be price setters on a rising market.

This illustrates a problem (apart from, following from my previous post, we just had another earthquake while writing this!) in that politicians and their appointed authorities control our lives through their actions. Our system of governance only really works when politicians “do the right thing”. Making dismissive statements to abandon responsibility is hardly “doing the right thing”. At the end of my next ebook, Jonathon Munros (available some time  in August) one of my characters expresses the opinion that the problem lies in that getting the right person to do the job and getting the person elected require completely different skills. What do you think?