Not Disappointing This Time

Published at 14:45 on 11 May 2024

Most of the time there is a geomagnetic storm forecast it either fails to materialize, it is cloudy, or I can’t get away from the urban light pollution. Not this time.

It was so bright I didn’t need my headlamp to find my way back to camp even though it was past midnight on a moonless night.

A Significant Announcement

Published at 08:23 on 9 May 2024

The latest announcement from the Biden Administration is significant. That it is also weak sauce compared to the sort of announcement one might expect in the wake of genocidal conduct by most other nations does not refute the former point. Because, of course, Israel is not most other nations. Israel is a nation that has had a uniquely tight relationship with the USA for the last seven decades. Changing such a long-standing policy is like changing the course of a supertanker: it does not happen overnight. Despite the slow pace of the change, Israel’s self-inflicted reputational damage is starting to take its toll.

Fascists on the Supreme Court

Published at 07:51 on 5 May 2024

We are about to find out how many right-leaning justices are fascists and how many are just plain old conservatives. (I am reasonably sure we will find at least one fascist.)

Because really, there is simply nothing in American conservatism (conservatism, not fascism) compatible with deciding that a president should have basically unlimited power with no accountability under the law. Conservatism is all about conserving existing laws and institutions, such as a Constitution, a presidency with limited powers, and an independent judiciary.

A president with unlimited powers is a president whose will is above all written law. That is the Führerprinzip, a key aspect of fascist ideology.

And if there are enough fascists to sway the decision in favour of Trump, it will be game over for US democracy. Oh, formal elections and respect for their results may linger a while after the decision, but they won’t last long. All it will take is one fascist victory in the polls and it will become obvious to all that the corpse had been dead for some time, and it is only then starting to stink.

Responding to Crimethinc

Published at 14:26 on 3 May 2024

The anarchist site Crimethinc recently put out an analysis of what is going on with the campus demonstrations. Like most things from the anarchist subculture, it is a mix of spot-on analysis and inward-facing mindset.

After students began occupying Columbia in solidarity with Palestinians, student occupations and encampments spread like wildfire, occupying over one hundred universities around the world. Well over two thousand students have been arrested. Each day has seen new occupations and new tactics. Again and again, police repression has outraged students, professors, and community members, drawing larger numbers to more and more militant demonstrations. The movement for Palestinian liberation is growing by leaps and bounds in the United States as a consequence of the bravery of demonstrators and blockaders over the past six months—most recently, thanks to occupiers who have been willing to risk arrest, police brutality, defamation, doxxing, and expulsion.

This probably overplays the role of the demonstrations. The main thing that has instilled growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause in the USA is simply the facts on the ground in Gaza. Lots of news stories now paint Israel in a very bad light, and justifiably so. That sparked expressions of dissent with the US Empire’s policy, those expressions caused increased awareness of the issue, and the increased awareness caused more expressions. So yes, the demos did play a part, but initial spark was simply coverage in the media.

On the latter, one critical aspect is the growing relevance of social media. This has allowed the domestic gatekeepers of information, normally squarely behind the agenda of a US superpower empire, to get bypassed. Social media is a two-edged sword: it allows a lot of baseless garbage to get elevated to prominence, but it also allows valid information (that would have otherwise been suppressed to a significant degree) to get elevated.

Another is simply the level of badness here. Israel almost always retaliates disproportionately, but this time the proximate cause of the retaliation was abnormally bloodthirsty, which made for an abnormally bloodthirsty retaliation. This has at times tended to overwhelm even Israel-biased sources with its severity.

The demonstrations are now probably getting to the point where many are net counterproductive. Gratuitous vandalism, no matter how justified the rage that motivates it, turns Middle America off. A protest movement that does better policing of its own is needed. That is unlikely, however, given the inward-looking nature of much of the activist left, where espousing or defending the most extreme rhetoric and actions is a way of gaining in-group status.

Such it has long been. Struggles get waged using the activists that actually exist, not the activists that one might wish existed.

The basic demand to see Palestinians as human beings is incompatible with the agendas of the United States government and universities.

The US needs Israel as a strategic partner to maintain a foothold in the Middle East; universities rely on funding from and research relationships with the military, arms manufacturers, and Zionists. It is impossible to acknowledge that Palestinians are entitled to the universal human rights that form the basis of the US empire’s claim to moral legitimacy while continuing to supply the weaponry, funding, and diplomatic cover necessary for the Israeli military to continue killing civilians and destroying their homes. These protests reveal deep-seated contradictions between discourse and practice that the government, corporate media platforms, and universities are determined to conceal.

This is the crux of the matter.

There has been much rhetoric about an “existential crisis” by Israel’s supporters since the attacks of October 7th. This is false rhetoric. The attacks, awful though they were, did not constitute an existential crisis for Israel. The latter has a nuclear arsenal and the most powerful military in the region. The continued existence of Israel is not in doubt. Rather, it is Palestine that is experiencing the existential crisis (and has been for approximately 75 years and counting). But I digress.

There is another existential crisis here, one posed by the demands of those dissenting from US policy with respect to Israel: an existential crisis of the US empire. Not the US itself, but the US as the overseer of a global empire. In order to run an empire, one has to be brutal at times. An empire whose citizenry is strongly concerned about its subject peoples cannot long remain an empire.

A successful empire must either be an authoritarian dictatorship or have a citizenry that is uninterested in (or downright hostile to) the well-being of its subject peoples. A successful empire must value order and obedience, and find dissent threatening. A successful democratic empire must have a populace that values order and obedience, and finds dissent threatening.

The latter could end up being a truly complicating factor for those of us sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. If a majority of Americans simply don’t care very much about the Palestinians, and don’t want to ever care, then any movement to change this is doomed. The protestors will just be seen as the loony left, whose eccentricities place them outside the bounds of politically acceptable thought. It won’t matter how good a job the movement does in policing its rhetoric; there simply is not enough public support for the policy changes it advocates.

One of the many evils of empires is that they tend to morally corrode themselves from within. I have written recently of how the protest might damage Biden’s chances of winning a second term and therefore put Trump in office. If this happens, a transition to a significantly more authoritarian form of government is likely in the USA.

If that happens, expect the so-called “responsible” left to chide empire’s critics for destroying democracy via their intransigence. They will actually have a point from the standpoint of the proximate cause, but the root cause is that the USA’s status as an empire had by this stage so corroded its morals that it had reached the point where its liberal democracy status became fundamentally incompatible with its empire status. As such, a transition to a more compatible authoritarian order then occurred.

Things have, in fact, been trending this way for some time. It was one reason why George W. Bush’s war of choice, backed by lies, against Iraq, upset me so much, and the lack of any real accountability for it upset me even more: it indicated a very high level of moral decay that was incompatible with the USA’s status as a functioning political democracy with basic human rights.

Accusations of anti-Semitism are cynical lies coming from administrators and politicians who have already showed that they could not care less about protecting students from actual white nationalists.

The same university administrators who used “free speech” as an excuse to vilify and arrest students for protesting against white nationalists speaking on campus are now attacking and brutalizing anti-Zionist Jewish and Palestinian protestors in the name of protecting Jewish students from anti-Semitism. Free speech and student safety are both false pretenses: the truth is that university administrations and police will seek to destroy any force that actively challenges their power. This explains the previously unthinkable alliance between Republicans who refuse to disavow white nationalists in their own party, Democrats who champion genocide in the name of resisting anti-Semitism, and university administrators.

I was going to come out with examples of antisemitism at pro-Palestine rallies… but I couldn’t find any good ones. Not of actual, overt, all-Jews-are-evil antisemitism. There’s plenty of anti-Israel rhetoric to be found, but that’s only to be expected at rallies against what the State of Israel is currently doing. I even went to pro-Zionist sources like the StopAntisemitism twitter account and the Times of Israel and couldn’t come up with any truly juicy examples. That strongly suggests there basically aren’t any. Propaganda can be true, and truthful propaganda is in fact typically the most effective propaganda. Yet even those with a personal motive in finding dirt on the protest movement can’t seem to find any truly nasty anti-Semitic dirt on it.

Yes, some protest rhetoric can be teased into anti-Semitism, such as implying that Israel ought not to exist while Palestine ought to (why? is one side less human and thus less deserving of national aspirations?).

I myself avoid such rhetoric. But I also find it not that impressive as a demonstration of anti-Semitism. If anti-Semitism is the actual motive behind the protests, wouldn’t actual overt anti-Jewish rhetoric be easier to find? A far better explanation for it is simply people repeating slogans without stopping to think of the implications behind them. That’s evidence for mindless sloganeering, not evidence for anti-Semitism (and mindless sloganeering exists in every political cause).

Politicians are terrified of the protests, but they are even more terrified by the prospect that the protests could continue past the end of the school year, spilling over the bounds of the campus and into a long, hot, summer.

It is the responsibility of anyone trying to stop this genocide to ensure that their nightmare becomes a reality. And it could: the the [sic] George Floyd Uprising is still alive in the memories of the millions of people who participated.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Support for Black Lives Matter declined as the protests wore on and continues to gradually decline over time.

I’d love for radical politics to become more popular in the USA (to the point where it becomes the norm), but I’ll believe it when I see it. And I’m reasonably sure that things like gratuitous vandalism do more to turn Middle America away from the cause than towards it (and if radical politics are to become the norm, we must recruit from the ranks of Middle America).

More on the Campus Protests

Published at 10:26 on 2 May 2024

I mean, really now, what did they expect to happen on campuses?

  1. Israel takes it to the Nth level with disproportionate retaliation, rising to levels that many consider genocidal (of which ample evidence now exists).
  2. The iron triangle that is the US/Israel alliance remains basically unquestioned. Ukraine may struggle for military aid, but never Israel.
  3. The taboo against criticizing Israel does suffer some damage.
  4. But only some. Campus demonstrations against what Israel is doing are still repressed harshly.

Per the latter, choose to escalate, and the other side then also chooses escalation. Surprise, surprise. Encampments become building occupations.

And no, this is not a defence of everything that has been done by the protestors. There has been actual anti-Semitic rhetoric. There have been pro-Hamas statements. There has been gratuitous vandalism of campus property. Such things are bad.

But keep some perspective here. A building at Columbia University is not as important as the US Capitol. While the last election was not stolen from Trump, Gaza is actually suffering. Outrage against a relatively unimportant target, one that does not threaten the basic nature of an open, democratic society, motivated by an actual grievance, is rather different from wanting to kill the Vice-President and create a fascist state because of an imagined grievance.

Much is starting to be said about the harm the demonstrations do. And they do harm Biden. Biden now has the black mark of domestic unrest against him, and such black marks count in the calculus of whether or not a president will be reelected.

Per the latter, the only real question is whether or not the unrest will become “sustained.” My money is on no. The reason is the venue and timing: on university campuses, in late spring. Classes are about to let out. That will let the air out of the protests. Moreover, it looks like a deal between Israel and Hamas might be in the works. If such a deal is cut, the conflict will de-escalate, and be a distant memory by Election Day, since (like it or not) most Americans don’t give a shit about foreign policy and couldn’t even point to Israel/Palestine on a map, even if their lives depended on it.

What’s being overlooked is the good the protests accomplish. What’s being done in Gaza is pretty serious, and it is being done in no small part with US tax dollars. People should be upset! There should be unrest! That there is, is a sign of a healthier society than one that would passively accept such atrocities.

Practically, the unrest, plus the principle that unrest harms an incumbent, helps butter Biden’s toast on the side of pushing Israel to cut a deal with Hamas to end the immediate hostilities. Absent such a thing, there would only be the Establishment politics maxim of “thou shalt never criticize Israel or deviate from supporting Israel 100%” at play.

Take That, iPhone!

Published at 15:01 on 11 April 2024

After a recent update, my iPhone started letting me control my headphone volume from threshold of pain loud to insane instant deafness loud. I guess some aging hipster who ruined his hearing going to too many rock concerts without hearing protection got appointed to a QC position at Apple.

Based on what I had read about human sound perception, I guessed I needed about 6 dB of attenuation to tame the thing. A simple matter of adding four resistors to the picture (two for each channel, one in series to cut the voltage in half, and another in parallel to restore the impedance the audio amplifier sees to what used to be pre-attenuator).

The worst part about it was all the fiddly soldering (those connectors have some tiny terminals). But it works, and 6 dB was indeed the correct amount of attenuation needed to restore sanity to the device.

Spreadsheets Suck, Here’s Why

Published at 23:31 on 2 April 2024

It’s the math.

Specifically, they all (at least all the leading ones: Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, and Libre Office Calc) use floating point numbers and arithmetic.

Fractional radix digits are only capable of accurately representing numbers whose prime factors contain only factors of the radix. For the sort of base 10 numbers we are familiar with, this means that any fraction whose denominator can be represented as a product of 2’s and 5’s can be represented. As an example, 8 factors to 2³, so eighths can be represented with complete accuracy as decimal fractions. It takes three digits, of course, because 10³ (2³ ✕ 5³) is the lowest power of 10 that is an even multiple of 8, but you can do it. And really, three digits isn’t that bad.

If you use a denominator that cannot so be represented, then you get an infinitely-long repeating fractional part. The canonical example of this is ⅓ turning into 0.3333333….

But computers use base 2, not base 10, and this creates a problem. 2 is itself prime, so fractional radix digits in binary notation can only represent denominators that are powers of 2 accurately, and nothing else. Everything else turns into a number with an infinitely-long repeating fractional part.

This is a big problem, because one of the most common uses of spreadsheets is financial calculations, and floating point number can only represent monetary amounts as small as 25 cents accurately. If a financial quantity does not end in .00, .25, .50, or .75, your spreadsheet is representing it wrong! Only slightly wrong, of course, but still wrong. And if you are adding and subtracting enough numbers together, eventually the result will be wrong by a penny or two.

It is for this reasons that banks use decimal arithmetic, not a processor’s built-in floating point arithmetic, for their financial calculations. They don’t want their customers’ balances to drift from reality by a few pennies per year. Banks have done this since just about forever. COBOL, one of the oldest high-level programming languages out there, and designed for business computing, uses decimal arithmetic by default, and this is why.

The rationale for spreadsheets not doing likewise is for “performance” reasons, but frankly, that is a load of horse hockey. Yes, built-in floating point calculations are faster. But the performance hit from using decimal arithmetic is far from a deal-killer. COBOL dates from around 1960, when computers had only a tiny fraction of the computing power they do today, yet COBOL programs ran just fine way back then, and cranked out accurate results without gratuitous rounding errors. (Plus, your average spreadsheet is a lot smaller than your average batch of bank transactions to process.)

I was going to make more use of spreadsheets in figuring my income taxes this year, but after learning the above I am mostly sticking with good old dc, which uses decimal arithmetic. (Actually, it uses base 100, but when it comes to avoiding rounding errors, base 100 works identically to base 10, since the latter is a power of the former.)

The US/Israel Relationship May Change Soon

Published at 10:22 on 16 March 2024

In other words, it may change from unqualified support to conditional support. (It will not change any more, at least not at first. Sorry. This is like turning a large ship; big changes in course happen slowly.)

Israel is pressing ahead with plans for an offensive in Rafah, despite being warned not to, and despite criticism from previously uncritical figures in the USA.

Why do something that is likely to be a blunder, even when viewed in purely self-interested terms? What I call cognitive shorthand. In planning the next day’s activities, one does not spend much time pondering if the sun will rise and set, and when it is likely to. It is taken as a given that this will happen, and at almost exactly the same times it did today. Mental energy is to be spent pondering the variables that are actually variables, and taking the constants as givens.

For the entire time that I have had any degree of political awareness, since approximately my early teen years, the USA has supported Israel no matter what. It has been taken as virtually mandatory that all officeholders profess their unwavering support for Israel.

This has always struck me as odd, given that also for the entire time I have been aware of politics, Israel has been colonizing land seized in warfare, in contravention of international law. That almost never got criticized by any US figure with any degree of political power, and if any such individual did make the criticism, it was usually very weak and qualified, and there was almost always blowback for making the criticism. The blowback often ended in apology and a proclamation of unwavering support for Israel. Departures from this norm were taken as departures from respectable, mainstream politics.

Given that level of decades-long support, it was natural for Israelis to engage in cognitive shorthand, and take it as a given. And for decades, this worked perfectly. Israel would do whatever it wanted, and the USA would publicly back Israel. If you are a small country, it is great to have that sort of power, particularly if you have larger, hostile neighbours.

Old habits can die hard, and it seems that the Netanyahu regime is failing to revisit its cognitive shorthand, despite all the recent evidence that some assumed constants have now become variables. Maybe they are focusing on the weakness in Schumer’s latest speech, instead of the more significant fact that he made the speech at all.

It won’t be the first time a regime’s hubris ends up costing it, and it won’t be the last time, either.

Israel’s Self-Inflicted Decline Seems to Be Accelerating

Published at 17:19 on 14 March 2024

This is actually quite significant. Congress’ most powerful Jew, and one of Israel’s staunchest allies there, is issuing criticism of Israel far harsher than anything he has done so far in his entire (and lengthy) political career.

One could focus on how far it falls short, and I am certain most Left sources will. Yes, his proposal that Netanyahu step aside once the war is over is both weak sauce and incredibly naïve; it merely puts Netanyahu on notice that he can remain in power so long as he prolongs the war. It is pretty obvious what that will accomplish in the short term.

But it doesn’t matter so much. What is important is that a politician who never previously let any daylight show between his public stance and Israeli state policy now feels free to criticize Israel and Israeli imperialism.

The reputational decline of which I wrote earlier is, in fact, accelerating more rapidly than I thought it would. Criticize Schumer for making a baby step if you wish (I just did above), but realize it is a larger baby step, and it happened sooner, than many would have thought possible.

Either Netanyahu’s days are far more numbered than many think, or the days of the US-Israel alliance are far more numbered than many think, or perhaps both. Which it is, is largely up to an Israeli public that increasingly leans right.

If they choose to follow apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia into the wilderness of international isolation, Israel will end up like those two apartheid regimes did. If money talks, and they want to remain part of the Western world, with Western affluence, for the Palestinians it doesn’t matter so much that it was done grudgingly and for self-interested reasons instead of enthusiastically and altruistically. Progress is progress.

Yes, significant progress on the Palestine issue may be likely, and far sooner than many think.

Update: Yet more evidence emerged today of the damage Israel is inflicting upon itself.