Colonization of other worlds

Unfortunately, the first question is “Why?”

Of course the answers seem obvious and abundant; human adventure, our manifest destiny and rising to JFK’s challenge, and all that, but is there really one single logical reason to set out to colonize space? If we had our eyes on a verdant paradise, reachable with our craft, just waiting for us to make it our new home, of course the answer would be a resounding “Yes.” But or course no such world currently exists, analogous to the “New World” of the Americas, beckoning to the Europeans to conquer, occupy and inhabit.

As it stands, any world on which we could now theoretically build a colony would be terribly difficult to build and maintain, and would ultimately be unsustainable with our current and foreseeable technology. Sounds negative, but reality doesn’t account for our feelings.

We occupy perhaps 4% of this planet at best, and every square of meter of it is a garden spot, compared to our current best alternative, which is any spot you choose on Mars.
Think about that. We haven’t even begun to spoil the apple we have, by taking barely a nibble from it, and we already want to trade it for an onion.

Is this just Luddite negativity, or is it pure logic?


Too Much, Too Soon

When Robert B. Shapiro, presented his new plans for world conquest, he surely felt he had earned his keep as one of the highest-paid CEOs in history.  As head of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Monsanto, he wanted to own a controlling interest in the world’s food supply also.

By the late 90’s, Monstanto already held GMO patents for many key crops; soybean, corn, canola, and even wheat (more on that later).  They also held patent on the so-called “Terminator” gene, which offered almost unlimited power over anyone using their seed, whereby it became sterile after one generation, forcing you to buy Monsanto seed every year.  Monsanto then embarked on a worldwide campaign to own all the major seed companies in the world.  Truly a commercial-industrial  wet-dream, fully in the spirit of (but too clever for) the “doctrines of Trump.”

I remember watching the almost tearful apology video by Monsanto CEO Robert B. Shapiro of 1998, where he apologized profusely to everyone it seems; shareholders, consumers,  academics, researchers and governments; everyone collectively outraged by this “Frankenstein” scheme.  He announced he was withdrawing the “terminator gene” and he was “very, very sorry” for ever having tried to us it in the first place  (just try to find that video nowadays).  His company, Monsanto was spun-out, and the parent company became “Pharmacia.”  The old name had just become too toxic for shareholders and to the public at large.

Monsanto however, had it’s considerable monetary potential, due to it’s massive leverage over farmers worldwide, therefore the investors who were unburdened by ethical concerns were free to support Monsanto unencumbered. In the two decades since, they have been fairly prosperous, but all plans for world conquest seem to have been shelved.

GMO wheat?  Yes, it exists, but all traces of it were removed from the industry, because it was also considered part of the “bridge too far” strategy that turned Monsanto from a world-beater, into a dirty word.

Robert B. Shapiro?  Still around, but not drawing anything like the godlike salary he once had.

Farmers?  Still complaining about being indentured to Monsanto, but like the frog in the pot, being slowly being brought to a boil, most of them are used to it now.  Maybe Monsanto is regretting that it wasn’t their whole strategy from the beginning.


A troubling gray-area

Selflessness is unquestionably a virtue, even in the United States, where the “pursuit of liberty and happiness” are enshrined in the Constitution.

There’s nothing new about the assert
ion  that socialism is a systemic approach to living selflessly, and communism is a “selfless” system.

Here’s the fatal flaw in those ideas:
Just as religion is not the final authority over moral behavior, communism is not the final authority over selflessness.

While that basically says it all, I’ll elaborate further. When an authoritarian body seeks to control human behavior, it invariably fails, and furthermore the reverse of the intended result is often the result.

Do we really need to become sheep to live the ideal life? Not many would agree, except perhaps the wolves.

Berlin and Korea

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the parallels between East and West Germany and North and South Korea are still striking.

In each case, one side of the country favors communism, while the other side supports capitalism. The contrasts are striking; no where on earth have we seen such a disparity between “Haves” and “Have-nots.” The Capitalist Haves live their lives in relative comfort and prosperity, while the Have-nots either try to live a life of delusion about Communist ideals, or they risk their lives to cross over to the Capitalist side.

The great irony of all this as I see it, is the fact that Communism has always been about making the masses of “Have-nots” into a Utopian society where everybody is a “Have.” In reality it has been starkly the opposite, to the greatest degree imaginable; under such regimes, nearly everyone lives as a “Have-not,” far below the poverty-line of the “Haves” on the other side of the line.

So, after nearly a century of such stunning failures, it’s remarkable that anyone is still extolling the virtues of Communism. Indeed, Russia and China have largely abandoned their Marxist-Leninist roots, often out of sheer necessity, but stubborn holdouts like Cuba and North Korea hold on, often surviving on handouts from wealthier countries, or just through pure authoritarian terror.

To hijack a phrase from Winston Churchill; “Capitalism is the worst system on earth… except for all the others.”

A word about car dealers

After many years of dealing with car dealers, I have learned a few things.  One of the most useful tools are online reviews.  Every dealer has both good and bad reviews, but the pattern emerges after reading just a few.  Whether the management puts service first or profits first, it’s fairly apparent after reading what people say after dealing with them.

It seems to make little difference whether the car-maker is domestic or import, however some of the dealers who have gone out of business with major brands often appear with a lesser import brand.  For years, some of the big dealerships built their empires on skinning every customer as much as they can, and then damning the torpedoes afterwards.  It may have paid to be an honest dealer, but it paid more to be a dishonest one.

I am quite hopeful that this may no longer be the case.  The proliferation of online ratings and reviews are creating a new type of business transparency.  As more and more buyers are becoming internet-savvy, it’s more and more important to establish a good track-record of customer satisfaction.  I encourage everyone to do a bit of online research beforehand.


Carl Jung said: “The foundation of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering.

I am sure many psychologists would be quick to  disagree, and point to many studies which suggest genetic causes for depression. I wouldn’t rule that out, but my understanding of genetics tells me that genetic defects are relatively rare, and can’t account fully for the large numbers of people diagnosed with depression.

Many have descried the over-medication of our society and a needless and sometimes dangerous dependence on psychotropic drugs.  Are they really helping, or merely prolonging the suffering?

Of course, once a dependency on such drugs has been established, it might be dangerous to discontinue, therefore being critical of the prescription of antidepressants can seem like a dangerous opinion, in that people could be harmed if denied access to such drugs. That may be true, but possibly the error was in going the chemical route in the first place.

It may seem quaint, but there is an old saying that has kept me out of serious depression for almost my entire life: “Change what you can’t accept, and accept what you can’t change.”  Dealing with the pain, instead of running away from it, seems the right thing to do, and for me it has always worked.  Pain is a teacher, therefore the best way to overcome pain is to learn it’s lessons.

The ZRA Factor

ZRA or Zero Risk Assessment is the practice of assuming risk without attempting to do much actual assessment of risks.  It can be embodied by the old saying: “Better safe then sorry.

Sounds reasonable, right?  I would agree that it’s a reasonable approach when the stakes are high, and the ability to assess the risks are lacking.  But most risks can be assessed, at least to the level where a reasonable level of safety can be achieved.

A few years ago, a mayor of a town on one of the Great Lakes sought to prevent the Coast Guard from having live-fire exercises on the water, as they had been doing for decades.  The argument was that the bullets would contaminate the lake with lead. From a scientific aspect, such a statement is complete nonsense. The amount of lead it would add to the lake water is unmeasurable above natural levels by any method, and certainly far below any margins of safety.  Not that lead in a lake is good, but the actual risk level to residents would never outweigh the value to the Coast Guard of conducting the exercises.

Industries are slowly coming around from Statute-based (ZRA) safety programs to more risk-based safety programs.  The evidence strongly shows that actually doing hazard assessments produces far safer results than simply piling on thousands of rules in hopes of somehow covering all possible hazards.

Perhaps the best classic example of the wrongheaded ZRA approach was the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.  In the Soviet Union at that time, there were no shortage of rules; in fact, work, and life itself would have been virtually impossible if all the myriad of existing rules were obeyed, much less being able to know them all.  The result was that people were used to ignoring rules, because it was the only way to get anything done.

Similarly today, some companies have large, complicated lists of rules, and others have much fewer rules, but practice risk assessments before attempting any potentially hazardous task.  It should come as no surprise that companies which practice risk assessment have much lower accident rates.

On a person level, we can save ourselves a good deal of anxiety by attempting to assess the risks in our own lives.  Those who fear flying can take some comfort in the fact that a flight in a commercial airliner is about 200 times safer (statistically) than the trip to the airport by car.

At the end of the 19th century, mortality rates were very high, and one of the reasons was a lack of refrigerated food.  When electric refrigerators were introduced, there was widespread fear and rejection of the new technology.  People chose instead to use blocks of ice from the lakes and rivers, which were indeed the sewers of the time.  Much more disease was caused this way than from the new-fangled electric refrigerators, which were rumored to cause men to go sterile and food to go bad elsewhere in the house.

We live in interesting times; cellphone radiation, GMO foods, fluoridated drinking water, organic foods… Who is really qualified to assess the risks?  A mother who would to a doctor with a sniffling child, to have him prescribe loads of chemicals, might also pay 25% more for organic beef which has been raised without any antibiotics at all. Does this not seem a contradiction?  We don’t have to be scientists to apply a bit of skepticism to the stories which feed our fears.