Never Argue with a Madman

“Never argue with a madman.  Bystanders won’t be able to tell the difference.”    Author unknown.

I happened upon that piece of wisdom some years ago on a poster entitled “Corollaries to Murphy’s Law”, and filed it for future reference.  You may have noticed (or more probably not) that I have not posted in this blog since July.  There is a reason for that.  I have watched the ongoing tragicomedy of our times unfold. I recalled the above wisdom and struggled with the question: how does one make a rational comment about the rabid irrationality that is consuming our society (the term ‘civilization’ seems inappropriate); and to what point?

Here’s a sampling of what troubles me:

There’s the Republican Clown Circus, vying for leadership of the most exceptional country on the planet.  If I were foreign friend or foe, I’d tremble at the thought of any one of them being within reach of the ‘football’ that carries the secret codes to microwave the planet.  Any of them!

Following close behind is the Republican dominated Congress where actors of less inflated idiocy incubate, waiting for their turn in the big show. If there was an appropriate application of law, the Republic leadership and its minions would be charged under RICO  or treason for criminal conspiracy to destroy the government of the United States through concerted efforts masked as group insanity.

Lagging behind but not far, is the Democratic Party which champions Bill-ary; the political equivalent of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.  Bill-ary: a person few really trust, but too many are willing to accept in order to make h(im)er the first so called female to inhabit the White House as ‘precedent’.  Forget that much of Obama’s presidency has been in one way or another involved in cleaning up messes that had their origin during the reign of Bill.  Forget that Hillary accomplished nothing of significance as First Lady; merely polished her credentials in the Senate as knee-jerk hawk to prepare  for her ‘inevitability’; and also merely put a smiley face on the nation’s reputation while racking up her frequent flier miles as Secy of State.  Can the Dems not do better than this?  Can women not do better than this?

Probably not, because what sane person of ability would aspire to positions which merely set them up as targets for media businesses masking as journalistic enterprises, driven by profit to create and sustain the public circuses that feed the profits.  Only the truly craven for whom the mask of insanity is now a tolerated facade for a public so cynical that it too has forsaken any pretext of reason for the easy gratification of raw emotion.

Nor is the political world the only circus in town.  We are watching multiple spectacles in the business world.  Unicorns, those precious mythical tech companies with inflated expectations and equally inflated valuations of $1 billion or more, are multiplying like rabbits.  I’m particularly fascinated by the melodrama of Theranos, waiting for that to unfold or implode, and wondering how all the big names on its board of directors will acquit themselves in the end. (Hint:  plausible deniability usually works, but has its limits.)

Then there’s the juggernaut of Elon Musk.  His accomplishments are more substantive, but when the media recently reported his concern that a Third World War might foreclose any hope of humans venturing to Mars, I had to wonder about his judgment.  Elon, you are far brighter than I, but I would venture that if the Planet has a Third World War, getting to Mars will be the least of our concerns, and could probably be the best thing to happen for Mars.  In fact, if we do it right, we could conceivably sanitize this planet for the next visit of interplanetary microbes in the cosmic evolutionary process.   Clean slate; fresh start.  Humanity’s final gift to the universe.

There’s the media-cracy; that contorted and perverted lens through which we gaze to try to comprehend what’s happening around us, because we’re part of the global village for better or worse, and first-hand knowledge of what’s happening in our neighborhood is largely irrelevant when all the strings are now pulled by distant puppet masters. Journalists complain about being the public’s and politicians’ shared pinata.  Most of what passes for journalism today would not have survived the editing of my high school journalism teacher.  Not for grammar or word-smithing, but for objectivity, quality content and service to the reader.

And what rant regarding communal in(s)anity would be complete without a nod to our current penchant for mass killings.  It seems that every time one occurs, which is almost weekly lately, the press reports a surge in gun sales.  Like 300 million guns on the streets and in the homes of America aren’t enough to do the job of protecting us from ourselves?  And where are all those ‘good guys with guns’ that the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre promised would protect us from civil mayhem?  My guess is that deep down, even a lot of his card carrying members don’t want to live in a society where every day is High Noon at the local mall, and the family has to pack for protection.

As for mental health care being the cure for gun violence, there’s a simple solution:  Start with the folks who rush to the gun shops after every scare headline in the tabloids. Then round up the publishers and producers of media whose sociopathic inclinations motivate them to create chaos for profit. ( I won’t mention names.)

But if society is to screen likely suspects for mental illness to preempt further violence, it would seem appropriate to put the executive leadership of the NRA at the head of the list, because the idea that we need more firepower in the general populace to prevent violence of the people, by the people, against the people…. is certifiable lunacy.




Faith, Values and Clim-Ergy

This week I was invited to a meeting of a faith-based group which is planning a conference on Climate Change for communities on the Connecticut shore. The invitation was an outgrowth of a presentation I gave on the subject earlier this year.

While I was flattered to have been invited back, I was also mildly uncomfortable, as I typically am when engaging with faith based groups. I do not believe in God. I do not believe in heaven or a here-after. Though I was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition by a family which was decidedly ecumenical in its religious composition before ecumenicism was cool, I have never felt comfortable in the modalities of religions. I am what some might call a heathen.

Yet I am a person of ‘faith’, by some home-brew definition of that term. Faith and prayer to me are very personal expressions. In the context of religions, faith and prayer too often seem to me to become commoditized and trite, and devoid of the spiritual substance that they purport to give. They become the spiritual equivalent of cereal, mistaking it for food. But that is my personal perspective, and I respect those who gain personal sustenance and value from their religious experiences that I am unable to share.

Still, I feel like a poser when venturing into these communities. As an auditor, trained in the mentality of professional skepticism, and seared by experience in some level of confessed cynicism regarding the capacity of redemption for human-kind from its multiple and serial and repetitive transgressions, I come to these gatherings with what I like to think is a pragmatism that does not fit well with the idealism to which many of the faith based communities strive. And those who have followed this blog for any length of time can appreciate that my sardonic humor might be a show stopper in these venues, but not a hit.

All of which is a long-winded digression to the main point of why I continue to inject myself into places of discomfort. Faith based communities, in my experience, remain one of the few gatherings of civil discourse in a world that is rapidly disintegrating socially and politically. This has some historical irony in that religions of the world have perhaps committed as many, if not more, atrocities against humankind in the name of God than have political entities. (I haven’t got authoritative stats on that, but I’ll throw it out for debate.) Not surprisingly, given that many religious entities are merely political and economic operations in moral robes.

So the challenge for a person of my particular persuasion is to determine how to distinguish the truly faith based communities from the religious posers who co-opt the moral garb of sanctity in order to promote an agenda, but bring no more clarity or certainty or validity to the proposition than you or I.

Enough about me.

In the evolving climate and energy (Clim-Ergy) paradigm, there are many outside the literal faith-based realm who embrace the subject as almost a secular religion. They bring a similar idealism and energy. They approach it from a principled position, and with great self-confidence and certainty that their conceived solutions are as if received from the hand of God on Mount Sinai, consolidated from two stone tablets to an iPad for portability. If their faith and idealism and energy and intellectual gifts were enough, I am confident that we would have progressed much farther on this issue by now than we have. Having observed this issue for 11 years myself, and being a somewhat impatient person with an acute sensitivity to the criticality of time, I am concerned that they do not understand the human and economic realities of this subject any better than their opposition in the climate denial community, many of whom are also in faith based communities, are willing to consider the scientific and environmental realities.

We are at a moment when a growing number of people in the climate denial faction, and a vast number in the “I-don’t-really-want-to-know-or-care” denomination are steadily embracing a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment, if I may borrow that phrase. “Something’s happening.” They dare not acknowledge it as climate change. They decline to take responsibility in whole or in part for its manifestation. They’re paralyzed by indecision regarding what to do about it. But they’re quite sure that they don’t want to change their current modality of existence for the possibility of heading off something potentially nasty at the pass. (See California and green lawns vs. food and drinking water for illustration.)

The extremes are driving the conversation, but substantive action on a meaningful scale is not happening, or happening at unnecessary cost due to the fractious political environment. The folks who recognize the problem are almost as much of the problem as the folks who refuse to, though the former would loudly protest that proposition, and many times for the same reasons.

For example, in the course of conversation with the faith group, one participant proposed the theme of ‘sustainability’ for the conference. After 11 years, I don’t have a clear concept of what constitutes ‘sustainability’ in meaningful terms. But I am positive that the participant’s definition is not the same as Exxon-Mobil’s, or the coal miners of West Virginia, or the farmers of the Mid-West and California agribusinesses or the politicians whose next biennial contract with voters depends on an electorate largely ignorant of the nits and lice that constitute a true understanding of ‘sustainability’ in action. And much of what corporations peddle as ‘sustainability’ is merely green-wash. If they were truly ‘sustainable’, many of their products would be off the market.

So one group defines sustainability as maintaining the status quo. The other group defines sustainability as moving to a new paradigm that can be maintained because the current status quo cannot. In both instances, the partisans are driven by faith, more than anything else, that their imperfect knowledge of the situation is valid.

So, if we have two faith-based factions, each of whom are equally certain of their values, but both of whom are in conflict for sharing the same reality, what does that leave us? Historically, and all too frequently, war.

The reality is that the ‘sustainability of the status-quo’ faction is the dominant and driving faction at this time.

The reality is that Reality is steadily undermining their credibility, with each fire storm, with each drought, with each monsoon, with each progressively more frequent incursion of the sea upon the land, with each death from protracted famine, with each ravage of disease in an interconnected planet, with each struggle for non-renewable resources in a contorted world of abundant excess and deficient necessities.

But is the alternative camp any more credible? They are offering to take us to a promised-land yet unproven on the scale that it must exist to replace our current reality. They are standing on a platform of science that it riddled with internal contradictions, critical gaps in knowledge, and hidden agendas of human motives of which science is no more immune than any other human agenda, as science has been through the ages. It is populated with some who have never run a lemonade stand, but confidently presume to advocate for doing away with the grid. It is led by others who have created some small success on a local level and believe that it can somehow be extrapolated to the planet, without a clue as to what that entails organizationally, resource-wise or politically. Yet others see this as an eternal cause through which to define their personal importance, and try to bend it to their own psychological need in the name of saving humanity. There are some who will strive mightily to advance wind energy in someone else’s neighborhood or view-shed, financed by someone else’s money. And somewhere in the din of all these conflicting profiles, there are some, generally quiet and persistent and pragmatic, who work diligently below the radar to make some substantive progress in the midst of the human circus.

Neither side in the Clim-Ergy paradigm is totally right or totally virtuous, though both will insist they are, and therein lies the problem. The issue is devilishly complex. Both factions are similarly complex. And both factions, in my view, share an all too human inclination to simplify the complexity to a level they can comprehend and take comfort in. Regrettably, dumbing an issue down to one’s comfort zone does not solve the issue, although it may temporarily sustain some level of self-esteem.

* * *

In approaching this meeting, I took a trip down memory lane through my eleven years of engagement with this issue, reflecting what I had invested in it, how I had approached it, and what I had accomplished. I have invested a considerable amount of time. I would not change radically how I approached it. But I recognize that I have accomplished little of what I hoped for. That is because accomplishing what I had hoped for ultimately requires bringing other people to a shared perspective, a shared set of values, an alignment of interests that can achieve what none of us can alone.

With this self-assessment in mind, I approach the faith community with some ambivalence; prepared to point out those ideas that I believe will prove counter-productive, but wary of sapping their enthusiasm and idealism with a pragmatism that may be mistakenly (or possibly correctly) perceived as cynicism and negativity.

Still, my concern is that the faith community too often believes that it will succeed by bringing the community to its point of view when in all likelihood that strategy will be modest in success and inadequate to need. The faith community, defined broadly, is more fragmented than it would like to admit. It exists in a world that is becoming more secular by most statistical accounts, suggesting that religion, if not faith, is losing its relevance to the broader populace. To persist in the notion that faith alone can drag the non-believing to a faith-based common ground defined predominantly by faith is an exercise in Einstein’s definition of insanity.

This manifests itself to me in the sincere response of one participant to the meeting who advocated:
“…connecting with the head is fine and will get some people to do some things, but connecting with the heart is where real change happens.”

I would counter that ‘head or heart’ is not a binary choice; the two must inform each other, and advance together. In my line of work, I do autopsies on loads of initiatives driven by the heart or the gut, but from which the head was apparently AWOL. And I have seen too many instances in which the head ruled without the heart to no positive purpose.

I would suggest that the Indiana legislature reversed its faith based position on the LGBT community not out of a change of heart but out of a cerebral calculation of the economic impact of its supposedly ‘moral’ position.

I would suggest that the South Carolina legislature voted to take down the Confederate flag not out of moral outrage for the carnage associated with it, or moral outrage for what the flag had come to represent for too long, but out of pragmatic calculation that the symbol’s optics will cost the State more in tangible and intangible ways from the people who detest it than it benefits from the people who still revere it. This calculation was no doubt more readily achieved in the wake of and with an eye to the Indiana experience.

I believe that the success of the Pope’s recent encyclical, yet to be verified in results, will be due to his effort to reach beyond the incantations of faith to incorporate the teachings of science and speak to the human conditions that transcend religious and philosophical boundaries. This is the true essence of communication: not merely to tell you what I want you to know in terms that I embrace, but to tell you what I want us to share in terms that we can both embrace.

So I become yet again concerned when a participant says:

“We are a group of religious folks, so we should embrace that aspect. People are waiting, anxiously, for the religious community to take the lead on this from a moral, ethical and theological standpoint.”

Again, I do not doubt the sincerity in which this belief is held by the individual and many others in the faith based community, but I question if they have a firm grasp of where the faith-based community stands in the esteem of a world ripped apart by faith-based conflicts, and abused by merchants of faith acting in ungodly ways in God’s name.

This is not to disparage faith based groups as a whole, but simply to point out that their franchise as a whole has been tattered by the abuses of too many among them. That franchise may be overvalued, but it is not without value.

What I believe the faith community can do is to be the facilitator of a community-wide discussion of shared values, not its values; and build the common ground of values that is so desperately needed and so desperately lacking. It should not try to promote its values as a focus so much as to strive to find the common values that all segments of the society can embrace, and build on those with its own contribution as well as others’.

Many of the values issues that underlay Clim-Ergy are at the core of other social, economic and political issues as well. It occurred to me as I approached this meeting that the real need is for human society at whatever level, parish, village, region, state, nation, planet to work toward the shared values on which it can build a shared future. It is audacious of me, to use a polite term, to suggest as I did to this group that before they contemplate a conference on climate change per se, they might want to explore the underlying core of generic values that we must begin to embrace and share in order to come to terms with Clim-Ergy, and our many other challenges. That process could begin next Sunday or Saturday or Friday night.

I have faith in the faith community’s capacity to facilitate change, but to do so, it must see itself more as a facilitator and collaborator than a leader. Sometimes, the best leadership is from within and behind, and not up front.
* * *
In closing, I am reminded of my favorite line from Oedipus Rex:

“When wisdom brings no profit, to be wise is to suffer”

…to which this accountant would add:

When prophets bring no wisdom, there can be no profit.

Whatever may be the core of our faith, we must be courageous to constantly test its wisdom against its fulfillment in improving the human condition.



What Kind of Hole Are You In? And Why?

The familiar line goes: “When you’re in a hole, what’s the first thing you do?”.  And the follow-on is: “Stop diggin'”.  I beg to differ.

“Stop diggin'” is the third thing you might do, contingent on circumstances.

The first thing one must do is to recognize that one is in a hole.  Known in military and managerial  jargon as ‘situational awareness’.

The second thing one must do is to ask “Why am I in this hole”.  Call this contextual understanding, which ought to be an integral part of situational awareness, except too few leaders bother to get to this point before rushing to action.

The third thing one must do is to ask: “What am I going to do about it?”  Strategy.

So let’s get back in the hole, and ask ourselves these questions:

What is my situation?  Oh, I’m in a hole.  And what kind of hole?  Is it a fox hole?  A grave? A sinkhole?

If I’m in a fox hole, why am I here?  Heavy fire? Approaching tornado? Evading detection?  I may want to keep digging.

If it’s a grave, and I’m still cognitive, I might want to ask the unlikely question of why I’m investing effort in digging a grave.  For myself? For someone else?  Just to have one handy?

If it’s a sinkhole, I’d better call for a rope or a ladder p.d.q.

The moral of the story is that not all holes are bad.  Some are of necessity, Some are of circumstance.  But how we need to deal with them depends on why we got there and what is the imperative to get out.  A sinkhole poses more immediate need for action than a foxhole, and a grave may be beyond discretion.

Except for the grave, sooner or later we’re going to have to leave the hole, whatever it’s raison d’etre.

The relevance of this mental meandering is that we find ourselves in a number of holes today, apparently without situational awareness, contextual awareness,  or strategy.

In race relations in the United States, and religious and ethnic strife around the world, we are apparently electing to dig ourselves graves, not only for the newly deceased, but for the society at large which refuses to confront the futility of its values.

In our economies, we are struggling to dig foxholes, unaware that our actions are really grounded in sinkholes.  Greece, for some reason, comes rushing to mind, although I also have an uncomfortable feeling about the Chinese for much more complex reasons.

In Clim-Ergy, we are have achieved a curious dyslexia, creating  sinkholes and believing they are safe ground, as in nuclear energy and fracking, and building higher on vulnerable seashore destined for sea level rise.

In the Middle East, we have created a sinkhole, and in a desperate effort to fill it with bodies and other resources, have managed to make it deeper.  Everyone in the neighborhood is busily digger each other’s metaphorical graves, oblivious to the truth that the graveyard is itself a sinkhole of their own collective election.

An exploration of holes would not be complete without the most famous of holes: the black hole.  It’s fame lies in its mystery.  It is a construct about which we can speculate, but of which we do not definitively know.  We can detect its dimensions,  hypothesize its mass, but we remain largely clueless of its dynamics.  Observing one from the outside, we can sense its power to draw matter into it with no apparent escape.  We observe it with awe, as external observers, but with no apparent appreciation that it is our own ultimate destination and destiny.

Metaphorically, it reminds me of our economy, and perhaps our greater society.

There are a number of other holes we might ponder, physical and metaphorical, but with the benefit (or detriment) of this meditation, I leave it to the reader to continue his/her personal quest for enlightenment.  However, I would advise proceeding with a shovel and ladder,  just in case.



Cyberwar’s Pearl Harbor

In the aftermath of the most recent invasion of our national data ecosystem, it might be worth contemplating where all of this might go from here, just in case anyone in a position of responsibility (as distinguished from a responsible person, because the two are not necessarily the same) might care to prepare for the possible, if not the inevitable.
We’ve heard a lot about attacks on our major financial and governmental institutions of late. No bank left behind. Suspicion that the Chinese are attempting to emulate the NSA by building a massive database with which to conduct further espionage, define the power hierarchy, and possibly co-opt key players with blackmail. The same kind of stuff the NSA might do abroad or at home, because, hey…what’s the difference. But I suspect that harvesting information overload is not the prize objective; and China, though never to be discounted, is a major threat, but not the primary threat.
Let’s get a little crazy here and contemplate a worst case scenario from which we can scale back.
First, who are the threats for conducting cyber warfare? The most obvious and capable are Russia, Iran, and China. At the risk of offending the Dear Leader’s self-esteem, we’ll forget about North Korea. Although cyber-vandalism is a game even the kids can play, cyber war takes some real chops, and needs to be scalable to effect, like any good marketing strategy.
And in what order of priority? My vote is Iran, because if the nuclear talks fail, it may be facing what it regards (whether we would agree or not, but that’s irrelevant) as existential threats from an extended embargo. An agreement might take them off that top spot, but they would no doubt continue to hone their options in this arena, particularly given their other ambitions in their neighborhood where we may stand as an obstacle.
Next up: Mad Vlad. Apparently getting more aggressive by the day. If things get out of hand in the Ukraine, or if he provokes further instability in the former satellites in the same manner he has in Georgia and the Ukraine, and if somebody miscalculates in a moment of confrontation (has that ever happened before?) then Vlad could decide to go Big Casino and pull what he considers to be a game changer.
Finally, there’s China. More paranoid than Vlad, and in a far more precarious situation economically and politically than we may know, it may fear that a strategic threat to its seeming dominance (such as the South China Sea) could trigger internal unraveling that would make its vulnerability apparent and invite attack. It may want to have in its back pocket a preemptive capability that can neutralizes strategic risk.
Which gets us to the question of ‘The Prize’. What is The Prize in Cyber Warfare? Is it data? Or dominance? And if it is dominance, how is that defined and achieved?
In nuclear war, dominance is defined as turning strategic areas of an adversary’s war-making capability into giant ashtrays. In cyber warfare, not necessarily. It is much easier and more beneficial to cripple than to destroy.
So, if dominance is the objective, how is it achieved? Not by stealing government HR files, or my medical records, or our bank records,. Rather, by strategically crippling the electric grid and other supporting energy and transportation infrastructure. Next, by crippling critical communications infrastructure.

Why is the energy network the prize? Because it drives everything else. Bring down energy, and you bring down the military, its supply chain and everything it depends on. Bring down energy and you bring down social stability and cohesion, and you force your adversary to focus inward to restore stability while knee-capping his capacity to project outward.
If the energy sector in general, and the electric grid in particular is the prize, why haven’t we heard more about incursions into their domain, as we have with financial and retail and health services? Precisely because it is the prize. What we know of past incursions in other sectors is that they have occurred gradually, laying penetration infrastructure well before the extraction, probing defenses and responses. It is safe to assume that they are doing the same thing with the energy sector and electric grid.
Logic would suggest that an adversary is not going to reveal its capabilities prematurely with token attacks. That is probably what the banks and Home Depot and Target are good for. Test grounds for generic attacks and to reveal responsive capabilities. Diversions from the real area of interest. Save the best for last.
How might such an attack evolve? Let us consider that Russia, a player on the front line of a warm conflict that could easily go hot, would be the logical first-mover. Consider that Iran, a client state with some degree of strategic dependence on Russia, might be a willing ally in such an attack, since rendering the Great Satan strategically impotent would be a major gain to its own strategic ambitions. And, while not necessarily chummy, Russia and China might agree that denuding the US of short to intermediate term strategic economic capability, and thus military capability, would give them sufficient time to achieve hegemony over their own spheres of influence in Europe and Southeast Asia for the long run.
Of course, there is the question of what capabilities the US has to deal with such an attack.

A. Do we have the intelligence to foresee it in time to prevent it?
B. Do we have the means to prevent it if intelligence informs us in time?
C. IF neither A or B, what is the likely extent of damage that can be done?
D. If nominal or critical damage is done, what is our capability of response?

Ask yourself how well A and B have worked so far, either at the national or private level. At the private level, studies of recent break-ins suggest an appalling degree of managerial incompetence or indifference to knowable and preventable risks by private companies. Not unusual in the history of managing the security requirements of data resources.
And the role of the US Government? Well, if it can’t protect itself, how well can it protect anyone else? And if it could protect anyone else, the typical response from industry seems to be that it regards the US government as much an enemy as The Enemy. This may speak to private enterprise’s fear of revealing to the government things that it desperately does not want the government to know (assuming the government does not know them already).
If damage is likely, what kind of damage can be expected and with what impact? If critical control points of the electric system can be compromised to inflict critical damage on key generation and transmission points, particularly in a coordinated attack that creates cascading failures, one can imagine an unpleasant day in paradise. But we don’t have to imagine. We can recall two Northeast black-outs, as microcosms of what could occur nationally. We can recall the aftermath of Storms Irene and Sandy on communications and energy infrastructure in the Northeast. To the degree that major transformers could be fried, that major rail centers could be damaged by derailments, that major pipelines or their control centers could be done harm, short to intermediate term harm could be accomplished for adversaries to achieve their strategic objectives of crippling our capacity to project or sustain military force in areas of strategic importance. They would not have to fry the entire grid. Just enough to make an impact at critical pressure points.
And what damage could we do in return? No doubt we have the means to inflict comparable damage at some scale. Stuxnet proved that with the Iranian centrifuges. But our society is much more complex and integrated than Russia or China or Iran. In relative terms, it is probable that these potential adversaries would inflict much more relative damage on our day-to-day capabilities than we would on theirs, particularly given their autocratic nature.
Further, they will have neutralized our capacity to operate in their neighborhood far more than we will have neutralized their capacity to operate in their neighborhood. And that is the strategic gamble, the game changer, the prize. China would achieve de-facto control over Korea and Taiwan without firing a shot, and achieve effective allegiance to its will of the entire Southeast Asian rim from Malaysia to Japan. Is that important to us? Russia wouldn’t have to worry about us meddling in Europe, east or west. Do we care? Iran and its surrogates can pick off its adversaries at its leisure, escalating a war of attrition against Israel, to continue keeping the little people’s attention diverted from the real problems at home as they march onward in the name of Allah.
Would such a cyber war cause us to go nuclear? Not likely, and that’s what makes a cyber war a more credible threat. No other means can inflict as much damage with as great a possible payback, and as little risk in return. Not that there’s no risk; but, in the abstract, it is less frightening.
One of the ironies of a cyber war scenario is that the internet, a distributed communication infrastructure originally designed to be survivable to nuclear attack on any number of its nodes, is now the vehicle for attacks that can be simultaneously distributed in source and destination with devastating possibilities. And the core of that irony is that the western nations have used the internet to consolidate control of their operations, making them more this context.
In such an attack, Google and Facebook would become worthless, no matter how many solar arrays they plant to make their server farms impervious to fluctuations of the grid. Amazon, not far behind. They would become worthless because their market exists on a grid based infrastructure. Their market, their reason for existence, is no greater than the grid its stakeholders depend upon. And in a post-cyber war society, the trivialities of social want that these and other highly centralized companies feed upon for their corporate sustenance will evaporate in the heat of more pressing concerns.
If this is indeed a real threat, what is the cure? Investing in information technology security and training on an unprecedented scale would be a good start. Reconfiguring the grid to be better partitioned for containment and more distributed in source and composition of power generation to diminish vulnerabilities from concentration would also be helpful. This will take a little longer, …like a lot longer. But the sooner we start and the farther we progress, the better. It might be good for all entities which depend heavily on communications and electrical networks to ask themselves how they would operation with either down for a month or two. Not that that would be the time frame of a post cyber attack recovery, but it’s a good start to get one in the mood. This will also compromise some of the economies of scale that companies strive for, but those seem to be elusive at best on a good day, and often more illusion than reality.
Is the scenario I’ve painted plausible? Recent history suggests that we have yet again unleashed tools and strategies for which we have not adequately anticipated and prepared for the blow-back. See ‘atom-bomb’ for historical perspective. Our delusional embrace of our exceptionalism likely induces complacency yet again in our leadership. Not the President necessarily, but the full complement of grand poobahs who must make things happen.
And what would the utilities and national security planners say to my ruminations? “Utter nonsense”. Damage will be nominal, at worst. The utilities are on top of it and have given the threat priority attention. And no adversary would dare launch a major attack on our infrastructure for fear of devastating reprisal. Like 911.
Why didn’t I think of that before? Could have saved a lot of pixels.
Don’t worry. Sleep well.

The Myth of the Job Creators, Risk Takers…and Other Capitalist Fairy Tales

It should be clear to all by now that the notion of Business as job creators is a myth.  Really, it always was.  But it was a myth on which the business community has built its privileges, perquisites and general sense of entitlement.

The truth is, it is the consumer who is the job creator:  until the consumer has a need or want to be fulfilled, there is no need for supply, and no need for jobs to create that supply.  There is no business. We might add: the biggest consumer is the government, on behalf of the rest of us.  I didn’t place the order for the latest aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, but I’m glad it provides its measure of protection in a hostile world.

But there is a strange irony today.  There are many needs and wants, but still not enough jobs to fulfill them.

And why is that?  Because the consumer has been substantially stripped of the wherewithal to support those needs and wants with the loss of jobs, the stagnation of incomes, the deterioration of asset base, and the resultant lack of security about the present and future, in the shadows of a past darkened by deception.

Meanwhile, we are told that the 1%, ensconced in their cyber-castles, are sitting on a Trillion in cash, wringing their hands about where to deploy it in the world of uncertainty they created while amassing it.  These self-styled risk takers are afraid to take risk.

In their corporate modality, we are told that US companies are parking $2 trillion in cash off-shore to avoid taxes.   Where off-shore, I wonder, if they’re concerned about risk?  Europe, Japan, Russia, China, India? Or some lesser entity perhaps, with even less substance and safeguards against a black swan event that might reduce those safe-havens to financial sink-holes?

Yet the economy is slowly clawing back because the Little People, as the late Leona Helmsley so affectionately referred to them, are slowly clawing their way back.

This might happen faster if the self-styled economic elite were to swallow their fears, reinvest their funds in their society, and reap the benefits that come from that good old velocity-of-funds transfer thingy that we learn about in Econ 101.  But that would take some brains, and faith in the system that served them so well while they studiously rigged it to their advantage, and then abandoned it..

Meanwhile, they sooth their fears by  consuming luxuries for affirmations of their status, going home to read how the luxury end of the markets in cars, homes, restaurants and Other Stuff, is out-performing all other segments, and satisfying themselves that they’ve made a contribution to the general improvement of the economy.

I could talk about the myth of competition too, but I’ll save that for a later time.

I have no animus against capitalism, the private sector, free enterprise and competition.  The latter three are critical to a functioning democracy, and a vibrant economy.  But Capitalism, like Communism before it, is rapidly becoming a brittle, failed economic religion that its high priests can no longer defend with credible results.

The question then is what comes next.

*  *  *

Every so often, I look back on blogs past to see if my thoughts of yore have been ratified or rebuked  by subsequent events.  Below are links to a set of blogs I dubbed ‘Capitalist Papers’, posted between March, 2008 and January, 2011. I will leave you to be the judge.



Capitalist Papers 1 – Random Reflections on the Decline of Capitalism

Capitalist Papers 2 – Corpocracy and Agency

Capitalist Papers 3 –  The Cost / Benefit of Trust 

Capitalist Papers 4 – Eulogy for the Consumer – TEOTWAWKI

Capitalist Papers 5 – Information Please – Reconsidering the ‘Efficient Market’ Hypothesis

Capitalist Papers 6 – The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

Capitalist Papers 7 – CPR for the US Economy 

Capitalist Papers 8 – Capitalistic Cannibalism – Self-Destruction by Self-Consumption

Capitalist Papers 9 – Asymmetric Class Warfare

Capitalist Papers 10 – The Future of Capitalism 

Science, God and James Inhofe

In a moment that caught undeserved attention,  a week ago the US Senate voted 98 to 1 to recognize the reality of climate change.  This Pyrrhic victory for the believers of climate change was made notable by the ‘yes’ vote of James Inhofe, Senate Denier-In-Chief, and coincidentally, Chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committees, both of which will be heavily engaged in the phenomenon.

As we have come to learn, Senator Inhofe’s vote was less an epiphany than a shallow effort to co-opt the issue by placing the issue in God’s hands and casting it as merely a manifestation of God’s Plans for just another splendid day in Paradise.  So, here we are.  Is it science or God’s Will?

Yes,  it is true. Since the Planet was slapped together in the Cosmic Workshop, we have always had climate and it has always been changing.  Thank you Mr. Inhofe!.  Your high school science teacher and minister must be proud of you.  But the issue remains: are we getting more than our millenium’s fair share, and are we major contributors, and therefore, major actors in influencing its direction.  Not to take anything away from God, mind you.  He (or she, it can still be argued)  did a marvelous job.  But something is seriously out of whack and deserves attention it is not getting, either from the All Mighty or from us.

I know that Senator Inhofe is a private plane pilot, and the record suggests that his piloting skills sometimes place too much reliance on the assumption that God is his co-pilot. With that in mind, I am deeply  skeptical about his judgment as he pilots (or hijacks) Senate policy on the environment and climate change.

This issue of Science versus God in the matter of climate change seems to be slowly tilting in the favor of science as a growing number of people, including Evangelicals, recognize the undeniable:  that our environment is altering at a rate unprecedented in our experience across the total range of ecologies and factors. And the net result is not positive.  So,  let’s try to distill knowledge down to some rudimentary facts, and not get lost in the minutia that drives too many discussions.

–  Depending on one’s source of information, The Planet has been in business for between 5,775 and 4.54 billion years,  give or take a million or two for rounding.

–  Depending on one’s source of information, Version 1.0 of humankind has been operational for between 5,775 years and 1.7 million years.  If you take the longer value of planetary existence, people have been messing around with the neighborhood for 0.0374% of the Earth’s existence, and most of that with little or no impact.

–  It is estimated that the Planet’s carrying capacities for humanity during much of this time up until the beginning of the twentieth century did not exceed 1.75 billion people.  Population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The earlier number reflects the technologies in place to support the population. The latter number is made possible by the technologies that have proliferated in the twentieth century, when the budding industrial age of the prior two centuries achieved full blossom and ubiquity, thanks to the maturing of the oil industry.

–  The Industrial Revolution began around 1750, with the benefit of coal to fuel it.

–  Joseph Fourier, some seventy years later and more by coincidence than by consequence, proposed the Greenhouse Effect theory.

–  John Tyndall in 1859 confirmed the Greenhouse Effect theory in laboratory experiments.

–  Coincidentally, in 1859 the first commercial oil well began production in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

–  In 1896, 52 years BG (Before Gore) Swedish chemist/physicist Svante Arrhenius produced the first mathematical model to calculate possible effects of  Global Warming from greenhouse gases.  He viewed the impacts as largely beneficial to mankind, mostly through enhanced agricultural impacts.  His model understated the impacts to follow, but he cannot be faulted for that as he probably did not calculate the impact of the first automobile produced in 1889, nor did he get the memo of Henry Ford’s master plan for mass mobility, which achieved reality in 1913 with the first plant to mass-produce automobiles.

– It takes between 2,000 and 10,000 years for Mother Nature to cook a barrel of crude oil.  (God could probably do it faster, but appears not to be in that business, or Exxon-Mobil would not be so worried about where to replace its diminishing conventional reserves.

–  It is estimated that the total global inventory of conventional reserves at the beginning of commercial exploitation was about 3 trillion barrels.  ( Conventional reserves are the easy stuff, excluding the unconventional stuff made available by fracking that makes such a mess and is causing increasing rumbling.  If Coca Cola was in the oil business, it would brand  conventional reserves ‘Crude Classic’).

–  Of that, it is estimated that we have depleted one-third or 1 trillion barrels by the year 2000.

–  Of that, it is estimated that half was depleted in the last half of the twentieth century.

–  The United States has 5% of the world’s population, and used 25% of the world’s annual consumption of energy as of 2000.

–  The coal and oil that is consumed is carbon that was in essence ‘sequestered’ until combusted. The consumption of that carbon in such relatively large proportion in a veritable nanosecond of geological time can only rationally be viewed as a human ‘forcing’ of the climatic norms that have more slowly evolved over thousands of years.

–  We know the chemistry of carbon consumption.  We know the physics of its effect on the atmosphere.

–   We know what caused Los Angeles’ smog in the latter half of the twentieth century,  and we know that we were capable of intervening to reduce it.

–  We know what causes algae blooms in lakes and rivers, and other forms of industrial pollution, and we know how humans can cure what humans create or contribute to.

–  We detected the depletion of the Ozone layer, and with the aid of science, bent political will to do something to reverse the process.

With these facts of history and science as context, for Senator Inhofe and other political and thought leaders to deny the human role in mitigating conditions and consequences to which it contributes is an act of colossal stupidity or craven indifference*.   (*See also: Concerted Ignorance).

*   *   *

So much for science and history and facts.  Let’s spend a moment with God.

I am a person of faith, but I happen not to subscribe to any particular brand of religion.

I would like to think that there is a benevolent God who is watching over me and has a plan in which peace and prosperity and well-being are secured for myself and humanity in general.  Unfortunately, I have not found evidence of it.

I see the universe as a place in which magnificent beauty and brutality exist side by side in the interplay of forces that shape and evolve it….by whatever plan and whose ever hand.  I do not presume to understand it, nor do I expect to before my clock runs out.  So I navigate the unknowns with the best I can hobble together of wisdom and insight, much of which I have accumulated as the byproduct of my mistakes.  Nonetheless, I am grateful that I and others are capable of doing so because,  by whatever means, we have been endowed with the capacity to reason and learn and self-actuate within the boundaries of our resources and the random roll of the cosmic dice that is the nature of the universe.

The Judeo-Christian theology to which Senator Inhofe professes to subscribe recognizes the reality of human intelligence and free will.  After all, it is that free will and the exercise of choice (though often not intelligence) which makes us capable of sin, the raw material for all the religions to sell salvation through their particular franchise with God.

So, if I were to presume to argue the case for climate change responsive action from the vantage point of Senator Inhofe’s toe-hold on reality, I would argue this.  A God which has given the children made in his image the capacity for rational thought, and is observing them squandering it yet again, must surely be displeased, and disinclined to accept the responsibility that Senator Inhofe, and Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio and a vast array of other numb-nuts would like to dump in his lap.  I imagine that an all-knowing, all-powerful God, whom the Bible suggests had little hesitancy to rain down bolts of lightning upon the richly deserving, could exact some terrible punishments on the criminally indifferent for the trespasses they are wrecking upon His realm.

I’m waiting.

And while he’s at it, could he take out ISIS as well?  It would save a lot of unnecessary hardship.



The Storm that Wasn’t, And The Storm That Might Have Been

So Philadelphia and New York City are whining that they were denied the ‘historic blizzard that the weather establishment was promising, and that they were denied the adrenaline rush enjoyed by Stonington, CT and Scituate, MA and many other communities north of there.  All that prior prep.  For Nothing!

The big story was the historic storm that didn’t happen.  But the bigger story is of the storm that might have happened, and that is a story of future relevance.

When I’m not writing blogs or harassing my local officials for one reason or another, I devote some time to amateur radio, and specifically areas of the hobby known  as Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and Skywarn.  Skywarn is a group of trained volunteers, many of them hams, who assist the National Weather Service by reporting ground conditions during and after major storms.  We provide ‘ground truths’ that radar and satellite imagery cannot provide, and fill out the picture of a weather event.

As such, I pay a little more attention to the weather than many, and when a ‘historic storm’ is about to visit the neighborhood,  I pay a lot more.  On Saturday night, Jan.24, I began monitoring the GOES satellite images to gain a sense of how the storm might develop.  incidentally, for any of you who are mildly interested in the weather, I would encourage you to make the GOES satellite images one of your favorite sites.  I like the infrared image on loop, which gives a fascinating insight into how globally driven our local weather patterns are.

The storm did not look that impressive Saturday night, but I was mindful that, 36 hours away from the main show, conditions  that have little prior evidence on imagery can explode quite dramatically.  This is where the models, with different information and predictive capacities augment what radar and satellite can tell us about the past and present, and allow us to reasonably extrapolate about the future.

When I awoke Sunday morning,  the event morphed in projections from a major snow event to a blizzard of historic proportions.  Still the imagery had not changed that much, although it showed potential that could not be dismissed.

As I continued to watch the GOES images through the day and take screen shots of the development for future reference, the main body of the storm from the northwest over Canada continued to develop, and was impressive in mass.  But this was to be a Nor’easter, which suggested that something significant needed to be developing in the Gulf and Caribbean to feed the cold northern air.  This had been a recurring pattern since 2010 in which strong Lows combined cold northern air and supersaturated southern air, drawing from a great geographical expanse  into a weather witch’s brew.

As late as 9:30 Sunday night, I didn’t see what I was expecting.  I didn’t see a tightly wound, powerful Low pressure cell that was in a position or powerful enough to pull in Gulf Stream moisture.  I did see a high in position over the Carolinas that could push an evolving northerly flow of moist air out into the Atlantic.  But I’m just an amateur, speculating with minimal information and without a model or a degree in meteorology.

But there was one interesting feature that caught my eye by Monday around 4:30 p.m..  The evolving blob of  moisture that I first saw off the Florida coast at 5:30 am appeared to be breaking into two distinct masses of moisture out in the Atlantic, as if something was cutting the source with a knife. The western blob would become our weather.  But the eastern mass which was much larger and more powerful, would bypass us for Nova Scotia and New Foundland.  That eastern mass, if it had wrapped into New England, would have developed the historic storm that was predicted.

*   *    *

The day after the storm, with incriminations of the National Weather Service   flying as fierce as the snow flakes the day before.  NWS acknowledged its failure to effectively communicate the sensitivity of its forecast to variance as well as the potential severity of the storm.  This is the point that bears emphasis with future relevance.  We have been, are now, and will continue to deal with conditions that will be highly variable.  Even as the technology of forecasting advances, it is likely to struggle to keep up with and comprehend a continually morphing weather system.   Weather communicators must present their forecasts with that in mind, but we the public must also be prepared to receive that with an understanding that this is our current reality, and quite likely our future.

*  *  *

On the eve of the historic storm Five Thirty Eight published an article listing the ten most severe snow events for New York City, Philadelphia and Boston going back as far as 1869.  It was interesting to note that each decade from the 1870s forward averaged one or two major storms among the three cities, with the exception of the 1940s with 3.  but the  1990s had four Top Ten: the ’00s six; and this first half of the Teens, six, with half a decade to go.  Do you see a trend? Does this refute Global Warming? No. Counter-intuitively and ironically, it confirms it.   Our polar regions, once outposts of frozen stability, are careening through cycles of seasonal variability,  The equator isn’t getting any cooler; but is sending more super moist air north. The two regions are shaking hands in the middle, and squeezing the atmospheric sponge above us.

*    *    *

Today I noticed an experimental site on the National Weather Service that seems to address the complaints with last week’s forecast.  Labeled Experimental Probabilistic Snowfall Graphics, it slices and dices the possibilities for snowfall as finely as one could reasonably ask.  Just in time for this week’s major storm.

*   *   *

Coming Attractions:  Science, God and James Inhofe