Greater Intelligence

Allen Telescope Array; Photo Credit: Seth Shostak, SETI Institute, 2006
Calvin and Hobbes, November 8, 1989, by Bill Watterson

Could we please replace our idiocracy with a meritocracy?  Before it’s too late?  With checks and balances, of course.  Let’s raise the bar across our society instead of continuing to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  Our very survival depends upon it.

What Is and What Might Have Been

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis E2: We cannot take the nature of the laws of physics for granted.
One cannot take the existence and nature of the laws of physics (and hence of chemistry) as unquestionable in cosmology—which seems to be the usual habit in biological discussions on the origin and evolution of life.  This is in stark contrast to the rest of science, where we are content to take the existence and nature of the laws describing the fundamental behaviour of matter as given and unchangeable.  Cosmological investigation is interested in the properties of hypothetical universes with different physical behaviour.  Consideration of ‘what might have been’ is a useful cosmological speculation that may help throw light on what actually is; this is a statement of the usefulness of ‘Gedanken experiments‘ in cosmology.

Practical science, engineering, and technology are prescriptive.  If we do a, we know from experience that b will occur.  Using the laws of physics, we can predict the location of the Moon as a function of time, put a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, or build a light bulb that will illuminate.  Though we may be curious, we are not required to know why or how these laws exist—or how they might have been different—only that they do work, time and time again.

Cosmology, though firmly rooted in science, is different.  We are passive observers in a very large and very old universe, and there is no absolute guarantee that the laws of physics that work for us so well in the here and now apply to all places and at all times.  We must attempt to understand the laws of physics in a larger context that does involve some well-reasoned and reasonable speculation.

“Not only does God … play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” – Stephen Hawking

“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.” – Brian Greene

In politics, governance, sociology, and philosophy, too, I would submit to you that consideration of “what might have been” is useful in helping us to understand what actually is.  Such reflection, en masse, might even lead to substantive change.

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?  We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it.  Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?” – Tony Judt

Getting back to cosmology, however, for the moment…

Indeed if one wants to investigate issues such as why life exists in the universe, consideration of this larger framework—in essence, a hypothetical ensemble of universes with many varied properties—is essential (this is of course not the same as assuming an ensemble of such universes actually exists).  However, we need to be very cautious about using any claimed statistics of universes in such a hypothetical ensemble of all possible or all conceivable universes.  This is usually not well defined, and in any case is only relevant to physical processes if either the ensemble actually exists, rather than being a hypothetical one, or if it is the outcome of processes that produce well-defined probabilities—an untestable proposal.  We can learn from such considerations the nature of possible alternatives, but not necessarily the probability with which they might occur (if that concept has any real meaning).

It is easy to imagine a universe without life.  But we obviously do not live in such a universe.  There may be other universes devoid of life.

For the more thoughtful among us, it is easy to imagine a civilization without war, guns, violence, extrinsic suffering1 caused by others, or deprivation.  Obviously, we do not live in such a society.  But how can we say it is impossible, or even improbable?  It would be easy to find many millions of people in the world even today that would never fight in a war, would never own or use a gun, who would never resort to violence, who would never cause others to suffer, and who would make eliminating deprivation and poverty a top priority.  The question for the scientists is: what is wrong with the rest of us?

1Extrinsic suffering is suffering caused by others or circumstances completely outside of one’s control.  Intrinsic suffering, on the other hand, is self-inflicted—through our own failings, poor judgement, or mistakes that we make.

Growing Older

As we grow older,
That which is older grows upon us.
Time accelerates,
And the world seems a smaller place.

The years go by like months,
The months go by like weeks,
The weeks go by like days,
The days go by like hours,
And the hours go by like minutes.

And our world which in our youth was all that we knew
Slowly reveals itself to be a surprisingly alien place,
Full of centuries of hard work, unlikely events, and compromise:
The world could be a very different (and better) place,
Even within the confines of human nature.

Taken to its natural conclusion
Were we each to live for millennia, perhaps longer
We would find eternity in an instant
And infinity at the door.

David Oesper

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Dark Sky Community Prospectus

  1. Rationale
    1. A small community (hereafter referred to as a dark sky community) can thrive without the need for streetlights or any other dusk-to-dawn lighting
    2. A dark sky community would appeal to people who value the night sky and a natural nighttime environment
    3. It will probably be many years before the majority of people will accept life without dusk-to-dawn outdoor lighting
    4. A dark sky community must be located far enough away from neighboring communities and other significant light sources that the night sky and nighttime environment will not be adversely affected, either now or in the foreseeable future
    5. It is better to live in community than in isolation
  2. Community Attributes
    1. A dark sky community should be multi-generational, but since rural employment options are limited, moving to a dark sky community may be easier for retired or semi-retired folks
    2. A dark sky community should be affordable, with a variety of housing options (units that can be rented, for example)
    3. An observatory commons area should be developed for observing and include more than one observatory for use by members of the community
    4. The dark sky community should engage in an ambitious educational outreach program, including the operation of an astronomy resort and astro-tourism business
    5. The business end of the community should be a nonprofit corporation or cooperative that operates the astronomy resort and rental properties
    6. The community should share resources as much as possible, freeing residents from the financial burden of having to individually own everything they need or use
    7. The dark sky community should engage in an ambitious program of collaborative astronomical research and data collection, working collaboratively within the community and with amateur and professional astronomers outside the community
  3. Community Location
    1. The most affordable option would be to “convert” an existing rural subdivision or small town into a dark sky community, current residents willing, of course!
    2. The best location for a dark sky community would be within, or adjacent to, a protected natural area such as a state or national park
    3. Recognizing that there would be distinct advantages in siting a dark sky community reasonably close to a town or city with medical facilities, it would be best (for astronomical reasons) for the dark sky community to be located southeast or southwest of the larger community
  4. Philosophy
    1. In an age of technological wonders such as digital imaging, computer-controlled telescopes, remote observing, and space astronomy, we recognize that there is still value in the experience of “firsthand astronomy” both for ourselves and our guests

For greater detail, see my astronomy village proposal for Mirador Astronomy Village.  I welcome your comments and ideas here.

Renters and Flood Plains

The catastrophic flooding in Houston brings back terrible memories of  the flood I experienced during the early morning hours of Tuesday, May 26, 2015 when my apartment in the Meyerland area of Houston took on three feet of water and I lost most of my belongings including my car.  There was no warning that the Brays Bayou would leave its banks that night.  My Meyergrove apartment has flooded again twice since I left Houston in September 2015: once on April 18, 2016, and again this weekend.  This frequency of flooding is unprecedented in that area of Houston.

Flood scene from 2nd floor balcony of my apartment building during morning twilight, May 26, 2015.

Everyone with a ground floor apartment lost most of their belongings in my apartment complex during the Memorial Day Weekend 2015 flood.  No one I talked to had flood insurance, and everyone had renter’s insurance that did not cover their flood damage, so they lost a lot.

Brays Bayou from the 2nd floor balcony of my apartment building, morning of May 26, 2015.

Which brings up an important point.  Why are there not laws to require lessors to disclose to renters when the apartment or house they are renting sits in a flood plain?  If the lessor has flood insurance on their property, then they should be required to inform their tenants of that fact and clearly communicate that the tenant should purchase flood insurance in addition to their renter’s insurance.  After all, when you are buying a house, you cannot get a home loan unless you purchase flood insurance if you are living in a flood-prone area.  Why do not renters have the same protection?

Perhaps there are other areas of the country where landlords have to disclose to their renters if they will be living in a flood plain, but there appears to be no such protection for renters in the state of Texas.

 

 

Where Voters Rejected Trump

The United States has never had a president like Donald Trump.  And hopefully we will never have a president like him again.  Regardless of your political persuasion, this man has neither the experience nor the temperament to be a public servant, and he should never have been elected.

In the map below, you will find the 143 counties (or county equivalents) where Hillary Clinton received at least twice as many votes as Trump in the 2016 Presidential election.  Counties in red have a lower population density than Iowa County, Wisconsin, and counties in blue a higher population density.  Even though Iowa County, WI did not make the list, I am happy to say there were 1.39 Clinton voters for every Trump voter in this rural county in a state where Trump won (just barely) a majority of the votes.

Let us first look at the rural counties that voted heavily against Trump—by a 2 to 1 margin or better.  All but 5 of the 40 rural counties have African-American, Hispanic, or Native American majorities.

The seventeen rural counties with African-American majorities (67.5% to 85.8%) are

Alabama
Bullock County
Greene County
Lowndes County
Perry County
Sumter County
Wilcox County

Georgia
Hancock County

Mississippi
Claiborne County
Holmes County
Humphreys County
Jefferson County
Noxubee County
Quitman County
Sharkey County
Tunica County
Wilkinson County
South Carolina
Allendale County

The per capita income in these counties with African-American majorities range from a low of $11,972 in Holmes County, Mississippi to $18,429 in Lowndes County, Alabama.  The average for all seventeen counties is $14,344.

The twelve rural counties with Hispanic majorities (56.7% to 94.6%) are


New Mexico
Mora County
Rio Arriba County
San Miguel County
Taos County

Texas
Brooks County
Dimmit County
Duval County
Jim Hogg County
Presidio County
Willacy County
Zapata County
Zavala County


The per capita income in these counties with Hispanic majorities range from a low of $11,413 in Willacy County, Texas to $22,358 in Taos County, New Mexico.  The average for all twelve counties is $17,171.

And the six rural counties with Native American majorities (75.4% to 92.8%) are

Arizona
Apache County

New Mexico
McKinley County

North Dakota
Sioux County

South Dakota
Oglala Lakota County
Todd County

Wisconsin
Menominee County

The per capita income in these counties with Native American majorities range from a low of $9,150 in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota to $15,557 in Sioux County, North Dakota.  The average for all six counties is $12,738.

Now let’s look at the five remaining rural counties that voted heavily against Trump in the 2016 general election.

California
Mendocino County

Colorado
Pitkin County
San Miguel County

Washington
Jefferson County
San Juan County

The per capita income in these counties range from a low of $24,059 in Mendocino County, California to $55,519 in Pitkin County, Colorado.  The average for all five counties is $37,517.

Finally, here is a list of counties (and county equivalents) than have a higher population density than Iowa County, Wisconsin, where Hillary Clinton received at least twice as many votes as Donald Trump.  These are listed by state, with the largest city in each county in parentheses.

Alabama
Dallas County (Selma)
Macon County (Tuskegee)

Arizona
Santa Cruz County (Nogales)

California
Alameda County (Oakland)
Contra Costa County (Concord)
Imperial County (El Centro)
Los Angeles County (Los Angeles)
Marin County (San Rafael)
Monterey County (Salinas)
Napa County (Napa)
San Francisco County (San Francisco)
San Mateo County (Daly City)
Santa Clara County (San Jose)
Santa Cruz County (Santa Cruz)
Sonoma County (Santa Rosa)
Yolo County (Davis)

Colorado
Boulder County (Boulder)
Denver County (Denver)

District of Columbia

Florida
Broward County (Fort Lauderdale)
Gadsden County (Quincy)

Georgia
Clarke County (Athens)
Clayton County (Forest Park)
DeKalb County (Brookhaven)
Dougherty County (Albany)
Fulton County (Atlanta)

Hawaii
Hawaii County (Hilo)
Kauai County (Kapaʻa)
Maui County (Kahului)

Illinois
Cook County (Chicago)

Iowa
Johnson County (Iowa City)

Kansas
Douglas County (Lawrence)

Louisiana
Orleans Parish (New Orleans)

Maryland
Howard County (Columbia)
Montgomery County (Germantown)
Prince George’s County (Bowie)
Baltimore City (Baltimore)

Massachusetts
Berkshire County (Pittsfield)
Dukes County (Edgartown)
Franklin County (Greenfield)
Hampshire County (Amherst)
Middlesex County (Lowell)
Nantucket County (Nantucket)
Suffolk County (Boston)

Michigan
Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor)
Wayne County (Detroit)

Minnesota
Hennepin County (Minneapolis)
Ramsey County (Saint Paul)

Mississippi
Coahoma County (Clarksdale)
Hinds County (Jackson)
Leflore County (Greenwood)
Sunflower County (Indianola)
Washington County (Greenville)

Missouri
St. Louis City (St. Louis)

New Jersey
Camden County (Camden)
Essex County (Newark)
Hudson County (Jersey City)
Mercer County (Hamilton Township)
Union County (Elizabeth)

New Mexico
Santa Fe County (Santa Fe)

New York
Bronx County (New York City: The Bronx)
Kings County (New York City: Brooklyn)
New York County (New York City: Manhattan)
Queens County (New York City: Queens)
Tompkins County (Ithaca)
Westchester County (Yonkers)

North Carolina
Durham County (Durham)
Hertford County (Ahoskie)
Orange County (Chapel Hill)

Ohio
Cuyahoga County (Cleveland)

Oregon
Benton County (Corvallis)
Multnomah County (Portland)

Pennsylvania
Philadelphia County (Philadelphia)

South Carolina
Orangeburg County (Orangeburg)
Richland County (Columbia)
Williamsburg County (Kingstree)

Texas
Cameron County (Brownsville)
El Paso County (El Paso)
Hidalgo County (McAllen)
Maverick County (Eagle Pass)
Starr County (Rio Grande City)
Travis County (Austin)
Webb County (Laredo)

Vermont
Addison County (Middlebury)
Chittenden County (Burlington)
Lamoille County (Morristown)
Washington County (Barre)
Windham County (Brattleboro)
Windsor County (Hartford)

Virginia
Arlington County (Arlington)
Fairfax County (Herndon)
Alexandria City (Alexandria)
Charlottesville City (Charlottesville)
Falls Church City (Falls Church)
Hampton City (Hampton)
Norfolk City (Norfolk)
Petersburg City (Petersburg)
Portsmouth City (Portsmouth)
Richmond City (Richmond)
Williamsburg City (Williamsburg)

Washington
King County (Seattle)

Wisconsin
Dane County (Madison)
Milwaukee County (Milwaukee)

References

Holes in Our Democracy

The Electoral College

There have been 58 presidential elections in the United States.  The first was in 1788, and the most recent in 2016.  Five times (8.6% of the time) the winner of the U.S. presidential election did not receive the most votes, thanks to the Electoral College.

1824

Andrew Jackson 151,271 41.4% Democratic-Republican
John Quincy Adams 113,122 30.9% Democratic-Republican

1876

Samuel J. Tilden 4,286,808 50.9% Democratic
Rutherford B. Hayes
4,034,142 47.9% Republican

1888

Grover Cleveland 5,534,488 48.6% Democratic
Benjamin Harrison
5,443,892 47.8% Republican

2000

Al Gore 51,009,810 48.4% Democratic
George W. Bush
50,462,412 47.9% Republican

2016

Hillary Clinton 65,853,516 48.2% Democratic
Donald Trump
62,984,825 46.1% Republican

The Electoral College needs to change or be abolished, and the national popular vote should determine who is elected president.  Why should “winner takes all” in each state continue to prevail?  This isn’t a ball game.  As it is now, a candidate gets 100% of the electoral votes for a state whether they got 80% of the popular vote or 50.5%.  Each state’s electoral votes should be apportioned based on the number of popular votes each candidate got.  Every vote should count equally, no matter what state you live in.

Proportional Representation

In the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures, if the Green Party, for example, is supported by 10% of the electorate, then they should have 10% of the representation in the legislative body.  Proportional representation ensures that all popular viewpoints in the electorate have representation in our government, and prevents any one political party from ever having too much power.

Ballot Measures

Rather than always voting for people who are supposed to represent you and your interests, but often do not, wouldn’t you rather vote on the issues themselves?  We should all have a chance to vote more often on ballot measures, even if they are only directional in nature.  I have no doubt, for example, that we would have stricter weapons laws in this country if we the people were ever given the opportunity to directly vote on the matter.

 

Divided America

We have quite the dilemma.   In the broadest sense, we have two very different views of the role of government, science, economics, education, and world view.  There seems little hope of reconciliation until, I fear, some catastrophe of epic proportions befalls us.  Closed minds do not change easily.

There is more than enough blame for how we got to this point to spread around, but the media certainly deserves to be singled out as fueling divisiveness rather than letting the facts speak for themselves and building bridges of understanding.  Our TV nation hasn’t helped, either.

A recent example of this schism: President Barack Obama.  To many, he was one of the best presidents we have had in decades: intelligent, articulate, dignified, thoughtful, and hopeful.  To others, he was one of the worst presidents in history.  I happen to be in the former camp.  I predict that history will be kind to Barack Obama.  Very kind.

Presently, there is an uneasiness and anxiety across this country that during my 60 years in the U.S. is unprecedented.  Where do we go from here?  Increased civic engagement at all levels is crucial.  As is a media that educates rather than agitates.  Perhaps living separately, but in harmony, is the best way to demonstrate a better way to live, interact, and govern.

Many a time I have found myself wishing we could peacefully divide into two countries: one for the conservatives, and one for the liberals.  That way the conservatives could finally have the kind of laws and governance that they desire, and the liberals theirs.  But this is impractical because too many people would have to move.  What about at the state level?  Some states would be “liberal” states, and others “conservative”.  Well, we already have this to a small degree, but there are big differences in political persuasion even within a state.  Once again, too many people would have to relocate.

What about an expansion of the “sanctuary city” idea?  Though currently defined as safe havens for undocumented immigrants, sanctuary cities could become places where liberals and progressives could live and work largely free of conservative doctrine and laws.  One challenge to this approach, however, is that cities are largely subject to state and federal laws.

Finally, at the smallest level, one always has the opportunity to form or join an intentional community.  Though, once again, that community would be subject to state and federal laws, as well as local ones.  There is also the challenge of economies of scale.

I would like to live in a country where science and reason inform public decisions and laws rather than religion, dogma, superstition, and “fake news”.  A meritocracy where education and critical thinking is valued and encouraged for all citizens, regardless of their ability.  Where taxes are higher because they provide free education and universal health care, and less is spent on the instruments of war.  Where guns are a privilege requiring extensive training and vetting, not a right.  A post-capitalist society where government strongly regulates and at the same time supports businesses, and always strives to equalize economic opportunity for all citizens.  Utopian?  Perhaps.  I have no doubt that many of us could live and flourish in such a society.  The question is, will it work for everyone?