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Robot cults

March 29, 2021

When one ponders how it worked, QAnon was an interesting phenomenon. There are plenty of conspiracy theories that have been spread or kept alive over the years just by some book that propagated them. QAnon was (is?) more than that, telling its followers how to view events as they occurred. That makes it look much like a cult. Except, there was no cult leader, charismatic or otherwise. That role was played entirely through messages dropped over the internet. Proving that the personal touch, from a leader or trained disciples, is unnecessary to forming and maintaining a cult.

We don’t know who did that, or why. There is no reason to believe the backstory those messages provide for Q. It is clear that that the unknown author understood the psychology of the Pizzagate hoax, from which the QAnon cult was derivative, and of Trump followers, from which QAnon drew and to which it contributed. In the future, could that expertise be provided by an AI? That would have the advantage to someone who benefits from such a cult that they don’t personally need a close understanding of its following. More, an AI could generate messages from a purported leader, create dialogue from fictional associates and fictional foils and seed followers, and coordinate that for related cults. Though QAnon aligned with Trump’s base, cults that are competition or in opposition might work better at motivating members of each.

Reading about how QAnon followers are responding to its lull, one thing is clear: there is no easy vaccine for that plague.

The next time I’m in Brooklyn, I will have to look up the robotic church, if it still is there. 

Should insurrectionists lose their veterans benefits?

March 25, 2021

Congressman Ruben Gallego, a Marine Corps veteran, wants Veterans Affairs to remove the benefits from active and former service members who participated in the storming of the Capitol this January. It’s easy to understand the logic that those who rebel against the US government should no longer be viewed as its veterans in good standing. The opposing argument is that these benefits are rewarded for service past. Veterans who commit murder and other serious crimes still retain those. More, we should be leery of making the long-term benefits from work dependent on good behavior. While I understand Gallego’s desire to separate service members who would never do such a thing from those who did, I’m not convinced his is a wise move. Though I might be persuaded, if I knew more the precedent.

Charge them. Convict them. Punish them. Treat them as criminals.  And, anyone still in the service, the reserves, or law enforcement who participated should be drummed out for cause and dishonor.

Stuck sideways

March 24, 2021

For the past day, Suez traffic has been blocked in both directions by a large container ship that ran aground and got stuck sideways in the canal. Reading that should give most every sailor a bit of relief that the last time they grounded, it was not in quite so obvious a circumstance, given that 12% of the “world’s trade by volume” passes through the canal. Needless to say, tugs are hard at work to make things better.

Losing the trade war

March 23, 2021

American whiskey distillers were screwed by the trade war with Europe, and are hoping the new administration’s negotiations will reopen their transatlantic markets. Let’s hope so — those French should be drinking Boulevardiers and Manhattans, made using American rye or bourbon, and Italian bitters. With all due respect to Vincent, absinthe just makes the tongue long for something a bit more.

LA would be hard for me…

March 22, 2021

Great cities are measured by the experience of their pedestrians. The ones that deter a pedestrian life are just a crowding of disparate commercial districts and suburbs.

I guess I should count myself lucky that I never have been ticketed the times I visited.

That wasn’t long

March 18, 2021

A mere two weeks past, Texas Governor Abbott appointed long-time associate Arthur D’Andrea as the Public Utility Commission chairman. Which also made him the lone member, the rest having resigned in the wake of the power fiasco sparked by winter storm Uri. D’Andrea resigned two days ago, after Texas Monthly obtained and made public a phone call where he reassured traders in the power market that they did not have to worry that any of the profits from the sky-high pricing would be clawed back. Whatever words Governor Abbott mouths about that, he is neither surprised nor disappointed in the substance of what D’Andrea said and did. He simply is embarrassed by the public and attributable exposure.

This should be a large scandal in the state. As its name suggests, the PUC is supposed to protect the public. It would be interesting to know D’Andrea’s and Abbott’s energy stock holdings. As far as I know, state law neither exposes that nor limits such conflict of interests for state officeholders. 

In addition to its main purpose of protecting voting rights, the federal law in progress, HR 1, enacts some important measures regarding ethics in federal politics. PACs would have to disclose large donors. Presidential candidates would have to disclose tax returns. And congressmen would be forbidden from serving on the boards of corporations. Those are good steps. It’s still pretty thin gruel to those of us who would like better separation of civil servants from special corporate interest

Ob disclaimer: Yes, I own a boatload of energy interests. Small boatload. But I do not serve in any role where that creates a conflict of interest. 


Truth and photos

March 16, 2021

For some years now, it has been easy for the unscrupulous to use software to create fake photos that embarrass those targeted, or worse. There is a technical solution to this: every sensor chip should embed a private key used to sign every image it produces. Manufacturers would publish lists of certified public keys. Of course, images usually are edited for visual impact, even when authentic. Published images would include their original, so that when the need arises, viewers could switch to that, to tell whether those edits are legitimate or went to creating a fake. Given the ubiquity of digital sensor data, and the continued growth of its importance, it amazes me that sensors don’t include this as a standard feature. Audio sensors, too. Device metadata, such as sensor settings, time, and place, would be included in the signed contents. There are some technical wrinkles to this; they are small and easily solved.

On the other hand, the problem with some photos isn’t that they have been maliciously edited, but that a political cult cannot see what is in front of their eyes.

The demise of cable

March 15, 2021

This review of Starlink service in Vermont shows how quickly we are moving to internet connectivity that requires no cable to your house. Here is the key physics:

Unlike Dish or DirecTV birds, these are not geosynchronous or geostationary satellites, so the Starlink dish consumers use has to be able to move automatically should it need to realign itself to pick up a new satellite. But the big advantage Starlink has is that the lower earth orbit satellites, which are about 340 miles above the earth, substantially reduce the signal delay or latency.

Musk is moving to make it available for people in RVs and on boats. The antenna is too large for cars. Amazon is planning a smaller antenna for their Project Kuiper, which will use a combination of low earth satellites, and geosynchronous satellites for video streaming. I expect this technology will advance rapidly, and that in a few years, we will look back at cable connectivity as technology that is quickly going stale.

Highs and lows

March 11, 2021

The Dow Jones average closed yesterday at a record high. Which is common. It is the nature of equity markets to increase, partly in relation to economic growth, and partly in relation to the growing importance of publicly traded corporations in the economy. It is a relief no longer to have a president who tweets about that, to train his cult following into the belief that he somehow is the one responsible for it. Those wanting to understand the nature of a capitalist economy should note that joint stock corporations, invented more than three centuries past, are a political creation, and cannot emerge from a free market.

Researchers taking a closer look at vitamin D are finding that it is not much useful against Covid. That is unfortunate. It is not surprising. As often is the case in medicine, remedies and prophylactics that seem promising at first glance fail at second or third glance. Cheerleaders who latch quickly onto particular treatments hurt those they influence. This year past should have taught that lesson to anyone paying attention.

Shown right is an 18th c. illustration of a stock tout during the South Sea bubble. I make no claim about the short term direction of stocks.

Populists and cheaters

March 10, 2021

Unsurprisingly, the author of Nixonland finds that the strand of the GOP moved by bigotry and steeped in conspiracy theory lies at its core, rather than its fringe.

A Trump appointee has been charged for his role in the storming the Capitol. I suspect he won’t be the last, and expect more charges of officials and political actors, and more complex charges, after Merrick Garland is confirmed.

Mariners who want their ticket need to pass their exam by study, rather than by cheating. I am content to see those who cheat in such matters put into federal prison, more because I think those who skipper ships should have a degree of integrity than that I think they will remember all the technical minutiae.  If necessary, we can build a corruption wing right next to the MAGA wing, those two being so close in theme.