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Sep. 30th, 2013

The end of magic

"Mana is non-renewable!" the beggar shouts at passers-by, who carefully avert their attention.

"Sir, you look like a master of the mysteries!" the beggar shouts as he spots me. Guiltily, I try to avert my gaze, but it's too late.

"I was once like you, a scholar of the infinite, but then I found out!" the beggar smells worse up close.

"Uh, what did you find out?" I ask, mostly for cover as I begin to hurry past.

"The second law of thaumodynamics: mana seeks homogeneity!" the beggar raved, his eyes looking at-and-past me.

I stop. That actually sounds like sense. On an impulse I try to cast a weak CLARITY on him, but it doesn't seem to take. I'm pretty bad at mind magic, though, and a bit more conversation might have the same effect.

"Well, of course some mana is dissipated with each working, but mana always gets concentrated again, by the pull of the ley lines and the cycle of the tides," I lecture, thinking back to Metaphysics 101.

"But not for billions of years!" he shouts.

Now we're getting somewhere. "But we've used mana since the time of the Matriarchs, and we haven't 'run out' yet."

"Half a dozen generations ... the ice age!" he yells, still not quite looking at me.

"I'm not sure there really was an 'ice age', and since the Matriarchs clearly exaggerated all their powers, changing the entire planet's temperature just to be more human-friendly ... it seems like a typical tall tale," I explain. How many old coots have you heard say 'back in my day, we'd magic back the rain so we wouldn't get wet' or some other unbelievable story?

"The stones! Stones show glaciers plowed this very valley not a hundred years ago! And I RESAW it!" he shouts. His only volume setting seems to be 'shout'.

"But RESAW only lets you look back a week or so," I counter. I'm really bad at hindsight, which works by reconstructing the diffracted echoes of events as they expand 'like ripples in a pond'. Going back an entire week is considered incredibly hard even if you've got an enormous amount of mana to burn.

"The old, like me, we remember the ley lines ... overflowing with the blinding power of exploded stars, not this feeble echo-glow you children ... call magic! And I FORESEE magic's end." This last he whimpers, which makes sense. Current practice strongly recommends against attempts to FORESEE, because what you foresee affects your actions, but your actions affect what you foresee. This feedback generally results in madness, blowing the fuse that connects your mind with reality, since it's the way to reach a stable outcome.

"What did you FORESEE?" I ask. This is typically the only question that it's useful to ask a sufferer.

"Mana needs to be imported from farther and farther away. Living gets harder. Eventually even food needs to be imported, then there's not enough, then the City collapses. Our children's children ... the surviving few ... start the long task of manually reworking the life-helix of plants and animals to provide for them. After aeons they discover how to work metals without alchemy, copper, bronze, then steel. They learn to move around, fly through the air, and manipulate atoms. But it is not until they cross the black void to a new planet that they relearn magic!"

I cast FLEETFOOT and zip away, shaking my head. What a nutter.

Sep. 2nd, 2013

Syria and "characteristically middle eastern violence"

In the ideal society, violence is an absolute last resort, chosen with somber decorum as the least destructive way to preserve some vital interest in a community. For example, a police officer might legitimately shoot a kidnapper to save the life of a child hostage, or a besieged Britain might fight a Nazi invasion.

In the middle east, violence is not chosen this way. In the middle east, international relations often seem to be conducted by lobbing explosive-filled rockets or mortar shells over an international boundary, arming militias opposed to your enemies, and generally exporting pain and destruction to your neighbors. In other words, violence is a *first* resort, the default means of cross-border communication. Why? The stated rationale is often "because it's the only language they understand."

Second, middle eastern violence is often the impulsive choice of the few, not the rational choice of the many. Good long-term decisionmaking is quite problematic in dictatorships, but even representative democracies can and often are herded into war by anger, hatred, official lies, and the fear of appearing weak. Reason, forgiveness, inclusiveness, morality, legality, and humanity are low on the list of considerations.

Finally, middle eastern violence is often destructive to the ultimate aims of the perpetrator. For example, the vast majority of Israeli and Palestinian people want to live in peace with their neighbors. Yet as ground incursions and airstrikes are met by suicide bombers and rocket fire in an escalating tit-for-tat spiral, each society's foundations are not being built up, but chipped away. A heavily militarized shoot-first-ask-questions-never concrete fortress is not David's promised land of milk and honey; nor does a screaming hive of fundamentalist bombmakers match the ideals of the religion of peace.

It should be clear that I think the Syria plan coming out of the White House early this week (briefly "teach them a lesson with cruise missiles") was, in fact, characteristically middle eastern violence. The cruise missile plan begins and ends with violence, ignoring negotiation, sanctions, medical aid, and all the other tools of diplomacy. It's a knee-jerk response to an atrocity, without a clear goal or endgame. And not only would it fail to advance America's aims in the region, the president acting as a dictator violates both the letter and spirit of the US Constitution.

I was thus pleasantly surprised to hear that Obama will ask Congress for authorization for military action in Syria. We the people should insist on clear war aims--"Punish the dictator for using nerve gas on his own people" would be acceptable and achievable with cruise missles, as would "End the dictator's brutal regime" although this would require a huge commitment of air and ground troops. We need to have an inclusive national discussion about what makes this important to the country, and how to use the full spectrum of our considerable power to get there.

Some claim that spending a few weeks to gather allies and think things through makes us look weak. But America has thousands of thermonuclear warheads; global-reach weapons delivery systems including drones, cruise missiles, stealth bombers, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines; and the undisputed ability to vaporise anything on the planet. We do not look weak.

Aug. 28th, 2013

Syria: just when you thought it couldn't get worse

The Syrian regime is famous for their 97% approval rating, 29-year occupation of neighboring Lebanon, and brutal crackdowns, such as beating down cartoonists. Other than being a corrupt and brutal dictatorship (like half the countries on the planet), and being an ally of Iran (our enemies) and enemy of Israel (our allies), so far I'm not seeing that much to hate about the Syrian regime.

The rebels are a mostly bearded IED-wielding assortment. Some elements of the rebel forces are linked to al-Qaeda. A rebel commander filmed a video where he eats organs from a dead regime soldier. I've always supported the middle east peoples' aspirations for legitimate government and self-determination, but widespread violence is not a reliable path to these goals, and I have to say so far I'm not liking what I'm hearing about the rebels.

As of last week, the situation was a bloody stalemate, which is the usual outcome in an ethnically linked conflict.

This week, somebody launched rockets containing a chemical agent into several rebel neighborhoods, killing hundreds of people, mostly women and children. The regime has huge stockpiles of chemical weapons at their well-defended military bases; rebels are not known to have any chemical weapons. Still, the regime is allowing UN inspectors into the sites.

Next week, will Bush-style "cruise missile nation building" really make the situation any better? Will Obama exercise his own apparently dicatorial power to wage war against the regime without the agreement of congress, the UN, or the American people?

Aug. 4th, 2013

An open letter regarding the monitoring

My dearest wife,

First let me say that I truly love you, and everything I've done, has been done to keep you safe. Because this really all began back when you were with George, in 2001 when you were attacked in New York. I disagree with George about a lot of things, but like him I feel certain it's my job as your husband to keep you absolutely safe. Since we were married in 2008, haven't I done that?

I can't keep you safe if I don't know where you are. That's why I put the GPS tracker in your car, and in your purse. Just to show you that I really trust you, I'm going to reveal that there's also a tracker in every left shoe you own.

I can't keep you safe if I don't know what you are doing at all times. That's why I force-paired your phone, and installed the rootkit in your computer. Again, in the spirit of honesty, I'm going to disclose that the entire house is also bugged for sound and video, especially your sewing room.

And yes, when you're away from my monitoring devices, like at your book club, sometimes I've been crouching in the bushes with binoculars and an infrared laser microphone. During my bathroom breaks, the one in the bushes is my friend Tony; I help him keep tabs on his wife occasionally as well.

Finally, that busybody Snowden, our mutual "friend", is definitely going to get an earful if I ever catch up with him. He had absolutely no right to tell you some of the more inflammatory details of my monitoring devices in the basement, which I judiciously revealed to him in the utmost confidence. He should have expected that even knowing about the still mostly undisclosed array of monitoring devices in the basement, would cause you to doubt everything you know about me.

But I'm still your faithful husband,

Jul. 5th, 2013

Third World Checks and Balances

The recent ouster of unlikeable but duly elected Egyption president Morsi by that country's well-liked army reminded me to draw up my old diagram of the "checks and balances" operating in third world governments.  The "Strongman", also known as a president or dictator depending on the spin desired by the describer, might even be female.  The "Army" might be called security services, militia, or even warlords, again depending on the slant desired.  The "Mob" can also be called "the people", dissidents, troublemakers, or terrorists depending on who's doing the describing.  The "World" mostly means America, sometimes under the fig leaf of NATO or the UN.

I've really been noticing the lack of clear moral principles in either national or international politics.  I can't tell if this due to the world changing, or my ability to notice things changing.

3rd World Checks and Balances

Nov. 23rd, 2012


hlp!  ber brekin into cabn!
baer.  scrapn thru walls.  im scard. 
A bear?
y.  i txtn fr quietnss
There's an app for that.
stfu!  i calld 911 alrdy
Isn't the cabin like 50Km from the station?
so wht do i do?
Just shoot it.
no guns. i lookd
No, no, with the app.
whch app?
I've used "General Defense 2".
No, wait, get "SHTF Superpak".
sez it neds fab 3.0?
Haven't you updated... fine.
I can walk you through it.
This'll only take a minute.
glass brok.  i smell ber.  he smell me
Focus.  You've got, what, an iVhone X?
rt.  scrd
OK, your Fabrcatr 2 can build a Fabrcatr 3.
Just hit 'System -> Wetware updates'.
needz input matrl
You have beer, right?
I know about the bear; but your phone needs beer.
Carbs, sugars, ethanol used to build molecules.
pored beer on phone
LOL, you never have done this.
Pop out the funnel on the back.

Then pour the beer *in*.
parts fell out of phn!
That's OK, those are the new parts.
Now hit 'eject'.  It's kinda messy.
wet stcky crap
new prts wont fit
The new fabricator should just click in.
You do have to stick the halves together first.
fab active.  ber lookin at me thu brok glass
Open SHTF, hit "animal attack".
Scroll to "Bear".
got crosshrs
You just point the targeting reticle, and hit fire.
Aim for the head, of course.
ber gone
Maybe bears know phones are dangerous now.
it shoot fll otto?
I think it's semi-auto, to save ammo/input material.
ok mofo.  im lokd n loded
Do keep in mind the cops.
rite.  cancled 911
I notice a certain change in your attitude.
i heer him.  dont see tho
Keep in mind the limits of your weapon.
chk windows
If it's not a headshot, it's not going to stop him.
i see his but
hes eatin my stakes!
For future reference, don't keep food on the porch.
i thnk i got a shot from upstares
Bears are taller than they look.
Be careful.
no.  window dosnt opn rite way
im gonna just opn frnt door
Seriously, be careful.   It's not a magic wand.
do u fel luky pnkber?
Sounds like famous last words.
Are you still alive?
i was thnking blam, but it went phut
Jeez, it's a phone, not a cannon.
ber looks stoned
phone sez link extablishd
Have you not been paying attention your whole life?
yah nt rlly
Your phone just fabricated and fired a neurodart.
It carefully slides its way into the bear's brain.
Acts as a network server, takes commands from the phone.
these arro keys?
kul!  it works!
hes walkin where i point him
Yeah, you're supposed to walk the bear in a safe direction.
Away from people, traffic, cliffs...
fk that
ate my dinner.  kobe!
Well, it probably wasn't real Kobe.
What are you doing now?
ths is xactly lik WOW.  n reel lif.
What is?
i haz a steed.
Don't tell me you're doing what I think you're doing.
ridin a ber!
Pics, or it didn't happen.
ridn a ber
I'm not sure if I should tell you the neurodart will safely biodegrade after about 15 minutes, or if I should just let evolution take its course.

thx for da tehc supprt

Oct. 4th, 2012

The presidential debate, and a four-year retrospective

I managed to catch only about the last fifteen minutes of the presidential debate, but I thought Romney was noticably more articulate and passionate than President Obama. But since this election is basically a referendum on the president's progress so far, I thought I'd try to summarize what has and hasn't happened over the last four years.

First, and foremost, the economy is still quite sluggish. I think Obama squandered a major opportunity in very early 2009, immediately after the inauguration, to tell the country that the Bush years are over, and a new era of prosperity will begin. America was *ready* to believe that--blame the economic troubles on Bush, and look toward a bright future. It's not totally clear this would have worked, but it wasn't even tried. Instead, the president repeatedly and intentionally talked up the fragility of the economy so he could pass the $700 billion pork-laden 'stimulus' handout to favored groups.

Second, and related, the national debt is growing at an unsustainable pace. Bush left the country with a shameful national debt approaching $12 trillion, after years of $0.5 trillion yearly deficits. Under Obama, our government has spent $1.5 trillion we DON'T HAVE each year, for a total debt now exceeding $16 trillion and growing alarmingly. This is unsustainable, and rather than fix the deficit as promised, Obama has made it worse. Whoever wins in November will have an enormous amount of work to do on the budget alone.

But part of the reason for the deficit is the ongoing wars, which to me are not going well. We've left Iraq the lives and limbs of some of our finest soldiers, with vanishingly little benefit to our country. Afghanistan, after a decade of US occupation, is still mostly an ungovernable gravel pit packed with illiterate violent extremists: what have we gained there from the trillions of dollars we have spent, and the thousands of dead and maimed Americans? Libya Obama invaded entirely of his own volition, not even bothering to seek the permission of the US Congress (even Bush got a congressional "authorization to use military force"). The recent killing of our ambassador there not only repudiated the old "we'll be greeted as liberators!" schtick, but revealed our striking thin embassy security force. Obama's "pivot to the east" now appears centered around poking an increasingly belligerent China in the eye.

Finally, candidate Obama promised to close Gitmo, and end Bush's campaign of secret illegal kidnapping. As President, he's not only failed to close Gitmo, he's actually gone beyond Bush to wage a worldwide campaign of extrajudicial assassination, killing not only Bin Laden, but US Citizens Samir Khan, Anwar al-Awlaki, and his 16 year old son. Bin Laden and his terrorist brethren can rot in hell, but the notion that our executive branch can arbitrarily decide to assassinate both US Citizens and innocent bystanders, for secret reasons, outside of a declared war zone, is ominous for the future of due process and the rule of law.

In short, candidate Obama inherited a country entangled around the world in military overreach, sliding toward bankruptcy and dictatorship. Four years later, we're even more overextended around the globe, deeper in debt, and further from the constitutional principles that our country's prosperity was built on. But at least we have a health care law.

Sep. 15th, 2012

Middle East "Your Momma" and the Muhammad movie

I just suffered through the fourteen minute "trailer" for the idiodic movie that launched a thousand riots. It's extremely crudely produced: the dialog and editing are terrible, the outdoor desert shots are badly synched greenscreen footage, and all the dialog references to Islam were obviously added in post production. It's not easy to find halfway decent actors to ridicule any major world religion, so the title character was in the script as "Master George" to trick the actors and actresses (the entire cast and crew has filed an open letter of protest against the producer).

The founder of one of the planet's major religions is portrayed onscreen as a petty bastard thug. Confusingly, he's shown as both gay and a womanizer, both violent and cowardly. I don't see any redeeming artistic qualities to the movie, unlike superficially similar blasphemy art like Piss Christ, which is at least visually and philosophically engaging. In short, the film is a crude and deliberate "yo momma" style insult aimed at Islam; which is quite... er... uptight about these things.

If it weren't for the riots now tearing through the entire middle east, the movie would be lambasted as poor taste and forgotten. But I have an unsettling feeling that the riots are actually the meta-point of the movie. The ongoing mob violence "in defense of Islam" is itself a grave insult to Islam, and far more damning than the movie itself.

Jun. 29th, 2012

A planet-wide nanotechnological war zone

"And how's the countermeasure preparation coming?"

"Uh, what?"

"You know, for our alien visitors? It's pretty specialized equipment."

"Huh. That's the first I've heard of it. I thought the Ar'hlings were really primitive?"

"Oh, they're definitely bumpkins. But their whole planet is, well, the simplest description for Ar'h is a planet-wide nanotechnological war zone, a literal class zero conflict, with no holds barred. I've been there, and it's as bad as you'd think. They figure the war's been going all-out for at least several million years."

"Jeez! Who's fighting there?"

"Nobody even knows who started the thing--both sides were probably wiped out by their own runaway weaponry, which went on fighting without them. The Ar'hlings certainly don't know how it began; they seem more or less oblivious to the whole issue, since they always carry around their own countermeasures."

"Goodness! What kind of stuff do I need?"

"Basically everything--particulate containment bags, surface sterilization drones, a good multi-kilokelvin incinerator, and a couple dozen class three hunter-killer bots for overwatch. You'll need defense division's authorization paperwork for those, of course. You seriously haven't started any of this?"

"I had no idea! From the comms I thought this was just a meet and greet operation with friendly locals."

"Sure, 'we come in peace' and all that. But planetary protection won't even let their ships into orbit without being triple-bagged. As I recall... yeah, Ar'h nanotech doesn't even have a centralized command and control system. They can't even remotely control replication."

"But, runaway class *zero* nanotech--that's a terrible war crime!"

"To us, sure. To the Ar'h, it's just normal everyday life. Look at their chassis... the whole exterior is covered in a thick ablative layer, which is constantly sloughing off to prevent attacking nanotech from getting a foothold. Their material input port goes through this tube, which ends in a vat of mineral acid, to dissolve incoming nanotech. Anything that gets by that, has to face their amazingly sophisticated onboard nanotechnological defense system--it's got molecular beacons, nano hunter-killer bots, all plugged into an identify-friend-or-foe system."

"Wait, IFF? Why would you need IFF? Can't the defense system just target any detected nanobots?"

"Except the Ar'hlings are actually made *from* nanobots! See... this chassis isn't manufactured, the whole system actually buds off from another chassis."

"That's insane. Who would design a system like that?"

"Well, they're clueless as to their own origins, but as far as we can tell, the Ar'hlings *weren't* designed. Soon after the war started, the only thing left on the entire planet was just individual nanobots. Each nanobot self-replicates, but imperfectly, so each batch was slightly different. These changes acted as a sort of local design search, so the nanobots slowly became more sophisticated."

"Wait, that doesn't make sense. Purely random changes would result in both more and less sophisticated designs. Mostly less."

"Except the more sophisticated designs exterminate the less sophisticated designs. Genocide is the name of their game, which the nanobots enthusiastically carry out by slicing, stabbing, chemical warfare, acids, bases, adhesives, you name it. It's a class zero conflict--no rules whatsoever. But there are two curious omissions. First, no nuclear reactions, not even fission or dark neutrino collapse. Second, no radio frequency emissions."

"No RF? Surely that would be an effective way to exterminate enemy nanotech."

"Amazingly, no! They're almost totally oblivious to RF energy, which is clearly an adaptation for defensive purposes. The price for this is they have to use a ridiculously cumbersome chemical communication mechanism, which can be manipulated against them. But each variety of nanobots uses a different chemical signaling mechanism; there's nothing broadband or jammable like RF."

"How can a system like that even operate? Don't the nanobots inside their chassis try to exterminate each other?"

"At some point the tribes of individual nanobots stumbled on reciprocal altruism, where they're willing to work together, but it basically only applies to members of the same tribe, or a few allied tribes. What's funny is inside the chassis, the nanobots are throttled back to something like a class four conflict: no extermination, more or less shared supplies. Sometimes a nanobot will go renegade, and the defense system is overwhelmed or co-opted, and start replicating out of control. They call this 'cancer'. You know, one thing they want us to help them with is to fix this!"

"Ha! How about 'your basic design is ridiculous--you should start over from scratch?'"

"Yeah! And maybe consider *not* starting from class zero warcrime nanotech?"

"Maybe, just throwing this out there, start with... say, zero-entropy crystalline material? Just like every *other* intelligent species in the galaxy?"

Mar. 15th, 2012

Heath Insurance Premium Increase

So my health insurance premiums are going up 371% this year. My employer is big enough to be self-insured, and they publish their numbers, so this isn't due to insurance company shenanigans.

Most of the reason for this is that total claims have been rising dramatically, from 5-20% per year for over a decade now. The last time total claims at my employer actually decreased year-on-year was in 1999. We recently exhausted our employee savings fund, so we're paying year-to-year now.

Part of the reason is also that many of the health care law's provisions already are kicking in, such as a new tax on medical devices, mandatory 'free' preventative care, eliminating the lifetime benefit cap, and mandatory coverage of children up to age 26. Despite searching carefully, I wasn't able to determine exactly what proportion of my premium increase is due to the health care bill.

But the fact is that adding new services and benefits is going to cost money. Both candidate and President Obama specifically promised significant health savings. Where are they?

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