Friday, July 03, 2015

The Deadly Thing at 2.4 Kiloparsecs: Are we sharing the galaxy with something large, dangerous and periodic?

Never before online, this highly speculative piece was published in Analog Magazine way back in May of 1984. It won the Analog Award for Best Fact Article for the year. Some of the research may be dated...but the concepts still intrigue...

Note: This article mentions  the work of NYU's Michael Rampino who later on realized that Earth's major extinctions appeared to recur in cycles of roughly 26 to 35 million years.  He has an improved theory for that!  Indeed, despite involving Dark Matter, it is likely better and more plausible than the one I raised in this old Analog piece. Still, my hypothesis was unprecedented and certainly fits the observed facts... a deadly thing may indeed, still be out there, lapping us every... 200 million... or even thirty million or so! Certainly the concept deserves to be posted somewhere and available on the Inter-Tube.

Okay, then. To the way-back machine!

======  Dialing back to 1984... and here we go... =======

Mass extinctions are much in the news these days. Like a scandal long buried and only just being uncovered, the demise of the dinosaurs now seems to be only the uppermost layer of something far more regular – and deadly.

Several recent events have spurred this renewed interest in the ecological holocausts of the past. The most significant of these has been progress in the arcane art of reading the fossil records in ancient sedimentary rocks.

Paleontologists such as Dr. James Valentine of the University of California at Santa Barbara have been reconstructing the family tree of Earth’s living organisms, sorting which orders or phyla ended in extinction, and which branches evolved into new, competitive forms.

Some of the pieces of the puzzle seem, at last, to be falling into place. We now know, for instance, that the fall of the great reptiles – and the associated extinction of many marine forms – was not a unique event. Valentine and others report that there have been at least four, and as many as ten suspected mass dieoffs, in which large portions of the Earth’s biota – whole families, orders, and phyla – declined and then dropped completely from sight. In three of these cases, the evidence is statistically indisputable. These extinctions were indeed catastrophes which enveloped the entire Earthly ecosystem when they occurred.
  • At the end of the Cretaceous Period, approximately 65 million years ago
  •  At the conclusion of the Permian Period, about 185 million years before that
  •  And at the terminus of the Ordovician Period, approximately 210 million years further back in time.

The Great Die-offs

The Earth was far different in appearance each time it happened. Where the Cretaceous featured great reptiles and pre-placental mammals, the Permian was a time of tremendous fern forests and advanced amphibian forms. The Ordovician, on the other hand, featured hardly any life on land at all. But in each case the die-off was sharp and easily distinguished in the geological record. Suddenly, a large fraction of all the species at the time were wiped out.

Now (1984) Andrew Knoll of Harvard and Gonzalo Vidal of Lund University in Sweden report a fourth great extinction, at a time, 650 million years ago, when the highest forms of life were colonies of algae. This is about 200 million years before the Devonian event.
(Take note of the intervals between these major occurrences: 185, 210, and 200 million years. We’ll come back to them shortly.)

The paleontologists aren’t the only ones working on the problem of the past extinctions. A second discovery has received a lot of attention lately, adding another piece to our puzzle.
Led by Louis Alvarez of the University of California at Berkeley, a number of scientists have pointed out that some of the mass deaths are associated with unusual layers of clay – and that the layer representing the catastrophic end of the Cretaceous Period features astonishingly high abundances of certain rare isotopes.

Their conjecture is that a great meteorite struck the Earth, kicking up huge dark clouds and cutting off the sunlight. This supposedly then led to the ecological disaster observed in the fossil layers. Dust contributed by the vaporized meteorite supplied the unusual isotopes Alvarez and his team found in the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary layer.

But the clay layer by itself is weak evidence for the falling rock conjecture. There are other ways to account for it. The abnormal isotope profile within that narrow layer is what the impact proponents rely upon most heavily.
But there may be another way to explain it.

Theories for Cycles

Veron 2008
Let’s go back to Fact One, the episodic occurrence of ecological disasters in Earth’s history. Would it not be interesting if there were some periodicity to these mass extinctions? If there were some pattern, then we might be able once and for all to assign a culprit … and incidentally know what to watch out for.

Recently two University of Chicago researchers, David Raup and John Sepkowski, have claimed that the four major and six lesser extinctions observed in the sediments seem to be part of a larger pattern that repeats at a rough average interval of 26 million years. They draw the implication that there is some repetitive process which puts the ecosystem of the Earth under stress in a regular pattern.

But even if the pattern they see is real, what sort of process could operate over such vast time scales, repeating reliably at 20 to 30 million year intervals?
Raup and Sepowski are not sure. Along with England’s Martin Whyte, they guess that the culprit may have to do with the interval workings of the Earth itself – with cyclic changes in the planet’s moment of inertia, its magnetic field, or the rate of transfer of heat to the mantle and crust.

It is an intriguing proposal, and it merits further investigation. However, there is a problem. No one can assign a clear-cut mechanism. Nor can anyone explain the dramatic difference between the six lesser and the four great extinctions.

One other potential periodic mechanism, that I discussed in the May 1983 issue of Analog, is the possibility that waves of settlement by starfaring civilizations might be responsible for episodes of extinction, followed by long periods in which the galaxy is empty of intelligent life. The theoretical time scales – 10 to 100 million years – seem to put this idea in the right range to be considered as a candidate, however it still remains pretty vague and hard to pin down. All we can do is catalog the hypothesis and move on.

The Major Extinctions

For the sake of argument, let us look at the four great die-offs alone … the four for which there is no dispute. Remember – 65, 185, 210, and 200 million years? Recall that these are fairly rough numbers. Nonetheless, one quickly sees the outlines of a pattern. If we assume we’re 65 million years into the latest phase of a repeating cycle, we might be tempted to guess that the greater die-offs occur at intervals of approximately –
197 Myr ± 12 Myr. (Myr = one million years.)

The uncertainty of 12 Myr is soft, but it is small enough to leave us encouraged that we may be onto something. It certainly looks like a pattern.

Could something periodic be causing this?
Not many natural processes occur with such regularity at such vast intervals. Only one cycle comes to mind with a periodicity similar to this. It is the revolution of the sun around the center of the galaxy … an orbit that astronomers now estimate to take approximately 238 million years.

 Might we be sharing the Milky Way with something deadly? Something that reaches out to “touch” our planet as we pass near it, roughly every galactic year?

Let’s pause and think about galaxies for a moment.
A spiral galaxy like the Milky Way does not rotate like a solid disk. Instead it is composed of many parts.
The galactic “halo,” like the core, consists of older, metal-poor, possibly planet-less stars of the first generation. In the halo the long, lazy orbits of solitary stars and globular clusters take them far out into the nearly empty territory above and below the spiral plane.

At the opposite extreme, in the galactic core, the crowded stars jostle and occasionally collide. They may even merge into super-compact bodies, giving rise to strange happenings. We shall speak more of these later.

Still, most of the really interesting things seem to be going on in the great, complicated disk of the galactic plane. Here the stars and gas and dust clouds rotate in their nearly circular paths, the inner zones finishing their orbits more quickly than those further out. This “differential rotation” is one of the things that drives the spiral design of our type of galaxy, helping to create the shock fronts where new stars are formed.

The shock fronts, along the concave faces of the spiral arms, are where clouds of gas and dust are compressed into new stellar systems. Some believe that life could not exist without these alternating zones of compression and release around the galactic rim. The sun’s orbit appears to meet one of the galaxy’s great spiral arms about every 110 million years or so. It takes about 10 million years to pass through one, about a million years alone to pass the shock front at the leading edge. We’re emerging from an encounter with the shock front of the galaxy’s Orion Arm right now.

Can one use these spiral fronts to explain the cyclical pattern of the mass extinctions? There are several theories which do make the attempt.
Source: NASA
W.H. McCrea contends that when the solar system moves into a shock region a sudden influx of gas and dust is absorbed by the sun, causing a dramatic increase in luminosity. That, according to the English astronomers Hoyle and Littleton, should increase precipitation on Earth, lowering sea levels and setting off a series of ice ages. 

The history of the last million years – featuring a series of ice ages only recently ended – lends the hypothesis some support. A related idea, by Napier and Clube, is that the galactic shock fronts are crowded with “planetesimals” like asteroids and comets, and that the sun regularly picks up a swarm of these every hundred million years or so, causing the Earth to regularly get “pasted.”

Or maybe the abundance of young, hot stars in the shock-front regions creates an area with a high incidence of supernovae (which would certainly wreak havoc on the Earth if one occurred close enough!)

All three mechanisms sound plausible, at least. Could the solar system’s periodic encounters with the spiral arm shock fronts then explain the major extinctions that have befallen life on Earth?

(2015 aside: Back in 1984 we didn't know the galaxy is "pleated" and that our solar system would rise and then dip through these pleats, several times during every 240 million year galactic orbit.)

Alas, the timing is all wrong.

Our encounter with the Orion Arm may indeed have triggered the ice ages of the ice ages of the Pleistocene, but the cycle of entering and leaving spiral arms clearly doesn’t fit the truly great die-offs of the Pre-Cambrian, Ordovician, Permian, and Cretaceous. The hundred and ten million year interval is over forty percent below the figure we calculated earlier – apparently way too low to apply to the major ecological holocausts of the past.

The Deadly Thing

If we re-examine the numbers just one more time, there does appear to be one more possibility – one more periodicity that no one seems to have covered yet. Our galactic orbital period.

We seem to be hit by something deadly every 195 million years or so. That’s similar to the 230 Myr solar orbit around the galactic center, but it’s clearly not the same. The 15% difference is enough to bother even the most impulsive pop theorist.

Until one realizes that anything truly dangerous floating about in our galaxy would itself have to be in orbit around the galactic center! With differential rotation, every distance from the center has its own unique orbital period, the sun’s happening to be 230 to 250 million years. There may be some “thing” co-orbiting with us – a little further out or closer in – the inner object “catching up” with the outer one at a period a little more rapid than one solar-galactic “year.”

It’s a problem that can be solved – roughly --  using the back of an envelope and a book of astronomical tables.

If the sun has, say, a period of 230 Myr, and we encounter “a thing” about every 197 Myr, then “Its” orbital period is solved by taking the difference of the two reciprocals (orbital frequencies) and dividing one more time.

If we do this, “It” turns out to have an orbital period of about 107 Myr.

We then go to the some of the tables of galactic rotation rates (laboriously collected by diligent astronomers, and published for the benefit of sleuths such as ourselves). The angular frequency versus radial function given in the literature is a little complicated, but when used carefully it gives a pretty clear result.

“It” has to orbit the center of the galaxy at a distance of approximately 2.4 kilo-parsecs, or seven point seven thousand light years. Our system, orbiting at about 10 kilo-parsecs, then has its nearest passage to the thing every 197 million years, as expected.

(2015 aside: note that if the extinctions cycle around 30 million years, that only shifts the orbit of the deadly thing inward, closer to the center of the Galaxy.)

Geological Astronomy

This is “geological astronomy” with a vengeance. We have just used the Earth as a great observatory, reading the sedimentary rocks like ancient photographic plates. Have we deciphered the clues correctly? Is there a Thing out there, which periodically catches up to use and does deadly mischief on our ecosystem with each near passage?

(Like many scientific discoveries or conjectures, this one has a haunting premonition in science fiction. In Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave, the die-off of the dinosaurs was caused by a beam which suppressed brain activity in the entire sector of the galaxy.)

If our Thing exists, it has to be pretty powerful, for according to our calculations we never pass closer to it than seven thousand parsecs. This means that it must somehow be selective, or act over a narrow angle.

The strongest possibility among known or modeled phenomena seems to be a rotating black hole which is emitting a powerful jet of sub-atomic particles.

The central cores of some spiral galaxies are extremely busy places, emitting awesome, energetic beams. SF author Gregory Benford (who is also professor of high-energy physics at the University of California at Irvine) has studied cases in which narrow, self-focused streamers of charged particles seem to be shooting narrowly across tens of thousands of parsecs, carrying as much energy as is being emitted from all the rest of the galaxy!

Clearly nothing like these monsters exists in the Milky Way today. But recent radio surveys have discovered an intriguing object, albeit much, much smaller – perhaps a fair to moderate black hole – very close to our galactic center. Radio-maps indicate a pair of jets several light years in length, spurting outward from the object.

(2015 note: this object has been confirmed to be our galaxy's central black hole, containing more than a million solar masses, and yet quiescent, at present, having long ago sucked in those objects whose orbits might bring them within grasp.)

In terms of modern galactic astronomy, this is small potatoes. But there may be others in the Milky Way, somewhere in between the sizes we’ve mentioned above. And one of these may be our culprit, now hidden behind the dust lanes of the galactic lens.
Source: Popular Science
Benford thinks the best candidate might be a condensed source projecting a beam of positrons and electrons, precessing and sweeping out a disk-like portion of the galactic lens.

An energy source like that would, indeed, be a deadly thing. An interstellar jet, even one barely grazing by the solar system, could explain a lot, such as the anomalous isotopes in those clay layers – if the particle fluxes were high enough to cause elemental transmutation. And it might be no problem for such a beam to overwhelm the ozone layer, causing collapse of the Earthly ecosystem.

Even if the beam passed nearby for only a brief time, it would probably be enough to do great harm. 

(2015 note: Rampino now sees the pattern as being roughly 30 million years.  This would be consistent with an object even closer to galactic center than my earlier hypothesized beast at 2.4 kiloparsecs.  Still, the basic idea here is not disproved.  It belongs on our shelf of possibilities.)

There you have it, still another explanation for a set of mysteries exhumed from under the dust of our ancestors. All the witnesses are long dead, of course. But that doesn’t keep us from sifting through the clues, looking for culprits.

Over the years we’ve heard conjectures of nearby supernovae, wobbling planets, and even colonization from the stars, in order to explain the demise of the dinosaurs and other mass-extinction victims. Though noe of them have rhythmic periodicity.

If the giant-meteorite proponents are right, we might be wise to take some precautions, to keep track of those bits of rock tumbling about the solar system. The other “periodic” solutions, too, each seem to offer their own bogey men to watch out for as well.

Now there’s this new “thing” to worry about, possibly orbiting out there roughly 2.4 kilo-parsecs from the center of the galaxy … just waiting, it would seem, to reach out one more time and get us.

It’s a little unnerving.

Still, one shouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. Dangerous and nasty as the little bugger may be, we probably have another 130 million years to get ready for it. If any money is going to go to chicken little preparations, at this point I think I’d rather spend it on asteroids.

Author’s final (1984) note: Remember where we mentioned TEN recorded ecological holocausts? This paper only dealt with the four greater die-offs, whose apparent regular intervals lead to an interesting conjecture.

But there are six much smaller events in the record as well. Of these, two are “intermediate” in magnitude – one about 80 Myr after the Ordovician disaster, and the other approximately 30 Myr after the Permian.

You can’t do much with two data points, of course. Certainly there’s no way we can imply that each major even is followed by a secondary die-off an average of 55 Myr later, is there?
It is now 65 Myr since the major holocaust of the Cretaceous…

No. The author steadfastly refuses to state that we seem overdue for one of those littler extinctions. That would be stretching things too far.

He hopes.

== ... back to 2015! ==

And there you have it.  A clever -- if somewhat unlikely -- rumination from my younger self.  The article was discussed on the Weird Astronomy page of the Atomic Rockets website: "...just because the assumptions are questionable does not mean that they are wrong."  This "lapping" mechanism has some appeal, whether applied to the thirty or 190 million year cycles.  Still, if wagering, I'd give stronger odds to some version of Mike Rampino's orbital "dipping" process... with or without the recent Dark Matter gloss.

And yet, aren't these marvelous times, as we sift for evidence and plumb the past for mysteries?  Our ancestors, if told of this quest, would be puzzled!

But the best of them -- I think -- would also be proud of us.

You should be too!  Try to get your fellow citizens to realize it, as well.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Sci Fi News: from Cli-Fi to Post-humanism

On ZDNet, Simon Bisson offers up a cool list  of “26 essential science fiction novels to get you ready for tomorrow.”  It’s a great list, with works by Vinge, Brunner, Sterling, Stross, Naam, Stephenson, Nagata and others… though in a couple of cases I am a bit biased.

An interesting article asks10 science-fiction, speculative fiction, urban fantasy and dystopian authors to answer a single question: What will the next 10 years bring? 

How about a museum for the future? Actor John Rhys-Davies spends less than one minute entertainingly haranguing us all to support the new Museum of Science Fiction, planned for Washington DC!  

Isaac Asimov reads aloud his short story "The Last Question" in one sitting. It appeared in the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly and Asimov said it was "by far my favorite story of all those I have written."

Here’s a cute rumination.  You are offered eight different – mutually exclusive – superpower pills....Would you take the red pill, the blue pill, or the black pill? This notion is turned into a fun little story by Scott Alexander.

An interesting report on the increasing number of Native American and First Nations characters showing up as comic book superheroes.

==What Comes Next? ==

Who Will Inherit the Earth? David Tormsen offers an interesting rumination on who — or what — might replace humanity, someday. Here’s an excerpt that interests me, for obvious reasons:

"Uplifted Animals —The idea of raising animal species to human intelligence is an old one that dates back to H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau. Cordwainer Smith imagined uplifted animals as an oppressed underclass fighting for their rights, while David Brin’s Uplift series presented a universe where almost all intelligent creatures owed their sapiency to patron species, with humanity exploring the universe with intelligent apes and dolphins at its side....  

Some theorists, such as George Dvorsky, argue that we have a moral imperative to raise other species to our level of intelligence once we possess the technological means to do so. Dvorsky points to modern efforts to have great apes be granted the legal right of “personhood,” and he asserts that the natural next step would be to give non-human animals the cognitive faculties for self-determination and participation in a society of sentient creatures. The human monopoly on sentient thought gives us an unfair and unjust advantage over our animal neighbors, and if the means exist to allow non-humans like apes, dolphins, and elephants to achieve the cognitive means of political participation, it is our moral duty to extend it to them."

David Tormsen continues, “Others disagree. Alex Knapp believes that the costs in terms of animal life would be too high to justify it. In order to uplift a species, it would be necessary to make changes to the DNA on an embryonic level, leading to inevitable failed attempts before we got it right. Then there is the question of how to ensure that a successfully uplifted embryo would be gestated. Such experimentation would be morally wrong, with the potential for intelligent animals suffering physical abnormalities and early death due to human meddling. Even if successful, human beings would have no way to cope with the social and emotional needs a sapient chimpanzee, bonobo, or parrot would have. In other words, uplifted animals could be left emotionally traumatized due to ham-handed attempts by humans to raise them.  Some also worry that problematic aspects of certain species’ natures, such as chimpanzees’ violence and dolphins’ inclination for rape, would carry on into their intelligent forms. Some argue that intelligent self-awareness is an ecological niche that can only sustainably hold a single species, explaining why the Neanderthals and our other human cousins were wiped out …and assimilated. Creating intelligent animals could create evolutionary competition for humanity by potentially traumatized creatures with mental processes and value systems that we may not even be able to comprehend.”

Huh.  A balanced two paragraph cover on the idea.  Still. George is right.  Not only is it worth the risk, the worst thing we could do is ban such endeavors so that they will be done anyway, but in secret -- and therefore stupidly -- exactly the Crichton scenario I depicted in EXISTENCE.

== Visions of the Future == 

An interesting bio-piece on Peter Thiel - law professor, libertarian philosopher and investor: “One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction,” Thiel said. “Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’ ” 

And sure, Thiel's both brilliant and insightful -- especially about the plague of dozoisian angst that has festered in science fiction for decades, sneering at a now-seldom-seen can-do spirit. Still, he also misses the point. We progress by both believing we can solve problems and by relentlessly pointing out problems to solve. 

The real sin of the angst-merchants is not their wanting to issue warnings. It is the boringly-tedious sameness and lack of originality of their jeremiads.

In contrast -- somewhat -- a subset of science fiction called “Cli-Fi” concentrates on tales about the effects  of climate change. Dan Bloom, long a promoter of this trend, writes here about the growing number of academic/pundit voices who are using the term. Early examples go back to E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (1909) and J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World (1962); more recent Cli -Fi novels include Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-up Girl, my own Earth, Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, Ian McEwan's Solar, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, John Barnes's Mother of Storms, Stephen Baxter's Flood, and Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood -- all charting possible, often dire, environmental scenarios to come.

Femismo? It's the proper name of an entirely different view of sexual relations that aims not (as feminism does) at equality, but at altering the status quo in definitely unequal ways. Perhaps for the better! I am willing to read solidly delivered arguments that male dominance should not just be eliminated, but reversed into female dominance! There is a very strong femismo literary tradition in SF.  Here's a rumination that would certainly solve the "problem of maleness." But this goes too far... Humanity should be 90% female? Fortunately, most of this person's commenters are offended.  Still, given the blotchy record of male dominance, one can hardly blame some for fantasizing...

I did something similar in GLORY SEASON... only I portrayed it being done without violence or apocalypse or rancor, simply with some mild tweaking of reproductive processes — (most of the year, women only conceive their own clones) — not castration!  Seriously, see how it plays out!  The important thing is that SF should be about gedankenexperimentation (thought experiments) -- and uncomfortable ones too!  So long as they are done in a spirit of vigorous exploration and plausability and a sense of ultimate justice.

== Brin-news ==

My second short story collection, Otherness, is now back in print -- with a beautiful cover by Patrick Farley -- and some of my best stories including Dr. Pak's Preschool, Detritus Affected, The Giving Plague, Piecework, and Sshhh... 

A new audio version of my first story collection The River of Time, beautifully narrated by my friend, actor Stephen Mendel, is now available on Audible, Amazon and iTunes. The River of Time was also recently re-released in print and ebook formats. 

And, I have a new... third short story collection - the best yet - to be released soon!

== Sci Fi Snippets ==

Up the Amazon with the BS Machine: Wow, this is the Ursula K. LeGuin we all know, leveling her spear at a giant and yelling defiance at the marketing of literature.  

The original movie script for 2001. Fascinating.  It includes some different lines and includes the narration that Kubrick later dropped.

Christian Cantrell has released a new work of Hard SF: Equinox, a sequel to his earlier Containment, also works as a stand-alone novel. Equinox portrays a dystopian future with a bifurcated humanity: tensions boil over between a dwindling population who remain living in habitats on an environmentally devastated Earth and the Coronians, space-born descendants of scientists and engineers who were stranded aboard the orbiting ring station Equinox, when a planet-wide catastrophe struck. Their symbiotic inter-dependence - trading Space-Based Solar Power for land-based resources to be used in Molecular Assemblers -- is threatened when the Coronians upset the fragile balance of power with a desperate act...

Eric Dallaire’s sci fi novel SHADES considers a different kind of zombie. Dead people who leave debts must work them off as their corpse does manual labor, reviewed in Publisher's Weekly.  

A Chinese gaming and mobile Internet company has built its headquarters in the style of the USS Enterprise.

Five one-hit wonders of science fiction!” a cool rundown on YouTube by Tony Smith of StarshipSofa.

Order your Ray Bradbury bookends – made from wood salvaged from Ray’s recently torn-down Cheviot Hills home. 

The Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots will be held November 16th, 2015 | Advances in Computer Entertainment (ACE) 2015, Iskandar, Malaysia.  

Someone wrote in to ask if the old “Brin-L” discussion group still exists.  If so, it is one of the oldest communities on the web!  I did find the still active cover page …  (That’s an “L”.)  Anyone care to try and join and see what happens? Report back!

Beyond Time - a free Science Fiction writing contest open for submissions. Accepting old and new stories of any length, both published and unpublished. Authors retain all rights to any and all works submitted in the contest.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Political Polarization...and Cheating

The Supreme Court has just allowed to stand the independent redistricting commission that the voters in Arizona established, to take rabid partisanship out of the drawing of state and federal districts. Republicans who control the AZ legislature say the Constitution gives them the right to draw congressional districts, and they cannot be cut out of the power.  California is the only other state that has diminished the legislature’s role similar to Arizona, but 11 other states have created commissions that have some sort of say about reapportionment.

I have long railed against gerrymandering, which is only the most blatant of a dozen ways that modern political parties have found to cheat voters. Nothing more spectacularly proved the stunning dogmatic partisanship of justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito more than they way they have blocked (till now) any serious judicial review of these hijackings of sovereign citizen will.

While both parties commit such crimes, the cheating is not balanced or equally distributed.  While yes, there are blue states where gerrymandering creates contorted, illogical and nasty district boundaries – Maryland and Illinois rise almost to the level of creativity of Texas and Georgia – it should be noted that it is in blue states that mostly democratic-leaning populations have rebelled against the practice, rebuking their own favored party's pols. Of the 13 states where voters have pushed back against gerrymandering, twelve are blue. 

(A ratio similar to those states that have been pulling out of the insane Drug War. Powerful examples of the "name an exception" challenge.)

So, why has the Court only taken tepid measures against a supremely blatant crime?

The Supreme Court has largely stayed out of partisan gerrymandering cases, unable to agree on a test that would allow the court to discern when expected political maneuvering rises to the level of being unconstitutional.”

But it does not have to 'get embroiled'!  Nor is there even a need for impartial redistricting commissions!  All that is called for is one simple rule, that can be expressed in a single sentence. This one rule would not completely end gerrymandering… but it would render it moot and useless as a rampant method for stealing sovereignty and choice from American voters. It leaves a state legislature as the locus of boundary drawing, yet would render them ineffective at robbing citizens of their rights. 

THE RULE: District boundaries shall be drawn in such a way that (1) strives to minimize the ratio of perimeter to area and (2) minimizes OVERLAP between the districts for the state assembly, state senate and U.S. Congress.   

What this means is that a state legislature can gerry their own state assembly districts to benefit the majority party… go ahead! But all this will do is ensure that the boundaries for state senate and Congress are not optimized for partisanship.  Your state senator will have to consider different sets of neighborhoods and needs and alliances than the assemblywoman, making democracy more thoughtful and prone to negotiation.  The upshot? They can only be callously cheating-partisan in one of the three houses.  The others will represent the people in inherently different ways. At least one of which will turn out to be fair.

Above all, this reform does not require a grinding process of establishing one “commission” after another, or “agreeing on a test that would allow the court to discern when expected political maneuvering rises to the level of being unconstitutional.” 

Think about this win-win... only then also take note of this.  NOTICE which party cheats far more than the other.  Ask yourselves why it’s been arranged that all the companies that make voting machines are controlled by rabid GOP partisans.  And why is it that – in red states – there usually is no provision for those voting machines to leave an independent record that can be precinct-audited. Hence, the programmers of that machinery can arrange for any outcome they desire.

 Sure, there are corrupt democrats!  But they have not turned cheating into a passionately-dedicated matter of party principle, policy and disciplined practice.

== Cheaters – cheaters – cheaters ==

What America would look like without gerrymandering? Not just congressional but also the insane system of gerrymandering state boundaries. (We have two Dakotas? Seriously?  Why? Except that Republicans were cheaters in the 1890s, as well as now? And why don't we have Kansaska and New Mexizona?) In fact, this map and the writer’s kind of algorithmic approach is flawed.  It ignores too many human and geographical factors. 

A coming Supreme Court decision might remove nonvoters from consideration in district boundary creation -- gerrymandering on steroids? States currently count the entire population - rather than just eligible voters - to create congressional districts. 

Now here’s an interesting take on the matter: conservatives often demand that we take into account the Framers intent, when interpreting the Constitution. Indeed, the Framers clearly and decisively meant for non-voting persons in a district to be counted in determining representation!  Not only women citizens – who could not vote - but also 3/5ths of any non citizen… which um meant slaves.  

Am I actually citing the heinously cynical “3/5ths Rule” in arguing FOR the enumerating and counting of non-citizens in modern districting?  Yeow! I really don't know where that dog will hunt. But it makes my head hurt with unusual implications.  And I always like that sensation.

Try it, some time.

== Funding Political Campaigns ==

The dilution of fairness and election rules during Republican rule was exacerbated by recent court decisions that opened US politics to the highest bidders. "Citizens United v. FEC, allowing corporations to make unlimited expenditures on behalf of federal candidates. Already, the Associated Press reported, spending on this off-year election has topped $1 billion — and it may exceed $4 billion by the time the votes are in."

See: Campaign contributions should be anonymous. This article from The Washington Post is wrongheaded in many ways but still informative.  

We used to try to reduce the role of raw money by  (1) regulating contributions, (regulating campaign spending, (2) offering free access to some media, rules equalizing access by and, finally (3) - transparency… at least allowing the public to see the money flows and take them into account. The cynical author says: "But has transparency ever been an effective corruption-fighting tool? Many people deeply involved in electoral politics don’t think so."

The piece turns into stunning sophistry when it proposes that donors should be hidden, in order to eliminate their quid pro quo influence on politicians: "What if we made all campaign contributions and independent expenditures anonymous — and made sure they stayed anonymous?"

Does he honestly believe any reader would swallow such titanic malarkey?  That Sheldon Adelson cannot take "credit" for a contribution to a pol, in a myriad ways? This is one more spectacularly bald and shameless hired-rationalization by a court shill, to rationalize our march back to feudalism.

Of all the efforts to deal with the money-taking-over-politics problem, the most cogent and deserving of you support is probably Lawrence Lessig's rational approach.  Have a look.

== thinking less like citizens, more as “sides” in a war ==

The growth of partisan polarization has transformed US politics in recent decades, and the effects are especially visible in this graphic. It’s especially depressing, but also makes clear what we have to do.  To end gerrymandering and all the other cheats that have turned us into a nation of bile-spitting partisan radicals.  

Most partisans treat politics like sports rivalries, instead of focusing on issues. A report showed that 41 percent of partisans agreed that simply winning elections is more important to them than policy or ideological goals, while just 35 percent agreed that policy is a more important motivator for them to participate in politics.”

When it came to uncivil attitudes, 38 percent of partisans agreed that their parties should use any tactics necessary to "win elections and issue debates." When those who agreed with this view were asked what tactics they had in mind, the most common ones they offered were: voter suppression, stealing or cheating in elections, physical violence and threats against the other party, lying, personal attacks on opponents, not allowing the other party to speak, and using the filibuster to gridlock Congress. Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to express this opinion.”

Really? Things have sunk so low that now BOTH sides think this?

 To which I respond impulsively that this is terrific news!  That democrats and Blue Americans are finally realizing negotiation and persuasion and compromise will not work, during a re-ignited phase of the American Civil War.  That the forces of the Union are at last willing to take off the kid gloves, as they finally decided to do, in 1861, after nine years of violent bullying by the nascent confederacy. 

All right all right… not really. I don't mean that.

In fact, I deplore this trend at all levels and in every way, especially condoning cheating.  But wrath toward the gerrymandering, vote-suppressing, vote-machine warping cheaters who started this dismal phase of American life? Right on. Their “team" cheats. It has elevated cheating to an art. And they have zero regrets.

== Finally…  ==

The fact that Dick Cheney is admired by even a single American is appalling proof of the delusional willpower of schizophrenia. Watch Jon Stewart's hilarious rant - tribute to Cheney laying the lying hypocrisy so bare that even the most-delusional among you Fox apologists will have to admit... this one should long ago have been given the boot. If not a ride on a tumbrel. 

“George Bush: 'God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq'…” Yeah… well… if by “God” you mean his masters in the Saudi Royal House. Whose orders he and Dick Cheney followed, to the letter, in all matters and top to bottom.  And who own and operate Fox News.  And who own and operate the GOP. And who are the actual “caliphate.”  

Oh, but it is all going according to plan.  We’ve entered the era of the New Pyramid, when society’s top aristocrats have nothing to spend their money on but status.  A Pablo Picasso masterpiece smashed the world record for a painting sold at auction, fetching a fraction over $179 million (£116m).”  That same month, Christies handled a BILLION dollars in art sales.

 Eep. I blame you, Rupert. A nascent feudal oligarchy that is too stupid to read science fiction or history... and willfully ignores the blatant horizon (of pitchforks and tumbrels and designer viruses) where all of this must lead ... has already proved itself WAY too stupid to qualify for leadership over this century.  In EXISTENCE I show a scene portraying what smart oligarchs might do. Even those who (at an alpine meeting) do want a quasi feudal social order... but who also want to live. And I see no sign of this scenario coming true.

The truly smart bazillionaires -- who earned it with creative-innovative products and services -- know better.  They are willing to negotiate, in order to keep the enlightenment healthy.  They want to be rich all right, but in a vibrant and mostly-fair civilization that lifts all boats.  They are not on Rupert's team.