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Archive for February, 2017

Life Everywhere

Only 39 light-years away, astronomers have found seven planets circling a very small “red dwarf” star called Trappist-1. All seven are in or near what we call the “Goldilocks zone”: not too hot, not too cold, but just right for water to remain liquid on the planet. So we all speculate once again, but a little more bravely this time, about whether some of these planets might be home to life.

Not only are three of Trappist-1’s planets dead centre in the Goldilocks zone; the other four are on the fringes of the habitable zone. And they are all big enough – from half Earth’s size to slightly bigger than our home planet – to retain an atmosphere for billions of years.

That’s long enough for life to evolve on one or more of them. It’s probably even long enough for complex life forms to evolve there, as it did on Earth.

If an intelligent life form evolved on even one of these planets, it could have colonised all seven: they are very close together. The journey would be not much more demanding than a trip from the Earth to the Moon.

So think about that: a seven-world interplanetary civilisation. It may not exist at Trappist-1: we cannot yet assume that life crops up everywhere that the circumstances are suitable for it. But it surely must exist in one or many (or most) of the hundreds of millions of similar star systems that exist in this galaxy alone.

It looks like life is as common as dirt in the universe, which for living creatures like us is infinitely more interesting than a dead universe ruled only by physics and chemistry. Whereas the poor scientists, shackled by their duty to go not one millimetre further than the evidence will currently support, are condemned to say cool, restrained things like:

“The discovery of multiple rocky planets with surface temperatures that allow for liquid water make this amazing system an exciting future target in the search for life.” (Dr Chris Copperwheat of Liverpool John Moores University, which provided one of the telescopes used in the study.)

Of course, Dr Copperwheat really knows that this discovery makes it 99 percent certain (it was already 98 percent certain) that life is commonplace throughout the universe. He just must not say so until we actually find hard evidence for life on one of the almost 4,000 “exoplanets” orbiting other stars that astronomers have found in the past 24 years.

But I am a journalist, and I am allowed to speak obvious truths even when the scientific evidence is still falling a bit short. Planets are self-evidently as common as dirt. Life is almost certainly as common as dirt. And even intelligent life must be pretty common in the universe.

Maybe only one planet in a million has intelligent life, you say? Okay, then there are at least a hundred and forty million planets with intelligent life in this galaxy alone. And there are at least a hundred billion galaxies.

I started reading science fiction when I was quite young – maybe ten or eleven – and my parents knew an old guy a few streets away who was an amateur astonomer, so they sent me along to see him. He showed me his telescope, and pictures he had taken, and even an exercise book where he had done sketches of our own solar system and the entire galaxy with coloured pencils.

But he couldn’t tell me whether there were any planets beyond our own system, let alone whether there was life elsewhere in the universe. Nobody knew, and he was being properly scientific in his caution. So I returned to my science fiction, and never went back to see him again.

I am probably now at least as old as that “old guy” was then. We live in a truly marvelous time, when the whole universe is opening up to us, and I wish he could have lived long enough to know what we know now.

And now for the next perplexing question. If life is as common as dirt, and intelligent life only maybe a thousand times less common, then where is everybody? Is intelligence so counter-productive that an intelligent species automatically self-destructs within a few dozen generations of developing a scientific civilisation? Or is there something so terrible out there that everybody who survived is observing radio silence?

Questions for another day. But Trappist-1 is so close that in a few hundred years we could probably get there in a generation ship. Meanwhile, a private consortium led by the BoldlyGo Institute and Mission Centaur is working on an orbital telescope that will look for planets around our closest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centauri, only 4.4 light-years (40 trillion kilometres) away.

It’s called Project Blue, after astronomer Carl Sagan’s famous picture of our own “pale blue dot”. But there are a gazillion other pale blue dots, and maybe Alpha Centauri has one too. Hallelujah!
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“That’s…Earth”; and “Of curse…years”)

Famine Is Back

For the first time in six years, there is famine in the world: a real, United Nations-declared famine, with more than 30 percent of the affected population suffering acute malnutrition and more than a thousand people dying of hunger each day. And there are three more countries where famine may be declared any day now.

As you would expect, all four current and impending famines are in war zones. As you might not expect, one of the afflicted countries is not in Africa. It is war-torn Yemen, the poorest Arab country, whose 22 million people depended on imports for 90 percent of their food. With most of Yemen in rebel hands and daily air raids, the food is no longer making it in.

But the other three places are indeed African: South Sudan, Somalia and north-eastern Nigeria. The official famine is in South Sudan, where, after three years of brutal civil war, 40 percent of the population, some 5 million people, are starting to starve.

As usual, there are other contributing factors. There has been a months-long drought in much of East Africa, and the worst-hit provinces of South Sudan tend to support the rebels and may therefore be suffering from an undeclared government food blockade. But it’s almost always Africa. Why?

There are poor people elsewhere, but apart from North Korea in 1996, every famine of the past 40 years has been in Africa. It’s usually linked to armed conflict, of course, and most of the world’s wars are in Africa, but that just pushes the argument back one step.

Why is Africa, a continent with only one-seventh of the world’s population, home to the great majority of its wars? Only the Arab world, a much smaller region, even begins to compete, and its wars, bad as they are, almost never cause famines. Africa is a global outlier, and there must be some common factor beyond mere politics that makes it the global capital
for wars and famines.

The big thing that distinguishes Africa from the rest of the planet (except, once again, the Arab world) is a rapidly growing population: the average fertility rate across the African continent is 4.6 children per woman.

That was about the average fertility rate of the whole human race in 1960, when the entire world’s population was exploding. But the global fertility rate has halved since then, while Africa’s has stayed much the same. If it remained at this level for the rest of the century, today’s one billion Africans would become seven billion, and half the human race would be African in 2100.

In fact the fertility rate is forecast to fall gradually in most African countries, although some countries – Niger, Mali and Uganda, for example – will continue to have higher birth rates. But the fertility rate is falling very slowly: the forecast is that by 2045 the average African woman will be having only three children – but anything above 2.2 children per woman means the population is still growing.

The forecast of the United Nations Population Division is that Africa’s population will almost quadruple by the end of the century, while most other countries stand still or even fall in population. That means there will be 3.6 billion Africans by 2100 – a third of the human race. It also means that war and famine may be their constant companions.

It’s not that Africa has already outgrown its food supply. There is probably enough good land in Africa to feed twice the present population (though not four times as many people). Global warming is likely to damage the productivity of African agriculture quite badly in the long run, but that’s not happening yet. So why is there a famine problem now?

It’s because for the past half-century Africa’s population has been growing as fast or faster than its economies. Most Africans therefore stay poor, and poor people, especially the rural poor, tend to have higher birth rates. And since they cannot afford to invest much in their farms, in their children’s education, or in anything else, the problems and the conflicts deepen and fester.

It’s almost forgotten now, but when most African countries got their independence from the European empires in the 1960s their citizens were significantly better off than those of most Asian countries. African countries had better communications; even their diets were better.

But Asia’s annual population growth rate was only two percent then and is down to one percent now, while Africa’s population growth rate was 2.2 percent then and is 2.5 percent now. So per capita incomes in Asia are now many times higher than in Africa.

Africa is having famines long before there is an actual shortage of food in the continent. It’s having wars that are essentially over the division of the spoils (like South Sudan) in economies where there is simply not enough wealth to go around. Unless it can somehow get its population growth under control, it will just go on getting worse.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 13 and 14. (“As usual…why?”; and “It’s…Africa”)

The (Very) Slow Death of Islamic State

“Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect zero civilian casualties in armed conflict,” said US Army Col. John L. Dorrian, the spokesperson of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. (Where do they get these ridiculous code-names?)

The CJTF/OIR is the US-led international force that was created to defeat Islamic State, but Dorrian was talking in particular about the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, captured by the forces of Islamic State more than two years ago. There are still at least 650,000 civilians in the IS-controlled part of Mosul, and when the Iraqi army retakes it a lot of them will be killed or injured.

Col. Dorrian was just trying to “manage expectations”, as they say, but he needn’t have worried. As many civilians will probably be killed during the reconquest of Mosul as died in the Syrian army’s reconquest of eastern Aleppo in December, but it won’t get as much media attention – mainly because Islamic State is not as subtle as the Nusra Front, the rival Islamist organisation that dominated eastern Aleppo.

The Nusra Front, now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front) to disguise its allegiance to al-Qaeda, was clever enough to let little girls blog about the horrors of the siege of Aleppo, and the Western media obligingly ran it all without question. It was a holocaust, they reported, committed by the evil army of that wicked Bashar al-Assad.

The Western media won’t be saying that sort of thing about the inevitable deaths of innocent civilians during the retaking of Mosul, because the West supports the Iraqi army. In any case, Islamic State is probably too rigid to allow that kind of blog.

The Iraqi army’s attempt to take the city of Mosul back from Islamic State has already lasted almost as long as the siege of Stalingrad. So far, it has only managed to clear the suburbs on the east bank of the Tigris river, and civilian deaths have only been in the hundreds.

This week it began its assault on the main part of the city, which lies on the west bank. It may fight its way in to the core of the old city in another month or two, but street-fighting eats up armies, and the streets of the old city are narrow and twisting. The casualties will be high among both soldiers and civilians, and it is unlikely that the operation will end until April or May.

It may not even end in a decisive victory for the goverment forces. There are around 100,000 men in the force besieging Mosul, but most of them are Kurdish militia and “Popular Mobilisation Units” of the Iraqi Army that must not be allowed to enter the city proper. They are either the wrong ethnicity (Kurds) or the wrong religion (Shias) to send into an Arab and Sunni city.

What’s left is the Iraqi regular army, probably no more than 30-40,000 strong around Mosul, and in particular the elite units of the Counter Terrorism Service who have borne the brunt of the fighting. Some of the CTS units have already suffered 50 percent casualties (killed and wounded), and overall Iraqi casualties are at least 5,000 before the final battle has even begun.

Let us be optimistic and assume that Mosul will ultimately fall. That would put an end to the Iraqi half of what used to be called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but what happens to the Syrian part of Islamic State is still very much up in the air.

It was losing territory to the Syrian Kurds, whose army was advancing steadily on the IS capital at Raqqa in eastern Syria. The Syrian Kurds have done so well because they had US air support on call at all times. Indeed, the Kurds were America’s main ally in the Syrian civil war, and the only major ground force (apart from the Syrian army) that was actively fighting Islamic State.

But now all that is at risk because Turkey, which has been the main support of the Syrian rebels for years, has switched sides. It sees a semi-independent Kurdish state in northern Syria as a bigger threat to its territorial integrity than either IS or the Assad regime in Damascus. And it appears to have made a deal with Russia that will give it a free hand to destroy the Syrian Kurds.

It is not clear whether the Turkish army can actually do that without taking very large casualties, but it’s probably going to try. This means that the United States will have to choose between its ally of the past four years, the Syrian Kurdish army, and its faithless NATO ally, Turkey. It will probably choose Turkey, because it is more important, and abandon the Kurds to their fate.

The Kurds are used to being betrayed, so they won’t even be surprised. But it does mean that destroying Islamic State in Syria will have to wait for a while.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It may…begun”)

Universal Basic Income

There’s a new idea that might be the solution to runaway populism. Well, it’s not that new, really – it has been kicking around in left-wing circles for a least a quarter-century – but it has suddenly gone mainstream. It’s called Universal Basic Income (UBI), and pilot programmes to see if it really works in practice are being launched this year in four different countries.

It’s populism that gave us Brexit in Britain and President Donald Trump in the United States. It could soon give us President Marine Le Pen in France. But the fundamental lie of populism is that it can “bring the jobs back”. It doesn’t even admit where they really went.

Indeed, in the 2016 presidential campaign in the United Statesneither candidate ever mentioned the ghost at the feast. Donald Trump promised to “bring the jobs back” from the foreign countries that had “stolen” them, mainly by ending free trade, while Hillary Clinton promised “a full-employment economy where everybody has enough to raise a family and live in dignity.” Neither of them ever mentioned automation.

This is curious, because the great killer of jobs throughout the developed world for the past two decades has been automation: computer-controlled machines replacing human workers.

Hundreds of thousand of ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) have replaced hundreds of thousands of human bank tellers. Seven million industrial jobs in the United States have been eliminated in the past 35 years by automation, while factory production has actually doubled. And the self-driving cars that are now being road-tested will eventually destroy most of the 4.5 million driving jobs – long-distance trucks, taxis, and delivery vans – in the USA.

I can watch what automation is doing in my own neighbourhood. There’s a big supermarket a five-minute walk from my house, and I’m in there almost every day to pick up something or other. Over the years I have got to know most of the people at the check-out counters, at least enough to chat a bit. And now the familiar faces are disappearing, one or more every month, to be replaced by automated self-checkout stations.

And don’t be fooled by the fantasy that computers create equal numbers of new jobs when they destroy old ones. When you lose your secure, well-paid job to a machine, you may end up with a minimum-wage MacJob if you are lucky, but you are just as likely to end up with no job at all.

It is the anger of millions of people in this situation that broke normal voting patterns and provided the extra votes that gave the Brexit campaign victory in last June’s referendum in Britain and made Donald Trump president in the US election in November. As automation continues to spread the anger (and the reckless lies of populist politicians) will only get worse.

The automation will continue to spread. The estimated impact over the next twenty years includes the loss of 47 percent of all existing jobs in the United States, 57 percent in Europe, and a stunning 77 percent of manufacturing jobs in China. That could mean a lot more anger, a lot more populism, and conceivably even the collapse of democracy.

It is also dawning on the owners and chief executive officers of major enterprises that if half the population are impoverished by long-term unemployment, they will not be able to buy the goods and services that the capitalist economies produce. That could lead to the collapse of their whole business model, so the right wing is now starting to look into UBI too.

The principle of UBI is that every citizen gets a basic income that allows them to maintain a decent standard of living WHETHER THEY ARE EMPLOYED OR NOT. They may also choose to work in order raise that standard of living, and that income would be taxed (probably quite heavily), but it would still be possible to get rich. This is about saving capitalism, not ending it.

Why do it this way, rather than just giving the unemployed some money? Because that is humiliating for them, and the humiliation feeds the anger. If everybody gets it, there is no shame in taking it.

Where would the money to fund UBI come from? Part would come from ending all existing government social payments: if you are getting UBI, you don’t need unemployment pay or an old-age pension. But heavy taxes on financial services and on automated factories and services would certainly be needed as well.

The biggest question is how many people would still choose to work if everybody was getting the Universal Basic Income. If 47 percent of today’s remaining jobs are being done by automated machines in 20 years’ time, then 53 percent of today’s jobs will still need to be done by people.

Finding the answer to that question is one of the main purposes of the new pilot programmes. They are getting underway this year in Canada (in the province of Ontario), in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and in Finland. Others are being considered in Scotland and in Italy. Something big may be starting to happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“I can…at all”)