This wall is closing

My name is Martin Haywood. I’ve been writing this blog for around a decade, even though the earliest post dates don’t reflect that. When I started the pages were static and only people far more tied up in the internet than I then was actually knew what a “blog” was. But I could write HTML, why did I need to get one of these newfangled content management systems? I’d write my thoughts freeform as the markup language intended! And so I did, but it was tiresome, so I taught myself to program PHP so I could write a CMS for my own use. Then I taught myself more PHP so I could write a real, modular, powerful CMS. And it wasn’t very powerful but it got the job done. It was something, though, it was a pain in the arse to maintain. So eventually I gave up and just pulled in wordpress – the easy option I’d been too stubborn to follow before then. I’d also signed up on Newsvine, and I was doing a lot of crossposting between newsvine and this blog – primarily newsvine was my online presence but I wanted to keep something that I controlled which held all my thoughts. I’m glad I did because NV succumbed eventually to the trolls and I left. Not before making a lot of friends and greatly improving my writing, though. And eventually going back to Uni and doing a philosophy degree to add to my science degree. By now I was working as a programmer, again.

Several of the people I met through newsvine had become really close friends, particularly Celestina. My wife and I invited Celestina and her husband to come visit us in Tasmania, and soon we had travelled back and forth between there and Asheville, NC, eventually deciding to all go into business (web programming) in Asheville. Which is how Ponderwell was born; a terribly productive and happy time in my life but one which sadly curtailed my time for writing on here.

Well, that came to an end with my diagnosis with Pancreatic cancer (late May 2012). There are a series of group emails out there somewhere which loosely document my struggles with that disease, and after some time has passed I might prevail on Celestina to concatenate them and post them here, just for completeness. I know when I was first reading about the disease there were things I’d like to have known which I’ve mentioned in those emails. Perhaps in a year? 6 months? enough for everyone close to me to have forgotten the process – I don’t want their posting to remind people who would rather forget.

Thank you, readers.

My online presence is approximately: (collected bits of stuff from around the web)
Google+ under Martin Haywood.

And I guess that’s about it.

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The middle east is perhaps not about to go all to hell


New developments Sept 24, 2012 — See at end of story

Israel is about to do something really stupid, counting on being able to push Obama around before the elections. And they’re probably right, Obama will probably allow Israeli aircraft to traverse Iraqi airspace on their way to Iran. Who will, in their turn, retaliate with missiles. Israel will achieve nothing as far as preventing Iran getting a bomb any sooner, the centrifuges are a hard target. The good news is it doesn’t matter, because Iran is 5-10 years away from a bomb in any case. But the bad news is that Iran will fire missiles back at Israel who will then call on the US to deal with that problem.

What do you think the US electorate will make of all that? They’ll demand that Obama counterattack the missile silos, and I presume he will. Now Israel is getting what it wants, the chance to attack Iran freely, with no worry of civilian Iranian casualties (there will be lots, as they search for missile silos, many of which (I’m sure) are in built up areas. Lots of drones and cruise missiles. Lots more casualties. More discontent and uprisings throughout the Arab world. Israel is less safe, Iran suffers, the world is a harsher place and nothing good comes of it all.

That’s why the US has stationed 3 carrier groups in the Strait of Hormuz. They want to close down the possibility of Iranian air power reaching Israel and also protect shipping in the strait. I presume it’s necessary to scout missile silos before they fire – nothing left to attack once the missiles are launched.


Looks as if things have calmed down some. Ahmadinejad is saying “Fundamentally, we don’t take seriously the threats of the Zionists,” Iran’s leader said Monday at a breakfast with journalists, referring to the state of Israel. “If such an attack were to happen, all equations in the region would see a deep change.” and meanwhile Obama appeared to be telling Netanyahu to back off “When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I’m going to block out any noise that’s out there.” He also refused to meet him in New York.

I’m going out on a limb here but this is what I think has happened. Obama made a strong response to Israel’s overtures about an attack, saying that he’d not only deny Israel the use of US controlled airspace to reach Iran but that he’d put enough planes in the sky to make sure that denial was effective. Three carrier groups would do that. Israel wouldn’t easily mount a successful attack on hardened targets without US help, and with US hindrance it could be a calamity. What’s more Obama must have made Israel believe that he’d carry out a threat of shooting down any Israeli jet which didn’t turn back. For all his bluster that put Israel in a difficult position. Iran gets to indulge in a bit of its own bluster (I’ve heard some more of “Israel isn’t long for this region, it will be eliminated” from Ahmandinejad in the last day or two) but is also unable to make any real headway out of the situation.

So Obama prevents an October surprise. He probably didn’t have to use any real political capital to do so. I imagine he would have promised Iran a genuine airstrike strike should there be any real evidence of a missile mountable nuclear warhead in Iran’s possession, either acquired or manufactured, or even refinement of enough fissionable material to make such a warhead. I imagine this was on the table before and also after all this blew up, because it’s in US interest to mount such a strike if it thinks it can succeed. Someone like Obama has an advantage that a Romney does not, he can make a promise that is considered serious, founded on national interest and inviolable by political maneuverings.

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Missile Shield to be constructed against Iran

This is going to make tensions extremely high. I hope it gets past that to the point where it calms down Israel, but for the moment it’s going to look to Iran like an extremely aggressive move, since they’ll see it as “You’ve taken away our threat of retaliation against attack and therefore made us vulnerable to attack.”

And even worse if Israel doesn’t calm down (seriously, Israel has a hawk problem) and starts using the shield as a way to threaten bombing nuclear facilities with impunity. Or if the US (also has a hawk problem) does the same.

No one – no one in this whole conflict – wants Iran to think it has to pursue asymmetric means, putting weapons or even (not bombs since they can’t do that technologically for many years and they’re too expensive, but) dirty bombs in the hands of unhinged and uncontrollable fringe groups? The thought is too horrible to contemplate.

Best possible outcome? The gulf allies and Israel feel safer because of the shield and the cooperation needed to bring it about. Iran somehow doesn’t do anything stupid. I really really hope so, but…


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Curiosity Lands on Mars

One of the first pictures beamed back.
Humans sent a thing weighing just under a tonne all the way to Mars, where it landed in the most insanely clever way, entirely computer controlled, and then sent back pictures all the way from the other side of the sun, relayed by the Odyssey satellite so the signals could reach us, to where we could flash them up on a billboard in Times Square. The rover has a 7 month mission, is nuclear powered, and includes a laser gun which can zap rocks to get a spectrogram of the gases released, as well as nine other science instruments.

From Twitter:

Today I saw a man with no legs run in the Olympics and a robot from Earth land on Mars. Holy freaking hell – science is awesome.

As for me, today I am proud to be a member of the species “Homo sapiens”.

Artist’s impression of the rover.

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Egg Tempera and the Yolngu

Donald Thompson
In the early 1930s an Australian anthropologist, Donald Thompson, travelled to Arnhem Land in northern Australia and made friends with the indigenous Yolngu people. He averted a likely massacre of Yolngu people by white Australians and freed three Yolngu from prison. When he went on to study and document Yolngu customs and rituals and was given absolutely unprecedented access because of his service to the Yolngu and because of what he could teach them about the ways of white Australia. He had formed a very close friendship with a member of one clan who then accompanied him when staying for several years with another Yolngu clan. But this presented a problem for his friend. The information being shared with Thompson was of such huge value that by sharing in it he was putting his own clan into debt to the other clan such that it would take generations to repay.

I bring this up because I was thinking about egg tempera, taking egg yolk off the plate my son had been eating from. That’s a pretty good invention, although you can see how someone thought of it. The yolk forms a binding medium to which powdered pigments are added. It’s been used since egyptian times, sometimes with honey or milk rather than yolk. But if you were to develop and perfect that relatively simple technique it would take a lifetime. The knowledge would have to be treasured and passed on, or it would be lost.

Which is exactly what happened, as the example of the Yolngu demonstrates. Humans used to treasure knowledge and pass it on carefully from generation to generation. Nor were religion and knowledge separate. The cultural treasure of a people was every skill, every legend and myth. The gods were a small part of this but woven throughout it. How to make just the right tempera mixture when the eggs are too fatty. What it means to say “full up to dolly’s wax”. My grandmother was born in 1902 and she had a saying for every situation, and little fragments of stories. She remembered everything through these and I think that was common for the time.

This enormous treasure, a quilt of changing hues as you move from one valley and one clan to the next, this is all being lost to a faster age and a way of understanding the world which is more rigid, in some ways more powerful, but less deep. I don’t think there’s anything we can do about that except perhaps to document where we can and at least mourn, at least have a wistful moment, for its passing.

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When profit rules health

from Lapham’s Quarterly

Americans in 2007 paid $7,421 per capita for healthcare as opposed to $2,840 paid by the Finns and $3,328 by the Swedes, but life expectancy in the United States is not as long as it is in thirty other countries, among them Finland and Sweden; the first-year infant-mortality rate in the United States is higher than it is in some forty other countries, among them Slovenia and Singapore. A newborn child stands a better chance of survival in Minsk and Havana than it does in New York or Washington.

The money allocated to healthcare in most other developed countries (in Canada and France as well as in Germany and Japan) provides medical insurance for the entire citizenry. Not in America; 46 million citizens (15 percent of the population) are uninsured. Patients with sufficient funds can buy a brain implant or a bionic eye, but an estimated 22,000 people died in 2006 for lack of insurance; 59 million other people reported their inability to receive needed medical attention.

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World leaders ditch “Sustainability” for “Sustained Growth”

George Monbiot on the Rio Summit.

Meanwhile the BBC rounds it up like this:

Environment and development charities say the Rio+20 agreement is too weak to tackle social and environmental crises.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, author of a major UN sustainable development report 25 years ago, said corporate power was one reason for lack of progress.

Nations will spend three years drawing up sustainable development goals.

They will also work towards better protection for marine life on the high seas.

But moves to eliminate subsidies on fossil fuels – recommended in a number of authoritative reports as likely to boost economies and curb CO2 emissions – came to naught.

Plans to enshrine the right of poor people to have clean water, adequate food and modern forms of energy also foundered or were seriously weakened during the six days of preparatory talks.

And many governments were bitter that text enshrining women’s reproductive rights was removed from the declaration over opposition from the Vatican backed by Russia and nations from the Middle East and Latin America.

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What the fuck has happened to the media?

It’s all about ratings. Fox has shown that you get more viewers if you shovel people back a half digested version of their own prejudices and bigotries, leavened with pique and outrage. We don’t care about facts or government, we just want someone to hate, right?

But surely we want to know what the weather is going to be like? Apparently not.

In the UK, the Daily Mail, the Express, and the Telegraph get their weather from a service called “Positive Weather Solutions”. The pictures of whose forecasters come from Russian mail order bride catalogs and other sources of tits on the internet.

Not only are the forecasters not real, their forecasts aren’t either – predicting winter lasting until June and also 79F in Scotland’s spring heatwave. And lying about last week’s forecast to make it seem that they’d been right all along.

But it’s much more interesting than the truth, and that’s what counts, in la la land.

via: George Monbiot at the Guardian.

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The human ant-hill is stupid

Think about this: most cooperative organisms are made of component organisms which have very simple behaviors, and thus the group being is generally more capable. More capable of interacting with the world in a flexible and subtle way. Smarter.

Take for example an ant-hill or a beehive. Simple individual behavior, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s *why* ant or bees get a survival advantage by being mainly non-reproductive worker drones.

With humans this was almost certainly the case when we lived in small groups. The medicine man, the warriors, the old women, the gatherers. The breakdown of work and transmission of knowledge made the clan super capable. But modern, large scale societies are built to ignore individual wisdom. They take advantage of division of labor in a really sophisticated way. I spend my time in a terribly narrow field and that gives my society an advantage. But overall direction of movement, so to speak – long term planning and goals – these arise largely to maintain social cohesion. They’re built on motivations like greed and pride. They’re also subverted by small sections of the group to the benefit of some and the detriment of all. So humans on a big scale are stupid.

We have to do something about this, it’s getting urgent.

(also reference this, for another perspective on the same problem.)

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Making the pie better not bigger

Making Light has some good thoughts about resource security, abundance, and growth.

Substituting non-acquisitive goals for acquisitive ones is difficult but not impossible. Our society already does that, whether people are collecting photos of themselves in exotic locations or status in whatever communities matter to them most. Measuring wealth in whuffies makes deep sense. After all, aside from fetishists like Scrooge McDuck, who really wants to swim in gold coins and light cigars with $100 bills for the pure aesthetic pleasure of it? People do these things to be seen to be doing them. Beyond a certain level of necessity9, money is mostly a counter of monkey-status.

More difficult is the other engine of growth and acquisition I’ve been running into: security. It’s difficult to pass up usable resources, even if I already have a good store of them, because I know I will run out eventually. But it’s easier to walk by this vein of coal if I can trust that I’ll be able to find another one to dig out when I need it. Minecraft’s abundance is consistent and reliable. Sadly, though, the real world contains unfed hunger and unmet need. There is always competition for resources, and real penalties for failure. There are visible losers in the race for everything necessary and useful to human life, from clean air up.

Growth is the promise of future plenty, and thus a mental escape hatch from zero-sum thinking. Make the pie bigger is the standard communitarian, non-competitive advice to someone trying to take a bigger slice of a limited resource. I don’t encounter competition for resources on my solitary server, but shared servers address the matter the way that the United States did in the 1800′s: geographic expansion. Players range further from the spawn point to find unexploited territory. Again, they tap into the unlimited abundance of the virtual world.

This is our immediate and pressing challenge as a species, and the off-worldsmen, to coin a phrase, need to get real: until we solve this nothing else really matters, long term.

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Failure to Yield: GMO does not work.

Meanwhile, the report found that Bt corn likely provides a marginal operational yield advantage of 3 to 4 percent over typical conventional practices. Since Bt corn became commercially available in 1996, its yield advantage averages out to a 0.2 to 0.3 percent yield increase per year. To put that figure in context, overall U.S. corn yields over the last several decades have annually averaged an increase of approximately one percent, which is considerably more than what Bt traits have provided.

In addition to evaluating genetic engineering’s record, Failure to Yield considers the technology’s potential role in increasing food production over the next few decades. The report does not discount the possibility of genetic engineering eventually contributing to increase crop yields. It does, however, suggest that it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries. In addition, recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as Sub-Saharan Africa

–”Failure to Yield” report by USC’s Gurian-Sherman

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Santorum’s war on porn

 Santorum avers that “America is suffering a pandemic of harm from pornography.” He pledges to use the resources of the Department of Justice to fight that “pandemic,” by bringing obscenity prosecutions against pornographers.

I would note that this is very different from what the Bush Administration did. The Bush DOJ did establish an Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in 2005, but this body focused on bringing prosecutions against small-time producers who made porn with extreme content. (Even so, it faced significant pushback from U.S. Attorneys, some of whom viewed such prosecutions as a distraction and a misuse of resources.) Many social conservative groups were disappointed with the task force, contending that more mainstream hardcore porn violates obscenity laws, and they urged the Bush Administration to bring obscenity cases against major producers.

Santorum promises that he would do exactly this. His statement references going after pornography that is distributed not just on the Internet, but also “on cable/satellite TV, on hotel/motel TV.”

via Forbes

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Germany’s solar power helps out France’s ailing nuclear generators

“Because France has so much nuclear power, the country has an inordinate number of electric heating systems. And because France has not added on enough additional capacity over the past decade, the country’s current nuclear plants are starting to have trouble meeting demand, especially when it gets very cold in the winter,” Craig Morris of Renewables International writes.

And, with relatively sunny skies above, guess who’s coming to the rescue—good old solar power from Germany.

“As a result, power exports from Germany to France reached 4 to 5 gigawatts – the equivalent of around four nuclear power plants – last Friday morning according to German journalist Bernward Janzing. It was not exactly a time of low consumption in Germany either at 70 gigawatts around noon on Friday, but Janzing nonetheless reports that the grid operators said everything was under control, and the country’s emergency reserves were not being tapped. On the contrary, he reports that a spokesperson for transit grid operator Amprion told him that ‘photovoltaics in southern Germany is currently helping us a lot.’”


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