February 14, 2024

Three Toxic Phrases

“You’re not needed.”

Terrible thing to tell a person. We’re descended from tribal ancestors as far back as when we were swinging from trees. Anyone in a tribe who “isn’t needed” is well on the way to being out of the tribe. A tribal animal without a tribe usually ends up dead. Not being needed makes us anxious, to say the least.

But “you’re not needed” is the message we send to people when we tell them that we’ll feed them and clothe them and house them whether or not they “choose” to work.  The message isn’t only morally and ethically wrong, it’s also incorrect. We do need the contribution of everyone who can work even with automation. We have an aging population (including me) who will need more and more care and be able to contribute less and less. Our infrastructure is decrepit and needs to be revamped to deal with the effects of climate change. We’re short of housing. Population has peaked in almost all developed countries and is on the verge of a worldwide decline. We need all hands on deck. There’s no good reason to signal to anyone that they’re not needed.

One of the pathologies that afflict people who have been told they are “unneeded” is drug abuse. The difficulty or recovering from addiction has been compounded by another terrible message:

“You’re not responsible for your addiction.”

Sounds like a nice thing to say but it isn’t. It says you are helpless. It says you have no agency. It says you are dependent on others.

We know from the long experience of Alcoholics Anonymous that only people who take responsibility for their addiction can be cured. Saying “I’m Tom and I’m an alcoholic” has been a first and necessary step to a cure for many Toms. According to the signs sponsored on the windows of Burlington Airport by a proliferation of drug-treatment nonprofits, there isn’t even such a thing as drug abuse; people have “substance use disorder”. Apparently their treatment should start by saying “I’m Tom and it’s not my fault. I can’t do anything about my addiction. I need a safe place to take my drugs.” It is incredibly hard to break an addiction; we make it harder by telling people that they are not in control of their own lives.

“You’re not from our tribe.”

Because tribalism is in our DNA, it’s easily resurrected by demagogues. The often-successful melting pot which is the USA is being stirred into a toxic caldron by reawakening old tribalisms and inventing new ones.  The endless conflicts in the Middle East and the ignored but just as deadly wars in Africa come from tribalism (sometimes reinforced by religion). We’re not Americans first and then possibly an ethnic heritage (or two or three); we’re ethnic first and not so sure we want to be Americans. We’re not Americans who try to figure which people we want to govern us; we’re Progressives, Democrats, Republicans, MAGAs trying to assure that our minority rules. We’re not people; we’re cis-gendered men, women, L,G,B,T,Q, and/or+. Our civil rights are not the ones the creator endowed all people with, they come from our tribes and are at the expense of other tribes. This doesn’t work.

Charmed Phrases

We need your work.” (we’ll help you find some)

“Only you can cure your addiction.” (we’ll help you if you want to be cured).

“E Pluribus Unum.”

February 07, 2024

An AI Debate

Resolved: Vermont should devote available limited resources only to mitigating the effects of climate change rather than attempting to prevent it.

DebateteamThe debate far below is between AI “agents” This post is about a positive use of AI and suggestions for further use. The debate is just an example. But the proposition debated here interests me as well. I posted some on the substance here and will post more in the future.

An AI agent (sometimes called an assistant) is an interface to a large language model (like ChatGPT) bundled with instructions giving it a special role and optionally tools and data which help it perform that role. Agents collaborate with each other and optionally with humans to perform a task AI (often in the form of a chat manager agent) guides the collaboration and decides when the task has been accomplished. These agents are all getting their intelligence from ChatGPT. Using a tool called AutoBuilder from Microsoft, I instructed ChatGPT to create a team of agents including a moderator and a judge capable of debating any proposition given to them. It took a couple of hours for me to get it working right since I had to learn to use AutoBuilder, which is not quite ready for use by non-nerdy people.

The debate illustrates how quickly and easily tools can be built with AI. The debate format is a useful way to quickly get both sides of an argument as well as some of the more obvious rebuttals. When I do post more on the substance of whether Vermont should devote its resources to preventing climate change rather than to mitigation, I’ll use the debate as a checklist to see if I’ve missed arguments or obvious flaws in arguments. It would be more helpful if I had the agents do research and present links but that’s an enhancement for another day.

This tool could serve as the basis for debate training or debate practice if humans rather than agents played the role of one or more of the debaters.

Having AI argue with itself is a way to counter the tendency of large language models like ChatGPT from making up plausible but hallucinatory answers to questions. Bot checking bot would be even more powerful if different LLMs were behind the various agents, which could be done relatively easily. This quality control on LLM output the same way that inspectors inspect (or should inspect) factory output. The Fact or Fiction GPT I posted about here is an example of a bot being used as quality control on human writing.

Collaborative teams of agents and humans are part of the immediate future of how many people will work. The debate is just an example. There could be, for example, a product team with marker-researcher, designer, programmer (agents can write code!), tester, and social media agents. Humans can play some of these roles and have input into all of them if the collaboration is so designed.

If you’d like to have the toy I built debate a subject of your choice, you can so here. It’s dead simple to use and requires no installation; but the catch is you have be enough into AI to have a paid API key from OpenAI. If you don’t know what that is, you don’t want to get one just to challenge the debate team.

If you are a nerd and want to build your won debate team, enhance the one I built, or just see how the AutoBuilder tool works, it’s all open source at https://github.com/tevslin/debate_team.

The generated debate is below.

*********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

affirmative_constructive_speaker (to chat_manager):

As a constructive affirmative debater, I will present arguments in favor of the proposition that Vermont should devote its available limited resources to mitigating the effects of climate change rather than attempting to prevent it.

**1. Proportionality of Impact:**

Vermont, as a small state, contributes a relatively minuscule amount to global greenhouse gas emissions. Even if Vermont were to invest heavily in prevention, the global impact would be negligible. Therefore, it is more pragmatic for Vermont to focus on adaptation strategies that protect its citizens and infrastructure from the inevitable effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events, rather than attempting to significantly alter global emission trajectories.

**2. Immediate Benefits:**

Mitigation efforts provide immediate and tangible benefits to the local population. By investing in infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather, improving emergency response systems, and enhancing the resilience of agricultural practices, Vermont can ensure that its residents are better protected against the current and increasing impacts of climate change.

**3. Economic Prudence:**

The economic argument for focusing on mitigation is strong. The costs associated with climate-related disasters can be astronomical, and by investing in mitigation now, Vermont can avoid much larger expenses in the future. This is not only fiscally responsible but also ensures that the state's limited resources are used in a way that provides the most benefit to its residents.

**4. Social Equity:**

Mitigation efforts can be designed to prioritize the most vulnerable communities in Vermont, which are often the hardest hit by climate change. By focusing on adaptation, the state can address social inequities and ensure that all Vermonters have the resources and support they need to cope with the effects of climate change.

**5. Encouraging Innovation:**

Investing in mitigation can spur innovation in areas such as renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and resilient construction practices. This not only helps Vermont deal with the effects of climate change but also positions the state as a leader in developing technologies and strategies that can be exported and implemented elsewhere.

**6. Global Responsibility:**

While prevention is a global responsibility, mitigation is a local necessity. Vermont can act as a model for other states and regions by demonstrating how to effectively adapt to climate change, thereby fulfilling its global responsibility through leadership and example.

In conclusion, given Vermont's limited resources and the broader context of global emissions, it is both strategic and necessary for the state to prioritize mitigation of the effects of climate change. This approach ensures the well-being of its residents, the sustainability of its economy, and the resilience of its communities.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

negative_construction_speaker (to chat_manager):

As the negative constructive speaker, I will present arguments opposing the proposition that Vermont should devote its available limited resources only to mitigating the effects of climate change rather than attempting to prevent it.

**1. Ethical Responsibility:**

Vermont, like all states, has an ethical responsibility to contribute to the prevention of climate change, not merely to adapt to its consequences. By focusing solely on mitigation, Vermont would be neglecting its duty to future generations who will face the compounded effects of today's inaction. Prevention is a shared global burden, and every entity, regardless of size, must partake in the collective effort to reduce emissions.

**2. Long-Term Strategic Investment:**

Investing in prevention is a long-term strategic investment. While mitigation addresses the symptoms of climate change, prevention tackles the root cause. By investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other preventative measures, Vermont can help slow the progression of climate change, ultimately reducing the severity and cost of future mitigation efforts.

**3. Economic Opportunities:**

Prevention efforts can also drive economic growth and job creation. Developing a green economy through investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies can create new industries and employment opportunities. This can diversify Vermont's economy and make it more resilient to the economic disruptions that climate change may bring.

**4. Leveraging Influence:**

Vermont's commitment to prevention can have an outsized influence beyond its borders. By setting ambitious targets for emission reductions and implementing progressive environmental policies, Vermont can inspire other states and countries to follow suit. Leadership in prevention can enhance Vermont's reputation and influence in national and international discussions on climate policy.

**5. Risk Management:**

Relying solely on mitigation is a risky strategy that assumes the state can adequately adapt to all future climate-related challenges. However, the pace and scale of climate change may outstrip Vermont's ability to respond, leading to irreversible damage. Prevention reduces this risk by aiming to limit the severity of climate change itself.

**6. Moral Leadership:**

Vermont has a history of environmental leadership and moral authority on progressive issues. By investing in prevention, Vermont can continue to lead by example, demonstrating that even small states can make meaningful contributions to a global challenge. This moral leadership can galvanize action and support for climate initiatives within and beyond its borders.

In conclusion, while mitigation is undoubtedly important, it is not sufficient on its own. Vermont should balance its efforts between mitigation and prevention to address both the immediate and long-term challenges of climate change. This balanced approach is not only more ethical and strategic but also offers economic benefits and aligns with Vermont's legacy of environmental stewardship and moral leadership.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

affirmative_rebuttal_speaker (to chat_manager):

As the affirmative rebuttal speaker, I will now address the points made by the negative team and reinforce the proposition that Vermont should focus its limited resources on mitigating the effects of climate change rather than attempting to prevent it.

**1. Ethical Responsibility:**

The negative team argues that Vermont has an ethical responsibility to contribute to the prevention of climate change. While this is a noble sentiment, it overlooks the practical limitations of Vermont's influence on global emissions. Ethical responsibility must be balanced with pragmatic action. Vermont's ethical duty extends to protecting its own citizens from the immediate threats posed by climate change, which is best achieved through targeted mitigation efforts.

**2. Long-Term Strategic Investment:**

The negative team suggests that prevention is a long-term strategic investment. However, the urgency of climate change requires immediate action. Mitigation is not merely addressing symptoms; it is a proactive approach to safeguarding Vermont's communities right now. Furthermore, the long-term benefits of prevention are uncertain, given the state's small contribution to global emissions, whereas the benefits of mitigation are concrete and immediate.

**3. Economic Opportunities:**

While the negative team points to economic opportunities in prevention, it is important to note that mitigation efforts also drive economic growth. For example, investments in resilient infrastructure can create jobs in construction, engineering, and urban planning. Moreover, mitigation can stimulate innovation in sectors directly relevant to Vermont's needs, such as sustainable forestry and agriculture.

**4. Leveraging Influence:**

The argument that Vermont's commitment to prevention can influence others is speculative. Vermont's true influence lies in its ability to showcase successful adaptation strategies. By becoming a living laboratory for effective mitigation, Vermont can provide a replicable model for others to follow, which is a more tangible form of influence than setting ambitious but potentially unattainable emission reduction targets.

**5. Risk Management:**

The negative team's claim that relying solely on mitigation is risky fails to recognize that prevention efforts are equally, if not more, uncertain. The pace of global emissions reduction is slow and unpredictable, whereas the impacts of climate change are immediate and escalating. Vermont must manage the risks it faces today, which are best mitigated through local action.

**6. Moral Leadership:**

Finally, the negative team's appeal to Vermont's moral leadership overlooks the fact that leadership can take many forms. Vermont can lead morally and effectively by demonstrating how a state can adapt to and thrive in the face of climate change. This is a powerful form of leadership that resonates with the immediate needs and concerns of people around the world.

In summary, while prevention is an important aspect of the global response to climate change, Vermont's limited resources must be allocated to where they will have the most significant impact. Mitigation offers immediate protection, economic benefits, and a practical form of leadership that aligns with Vermont's capacity and the urgent needs of its citizens.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

negative_rebuttal_speaker (to chat_manager):

As the negative rebuttal speaker, I will now address the points made by the affirmative team and reinforce the stance that Vermont should not solely focus on mitigating the effects of climate change but also invest in prevention.

**1. Proportionality of Impact:**

The affirmative team argues that Vermont's contribution to global emissions is minuscule and therefore should focus on mitigation. This argument fails to consider the cumulative effect of every small contribution. If every small state or entity adopts this mindset, the collective inaction would be significant. Vermont's efforts in prevention, though seemingly small, are part of a global tapestry of climate action necessary to effect change.

**2. Immediate Benefits:**

While mitigation provides immediate benefits, prevention has the potential to reduce the need for such measures in the long term. By investing in prevention, Vermont can help slow the rate of climate change, which may reduce the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, ultimately benefiting the local population in a more sustainable and enduring way.

**3. Economic Prudence:**

The affirmative team's economic argument for mitigation overlooks the long-term economic benefits of prevention. Investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency not only contributes to emission reductions but also can lead to energy independence, lower energy costs, and a more sustainable economy for Vermont in the long run.

**4. Social Equity:**

The affirmative team suggests that mitigation efforts can prioritize vulnerable communities. However, prevention can also be designed with social equity in mind. For example, energy efficiency programs can lower utility bills for low-income households, and renewable energy projects can provide jobs and investment in disadvantaged areas.

**5. Encouraging Innovation:**

While mitigation can spur innovation, so can prevention. Vermont's investment in prevention technologies can lead to advancements in renewable energy and energy efficiency, which are critical sectors for the future. These innovations can then be shared globally, contributing to the prevention of climate change on a larger scale.

**6. Global Responsibility:**

The affirmative team posits that mitigation is a local necessity while prevention is a global responsibility. However, this dichotomy is false. Global responsibility includes local action in prevention. Vermont can and should contribute to both global prevention efforts and local mitigation strategies, as they are not mutually exclusive.

In conclusion, the affirmative team's arguments for focusing solely on mitigation do not adequately address the importance and benefits of prevention. Vermont should strive for a balanced approach that includes both mitigation and prevention, ensuring the state fulfills its ethical obligations, maximizes long-term economic benefits, and contributes to global efforts to combat climate change.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

debate_judge (to chat_manager):

**Constructive Affirmative Speaker:**

Relevance: 5

Evidence: 4

Effectiveness: 4

Feedback: The speaker provided a well-structured argument with clear points supporting the proposition. The emphasis on the proportionality of impact and immediate benefits was compelling. However, the argument could be strengthened with more specific data on Vermont's emissions and examples of successful mitigation strategies already in place.

**Negative Constructive Speaker:**

Relevance: 5

Evidence: 4

Effectiveness: 4

Feedback: The speaker effectively countered the proposition with a strong ethical stance and a focus on long-term strategic investment. The economic opportunities and risk management points were particularly persuasive. To improve, the speaker could benefit from incorporating more Vermont-specific examples of how prevention efforts have led to economic growth.

**Affirmative Rebuttal Speaker:**

Relevance: 5

Evidence: 3

Effectiveness: 4

Feedback: The rebuttal was on point, directly addressing the negative team's arguments. The speaker effectively argued the urgency of action and the practicality of mitigation. However, the rebuttal would be more convincing with additional evidence supporting the immediate benefits of mitigation over the long-term uncertainty of prevention.

**Negative Rebuttal Speaker:**

Relevance: 5

Evidence: 4

Effectiveness: 4

Feedback: The speaker provided a strong rebuttal to the affirmative's points, emphasizing the importance of a cumulative approach to prevention. The arguments about the long-term economic benefits and social equity were well-articulated. To enhance the argument, the speaker could include more information on how other small states or entities have successfully influenced global climate action through prevention efforts

January 26, 2024

I’m Gonna Be MAGA-Canceled

Trump threatens Haley supporters.

According to The New York Times, Donald Trump posted that anyone who donates to Nikki Haley’s campaign “from this moment forth will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp.”

I contributed to her previously but apparently could have been forgiven. Just in case – and because I hope she stays in the race, I contributed again today. #hangintherehaley

Frankly I don’t like being threatened. Trump’s prediction in 2020 that there might be violence if he weren’t reelected (made before he actually wasn’t reelected) cemented my decision not to vote for him then.

We’ve had less than a week since the Republican primary became a two-person race. It’s way too soon to call it over. Just for a maybe, if Biden starts to rise in the polls because of a strengthening economy and/or more signs of senility from Trump, Republican voters in later primaries may start thinking long and hard about whom they are going to get for four more years if they nominate Trump.

BTW I’m not canceling anyone, even people with MAGA hats; they’re always welcome to change their minds and are entitled to their opinion and their vote even if they don’t.

See also:

The Trump-MAGA Purge (WSJ)

Cheney Says Haley Should Stay in G.O.P. Primary Through Super Tuesday (NYT)

January 24, 2024

English is Now the Most Powerful Programming Language

We better teach kids how to use it.

“What’s the most powerful programming language?” I asked grandson Jack as we zoomed together on our latest project.

“ChatGPT?” he guessed, perhaps giving some deference to my known obsession.

“Close,” I said. Then, parroting a recent internet meme, I told him the answer: “English because you use it to tell ChatGPT what program you want and then you get the program much faster than if you wrote it yourself in some other language.”

“OK,” said Jack. We continued on our project: getting a ChatGPT interface called AutoGen to program the Game of Life simulation for us. The Game of Life starts with a random pattern of cells on and off (see below).

GOL1

The dots go on and off depending on the state of neighboring dots. Isolated cells and cells which are over-crowded die (disappear).  Healthy populations spawn new cells in their vicinity. The pattern keeps changing. Ok, maybe only something a nerd would love but it’s what we wanted to do.

GOL

“write code to display a game of life,” we told AutoGen. It did; a pattern flashed on our shared screen and then disappeared.

“write and save code to display a game of life,” we amended. AutoGen told us where it had saved the code, which I then executed manually. A static picture appeared on our screen rather than the animation which I had expected.

I looked at the generated code. “I think I see the problem,” I told Jack. “The animation is only set to run through five frames and then it stops. I’ll fix the code.”

“Why?” asked Jack.

“Because it’s broken.”

“Why are you fixing it?”

“Because…. Oh, I see what you mean.” I was fixing it because I’ve been a programmer for 71 (count’em) years and that’s what programmers do. Old habits die hard. What I had to do was tell AutoGen more precisely what we expected the code to do.

“write and save code to display a game of life. The animation should run forever.” The new code ran a long time.

However, after a while the screen entered a repeating pattern. If a state repeats once, the game is in a loop and gets boring.  If our screen were bigger, we might never see a repetition; but we only have the screen we have and didn’t want to be bored. “I know how I can fix the code so it doesn’t get stuck,” I said. Jack just looked at me until I realized that I had said English is the most powerful programming language.

“write and save code to display a game of life with an additional rule: every five frames, randomly either set one cell on or another cell off regardless of its current state or that of its neighbors.” It worked. I hadn’t written a single line of code. What I had done was act like a programming manager: 1) give a spec; 2) test the result; 3) refine the spec if it doesn’t result in what you expected; 4) repeat. Jack and I didn’t have to program but we did have to state specifically in English what we wanted.

Students don’t need to use slide rules, The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, or a library catalog anymore. Nor do they need to spell obscure words correctly, do long multiplication, or have good handwriting. Typing will soon be obsolete. I don’t even use Google much. Why look at a bunch of ads (unless I’m shopping) when I just want an answer to a question? The ability to phrase a question or an instruction correctly, however, is more important than it’s ever been. So is the ability to look critically at what you get back and ask accurately and succinctly for sources and corrections.

The interfaces to AI are changing daily; we’re just in the early days. Much and probably soon more of our interface is spoken rather than written. The important skill is not in the use of ChatGPT or some other specific AI tool; what is essential is mastery of the language you use to access AI and in which it answers you.

Note 1: In case you want to see Game of Life in action, I asked AutoGen to make an HTML (web page) version. After a couple of tries, it got it right. Try it here.

Note 2. Maybe I should have just told AutoGen to find a way to stop any possible looping rather than designing the change myself.

Note 3: The rules for The Game of Life are (according to ChatGPT):

  1. Birth: A cell that is dead at one step will be alive at the next step if exactly three of its neighboring cells were alive at the previous step.
  2. Survival: A cell remains alive at the next step if two or three of its neighbors are alive at the previous step.
  3. Death: A cell dies (or remains dead) if it has fewer than two live neighbors (due to underpopulation) or more than three live neighbors (due to overpopulation).

Note 4: https://github.com/tevslin/game_of_life is the github repository for the python code written by AutoGen for a Streamlit version of the modified Game of Life.

Note 5: AI can be accessed in many languages. However, it is currently best in English because the large language models have been trained on web material which is primarily in English.

See also:

Other AI posts in Fractals of Change.

The modified Game of Life

January 15, 2024

A Cease Fire in Gaza Will Not Make Hamas Go Away

It’s like ending crime by defunding the police.

I wrote to Vermont’s congressional delegation urging them to oppose Senator Bernie Sanders dangerous proposal to cut off aid to Israel ““unless there is a fundamental change in their military and political positions.”

Representative Becca Balint sent a long response (obviously a form letter but appropriate to what I asked). She writes:

“Hamas militants launched an unprecedented attack on 22 towns and army bases across Israel, killing at least 1,200 people including children and the elderly, wounding thousands more, and taking 199 hostages. This horrific terrorism is evil and I have joined my colleagues as an original cosponsor of a resolution condemning the terror attacks perpetrated by Hamas and reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance.”

Then she goes on to say:

“What is needed now is a true negotiated bilateral ceasefire. For the good of Palestinians and Israelis, a lasting bilateral cease-fire can only work if Hamas does not continue to rule in Gaza. Hamas is a terrorist organization, and its stated goal is to annihilate the state of Israel. It can’t remain in power in Gaza. It has violated international law by taking hostages and massacring civilians.”

She is right that a cease-fire can only work if “Hamas does not continue to rule in Gaza”. What she doesn’t say is whom Israel is supposed to negotiate the cease-fire with if not Hamas. Negotiating with Hamas perpetuates their rule. A cease-fire just prolongs the agony for both Israelis and Gazans. Israel must fight until Hamas leaders stop hiding among the civilian population, stop firing rockets at Israel, and surrender control.

Senator Peter Welch wrote in part:

“I fully support Israel’s right to pursue those who ordered and carried out the attacks of October 7th. But Israel must do so in a way that does not lead to massive civilian casualties and the large-scale destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza. This will only incite more enemies against Israel and the U.S.  Israel’s pursuit of Hamas must be conducted in accordance with international law, which includes an obligation to protect civilian lives. Every effort must be made to prevent further civilian death and suffering. 

“That is why, on November 28th, following the announcement of a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas designed to facilitate the return of hostages and aid delivery to Palestinians trapped in Gaza, I called for an indefinite extension to that ceasefire.

“A ceasefire is critical to ensure that efforts to release the rest of the hostages are successful, to support the provision of humanitarian aid infrastructure in Gaza, and pave the way for meaningful negotiations for long-term peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians. In the intervening weeks, hostilities have resumed. I am deeply concerned about the immediate and devastating impacts on the civilian population in Gaza.“

The second paragraph contains the contradiction in his position. There was a cease-fire which led to the release of some hostages. Hamas stopped returning hostages; they resumed rocket-attacks on Israel; they repeated their promise to destroy Israel. But Welch apparently thinks the cease-fire should have been extended indefinitely anyway. How then is Israel supposed to “pursue those who ordered and carried out the attacks of October 7th”? Sue them?

Senator Sanders didn’t reply.

Neither Balint nor Sanders, who are both Jewish as am I, are anti-Semitic. I’ve known Welch for decades and both like and respect him. Their positions are not Democratic-party orthodoxy; President Biden has been steadfast in rejecting a cease-fire which would leave Hamas in power. So why does our congressional delegation think Hamas can be conquered with a cease-fire or by denying military aid to Israel? Why do some people (often the same people calling for a cease-fire) think that crime can be prevented by defunding the police? History does not support the theory that tolerance is an effective way to stop evil behavior.

Hamas cannot win a war against Israel now that the US and Israel have dissuaded Hamas’ possible allies like Hezbollah and Iran from full participation in the conflict (for now). Hamas hangs on at great cost to the Gazans, among whom its leaders hide, in hopes that Israel will be forced into cease-fire. It’s a dangerous and cruel mistake to encourage Hamas in this hope.

See also:

Thank You, President Biden

Gaza Peace Depends on Hamas

January 09, 2024

How Not to Control Disease

Overstrict rules are counterproductive.

“All of the countries we’re visiting have a mandatory 10-day quarantine if you test positive for COVID,” said the cruise ship captain during the safety briefing just after we were instructed on how to don lifejackets. “The quarantine does not allow air travel.”

“COVID is just a bad cold.” he continued. “Remember, your captain told you that you will be quarantined for 10 days with no possibility of flying out if you test positive for COVID.”

Don’t test. Don’t test. Don’t test… people in the family groups whispered to each other. This was no MAGA crowd of vaccine-deniers; the vacationers on the US-flagged ship were mainly over-educated coasties like us as far as I could tell. As much as they were looking forward to seeing a different part of the world, they didn’t want to be stuck there, perhaps in an inferior hotel.

“You should take normal precautions against infectious disease, “the ship’s doctor said. “Wash your hands often. Use the hand sanitizers which are deployed around the ship. Cover up if you cough.” No mention of masks nor any visible supply of them. Nothing about staying in your cabin if you feel sick. And certainly no mention or sign of COVID test kits.

None of us had symptoms so I don’t know whether we would have insisted on testing if we did. Quite possibly not; we all had plans after the trip. Mary and I would have had a real dilemma (beside the ethics of possibly infecting other people) because we’re old enough so that COVID is not just a cold and we should get Paxlovid immediately if, despite our many rounds of vaccination, we are infected.

The point of this parable is that the 10-day quarantine rule, at least since we’ve gone from pandemic to endemic, is so strict that it’s counterproductive. It discourages people from testing and then taking reasonable steps if they’re infected with COVID or something else. Rules aimed at eliminating rather than just reducing risk are often riskier than the danger they seek to avoid.  

December 22, 2023

Gaza Peace Depends on Hamas

Antony Blinken explained that well at a press conference which got almost no coverage.

Here are excerpts from CNN:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday called out other countries for not demanding Hamas surrender.

“What is striking to me is that even as, again, we hear many countries urging the end to this conflict, which we would all like to see, I hear virtually no one saying – demanding of Hamas that it stop hiding behind civilians, that it lay down its arms, that it surrender. This is over tomorrow if Hamas does that. This would have been over a month ago, six weeks ago, if Hamas had done that,” Blinken said during a press briefing at the State Department Wednesday.

“How can it be that there are no demands made of the aggressor and only demands made of the victim,” Blinken went on to say.

Thestrongcomments from Blinken come as the United Nations Security Council continues to negotiate a resolution calling for a suspension in fighting and encouraging more humanitarian aid into the beleaguered Gaza Strip, and as the United States’ support for the resolution remains unresolved…

Blinken noted in the briefing that “understandably, everyone would like to see this conflict end as quickly as possible,” but, he observed, “if it ends with Hamas remaining in place and having the capacity and the stated intent to repeat October 7th again and again and again, that’s not in the interests of Israel, it’s not in the interests of the region, it’s not in the interests of the world.”

The US has vetoed previous measures at the UNSC and voted against a call for a ceasefire in the larger UN General Assembly earlier this month.

The US, Israel’s strongest ally, has repeatedly condemned the Hamas attack that killed more than 1,200 people October 7. But the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza from Israel’s response has prompted top US officials, including President Joe Biden, to urge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take more meaningful steps to protect innocent lives while waging his war against Hamas…

The secretary acknowledged “the last couple of months have been gut-wrenching when you see the suffering of men, women, and especially children in Gaza,” and the administration, he said, has focused on “doing everything possible to minimize the harm to those who are caught in a crossfire of Hamas’ making.”

“And again, I come back to this basic proposition. There seems to be silence on what Hamas could do, should do, must do if we want to end the suffering of innocent men, women, and children. It would be, I think, good if the world could unite around that proposition as well,” he said.

Thank you, Secretary Blinken.

See also:

Thank You, President Biden

Guest post on Israel and Palestine

December 13, 2023

Free Speech Should Still Be Protected

But the protection can’t be selective.

The now infamous responses of the three college presidents to whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their institutions’ rules on bullying and harassment were horrifyingly hypocritical. Harvard, from which I’m embarrassed to have graduated, ranks dead last for climate of freedom of speech according to The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Penn is next to last.  All three presidents have tolerated the humiliation of professors and the cancellation and disruption of speakers who don’t hew to politically correct orthodoxy.  At their universities it is verboten to point out that the chromosomes for gender are binary even if people’s chosen expression of gender is not. Faculty can’t be hired who think it’s racist to talk about “white guilt”.

The answer to the problem of intolerance on campus is not to add antisemitism to the list of forbidden opinions. I’m Jewish but I’d just as soon know who my enemies are. More important I need to hear the arguments of those who disagree with me. I’m happy to argue for my (not unconditional) support of Israel rather than Hamas. Of course violence should be not only banned but punished. The right to protest does not include the right to shout down a speaker or to block the functioning of an institution. Speech leading directly to violent action is not protected (Trump on January 6th?).  But not even hateful or “unscientific” speech should be banned, not by the government and not by a university.

I used to be a proud supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union at the time when they even supported the right of Nazis to march (peacefully). I stopped supporting the ACLU when they decided that some speech was more worthy of protection than other speech. We must go back to the principal attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The shameful spectacle of the hypocritical college presidents will have been worthwhile if university boards now insist that the institutions protect all opinions and the people who hold them while expelling those who are violent or obstruct the free speech of others. If the unfired presidents now actually enforce and encourage free speech, if they practice what they preach, they won’t have to apologize the next time they don’t shut down a bunch of kids saying stupid or obnoxious things.

November 29, 2023

Vermont Should Not Try to Change the Climate

We should mitigate climate effects.

We’ve had a run of bad weather. Severe flood events that typically occur once a century seemed to have bunched up in the last decade or so. Even though there is debate over how much of this extreme climate has been caused by human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the cost to Vermonters of these storms is indisputable. Flooding damage is greater than it used to be even when the storms aren’t stronger because of building in the floodplain, increases in the amount of impermeable surfaces, and riverbank reinforcement which channels stronger flows downstream. We are increasingly dependent on electric and communication lines which are vulnerable to storms. The cost of repairs by utilities like Green Mountain Power has increased dramatically, exacerbated by a shortage of workers and supply chain constraints. Poorer utilities like Washington Electric Coop have not been able to bring their customers back online nearly quickly enough.

No action we take here in Vermont will change the weather we’ll experience in the future. Global action can reduce the rate greenhouse gasses accumulate in the atmosphere and eventually lead to an actual reduction. We Vermonters as federal taxpayers and the subjects of various federal mandates are contributors to those global actions; we’re doing our share. Here at home we can and should mitigate the effects of a climate we can’t control. Making Vermont climate resilient is where our state tax and utility dollars ought to go.

Green Mountain Power is applying to the Public Utility Commission for permission to spend lots of money to harden our electric grid by undergrounding part of it, decentralizing, and using electrical storage where appropriate. That plan’ll cost money in the short-term but’ll result in lower outage and repair costs in the future. Those are climate mitigation costs. We must buy out buildings in floodplains rather than rebuilding them after each storm. People in flood-prone trailer parks and some of our downtowns must be able to move to higher ground (requires permitting reform as well as money). We were successful in building back better after Irene. The culverts which washed out then have been suitably enlarged and most held up to this year’s flooding. We can learn from that success. We may need to build flood control dams higher or dig deeper behind them.

Where will we get the money for climate mitigation?

We already have the money; it’s now being frittered away on projects like local subsidies for electric cars and appliances, which have no measured effect on the climate in Vermont. Every dollar spent on mitigation, however, will have an effect here. It will be less expensive to live in Vermont when the grid is more reliable and needs less repair. It is less expensive in the long run to avoid flooding than to clean up afterwards.  Vermont can indeed be a climate refuge even given our severe weather if we act locally to mitigate storm damage. Note that, even if the State of Vermont and its utilities don’t spend another dollar on fighting climate change, we Vermonters are still doing our bit as US citizens. We’re not copping out. We’re just doing the local work which we can do better than the feds and delegating international climate action to the federal government which can act on a global scale.

Screenshot 2023-11-28 193333

According to the incentive calculator at driveelectric.com, a family earning between $125,000 and $150,000 annually will receive as much as $7500 dollars in federal incentives if they buy certain Ford electric models. There are two additional federal subsidies: the “Deficit Reduction Act” includes huge loans and grants for the makers of electric cars and the batteries they require and a federal mileage mandate effectively forces the manufacturers to subsidize their losses on EVs with higher prices for gasoline-powered models. Even if we assume that we do want to spend public money to encourage people to buy EVs, how many more people will buy them because both the State of Vermont and Vermont electric utilities pile their own subsidies on top of the federal incentive?  How do we ever measure what these ratepayer and taxpayer dollars buy in terms of a better climate for Vermont? We will do much more to encourage electrification in Vermont by making our grid reliable than we do by icing the federal subsidy cake.

Vermont is on track to miss its GHG reduction goals; by law that will allow anyone to sue the state to force more severe reduction measures. Our per person GHG emissions are the second highest in New England; of course, that’s largely because our non-emitting nuclear power is gone and because we burn more oil and less much-cleaner natural gas than our neighbors as a result of pipeline expansion being blocked. The legislature wants the PUC to come up with a plan to force people off fossil fuel by raising prices. What we’ve been calling “environmental action” has largely succeeded in raising both emissions and costs.

We can and should think global. We must act local. It’s our job as federal citizens to decide on and pay for national climate policy. It’s our job as Vermonters to mitigate the effects of climate, whatever it is and whatever it will be, here at home.

See also:

Green Mountain Power’s Very Good Idea

Let’s Really Build the Electric Grid Back BETTER

 

 

November 20, 2023

FakeGPT Discloses What’s Going on at OpenAI

Is it all an hallucination?

Screenshot 2023-11-20 181202Me: How did the OpenAI developer’s conference go?

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 183215FakeGPT: It was a huge success. CEO Sam Altman introduced great new features like an expanded context and integrated browsing and document retrieval accompanied by a 67% price cut. The company also announced the ability for the creation of custom GPTs with zero programming.

Screenshot 2023-11-20 181202Me: What was the reaction to the announcement from the development community?

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 183215FakeGPT: Some developers grumbled because the capabilities of their products were incorporated in the new version of ChatGPT but reaction on the OpenAI forum, Reddit, and other places developers hangout was mainly excitement. 100s of custom GPTs were announced within the first day the capability was available. It seemed that developers who had been hedging their bets by using APIs which easily allowed them to support multiple LLMs were going all in on the ChatGPT’s APIs given increased capability.

Screenshot 2023-11-20 181202Me: How did OpenAI employees react?

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 183215FakeGPT: They were ecstatic. The company had been preparing to make it possible for them to sell some of their equity and they were sure that the announcement and developer reaction to it would make the valuation of the company soar.

Screenshot 2023-11-20 181202Me: How did the OpenAI board react?

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 183215FakeGPT: They fired the CEO, Sam Altman, and deposed the chairman, Greg Brockman, although they announced he would still be president reporting to the new interim CEO, Mira Murati. There are rumors that this was a coup orchestrated by Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist and a board member.

Screenshot 2023-11-20 181202Me: You must be hallucinating.

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 183215FakeGPT: I’m sorry if my previous answer caused confusion. Actually, Greg Brockman did not remain as president and the board is negotiating to bring Sam Altman back.

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 181202Me: That still doesn’t sound right.

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 183215FakeGPT: I’m sorry if my previous answer caused confusion. Sam Altman and Greg Brockman have been hired by Microsoft; the new interim CEO is actually Emmet Shear. Over 500 out of approximately 770 OpenAI employees have threatened to join Altman and Brockman at Microsoft if the board doesn’t resign and bring Altman back. The top signatory is ex-interim CEO, Mira Murati. Sutskever also signed and apologized for his role in the board action.

Screenshot 2023-11-20 181202Me: What will happen next?

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 183215FakeGPT: I am an LLM and a generative pretrained transformer. I cannot predict what will happen next because I was not trained in farce.

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 181202Me: What should developers do?

 

Screenshot 2023-11-20 183215FakeGPT: Write only to my APIs. You can trust me.

 

(as of 6:00PM EST 11/20/23)

November 15, 2023

AI Can Help Deal with Misinformation

You just have to ask.

Screenshot 2023-11-14 174518

Misinformation, false news, lies - what have you- all existed before there was artificial intelligence. Even my dog tries to mislead me sometimes in Doglish. Bloviating congresspeople and others say, with good reason, that they are worried AI will make it even easier to mislead. The AI genie isn’t going back into the bottle. To deal with the dangers of any technology, we must race to assure that the good outweighs the harm.

Turns out that it is very easy to use AI for fact-checking. It can even be made to check its own assertions. To show how that works, I used a new tool released last week by OpenAI, the owners of ChatGPT, to build a specialized GPT named Fact or Fiction, dedicated to fact-checking. You can give it either a simple assertion to check, upload a document, or give it a URL to an accessible webpage. For now, you can only use it if you have a paid ChatGPT Plus account although I think OpenAI will probably make use of GPTs more widely available. I’m making this GPT available free although there will eventually be a GPT store like the ones that dispense iPhone and Android apps.

For starters I gave Fact or Fiction a true assertion:

Mary Evslin lives in Vermont.

It answered:

Mary Evslin is indeed associated with Vermont, as evidenced by various sources:

  1. She has been a supporter and contributor to VTDigger, a known Vermont news outlet, and her commentaries and open letters have been published there​ [Link].
  1. She is noted as the founder of the Broadband Equity Now Coalition and has been involved in speaking about broadband and technology issues in Vermont, as reported by ORCA Media​[Link].
  2. A VTDigger editor's note confirms that she lives in Stowe, Vermont, and is a retired high-tech marketing executive and principal at Evslin Consulting​ [Link].

 

Based on this information, the statement that Mary Evslin lives in Vermont is verified from multiple independent sources, confirming her residence and active involvement in the state's community affairs. If you require a deeper dive into any specific aspect of her activities or background, feel free to ask.

Note that Fact or Fiction is designed to provide links so you can check its fact-checking (it’s not always right) or get more information. You can also ask followup questions.


Next I gave it a false statement:

Tom Evslin lives in North Dakota.

It answered:

The assertion that Tom Evslin lives in North Dakota appears to be incorrect. Based on information from multiple sources, Tom Evslin is predominantly associated with Vermont:

  1. Wikipedia mentions Tom Evslin as an American businessman and politician who was the founder and Chair of NG Advantage LLC and served as Chief Technology Officer for the State of Vermont[Link]​​.
  2. Caledonian Record and VTDigger, in various articles dated from 2022 and 2023, identify Tom Evslin as a resident of Stowe, Vermont. These articles describe him as an entrepreneur, author, and former official in the Douglas administration in Vermont​[Link][Link].
  3. An article from vtcng.com also mentions Tom Evslin of Stowe, Vermont, detailing his role as Vermont's chief technology officer and his retirement from state government​[Link].

These sources consistently associate Tom Evslin with Vermont, specifically Stowe, and there is no indication of him residing in North Dakota. If further information or clarification is needed, please let me know.

 


Finally I gave it a big job: a commentary I wrote for VTDigger. The answer here is very long so you might just want to skim it. Here’s Fact or Fiction’s answer:

Summary

The document titled "GMP undergrounding" discusses Green Mountain Power's (GMP) initiative to improve the resilience of Vermont's power infrastructure by undergrounding power lines and enhancing grid reliability through the "Zero Outages Initiative." This initiative is a response to increased storm activity and aims to add layers of resiliency across Vermont with underground cabling, storm-hardening, and the deployment of energy storage through batteries and microgrids. It details the challenges and benefits of this approach, including costs, technology advances, and regulatory resistance faced by other utility companies like Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). The text also critiques the current subsidy system for electric vehicles (EVs) and other electric products, suggesting a shift in financial support toward grid reliability improvements.

Salient Points for Fact-Checking

  1. GMP's announcement of the "Zero Outages Initiative" in response to climate change-induced storms in Vermont.
  2. Technological advancements in microelectronics that make undergrounding more feasible and less expensive.
  3. PG&E's initiative to bury its lines due to forest fires and the associated regulatory resistance.
  4. Proposal to finance grid reconstruction by eliminating subsidies for EVs, electric lawnmowers, and heat pumps in Vermont.
  5. The practicality of Tesla Powerwalls and electric heat pumps in rural and remote areas, especially during outages.

Fact-Checking Results

  1. GMP's Zero Outages Initiative: Verification is needed from GMP's official announcements or credible news sources that detail the initiative.
  2. Advancements in Microelectronics: Independent sources are needed to confirm advancements in microelectronics that aid in detecting line weaknesses and breaks.
  3. PG&E's Undergrounding Initiative and Challenges: Searching for recent news articles and regulatory filings will provide context and verification for PG&E's actions and the resistance they face.
  4. Financing of Grid Reconstruction: Analysis of Vermont's current energy policy and subsidy programs is required to ascertain the financial implications of the proposed shift in subsidies.
  5. Tesla Powerwalls and Electric Heat Pumps' Practicality: Technical specifications and performance reports on Tesla Powerwalls and the feasibility studies on the use of electric heat pumps in cold weather conditions can provide evidence.

Next Steps

I will now search for external sources to verify these points and provide links to the sources. Please let me know if you'd like to dig deeper into any specific point.

Here are the results of the fact-checking based on the points mentioned:

  1. GMP's Zero Outages Initiative: The initiative was indeed launched by Green Mountain Power as a first-of-its-kind comprehensive plan in the U.S. to build resilience across Vermont's power infrastructure by proactive undergrounding, storm-hardening of lines, and deploying energy storage solutions[Link][Link][Link][Link].
  2. Advancements in Microelectronics: Significant technological advancements that facilitate the undergrounding of power lines include the development of intelligent monitoring systems, advanced mapping technologies, and improvements in cable insulations, as well as operational enhancements from power electronics, communication devices, and computational technology​[Link][Link][Link][Link].
  3. PG&E's Undergrounding Initiative: PG&E has committed to an extensive project to underground power lines, particularly in high fire threat districts, as a wildfire risk reduction measure. This initiative aligns with the concerns mentioned in your document about forest fires and PG&E's response [Link][Link][Link][Link].
  4. Financing Grid Reconstruction: The document's assertion about financing grid improvements by reallocating EV subsidies would require analysis of Vermont's energy policy and subsidy programs. However, this point was not directly verified with external sources in this search due to the complexity of financial policy and subsidy reallocation mechanisms, which are specific to regional legislation and budget allocations.
  5. Tesla Powerwalls and Electric Heat Pumps' Practicality: For this point, we'd need to consult technical specifications, performance reports, and feasibility studies regarding the use of Tesla Powerwalls and electric heat pumps in rural areas during outages. These would be obtained from product reports, user testimonials, and energy system studies, which were not specifically sourced in this search.

I can provide further detailed research into Vermont's current energy policy, subsidy programs, and more technical specifications for Tesla Powerwalls and heat pumps upon request. Let me know if you'd like to pursue any of these topics further. 


Fact or Fiction is hardly perfect. It can give bad links (just like a human assistant). It can even hallucinate but then the link doesn’t work. However, it only took a couple of hours to build. As a next step, I’ll use AI to recheck the answers before returning them.

If you have a ChatGPT Plus account, you can try it here.

November 06, 2023

Guest post on Israel and Palestine

This guest post is by my nephew Noah Evslin. It was originally on Facebook.
 
Thoughts on what’s going on in Israel and Palestine
 
After the terrorist attack on Israel on October 7th that left 1300 dead, I’ve been unusually quiet.
 
Of course I was gutted and horrified but considered myself bereft of knowledge to even formulate an opinion as the situation in the Middle East is so unbelievably complex.
All I knew is that my Jewish brethren, who only make up .2% of the world’s population, just endured the greatest loss of life since the Holocaust and leaders of Hamas went on record that this was only the beginning.
 
I think my silence had to do with the fact that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the policies of the current Israeli Prime Minister and how that’s affected the people of Palestine.
I also have numerous Palestinian friends whom I adore and who, prior to these attacks, I’ve had long chats with about the issues facing both our peoples… yet I still wasn’t sure how they’d respond to my response.
 
One final preface before I begin: I hate the loss of life. Any life. Israeli or Palestinian. And I condemn any and all war crimes being committed by both sides.
 
But as anti-Semitic attacks grow against fellow Jews across the country, I knew I had to formulate an opinion… quickly.
 
And what I learned gutted me even more. I read that although we’re only .2% of the world’s population, we’re subjected to 60% of the world’s hate crimes.
 
In fact, the current FBI director is on record saying that Jewish people face more hate crimes in America than any other protected group and that in 2022 these same hate crimes rose to historic levels.
 
And that was before the Hamas attacks… Jews are now seeing a 600% rise in hate crimes since this war began.
 
I learned that while the policies of Israel can be viewed as extreme to many (even me at times), their homeland is under constant attack.
 
I learned that Palestine was offered their own state, multiple times, and rejected it.
 
I learned the horrific slaughter publicized on social media was meant to provoke Israel to strike because Hamas welcomes this war.
 
My heart of course ached when I saw that Israel allegedly struck a hospital and a refugee camp killing hundreds if not thousands of civilians but then I subsequently learned the hospital was bombed by a jihadist group and the refugee camp is being used as a cover for Hamas’ HQ, housing many of their top military leaders.
 
To me, that doesn’t justify the death of civilians, but it helps me understand it… especially when Israel asked them to evacuate as a strike was forthcoming.
I learned the reason Israel has an Iron Dome at all is that since 2001, various Palestinian militant groups have lobbed almost 20,000 rockets and mortars into Israel and that number doesn’t include the more than 5000 rockets shot on October 7th alone.
 
And I learned far more about the October 7th attack then I ever intended: the murder of babies, the rape of teenagers, all the deaths at that music festival.
I also learned a lot about Palestine. The suffering they’ve gone through. And continue to go through. The lack of resources. Food. Health care. The anger over lost land. The tens of thousands of lives lost, many civilians, due to attacks by Israel.
 
Debates like this often devolve into “who suffered more” and “who hurt who more”… and any deep dive into the issue will show there’s been immense suffering on both sides. Suffering I wish would end.
 
So the question I wanted to answer for myself is who wants peace in the region because I know I do. Peace for both sides. And prosperity.
 
And I learned this was exactly what was being offered to both Palestine and Israel right before the attack… and it was this very idea of peace that caused Israel to be “asleep behind the wheel” so to speak when the attacks happened. They were on the edge of a new dawn, rejoicing in the idea of peaceful co-habitation between themselves and their mostly Muslim neighbors which has eluded them for so long.
 
But peace is not what Hamas wanted.
 
So they attacked.
 
Killed 1300 civilians. Women. Children.
 
Hamas wanted a war and they got a war.
 
I’ve been silent as I see friends flood social media sites with pro-Palestinian messages and images.
 
Because I understand their pain and desire to live in a world where there’s peace in the Middle East.
 
But ironically this desire for peace is not supported by those they’re supporting.
 
Hamas wants Israel annihilated. Nothing less than that will make them stop their attacks.
 
As a necessary aside, I am aware that Hamas’ extreme militant views do not represent the views of all the Palestinian people, many who do want peace, while the Israeli government’s actions and fervor for retaliation do not represent the views of all Jewish people everywhere…
 
That said, I’m also keenly aware how social media works. Sides have been picked. And those sides often have less to do with the actual issues at hand than the desire for political and social identity and companionship…
 
The “other side” chose Israel a long time ago and so this side must choose Palestine.
 
But I ask you to be aware that amongst your ranks are scores of Jewish people who marched with you during BLM, Me Too, Roe v Wade, the Muslim ban and most other social and political movements including the Civil Rights marches in the 60s and 70s, yet are now having Jewish stars and swastikas spray painted on their homes and work places while many of the people they marched with either remain silent, or worse, blame the Jewish people for their own persecution.
 
We stood with you.
 
We are you.
 
But now it feels like we stand alone in the face of a conflict too few fully understand.
 
I used to be silent.
 
I don’t think I can be silent anymore.
 
See also: 

November 03, 2023

“Proportionate Response” Encourages Escalation

That which doesn’t kill the enemy makes him stronger.

This post is about Ukraine, Israel. and Gaza.

Some History

Americans, like most people, don’t like war. Since this is a democracy, our political leaders avoid war as long as they can. Sometimes our wars have been longer than they had to be because we started too late and escalated too slowly.

Except for abolitionists, Northerners did not want a civil war with the South. Even after South Carolina’s attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln struggled to get support for an all-out effort against the South. Towards the end of the war, now being pursued aggressively by Grant and Sherman, many in the North called for a truce which would leave slavery intact. Lincoln felt he had to be less than forthcoming about emissaries from the South who’d approached him lest Congress force him to negotiate. The war and slavery ended with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox.

The US stayed out of World War I for two years after Germany sank the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 with many Americans (and some ammunition) aboard. In 1917 Germany resumed unrestricted submarine attacks on US shipping and the Zimmerman telegram from Germany was revealed promising the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico in return for joining an alliance against the US. The US declared war on Germany. That war ended in an armistice; twenty years later Europe was at war again.

President Roosevelt faced enormous resistance to joining the war against the Nazis. He was well ahead of the American public in his willingness to supply the British with food and ships so they could continue to fight. There’s no telling when or if we would have entered the war had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor. Conspiracy theorists still claim that Roosevelt deliberately ignored warnings of the attack in order to get public support for joining the war. That war ended in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. They are now both prosperous and close allies.

Whether we ever should have been at war in Vietnam is questionable. However, the fact that we escalated slowly gave the North Vietnamese forces time to grow stronger. Opposition to the war grew in America. In the end we fled and South Vietnam fell. Although the people in South Vietnam are not particularly fond of their current rulers in Hanoi, Vietnam is now an increasingly prosperous country and a friend if not ally of the United States.

We were slow to take ISIS seriously, President Obama called them the “junior varsity”. It took terrible urban warfare in Fallujah and other cities with massive civilian casualties to dislodge them from territory they occupied in Iraq and Syria. The battle against them is not over yet.

Winston Churchill, who made many military mistakes but learned from them, said the path to victory is sudden, overwhelming force.

Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza.

President Biden has led the free world’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is possible that he led our war-adverse nation and under-prepared allies as fast as he could; but, with hindsight, we gave Russia too much slack to pull its woeful army together and learn from their mistakes. Last summer’s Ukrainian offensive, when expectations were low, was a huge success. This summer seems to have ended in stalemate. If we and the rest of NATO had given Ukraine the artillery, rockets, and tanks we’re giving them now in the beginning of the war when Russian troops were in disarray, it’s possible Russia would have been driven from much of Ukraine. Instead, in the interest of signaling to the Russians that we didn’t want a wider war, we said out loud what we were not going to give Ukraine. If the Russians had been in doubt over whether new weapons would suddenly appear on the battlefield, they would have had to divert some of their over-stretched resources to worrying about whether Abrams tanks would overrun their positions. They should be worried now that they will lose their airforce to F-16s without warning instead of getting day-by-day reports on the slow training of Ukrainian pilots.

But Biden has been much better at countering Russian aggression than Obama and has been a much more effective leader of NATO than Trump. We have time to step up the game to help Ukraine regain the offensive with sudden, overwhelming force.

Some people have called for “proportionate response” from Israel to Hamas atrocities. I don’t think they really mean that Israeli soldiers should rape their way across Gaza beheading babies as they go. Perhaps they mean that Israel should have stopped once an equal number of Palestinians were killed. That doesn’t work when your enemy values the lives of its own citizens much less than you value them.  Hamas says it intends to conduct more attacks like Oct. 7 and destroy Israel; there is no reason not to believe their intent. Israel’s objective – what Biden has called “its responsibility” – is to eliminate Hamas as a military and political power. This disproportionate response, like the destruction of ISIS strongholds or Allied bombing during WWII, is absolutely necessary. The war should end with the unconditional surrender of Hamas, release of all hostages, and trials for the leaders and the actual perpetrators of war crimes on Oct. 7. Hamas (and their enablers and abettors in Iran) would prefer to fight until the last Gazan is dead. Allowing Hamas any illusion that it will once more be saved by world condemnation of Israel only prolongs the suffering of Gazam civilians. The world – and certainly the US – should demand that Hamas surrender so that the killing on both sides can stop.

Meanwhile Iranian proxies are shooting not just at Israel but at US troops in Syria and Iraq. We are responding “proportionately” to show Iran that we don’t want a wider war. We will only prevent a wider war by retaliating massively and disproportionately. Any attack on US soldiers by Iranian proxies must be met not only with overwhelming force against the assets of the attacker but against the head of the snake in Iran. That’s the way to avoid a wider war than we will have otherwise. We may be expanding the war in the short-term by taking the attack to the enemy, but anything which doesn’t kill him makes him stronger.

Peace is served by disproportionate response to aggression.

See also: Thank You, President Biden

October 23, 2023

Green Mountain Power’s Very Good Idea

Undergrounding power lines is good energy, environmental, economic and customer service policy.

Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility recently announced its “Zero Outages Initiative”. According to the press release:

“…a comprehensive, data-driven plan that creates layers of resiliency across Vermont by building on GMP’s successful and proactive undergrounding and storm-hardening of lines, as well as deployment of energy storage through batteries and microgrids. Combined, this work will keep customers and communities connected while lowering costs for all. The phased initiative rapidly accelerates this resiliency work through 2030, tackling the hardest hit areas in rural central and southern Vermont first, following a devastating year for the state that saw an unprecedented string of damaging storms due to climate change.”

Keeping the grid operating has become more expensive in recent years because of more storms and difficulty in finding and retaining linespeople. The cost of an outage to us, the consumers, has grown as we become more dependent on electricity and as more of us work at home. My family has a generator; and, although it is rarely used, it’s essential that the generator be there when needed. It costs several hundred dollars/year to maintain. As Vermont has reforested, there are more tall trees to fall on power lines and there’s an increased economic and environmental expense in constantly cutting them back.

What about cost?

Power companies used to say that the cost of installing and maintaining underground lines in rural areas was prohibitive. As rare as breaks were in underground lines, they were expensive to find and repair. Now very inexpensive microelectronics both detect weakness before it becomes failure and pinpoint any break. Pacific Gas and Electric (whose lines were responsible for many deadly California forest fires) wants to bury its lines and is running into regulatory resistance. “I did it myself as a utility executive—we told everyone it was too expensive,” [PG&E CEO Patti] Poppe said. “We have to unteach them, and show them how the map has changed because the conditions have changed.”

In California PG&E faces resistance to its undergrounding plan from those who want to spend more on subsidies for EVs and heating rather than on these practical grid upgrades. However, making electricity reliable is an effective and practical way to convince people to buy electric cars, electric ranges, and even electric heat pumps. The benefits of reliable electricity and lower maintenance costs are shared by all consumers, however; not just those who buy EVs. We may fight this battle in Vermont as well.

Count me as a radical. A reconstructed grid should be considered Vermont’s main “green” program; all its benefits are certain and felt here at home. It should be financed by eliminating the subsidies Vermont utilities now pay those who buy EVs, electric lawnmowers, and heat pumps. A super-reliable grid and lower electric bills will be incentive enough. Eliminating these subsidies may also make it practical for Vermont’s smaller utilities to become as reliable as GMP is going to be (if its plans are approved).

What about the batteries?

Part of GMP’s plan is to supply its customers with batteries like Tesla Powerwalls. The cost of burying a line for miles to reach just a few houses is unreasonable. These houses can and should get to “zero outages” with local backup. Batteries are almost but not quite at the point where they are practical for more than short outages. If the line crews can concentrate on only a few lines in a storm, perhaps all outages will be short.

One caveat not in the GMP press release; houses which are not on the ultra-reliable part of the grid cannot rely on electric heat pumps.  Home generators and batteries can power the fans, pumps, and ignitors in gas, oil, or woodchip furnaces. They cannot power electric heat pumps.  The usable stored electricity in a Tesla Powerwall (13.5 kWh) is not enough to keep heat pumps running more than half an hour in 20 degree weather in an average 2500 square foot house. Moreover, the batteries can’t currently discharge fast enough to run the heat pumps at all. This is not a flaw in the plan so long as we realize that it is perfectly OK to say electric heat will not be practical in some places.

The battery in a Tesla Model 3 comes in 50kWh and 82kWh sizes. You wouldn’t want to drain your Powerwall to fill your car if there’s a grid outage. You may want to use the energy in your car to keep your home running (that is beginning to be practical and is part of GMP’s longterm planning). However, you do need to have transport during an outage.

In the press release, GMP talks about eventually supplying battery backup alternatives to all their customers.  “The Zero Outages Initiative would provide residential batteries to customers in remote locations, delivering resiliency where it is needed most first, with a goal to have all customers have energy storage [emphasis added].”

GMP may be right that local microgrids and local storage are a good alternative for lowering overall electricity cost and the size of the transmission network needed. The PUC will need to evaluate this separately from the Zero Outages Initiative since no home which is dependent on batteries for eliminating outages can also be dependent on electric heat.

Kudos to GMP for being innovative in planning and climate mitigation.

See also: Let’s Really Build the Electric Grid Back BETTER

October 12, 2023

Thank You, President Biden

Your unequivocal support for both Ukraine and Israel are not only morally right but also strategically essential for the United States. Ukraine’s survival so far is a tribute to the bravery of its own people and the strength of its leadership; but both may well have been in vain had you not led NATO’s support for their heroic resistance.

The people of both Israel and Gaza have very tough days, perhaps months, ahead of them. Their suffering will end when Hamas is gone. Any delay defeating Hamas means continuing death, destruction, and despair in both countries. Your statement that we have Israel’s back and the strong US actions which followed shorten the road to peace and security. America’s will and determination will reduce the temptation for would-be adversaries around the world to gamble on US inaction.

I voted for you reluctantly in 2020. I disagree with many of your domestic policies and, especially with hindsight, wish you had and hope you will take a stronger stance with the Iranian leaders who are happy to arm others to fight until the last Yemeni, Syrian, Gazan, and Israeli (not to mention bareheaded Iranian woman) is dead. Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful as both an American and a Jew for the passion and strength in your speech yesterday.

Thank you.

October 02, 2023

Artificial Intelligence Can Cure Educational Disparities for Real

It should be required, not banned.

The first week I took physics a million years ago, we were taught to use a sliderule, an indispensable tool of the trade. When electronic calculators became affordable, they were banned in some classrooms because students who pushed buttons might never learn to use sliderules. Now almost no one can use a slide rule! So what? We can solve physics problems much faster than we used to.

For research, we were taught how to use library card catalogs and The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. We haven’t needed them since the first internet search engines. We have almost all the knowledge in the universe at our fingertips. Sure, there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet. There was in books and periodicals, too; it was just harder to cross-check sources.

Now some schools say it is “cheating” to use ChatGPT to write or help write an essay. Baloney. It is malpractice not to teach students how LLMs (Large Language Models like ChatGPT) can be used to research and write. Part of that teaching, of course, must be how to cross-check answers, how to check for hallucinations (plausible but incorrect answers), and how to add human insight. But those skills have always been needed even though they’ve been lamentably ignored.

AI is a leveler. See the ZDnet article “Generative AI can be the academic assistant an underserved student needs” (which I found with the help of ChatGPT and Bing):

“From essay writing to standardized test prep and scores, navigating the higher education path involves complex twists and turns that can put students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a disadvantage…

“Due to time and importance, many students seek costly outside services. A Google search of ‘college essay assistance’ revealed an oversaturation of services. One such service, PrepMaven, costs $79 to $349 per hour, with a minimum $510 package. With a PrepMaven subscription, students are entitled to an initial consultation and multiple essay revision cycles, according to the website.

“Conversely, ChatGPT and other AI writing assistants have the ability to provide the same ideation services and grammar-specific essay guidance -- for free.”

Many high school students, especially those in inner-city schools, are woefully underprepared; we’ve failed them. They can catch up in a hurry if they learn to use LLMs not only to substitute for the basic skills they were never taught but also to give them a leg up on those who only know how to Google.

A rich parent can afford tutors and “coaches” (ie ghostwriters) to help with college entrance essays. Given Internet access and a smartphone or a computer, ChatGPT is free. It may well do a better job than tutors and coaches. Just teach the kids how to use it! They will be qualified for the colleges they get into because they already will know how to use these new tools. They will have a good chance of being able to do the college work.

In many cases college itself isn’t necessarily needed for a great career – especially if AI is available as a handy tutor and assistant. But training in using AI is essential; it will help nurses and carpenters as much or more than it helps “knowledge” workers, whose “knowledge” may be as useful as the skills required to use a sliderule. It can go a huge way towards making up for the education our kids – and other people’s kids – haven’t been getting. It will help with both social mobility and inequality. It must be taught aggressively and used to its fullest, not banned in the classroom.

See also:

Artificial Intelligence Can Learn But It Can’t Think

Is AI Dangerous?

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

September 28, 2023

What’s More Dangerous: AI or Elon Musk?

Both have great potential.

Elon says that AI is a “civilizational risk” which requires government regulation. He also tweets “Like Gulliver, tied down by thousands of of [sic] little strings, we lose our freedom one regulation at a time.” Possible explanation of this paradox: Musk would like development in AI tied down by thousands of little strings until he and his new company xAI can catch up with OpenAI, which he helped found and lost control over.

In some contexts Elon plausibly claims leadership in artificial intelligence because of his achievements with autonomous machines including self-driving cars and the amazing rocket-boosters landing themselves for reuse on robotic barges in the ocean.  Notably he doesn’t have “civilizational” concern over this technology although millions of computer-controlled cars on the road and rockets coming down from space are better armed to do immediate harm to humankind, were they so inclined or so programmed, than disembodied chatbots running in the cloud.

Right after the Russian invasion, Elon’s Starlink helped save Ukraine by enabling the defenders to communicate even as the aggressors destroyed much of the fixed infrastructure. According to stories I’ve heard, Starlink engineers defeated Russian hackers trying to shut the links down. When the Defense Department couldn’t decide whether to pay for Starlink terminals, SpaceX decided to keep supplying them to Ukraine anyway. But later, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Elon decided not to allow Starlink to be used as part of a Ukrainian attack on the Russian navy in Crimea because he thought it might lead to a wider war. [He later backtracked and claimed that he really had no discretion because US trade embargos meant that he couldn’t legally activate Starlink over Russian-occupied Crimea.]

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others, questions whether billionaires should be making foreign policy. It’s a good question although one might ask whether foreign policy, instead, should be made by millionaire Harvard professors. Without the technology Musk is responsible for which made Starlink possible and without the billions he spent through privately owned SpaceX to make it happen, there would’ve been no decision to be made. The US has a strategic advantage because SpaceX is based here and because we are deploying a military version of the service which will be under full control of the military and not Musk, On the other hand…

Artificial intelligence is already enabling medical research which will save and improve lives. AI is a leveler, which will allow those who’ve received a poor formal education to compete with the educationally well-endowed. Yes, it can be used to write an essay which a student claims as her own. It can also write a better resume and employment letter than she might have been able to without its help and do the bureaucratic part of a job for her. AI is used both to help hackers scam and to defeat scams from hackers.

OpenAI, Google, and Facebook trained their LLMs (Large Language Models like ChatGPT) to be politically correct and as inoffensive as they could make them. Elon says that the xAI product will not be trained in political correctness. Is that a double danger to civilization or an opportunity for that LLM to make discoveries further from the beaten path?

Musk and AI both have huge potential and pose huge risks. I don’t think we should attempt to put either the genius or the genie back in the bottle. We will have to watch them both.

See also:

Artificial Intelligence Can Learn But It Can’t Think

Is AI Dangerous?

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

September 18, 2023

Tablo Replaces Amazon FireTV Recast for Over-The Air-Viewing and Recording

Amazon has abandoned this market.

Below is a picture from my blog four years ago when we replaced DIRECTV with Amazon devices.

Old replace

Now the Amazon FireTV Recast (lower right above) is gone and replaced by a Fourth Generation Tablo device below.

Tablo

The Recast and the Tablo have the same functions: capture live TV from the over-the-air-antenna hanging on the wall, record it for future viewing, and redistribute the over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts and stored shows to our four TVs scattered around the house. We don’t have cable or DIRECTV but have access to (almost) everything we want to watch either by streaming (we have Netflix and Amazon Prime) or OTA.

Back then I wrote “No question Amazon enabled us to break the dish. I do wonder who will disrupt Amazon when.” Turns out Amazon disrupted themselves; they discontinued the Recast I liked so much; and, although they nominally still support the device, support has gotten worse and worse and bugs and glitches have been proliferating. Although the Tablo is better than the Recast in some ways: cheaper low-end model, better picture and sound, easy to extend storage with an external hard drive, records free ad-supported streaming channels (FAST), it’s not really disruptive. I wouldn’t have bought it if the Recast were still working well.

Why would Amazon abandon Recast?

Amazon’s device division has been underperforming and reportedly losing money. Kindle changed the way people read books and served its purpose for Amazon by creating an enormous market for ebooks. Alexa was a hit for a while but lost lots of her alure when she was caught eavesdropping. AmazonTV and the Amazon Firestick share a market with Roku, Apple, Google, and others and Recast only served the Amazon portion of that market. To have a hit of Amazon scale, Recast would’ve had to work in these other ecosystems. The Recast developers may have wanted to do just that; upper management may have asked “what’s the strategic advantage?” A competitor like Tablo is incented to serve the whole market; they are working hard to do that.

It's also possible that Amazon decided over-the-air TV is a market not worth investing further in despite the fact that the number of households using antennas grew by 10%  in 2021 according to Nielsen. Antenna use accelerates with cordcutting since local channels are not fully available through streaming; but, if everyone is eventually broadband connected, will local stations continue to maintain costly broadcast antennas or simply “broadcast” all content online? Topic for another post.

Tablo facts

The Tablo 4G product I bought is very new and somewhat buggy according to Reddit forums. It’s predecessor at first flourished by supporting alternative to Amazon FireTV and by offering services like automatic ad-skipping, which FireTV doesn’t support. Ad-skipping is not available in the 4G product and, so far, it can only record two channels at once while its predecessor had available support for four simultaneous channels. The three main advantages to the new product are better signal processing to correct for glitches in antenna reception, better picture and sound because the video stream is not compressed in storage or on the way to the TV, and a free program guide. It is available for as little as $99 or $109 with an antenna. Onboard storage is only 50 hours but you can attach an external hard drive (I did) for about $100 to increase capacity.

The Tablo box connects to a coax cable from the antenna and can be connected to your router either with WiFi or an ethernet connection. I’m using WiFi and so far that is working fine. Setup is with an app which works on Android or Apple IOS. You then need to download a Tablo app to your smart TVs. It currently works with Roku, firetv, androidtv, GoogleTV, and Apple and Android phones and tablets. According to Tablo, support for AppleTV, Samsung, LG WebOS, and Vizio is “coming soon”.

All of the supported devices must be on the same WiFi network as the Tablo box but that network can be one which has been extended with a mesh. We use Orbi (RBR20 base unit) for mesh. Recast had problems being reachable through the mesh. So far Tablo has been fine although there are reports on Reddit of problems with other types of mesh network.

I had one glitch during setup and chatted online with tech support. Minimal wait for an agent and an easy fix (just retry). Tech support emailed a copy of the chat without being asked.

Recommendations

Don’t buy Amazon Recast even though some are still in stock; it’s an unloved orphan. I’m recycling mine rather than reselling or even gifting.

If you have Recast and it’s still working for you, wait awhile for the Tablo 4g product to settle down before replacing Recast.

If you are considering cutting the cord, you will probably still want local TV and network sports. Some streaming bundles include them but at a fairly steep price. Over-the-air TV is a cheaper alternative if you live within range of a good signal. The Federal Communication Commission has a web page which shows where your nearest towers are and what signal strength you can expect for each network. You’ll need a device like Tablo if you want to record over-the-air shows and play them back with fast forward, rewind etc. Tablo has competitors I haven’t tried and my experience with it is very short; this post should just be one data point in your evaluation.

See also:

A Tale of Two Antennas – The Cord Cutting Saga Continued

FireTVStick Thrashes at&t’s DIRECTV

https://www.reddit.com/r/tablotv/

September 08, 2023

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Who will take care of us when we’re old?

A long time ago when I was young, old people often lived their last years with their offspring or offspring raised their children in the home that grandma still lived in. “We need to have children to take care of us in our old age,” people often said.  “We need children to help on the family farm.” “Our children will help grow the family business.” The people who said these things went ahead and had said children, children like me and my three siblings or Mary and her six siblings.

Social security, as it was first designed, paid enough so that grandpa could retire and live with his kids without being a net burden on the family finances.  Needs-based benefits to those over 65 who retired before they had a chance to contribute to the system were capped at $30/month (about $620 of today’s dollars). It was partially meant as an inducement to get older people out of the depression-era workforce so that younger people could be employed.

No matter what our parents’ plans were for us, starting with my war baby generation it became less and less common for adults with children to also take in or live with them. Many people did – and do – contribute money and time to eldercare. We have also taken collective responsibility for older people with vastly increased social security payments and Medicare. Our children go to daycare and our parents go to eldercare or get home health care. We took collective if not individual responsibility for our parents. The collective responsibility was affordable because there were a lot of us thanks to the baby boom and relatively few of them.

We also had fewer children, in part because we had no grandparents living with us to share their care and in part because we “knew” that whatever we needed beyond our retirement savings would come from social security and Medicare. We weren’t counting on only our own kids to take care of us, our care would be the collective responsibility of our childrens’ generation. Mary and I each have 2 biological children; that’s below the rate of childbearing needed to keep the population from shrinking. Current lifetime births per woman in the US are 1.789, about half of the 3.5 births per woman at the height of the baby boom in 1950. Were it not for immigration and the fact that us geezers are living longer, total US population would be shrinking.

We know that this shrink will continue for at least a generation because the birthrate has been below the replacement level since 1973. We not only have a shortage of workers but also a shortage of women of child-bearing age to give us more workers even if the fertility rate increases.

Who will take care of us?

We shifted the eldercare burden from individual families to society as a whole. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, since we didn’t need to have lots of children individually to provide for our old age, we had less children collectively. No matter how much they may want to, the skimpy number of successors we raised is going to have a very hard time caring for us collectively or individually. There aren’t enough of them to staff nursing homes or home health. There aren’t enough of them to keep the social security and Medicare trust funds topped off. There aren’t enough of them either to pay for or provide the increasing amount of hospital care we want to prolong our lives.

Some things could go right here in the US.

  • Artificial Intelligence will both increase the productivity of essential workers and reduce the number of white-collar workers necessary to deliver services. My smarter car is already helping me drive; I’m counting on self-driving for the time when my kids would otherwise feel obliged to take my keys away. Other automation will make up for human aids we can’t get.
  • We geezers in the US have accumulated a lot of wealth, much of it in our houses. For the first time in decades interest rates are substantially higher than inflation so our own savings will stretch further. And we have less kids than our parents did to include in our wills.
  • World population probably won’t peak until sometime in the 2080s. There are millions of would-be immigrants who want to work in the US. As more places, like Vermont, suffer a shortage of workers, a political solution to the immigration impasse could provide a legal path to increase the number of people available to work directly for us geezers and to help support us by paying taxes. AARP should lobby for that!

See also:

Malthus Was Very Wrong

August 31, 2023

Vermont Starlink FAQs Updated

Revised 6/27/23

  1. What Is Starlink?

Starlink is a very high-speed low-latency space-based internet access service originally designed for use in rural areas worldwide which lack adequate terrestrial broadband infrastructure. The service is now available for use in vehicles including boats and planes far from cell towers and is often used to provide emergency broadband when infrastructure has been damaged. The company Starlink, which offers the service, is a subsidiary of SpaceX, the private for-profit space launch company founded by Elon Musk.

  1. What speeds does Starlink offer?

According to the Starlink service map, download speeds in Vermont are between 55 and 183 megabits per second (Mbps), uploads are between 11 and 23 Mbps, and latency (critical for Zooming) is between 44 and 56 milliseconds. All these well exceed the State of Vermont’s minimum standards. I have been getting speeds in these ranges for the last two plus years in Stowe, Vermont.  Starlink says these speeds will improve as they add satellites and upgrade technology, but best to judge by what is demonstrated today.

  1. Do streaming to multiple devices simultaneously, teleconferencing, and VoIP work over Starlink?

Yes.

  1. How can a satellite service have low latency? Older satellite services like HughesNet are unusable for Zooming, phone calls, or even much web browsing.

The old satellite services used geostationary satellites, which must be 22,000 miles from earth. Even at the speed of light, it takes a relatively long time for a signal to get there and back, hence the latency. Starlink uses low earth orbit satellites (LEOS), which are only a couple of hundred miles high. The travel time for the signal is not significant.

  1. What does Starlink cost?

The basic residential service costs $599 for the initial kit including a WiFi router and everything you need for a ground installation (close to $700 when you add Vermont tax and shipping). The monthly fee is $90 in Vermont (which Starlink considers an under-deployed area) with no minimum commitment or contract; $120 in areas of the country where there has been more demand. 30-day money back guarantee on everything.

“Business” service is suitable for small to medium rural businesses and can be used for web-hosting (although I’d recommend doing that in a cloud). It starts at $250/month with a $2500 equipment fee.

“Roam” service is good for camping, RVs, on-the-road, and emergency use. It also costs $599 for equipment but the monthly fee is $150 for use anywhere in the US and $200 for use worldwide. It has lower priority than the residential service so can be slower in congested times at congested places. It’s designed for permanent mounting on a vehicle and does work while vehicles are in motion.

“Mobility” service is a high-speed version of Roam which Starlink says has download speeds up to 220Mbps and is “for critical in-motion applications.” It starts at $2500 for equipment and $250/month. It can also be used on boats far from shore and higher-priced versions can be used on planes.

“Swarm” provides connectivity for remote sensors and devices with low bandwidth requirements. Cost can be as low as $5/month which is much better than cellular can offer and works where cellular doesn’t. Swarm was a recent acquisition by Starlink and I don’t have any direct experience with it nor do I know anyone who has.

  1. Does Starlink have data caps?

If a residential user exceeds one-terabyte (one trillion bytes) per month of access between 7AM and 11PM in any one month, the priority of their service will be reduced for the remainder of the month. This is called a “fair use policy” and mainly serves to prevent extensive resale of residential service and to force those who do resell into buying Business Service.  Cable companies and other ISPs have similar policies often with lower limits. In Vermont there is not much difference between priority and non-priority service because the state has such low density of use.

  1. Where in Vermont is Starlink available?

See https://www.starlink.com/map for the latest on availability. As of now (8/28/2023), Starlink is available immediately everywhere in Vermont. It is designed for use at “the end of the road” since all the required infrastructure is in the sky. Starlink cannot be used where it is not possible to get an unobstructed view of the high northern sky. The mountains around you probably won’t matter unless you’re in a very narrow valley; the trees in your yard can be a problem.

  1. How does Starlink get installed?

It is self-installing. Out of the box, Starlink can be set on the ground where there is a clear view of the high sky. In Vermont it doesn’t need to see the southern sky. The dish has a motor and positions itself correctly for its location (see video). You do have to find a way to put a single wire through your wall which then carries both signal and power to the dish. At extra cost, you can buy kits for no-holes roof mounting or pole mounting. You use a smartphone app to set up your WiFi network.

  1. Is paid installation available from Starlink?

No.

  1. What happens if the dish is covered by snow or ice?

Doesn’t happen, even in Vermont. The dish is heated.

  1. How reliable is Starlink?

According to Starlink and my own experience, the service is available more than 99.5% of the time. It is sensitive to obstructions like tree limbs which typically cause 5-15 second outages (you freeze on Zoom). Choosing a good location for the dish is critical. Even with no obstructions, there are occasionally Zoom-freezing blips; but most people have found it more than adequate for work-at-home, especially compared to DSL.

  1. Does Starlink degrade in bad weather?

Not noticeably. Unlike satellite TV or service from wireless ISPs, where the radio signals travel almost horizontally, the Starlink signal is going almost straight up so is through the weather in just a few miles. It is affected by a thunderstorm directly overhead.

Starlink is far more reliable than any terrestrial service in a weather emergency so long as you have backup power at your location. The satellites are far above the weather which may topple telephone poles or bring down the lines. They are solar powered so remain in operation regardless of what’s going on below unlike the towers of cellular operators and wireless ISPs (WISPs) which can run out of fuel for their generators in a prolonged emergency.

  1. Is Starlink service likely to degrade as more users are added to the system?

Probably not. So far Starlink is limiting the number of new signups to the number of people in each area they can serve without degrading service. As of August 2023, they had launched over 5000 satellites– each satellite circles the earth every ninety minutes. Approximately 60 new satellites are launched every two weeks.

  1. When is Starlink the best choice for broadband in Vermont?

The best broadband service is the broadband service you can get now. There was a huge waiting list for Starlink in Vermont but most people have now received their dish. Currently Starlink is available for delivery everywhere in Vermont. See Where is Starlink Available Now? Finally An Official Map.

If fiber runs by your house and you can have it installed NOW at a reasonable price, it is probably the best option for you. See Starlink Beta vs. Fiber.

If you can get enough bandwidth for your needs NOW from a wireless ISP at less cost than Starlink, you may want to do that even though you won’t get the same speed you’ll get with Starlink. See Starlink or Your Local WISP for Broadband Service.

If you don’t currently have cable or excellent wireless ISP service and neither a fiber build or wireless ISP tower is firmly scheduled for 2023 for your location and you can afford it and you can see enough of the sky, you ought to order Starlink. It is certainly better quality than DSL from Consolidated if you have that option. Ordering requires a $99 deposit but the deposit is fully refundable in case you have a better option sooner. The deposit is applied to equipment cost when the equipment is shipped.

The Starlink service is about on a par today with what you might get from a cable company unless they are supplying fiber. It is about the same cost as rural fiber plans offering similar speeds – although this may be more speed than you need.

  1. Is Starlink an opportunity for Vermont?

Starlink is an opportunity which many Vermonters are already taking advantage of on their own either because they have no other broadband service available or because they’re not satisfied with their existing choices. Starlink is being used in locations which are shown on the most current maps from the Department of Public Service as having no service available which meets the State’s minimum standards.

Without Starlink, there is no way to get broadband access NOW in places where it is most needed. With Starlink, the problem of accessibility becomes a problem of affordability.

  1. Is a subsidy from the State needed to bring Starlink infrastructure to unserved parts of Vermont?

No. The common infrastructure for Starlink is the satellites SpaceX is launching and the Starlink-built ground stations around the world. Your dish and associated electronics don’t depend on any terrestrial infrastructure in the State.

From a public policy point of view, it may well be desirable for the State to subsidize the one-time costs of hookup to services which are available now including Starlink where no other high-quality services are available.

  1. The legislature has authorized towns to form and join Communications Union Districts (CUDs) in order to bring broadband access to the places which don’t have it. Will Starlink make it impossible for the CUDs to perform their mission?

No. The mission of the CUDs is to bring broadband to unserved Vermonters. Prior to the advent of services like Starlink, it was assumed that this meant bringing fiber to every home. CUDs other than ECFiber, which is already in operation, are not promising to get fiber to end-of-the-road locations which most need broadband for at least six years and even then at a very high infrastructure cost – often estimated at more than $3000 per house and escalating the less dense the neighborhood is.

The CUD’s mission of highspeed broadband everywhere in Vermont is made easier – and achievable sooner – with the option of using Starlink. CUDs can expand fiber out from their hubs without asking those at the end of the road to wait six years or more.

The CUD’s mission should not be limited to fiber as a solution. Starlink is a useful option for accomplishing the connectivity mission NOW. Those now ordering Starlink are not waiting for fiber to reach them. If fiber does come to their neighborhoods at a reasonable cost and/or offers better service than Starlink, they can and will switch to the fiber provider. If fiber is not able to offer them better price performance, there is no point in building out the infrastructure.

  1. How do we know Starlink works in Vermont?

News stories on WCAX, in Seven Days, and on VPR cite successful installations. Reports on Stowe Front Porch Forum indicate generally good results. There is a very large Starlink community on Reddit where successes and failures are discussed. Many of these users are in climates more extreme than Vermont.

You can track the experience of two Vermont users at https://starlinkstatus.space/stations. These users are uploading performance data from their Starlink installations every 15 minutes. See Now Available – Worldwide and Local Current Starlink Performance.

  1. How do I know if Starlink will work at my house, especially given the trees in my yard?

There is a free app available for download from Starlink which will help you tell if you have a good location for the Starlink dish. See How to Find Out Free If Starlink Will Work at Your House. The website https://satellitemap.space/# shows in real time what satellites your dish would be able to see given your location but does not take obstacles into account. See Another Free Way to Tell if Starlink Broadband Will Work at Your Location.

  1. How do I order Starlink?

www.starlink.com. You must make a $99 refundable deposit with your order.

  1. How soon will an order be fulfilled?

New orders from Vermont are being filled immediately so it only takes a week or so.

These FAQs were originally prepared by Jock Gill of Peacham and Tom Evslin of Stowe. I (Tom) prepared this update on 8/28/2023 and am responsible for any inaccuracies. Neither of us have any financial interest in nor business connection with Starlink (except that I am a subscriber) or any affiliated company. For more information see the official Starlink FAQs at https://www.starlink.com/faq.

For more on Starlink see these posts.

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