Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Our undying gratitude once more to Pirate’s Cove and The Other McCain for the President’s Day Rule Five links!  Be sure to check out the extensive totty compendiums at the links.

 Now, on to some science – new technology, it seems, might make brain implants practical.  Not surprisingly, this news comes out of MIT.  Excerpt:

Researchers at Harvard Medical School will use a new kind of implant that will go beneath the skull but can rest on the surface of an animal’s brain, instead of penetrating inside the organ. An array of microscopic coils inside the hair-like device can generate powerful, highly targeted magnetic fields to induce electrical activity at particular locations in the brain tissue underneath. The implant will also be tested when placed inside brain tissue. 

The device will be used to stimulate the visual cortex of the monkeys to try and re-create the activity normally triggered by signals from the eyes—creating the sensation of sight without the eyes’ input. Ultimately, the goal is to use the implant to convert signals from a camera into brain activity. Unlike conventional electrodes, the coils’ effectiveness shouldn’t degrade over time. Magnetic fields aren’t impeded by tissue forming around an implant as electric currents are.

I’m certain this tech will never be used for nefarious purposes, of course.

 While this technology might (literally!) allow the deaf to hear and the blind to see, it’s unclear whether it could be used to, say, restore motor functions.  I would tend to think it’s possible, but back when I studied biology my area of focus was behavior, not neurology, so I will be the first to admit my understanding here is limited.

Still.  It’s an amazing modern era we live in.  At least in the Western world, it is; large parts of the globe are still struggling out of the Dark Ages.

Maybe we can come up with a brain implant for that?

Saturday Evening Culture

I think I like this better than Donna Summer’s original version.  This is the percussion-heavy Blue Man Group with early 2000’s alt-band VenusHum – lead singer Annette Strean has some pretty good pipes.  Enjoy.

Mrs. Animal and I have seen the Blue Man Group twice, once the full show in Las Vegas, once the road show with the aforementioned VenusHum; in fact we saw this very song performed.  They’re worth checking out.

Rule Five Asian Alliances Friday

Last weekend, President Trump spent the weekend with the one man that represents America’s best and truest ally in the Pacific save only Australia – Japan.  The Japan Times had this to say about their meeting.  Excerpt:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might have got exactly what he wanted in his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Abe’s three-day visit to the United States, the first since the inauguration of the Trump administration, was marked by friendly overtones and included two nights of dinners in a row and golfing in Palm Beach, Florida, where the president hosted the Japanese leader at his winter estate. Trump gave assurances to Abe over the bilateral security alliance while remaining silent over his earlier aggressive criticism of Japan over trade and currency issues.

But if Trump had merely tamed his protectionist pitch to play up his friendly rapport with Abe, those issues may have just been set aside to be taken up later in the “bilateral dialogue framework” that the two leaders agreed to create to discuss trade and investment matters. A close aide to Abe reportedly said the two leaders confirmed that the trade disputes of the 1980s were a “thing of the past.” But Trump’s remarks before the meeting had been enough to raise the specter of the bitter trade friction between the two countries. It’s not clear whether Abe succeeded in changing the minds of the U.S. president during the talks. The government needs to hold Japan’s ground in the upcoming dialogue.

But here’s the real money (hah) quote – bear in mind this article is written from Japan’s point of view:

What’s worrisome about Trump’s views on trade issues is that they may not be shaped by a correct understanding of the relevant facts. In singling out Japan — along with China — as countries that engage in trade practices that are “not fair” to American firms during his earlier talks with U.S. business leaders, the president reportedly claimed that countries such as Japan “charge a lot of tax” on U.S. products and said that “if they’re going to charge tax to our countries — if as an example, we sell a car into Japan and they do things to us that make it impossible to sell cars in Japan. … It’s not fair.” Separately, he effectively charged that Japan and China manipulate the exchange rates to drive their currencies lower against the dollar — on which he blamed the U.S. trade deficits.

Japan needs the United States, probably more than we need them.  I’ve done a fair amount of business there, and all three companies I’ve worked with sell over half of their output to Americans and American companies.   That makes us their most important market.

It’s odd to my WW2-generation parents – they’ve told me so themselves – but it’s in America’s best interests to maintain a solid working relationship with Japan, not least of which is because of the stare-down our island allies are having with China.  Two major trade partners are snapping at each other, which puts President Trump in a damned delicate situation.

Here’s what I found encouraging about last weekend’s events, at least as far as American-Japanese relations are concerned – the President and Prime Minister Abe appear to get along very well personally, playing golf together and by all appearances enjoying a fine dinner with spouses and aides at Trump’s Florida resort.

Why is that encouraging?  Because of something I’ve learned over almost fifteen years of self-employment:  People do business with people they like.  A good personal relationship with Prime Minister Abe will make it easier for President Trump, a man of business, to do business with Japan.

I confess to some selfish motive here.  I’ve done business in Japan, have lived and worked there, and I have had and always will have a very real fondness for the place and it’s people.  I want to do business there again.  I hope President Trump and Prime Minister Abe agree on a trade deal to make that possible.

Animal’s Daily Pale Blue Dot News

The Future.

In 1946, we got our first look at the Earth from space, thanks to a war-surplus V2 rocket repurposed by the U.S. Army.  On Valentine’s Day in 1990, Voyager One took an iconic photo – of Earth as a tiny pale blue dot in the vastness of space.   Excerpt:

We first glimpsed Earth’s curvature in 1946, via a repurposed German V-2 rocket that flew 65 miles above the surface. Year-by-year, we climbed a little higher, engineering a means to comprehend the magnitude of our home.

In 1968, Apollo 8 lunar module pilot William Anders captured the iconic Earthrise photo. We contemplated the beauty of our home.

But on Valentine’s Day 27 years ago, Voyager 1, from 4 billion miles away, took one final picture before switching off its camera forever. In the image, Earth, Carl Sagan said, was merely “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” So we pondered the insignificance of our home. The image inspired Sagan to write his book “The Pale Blue Dot,” and it continues to cripple human grandiosity.

And, about the Voyagers:

There aren’t any space missions like the Voyagers on the docket for the future, but both spacecraft continue beaming back data going on 40 years and counting. Voyager 1 became the first human-made thing to enter interstellar space, back in 2012 when it passed into the heliosphere, the bubble surrounding our solar system. Voyager 2 is expected to pierce the heliosphere around 2020.

Think about that.  There is an object built by human hands, bearing human information, hurtling into the unfathomable deeps of interstellar space, even as you read these words.  In a few years its brother will follow into those empty reaches.

Some day, I’d like to think humans will follow – maybe in a colossal generation ship, maybe in a constant-acceleration starship with a crew in deep-sleep, maybe in some faster-than-light craft driven by some as-yet un-imagined technology.  I’m pretty sure I won’t live to see it, but I would love to be proven wrong.

As a part-time science-fiction writer, I’ve made some guesses as to the shape the future might take.  I’m fifty-five now; I can expect to live to see thirty or forty more years of that future.   I am and have been convinced that our destiny lay out there somewhere, far from this tiny little blue-white ball.

Oh, and here’s the photo.  That’s us in the pale sunbeam on the right; as Carl Sagan said:  “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”  I can’t add anything to that; not a word.

Death and Taxes?

The GOP – well, at least one Congressman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) – is proposing to overhaul our onerous tax structure with a plan that actually ain’t half bad.  Excerpt:

“We’re trying to fundamentally change the code,” Nunes told host Stuart Varney. “We’re getting rid of the income tax. We’re doing something that hasn’t been done in 100 years.”

“We’re moving to a consumption system — to a cash flow system,” Nunes said. He explained what that would look like in practice: “You take your income minus your expenses, and whatever’s left over, you pay a tax on that.”

He added that “this is a very simple system, yet it’s a dramatic departure from the confusing tax code that we have now.”

Nunes argued that the changes would increase economic growth and bring jobs back to America so we can be “the most transparent, business-friendly nation state in the world.”

He said that under the new system, the biggest winners would be wage earners and small businesses because “they will be on the same playing field as other businesses in this country.”

Speaking as one of those small businesses, I like the idea.  It might not be my ideal plan, but it would be a good start.  Like lots of small businesses, ours operates as an LLC, meaning the business income is in effect our personal income – so we pay personal taxes on the proceeds of our business.  This bill would eliminate that distinction, simplifying the tax code for everyone and accomplishing one of the GOP’s stated goals – broadening and simplifying the tax code.

Hopefully it will result in every working adult having some skin in the game, but I doubt that will be the case.  I’d like to see everyone having some skin in the game, but in today’s environment, that may be too much to hope for.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Ever tried an Airbnb stay?  I haven’t, even in all my travels, but I’ve considered it, and would avail myself if the housing matched the site where I was working.  But around the country, the hotel industry is engaging in the Aristocracy of Pull to shut Airbnb down.  Excerpt:

New York officials are on the job, protecting the world from the likes of Hank Freid and Tatiana Cames by slapping the two with a combined total of $17,000 in fines.

What threat to life, liberty, and property did this dastardly duo pose?

They were renting rooms to willing customers, the bastards. Fried and Cames were slapped for violating laws prohibiting apartment owners from renting rooms for less than 30 days if they’re not living on the premises, and a further law passed last year that banned advertising such rentals. It’s a direct strike at innovative home-sharing services like Airbnb and the people who use them that parallels similar attacks around the country.

“The law signed today will provide vital protections for New York tenants and help prevent the continued proliferation of illegal, unregulated hotels, and we will defend it,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) trumpeted last October.

Maybe I’m the suspicious type, but I think those “vital protections” Schneiderman refers to are against competition to the established old-school hotel industry. Just last summer, the Office of the New York State Comptroller fretted that the hotel business in New York City wasn’t doing as well as hoped. “Despite impressive gains, the average room rate (i.e., the average cost of renting a hotel room) has not yet reached its prerecession level” and, in fact, “room rates declined slightly in 2015.” This bums officials out, because “New York City collected a record $1.8 billion in tax revenue from the hotel industry in fiscal year 2015” and officials want to keep scooping up that revenue and maintain close, personal friendships with the people who generate that kind of cash.

Look carefully, True Believers, at that last bit.  New York City wants to prevent homeowners from voluntarily leasing a portion of their home to willing short-term renters, in a purely voluntary transaction in which both parties realize a gain.  Why?

Tax dollars.  The City of New York, it seems, is of the opinion that those tax dollars are theirs by right, and that the Airbnb renters are defrauding them of their due.  Why, it’s damned near medieval.

Incidentally, the same thing happens with the taxicab companies when they campaign against ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.  They can’t compete in the open market, so they enlist government cronies to shut their competitors down with excessive regulations.

The only open and fair competition is in the open market, where business models succeed or fail for the only reason tolerable in a free society – because they succeeded or failed in attracting customers.  President Trump has vowed to reduce business-killing regulations that add no value.  He should look into this.

Worth Watching!

I never do this, but admirers of the Feminine Aesthetic should check out Charissa Littlejohn.  She is an Air Force veteran, enthusiastic shooter, and absolute knockout.

She is addictive because she possesses a pure heart and a dirty mind ♥️ #happyvalentinesday

A post shared by Charissa Littlejohn 💕 (@charissa_littlejohn) on

Check out her Instagram here.

(Oh, if I was thirty years younger!)

Animal’s Daily Air Traffic News

Who wouldn’t like to make air travel easier, cheaper and more efficient?  If you travel a lot, like yr. obdt., then y ou’d probably like to see that happen.  If you work for the Federal Aviation Administration, apparently the answer is “probably not.”  Excerpt:

In an era of smartwatches and driverless cars, Americans traveling by air sit in planes guided by World War II-era technology, while the Federal Aviation Administration spends billions on its never-ending “NextGen” upgrade.

Started in 2004, NextGen was supposed to replace the outdated radar, radio communications, and strips of paper still used by air traffic controllers. Once in place, this satellite-based system would let planes travel more direct routes, improve safety margins, and save travelers billions of dollars a year.

But NextGen has been fraught with delays and cost overruns and, despite having spent $7.4 billion over the past 12 years, is still 13 years away from being finished.

Up north, meanwhile, the Canadian air traffic control system — which is the second busiest after the U.S. — has already deployed truly state-of-the-art technology throughout its system, letting it handle 50% more traffic while trimming its work force by 30%.

What’s the difference? In 1996 Canada sold its government-run air traffic control to a nonprofit corporation called Nav Canada. User fees finance its operations and pay for upgrades, and Nav Canada is free of the suffocating bureaucracy and endless budget battles that plague the U.S. system. The Canadian government’s role is limited to regulating Nav Canada for safety.

Other industrialized nations have taken similar steps. But in the U.S., any such talk has been blocked by Democrats, for whom privatization is a dirty word.

There’s nothing that motivates people, whether they be individuals or joined together in a corporation, like the profit motive.

It shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a system to privatize the air-traffic control system.  Set up a system of standards – on time departures and arrivals (barring those that are the airline’s fault) certain budget and personnel requirements.  If the first contractor can’t do it, find another that can.  The precedent is just over the border in the Great White North.

What the article here misses is the reason the Democratic party so ardently opposes such a measure; the public-sector unions, who are deep in the Democrats’ pockets – and vice versa.

That shouldn’t be enough reason to put up with a broken system.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks again to Pirate’s Cove and The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

Sub-Saharan Africa is pretty much synonymous with hunger and poverty.  Ever wondered why?  The Dark Continent is rich in resources; plenty of mineral wealth, timber, beautiful country attractive to tourism, and some of the world’s richest farmlands.  So why are the African nations poor and starving?  Here’s a possible explanation.  Excerpt:

With every last bit of fertile land spoken for, Uganda’s only path out of mass hunger is intensification—getting more food out of the same amount of ground. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, high-yield varieties of wheat and rice revolutionized agriculture in Asia and Latin America, freeing up to a billion people from chronic hunger. But the Green Revolution skipped Africa. I had come to Uganda to try to figure out why.

Nakkede’s laboratory gives me my first clue. Ensuring that farmers have access to good seed should be at the forefront of Uganda’s fight against hunger, and a sample of each lot of agricultural seed produced in the country is supposed to be tested here. But the lab barely functions at all.

Is insufficient funding the problem? Not quite. Expensive-looking machinery is all around us. Yet none of it, I slowly realize, is plugged into the wall.

“Oh, yeah,” an aid official tells me days later. “All the equipment at the Kawanda lab is fried.”

Between 2003 and 2008, a $1.9 million project by the Danish International Development Agency fully equipped this lab and trained staff to work here. But blackouts are frequent in Uganda. When the power comes back it often returns with a surge, and the Danes apparently forgot to put surge protectors in the budget. As a result, Danish taxpayers have paid top dollar for a collection of finely engineered paperweights.

The Danes were just one of a string of donors to come in, commission an assessment of Uganda’s food security problems, zero in on seed quality, and spend a lot of money on “technical assistance,” only to see virtually no bang for the development buck. Writing for the World Bank, the agricultural economist James Joughin reviewed 20 substantive studies of the Ugandan seed industry conducted between 2003 and 2013. Everybody who is anybody in African development has done one: the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the African Development Bank, the European Union, the United Nations, and various NGOs and academics.

“The reports invariably recommend how to repair these problems,” Joughin concludes. “Rarely do they ask why earlier recommendations have not been acted upon.”

The problem here is threefold:

  1. Agribusiness.

    No security in private property rights.  Farmers can grow crops, but there is no guarantee they will be able to sell them.

  2. Rampant corruption due to a failure of rule of law.  The kind of fraud described in the story is a long-standing legacy of Africa, but there’s no reason that should be the case.
  3. Extensive subsidies for agriculture in the Western nations, which artificially depresses crop prices and denies African farmers access to world markets.

Western-style republican government with robust rule of law and free, unfettered markets can fix Africa.  Probably nothing else can.

Deep thoughts, news of the day, totty and the Manly Arts.