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MLK, non-violence, media, Vietnam [Matt Taibbi/Rolling Stone, 2018]

Belated for Monday’s holiday.


[via Taibbi’s twitter]

US forces status Iraq [Juan Cole]


Escalation: Trump has Iran general assassinated in Baghdad

The pentagon announced an air strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, stating in the very first sentence that it was directly ordered by Trump.  The general was a popular figure in Iraq for bringing Iranian assistance to fight off ISIS. The strike took place in Baghdad as he was arriving for the funeral of Iran-allied Iraqi militias recently killed by another controversial airstrike.

This action was a major escalation of tensions, and deeply ill-advised. In case there is any doubt that the effect on local sentiment was not known beforehand, note that the State Dept. immediately advised all US citizens to leave Iraq. It looks like Iraq will turn away from the US a lot faster than would otherwise have happened. US troops will be less free to move around in the region, and there is now a serious possibility that they will have to leave Iraq entirely, which would put pressure on the (technically illegal) US presence in eastern Syria. Iran is now under pressure to retaliate, which could escalate the situation even further. Not a good start to the year.

Happy 2020!

May it bring peace and goodness to all!

Goodbye 2019!

Here we are, another trip around the sun. Time to reflect.

For starters, it can’t hurt to be thankful. Returning to NYC for the holidays, never long enough to get re-acclimated to the population density, has a way of reminding me of that. In a “There but for the grace of God, goes I” kind of way.

I spent most of the year in a stable and loving relationship. That’s a blessing, really is.

Work was all right too. I did 2 things that were somewhat new.

One was an unremarkable OEM sensing device for a manufacturer of automation building blocks used by medical(ish) device manufacturers in the EU(ish). But it was my first properly built electronics project – I did firmware, fluid systems, and software before. It is now getting deployed and it all came together great(ish*). By the time it was done I was pretty sick of it, but it’s nice to have something work.

Second is one that maybe someone will find amusing. It is to be an OEM fluid system, for a minor but important function of a popular and rather pricy scientific device. In spite of well known rules of thumb of tech development, we’re gonna simultaneously have: low unit cost, low development cost, low part count, low consumption of a magic chemical that is involved, absurdly clean chemical purity, high reliability, fully automated / zero human intervention / idiot proof (in contrast to the previous technology), and improve the main performance figures of the previous technology by at least a factor of 3. It’s gonna be great. Did I mention low unit cost?

There are a couple of competitors who could also do the job.  The high price competitor (industry leader etc) happens to be a subsidiary of the customer, and was immediately rejected due to corporate infighting. The low price competitor was even more of a lowballer than we are. This is a good thing. They were initially chosen and went down in flames. So by process of elimination, and some other factors that don’t belong on the internet, that left us.

This year I built a handful of bench prototypes of the darn thing, to study the performance characteristics. As a consequence of the chemical purity, low part count, low price, and low chemical use, it is now a very delicate fluid system, but that’s what I’ve been doing for 10+ years so it’s all good. However, foolishly believing these were just bench prototypes for study, I omitted the parts that would be there to ensure reliability in previous production systems of this kind. To my horror, they not only “worked”, but were sold as-is (in spite of my protests), and the project is getting green lighted with an “official” cost estimate (also in spite of my protests) based on the incomplete prototypes. Next year will be interesting. Lesson to be learned, not quite sure what.

Anyway, in preparation for failure modes I expect will slowly materialize from what is now a too-aggressively cost-minimized specification, I became suddenly interested in thermodynamics. Mainly stuff relating to vapor-liquid equilibrium of mixtures that would be basic for a chemist, but was glossed over in my training as an engineer. But also the ways micro bubbles forming on axisymmetric geometry can end up with saddle curvature, and how this can have surprising (and if your luck is weird enough, actually relevant) stability implications compared to the more often studied spherical case. A trip down the rabbit hole and strangely fun. And I realized that attempting an impossible task but learning a lot** on the way is 100x more rewarding than succeeding at something relatively low risk. We’re all masochists. But I knew that already.

Also that the trick to living in a dilbert comic strip is good coffee. Blessed be the perks of the small college town.

Oh yeah this is my politics blog. Trump is still the same. The poll numbers are still the same. The official Democratic party is still the same, that is, mostly useless. Dronings are up, proper wars are down***. Election season is on. Many more people are taking Bernie/Warren seriously. That’s a good thing.

Also, it seems someone liked the bumper sticker on my car. I accidentally left a car window rolled down for 4 days (in the city!), and when I went to move it this morning, not only was everything was still there, including probably several $ worth of change in the center console,  but someone decided to deposit a pack of Bernie stickers and pins/buttons in the passenger seat where the window was open. Thanks!

That’s going to be it for 2019. See you on the other side!

* There was the part when I was directed to change to a cost-reduced manufacturer in the first production run. It was exactly as the folk wisdom of the industry foretold. The new manufacturer shipped the assemblies with unauthorized part substitutions in the one place they would make the most difference. One of those rare events that somehow doesn’t seem rare. [Like finding the power hooked up backwards, which somehow goes undetected until the same week when the customer is facing a deadline that they are behind on. “It was working and it suddenly stopped, I have no idea what happened – how long do you think it will take to fix it?”. Right.]

** Not the first time / another pattern of events that somehow doesn’t seem so rare…

*** Update: protesters are trying to set the US embassy in Iraq on fire. Not sure how to count that.

US Real Wage Growth – Trends [Policy Tensor blog]


A straightforward visual breakdown of US real wage growth. There are a series of interesting graphs such as the one

UK election exit polls

UPDATE: Conservatives 365, Labour 203. Details from The Guardian.

Exit polls estimate PM Boris Johnson and the Tories re-elected with a fat majority, and Labour decimated. Real results tomorrow probably.

Not good at all, I liked Jeremy Corbyn and what he stood for. Unfortunately, his party was split on Brexit, and there is no reward for refusing to pick a side. (And certain punishment for picking.)

This was also a vivid example of how a first-past-the-post electoral system can take a bad situation and make it worse. (LD getting 3.6 million votes but only 11 seats, essentially none relative to their votes).


Getting to a Carbon-Free Economy [Jeffrey Sachs / American Prospect]


On a more positive note, here is a hefty 6000 word article, from the prominent reformist voice of Jeffrey Sachs. It details out a somewhat specific timeline for de-carbonizing the US economy and also an order-of-magnitude cost estimate, as reckoned by some of his colleaguesWorth Reading.

I especially like that in many cases, he is in favor of direct legal elimination rather than carbon-pricing methods. I think his analysis of the timeline, especially for vehicles and electric generation is legit. That is, it is possible. 2050 and a 30 years plan means starting next year. The cost estimate of 1% of GDP over that time seems optimistic. We’re talking full-court press, unified effort by government and industry, the first decade spent in a crash program to develop the required technologies (esp. hydrogen-cell energy storage). I don’t see either a Trump administration or a Biden administration as willing to even consider this.

But it is good to see the subject taken seriously yet with some realism. It is also good to see the discussion in long form. That is the only way to really do it.

impeachment, and more!

busy week in US politics. Looks like some cards are getting flipped over now.

  • House Judiciary drafts Articles of Impeachment, committee to vote later this week, full House vote next week?
  • FBI Inspector General Horowitz releases report. Repeated subversion of FISA rules by FBI. Makes a liar out of House Intel Cmte. Chairman Schiff (among others). Nothing-criminal-going-on-here conclusion. Horowitz recommends additional follow-up work to correct deficiencies in following rules. Republican defenders of Trump, Barr and Durham, suggest there is more dirt to come via counter-investigations.
  • Giuliani goes to Ukraine and gets a nervous-looking Viktor Shokin on camera. Clips were briefly popping up from a right-wing news outlet, One America News, which I won’t link here. If authentic, this would be troubling for Biden. Shokin was Ukraine’s Prosecutor General (similar to an Attorney General in the US), and was forced out at Biden’s specific request, but “not because of Burisma”. In the clips, Shokin (via a translator) appears to state that he was in the process of investigating Burisma when Ukr. President Poroshenko asked him to resign, that this happened after Poroshenko spoke to Biden who expressed displeasure at the investigations and was witholding $1B of loan guarantees, that Poroshenko said Burisma is the main part of the reason he was asked to resign, and that Shokin thinks there is a telephone record between Poroshenko and Biden that is relevant.

I have a feeling this wasn’t supposed to happen, usually there is a backroom deal to settle these matters out of sight of the public. It may yet disappear, which would be a sign of a deal.

  • Oh, and out of nowhere, the “New NAFTA” is suddenly ready, with House Speaker Pelosi ready to jump on it in an incongruous show of bipartisanship.
  • Also, some report about Afghanistan, but I’m not sure who even considers that news at this point

Chris Hedges interview-talk [Chris Lydon / WBUR / WGBH]

Former NYT journalist and prolific writer, talks about the subjects of his new book America: The Farewell Tour. Hour and a half, picking up a bit as they go.

Hedges and his interviewer take the longer view, going back to their scholarly and spiritual roots to anchor their sanity amidst the difficult outlook, as they touch on many topics relevant to the dysfunctions of the day.

Increasing inequality, disillusionment, and despair feed proto-authoritarian tendencies in our government and economic system. Both political parties are complicit, and Hedges sees few signs that our trajectory can be changed through reforms from within the confines of the the power structure, as it exists. [however, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. -p.]

I am not as convinced as he is that the US is close to another serious financial crisis – but the rest of his message rings true. Perhaps the one thing that I think is likely to save the US from the vicious cycle of crises ending with authoritarianism, is the possibility that the economic conditions of working class Americans actually have potential to improve somewhat compared to 2012-2016. However, any improvement would be happening along with a continually growing list of economic sectors adopting the structure of a McDonald’s kitchen.

Still, mending the current divide, by lulling the working class back to sleep, would relieve the pressure on the political system. The generational nature of the working-class/middle-class divide would imply that one could buy perhaps 15 years time by letting the middle class deplete, thereby shifting balance of political power back to the stereotypical working class. As a way to “stop the bleeding”, so to speak. After that, the societal problems would be unsolved (and likely worse), a financial episode not unlikely on the decade timescale, political crisis would surely return, or we would simply morph into an “illiberal democracy”. Without a vibrant middle class, we’re looking at a diminished standing in the world, and the US would be a far less attractive place to live. So this scenario is not as bad as analogies to the Weimar Republic. But still fairly miserable if you ask me.

In the final question of the Q&A, Hedges calls for a radical restructuring of power in the US, suggesting that non-violent revolution is actually the least unrealistic path to a better future. It’s hard to dismiss this conclusion, as we already have all the resources we need do much, much better for everyone than we currently are – i.e. deliver a middle class life with health, education, work spread around evenly, a clean environment, and a society in which there is a good chance to build secure human relationships. Resources, processes, values – to shift gears, and mix metaphors a bit [from a popular corporate self-help book with a brilliant final chapter]. We have the first in abundance, we are discovering the third, slowly and painfully……