Friday, August 30, 2013

Bombing Syria, War Crimes, and Marijuana Priorities

Politics is first of all about lying, followed by deceit, then corruption, with the public good seldom coming in better than fourth in the list of politicians' priorities.

Two seemingly unconnected events happened this week. The Obama administration (but not Obama himself) announced it would issue instructions to federal officers and prosecutors that set new priorities for the federal enforcement of marijuana laws. This is largely the result of 21 states (if you include the city of D.C.) having legalized medical marijuana, with two, Washington State and Colorado having also legalized recreational marijuana.

It took Barack Obama only six years to figure this out. The preponderance of voters are now for marijuana legalization, and the Democratic Party has been taking a lot of heat on the issue for years. The new priorities for busting people are: when the weed crosses state lines; when it is sold or given to minors; when the proceeds are used to fund other criminal enterprises; when the entrepreneurs have not made donations to the Democratic Party. In theory at least medical marijuana gets a pass in the states where it has been legalized, as does recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington State.

Then there is Syria. Some group of people there (the lone gunman theory not being bought by anyone in this case) used some type of nerve gas agent on a sufficient scale to kill hundreds of people, who are usually described as civilians. It is generally agreed this happened to a neighborhood of Damascus that is pro-Rebel and anti-President Bashar al-Assad. But Bashar denies giving the order, and a U.N. investigation team has not formed conclusions yet.

Nevertheless, former law professor, now President Barack Obama wants to bomb Syria. It won't be to help the rebels, supposedly, especially since the rebels are now led by Sunni Islamic fundamentalists. It's just a sort of international spanking, grounding (economic embargoes) having not done the trick, so far. If Syrians just go back to killing each other with small arms, artillery and the occasional beheading, Obama will be alright with that.

War crimes are a funny (odd, legally peculiar) thing. War itself is a war crime, since all wars have to be started, and starting a war is a war crime. Once a war is started there are a set of rules both sides are supposed to adhere to. If the war has a winner, the winner usually prosecutes the losing side for war crimes. Winners usually don't prosecute themselves for war crimes, though in a few cases low-level soldiers or officers have been prosecuted.

Obama can't easily try Bashar for war crimes, not without a successful invasion of Syria. But there are all sorts of war criminals he could prosecute. He has simply not chosen to make that a priority for the Justice Department.

There are the Vietnam era war criminals, many of whom are still alive. They started a war with North Vietnam, which was a war crime. They killed vast quantities of civilians both in South and North Vietnam, which was a war crime. They used chemical warfare in the form of napalm and Agent Orange, which was a war crime. They also invaded Laos and Cambodia, also war crimes. They supervised the South Vietnamese murdering civilians and POWs, which was a war crime. These war criminals would be easy to arrest and not too hard to prosecute. But it isn't a priority.

Among the other war criminals milling around Washington, D.C. and the various united States are those who initiated wars on Grenada, the states formerly known as Yugoslavia, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya. I probably left out a few.

Perhaps this illustration of the importance of prioritization is a mere coincidence. After all, Obama did not time the nerve gas incident, unless it was the work of the CIA. You may not realize it, but for those who plan ahead, like politicians and their stockholders, this is the gearing up time for the 2014 elections. One-third of the U.S. Senate seats will be up for grabs, as well as the entire House of Representatives. While incumbents almost always win, you can never be sure. Fundraising is in full swing and potential opponents are calculating their odds. Primaries are only a few months away.

Here in Mendocino County, where Republicans are distinguished mainly by their having enough money to smoke more than their fair share of the dope, there will be a backlash against both of Barack Obama's policies. Only the most loyal of Obamacrats want him to bomb Syria. More important, everyone is nervous about the price of marijuana. It is bound to drop as more people enter the market. To some extent that can be compensated by growing more, but at some point trying to sell marijuana will be like trying to sell houses in 2008.

Some people might have to actually make money with their real jobs, instead of just using them to launder cash.

But it is not Mendocino County that the Democratic Party bigwigs are worried about. It is the districts where the two war crimes organizations known as political parties are about evenly balanced. The competitive districts that determine which party gets to spend the loot gathered from taxpayers.

Bombing Syria makes Obama look tough, which is generally considered to be a positive thing with the voters. But it might alienate the peace-loving wing of the Democratic Party. The new marijuana policy is meant to placate that wing.

Its hard to tell what dose will work out best. Just enough dope to get people to calm down and forget about all the ways Obama has disappointed the hopes they had for him. Not so much dope as to be too out of it to vote the Democratic Party ticket come election day.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Gold Asteroid Frightens Republican Science Committee Members

The vote seemed nearly inexplicable, even to the New York Times [See Plan to Capture an Asteroid Runs Into Politics]. NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) wants to capture a small asteroid, less than 10 meters in diameter, and haul it back into an orbit around earth where it can be examined closely, perhaps by astronauts. The original unmanned mission was planned for 2018.

Republican members of the Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to kill the idea. It was not part of the bill they passed (the Democrats' bill included the NASA-recommendations). They prefer a focus on lunar landings, followed by a Mars mission. There are always arguments about how to use NASA's large but not limitless budget, so this might seem to be just another argument about priorities.

A deeper look depends on knowing what scientists might find if they do capture an asteroid.

Mining asteroids is a science fiction theme from last century. Today it is approaching reality, with at least one private group looking for a way to do it and make money at it. [See Tech Billionaires Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids]. While platinum is a more likely target, the group certainly would not turn away a gold asteroid if they found one.

Asteroids are believed to be quite varied in composition. They fall into three classes: carbon rich, stony, and metallic. The assumption is their composition is fairly reflected in meteorites (meteoroids that fall to earth). Metal meteorites are less common than stony and carbon rich ones, but they are not rare (about 6% of the total). The most common metallic meteorites are iron mixed with nickel.

There is a subgroup of meteorites which have a percentage of gold in them. It is likely that there are meteorites and asteroids which consist mostly or entirely of gold. In fact a current theory is that most or all of the gold in the earth's crust came from asteroid or meteorite impacts, since the planet's original gold would have sunk to the core of the planet. [See Huge Asteroids Brought Gold to Infant Earth]

It would be possible to select an asteroid that is mainly of the metallic type (M-type asteroids) by studying the spectra of various candidates. With advanced surveying gold bearing asteroids could be distinguished from the more common iron-nickel ones.

Why is this a political problem for Republican members of Congress? Because many (but not all) in the party now want to return to the Gold Standard for money. Many wealthy Republicans, and even middle-class Republicans, have spent the last decade accumulating investments in gold.

They say that Gold is the only real money (despite there being no Biblical evidence for that). But they suspect that if gold were more common, it would behave like other commodities: it would lose value. Behind their outward confidence in gold, they fear change. They fear the laws of supply and demand and free markets.

Suppose NASA captures a 10 meter cube of gold and got it back to earth safely. How much gold is that? Gold has a density of 19.3 grams per cubic centimeter. There are a lot of cubic centimeters in a 10 meter cube. There are 100 x 100 x 100 cubic centimeters in a cubic meter, and 10 x 10 x 10 cubic meters in a 10 meter cube. That is 1,000,000,000, or 1 billion cubic centimeters.

At a price of $1300 per ounce (gold bugs would say we should measure the value of dollars in gold, not the value of gold in dollars), 19.3 grams of gold, which is 19.3/28.35 or 0.68 ounces, is worth $884.

So the asteroid would be worth $884 billion dollars. Which would not pay for the estimated $2 to $3 billion needed to collect the asteroid.

Still, it would be a lot of gold. And it would mean that for all practical purposes, there is all the gold you want in space.

Only it would not be worth $884 billion, because who would buy it? Especially when even more gold goes whizzing by the earth once in a while, just needing a nudge to capture it?

A gold asteroid of very modest size would cause the value of gold on earth to plummet. This is partly because most gold already mined here is not used for anything, not even jewelry. It is in the hands of speculators, who hope it will go up relative to the U.S. dollar, so that they can buy things they really want, like more handguns, bigger mansions, fancier cars, and the more expensive Senators.

Who exactly voted for the bill [H.R. 2687] that left out the asteroid capture mission? Lamar Smith of Texas, Paul Broun Jr. of Georgia, Larry Bucshon of Indiana, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Steven Palazzo of Missouri, Chris Steward of Utah, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Ralph Hall of Texas, Randy Hultgren of Illinois, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, Michael McCaul of Texas, Randy Neugebauer of Texas, Bill Posey of Florida, Dana Rohrabacher of California, David Schweikert of Arizona, James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, Steve Stockman of Texas, and Randy Weber of Texas. Lots of Republicans from Texas on the Science Committee.

And for those of you who love details, here is the Text of H.R. 2687