Archive for August, 2016

Retired Emperor

August 22, 2016

Japanese Emperor Akihito may be thinking of abdicating his post because his age is making it difficult to fulfill his duties as emperor. The BBC has this story.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito has strongly indicated he wants to step down, saying he fears his age will make it difficult to fulfil his duties.

The revered 82-year-old emperor’s comments came in only his second-ever televised address to the public.

Emperor Akihito did not explicitly say he wanted to abdicate as he is barred from making political statements.

PM Shinzo Abe said the government would take the remarks “seriously” and discuss what could be done.

“Upon reflecting how he handles his official duty and so on, his age and the current situation of how he works, I do respect the heavy responsibility the emperor must be feeling and I believe we need to think hard about what we can do,” he said.

It is not as easy as that, though.

Why can’t the emperor abdicate? Abdication is not mentioned under Japan’s existing laws, so they would need to be changed for the emperor to be able to stand down. The changes would also have to be approved by parliament.

Emperor Akihito

Emperor Akihito

I am actually a little surprised that there is no provision for an Emperor abdicating under current Japanese law. There was a time, during the Heian period, in which the Emperor was not only permitted to abdicate, but was actually required to step down in favor of his successor.

The period of time from 794-1185, when the court at Heian ruled over Japan is known as the Heian period. This was a remarkable period of Japanese history, in which the Japanese fully absorbed the influences from China and made them part of a a uniquely Japanese culture. During the Heian period, Japanese arts, literature, and philosophy reached a peak seldom equalled in the centuries since. The influence of the Heian period on Japanese culture is something like that of ancient Greece and Rome in the West, the basis of everything that followed.

The earlier Heian period is also one of the few times in Japanese history in which the Emperor actually wielded political power, following the example of the all-powerful Chinese Emperors. Over time, however, the Imperial house began to decline in power and vigor, just as the various Chinese dynasties had. The powerful Fujiwara clan began to gain power at the expense of the Emperors. The Fujiwaras monopolized the top government posts and were the regents when an Emperor was a minor. They married their daughters to the Emperors so that a Fujiwara was always the Emperor’s father-in-law, with the filial obligations that brought. Eventually, the Fujiwara regents began to compel the Emperors to abdicate as soon as they were old enough to rule on their own. These Retired Emperors often became Buddhist monks and were referred to as Cloistered Emperors. By 1000, the Fujiwara regent was the emperor of Japan in all but name, while the reigning Emperor was a figurehead.

In any other country, it is likely that the people who had the power behind the throne would have grown weary of the pretense and seized the throne themselves, as the Frankish Carolingians had overthrown the Merovingians and were overthrown in their turn by the French Capets, or the succeeding dynasties of China had overthrown one another. In Japan, however, this was unthinkable. One of the ideas that the Japanese had not taken from Chinese politics was the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. The Japanese Emperor was the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and thus always had the Mandate of Heaven, whatever the failings of his person or his line. The Fujiwaras had to be content with being regents.

In time, the Fujiwaras declined and the Imperial House began to reassert itself. In a characteristically Japanese fashion, the reigning Emperors, themselves, did not attempt to regain power. Instead, the Retired Emperors took power. This was the known as Cloistered Rule. So, during the period of Cloistered Rule, Japan was ruled by an all-powerful Emperor, who was in fact, a figurehead, with a Regent or Chief Minister from the Fujiwara Clan who was supposed to be powerful, but was another figurehead, while the real power was held by a former emperor who was in theory, merely a monk. It seems unnecessarily baroque and complicated, but the Japanese have generally preferred rule by consensus rather than by a single strong man. The system seemed to work well enough.

Then again, perhaps it did not. The members of the Imperial Court at Heian always had a strong contempt for common people and the outer provinces of Japan, what we might refer to as flyover country. For the court nobles, the common people were little better than domestic animals, while the military aristocracy who fought off the northern barbarians were themselves semi-barbarians. The Imperial Court became more insular and isolated from the concerns of the provinces. The members of the court became more concerned with their rank and position at court than with administrating the country. As a result, the military leaders in the provinces began to gain power and by 1185, after a series of struggles between several Retired Emperors and military clans related to the Imperial Family, a warlord named Minamoto no Yoritomo took power as the first Shogun (Supreme General), ending the Heian Period, and establishing the military dictatorship of the Shoguns that lasted through several dynasties of Shoguns until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Imperial Court and the court nobility continued as before except they had no power and depended on the Shoguns for funds.

Emperors still occasionally abdicated in favor of their successor, but the custom of Cloistered Rule ended with the end of the Heian Period. The last Emperor to abdicate was Kokaku who reigned from 1779-1817. His position as Retired Emperor caused some trouble with the Tokugawa Shoguns, and it is perhaps not coincidental that from his reign, and retirement, the Imperial Court began the process of asserting itself against the Shoguns.

I don’t know when the laws about abdication were changed or whether the current law in Japan actually prohibits an Emperor from resigning or whether there is simply no provision for abdication. Judging from the article, it would seem to be the latter case. If so, than I can’t imagine there would be any reason to deny Akihito’s wish to abdicate, especially considering his age and health. There is, after all, ample precedent in Japanese history.

Atomic Hard Drive

August 16, 2016

It is easy to become depressed about the state of the world right now. We have what are probably the worst two candidates running for president in this election. The whole world seems to be falling apart and terrorist attacks are starting to become a daily occurrence in Europe and America and our leaders express confusion over their motives; obviously Islam has nothing to do with the Islamic State. The economy seems to be stagnant with the 1% getting ever richer and the rest of us struggling to keep in place.

But this kind of thinking is misleading. We do have problems, yet in so many ways, life in the twenty-first century is better than it has ever been. Our lives are far more comfortable in almost every material sense than those of the people who lived a century ago, thanks to the enormous progress we have made in science and technology. The day-to-day bad news, which tends to depress us, is really a distraction from all the amazing discoveries and inventions that will be changing our lives over the rest of the century.

Here’s a story I read in the Wall Street Journal about one of these discoveries.

By manipulating the interactions between individual atoms, scientists report they have created a device that can pack hundreds of times more information per square inch than the best currently available data-storage technologies.

The working prototype is part of a decades-long attempt to shrink electronics down to the atomic level, a feat scientists believe would allow them to store information much more efficiently, in less space and more cheaply. By comparison, tech companies today build warehouse-sized data centers to store the billions of photos, videos and posts consumers upload to the internet daily. Corporations including International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. also have explored research to reduce such space needs.

The so-called atomic-scale memory, described in a paper published on Monday in the scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology, can hold one kilobyte, the equivalent of roughly a paragraph of text.

It may not sound “very impressive,” said Franz Himpsel, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who wasn’t involved in the study. But “I would call it a breakthrough.”

Most previous attempts at encoding information with atoms, including his own, managed roughly one byte, Dr. Himpsel said. And data could be stored only once. To store new information, the “disk” had to be re-formatted, like CD-Rs popular in the ’90s.

With the new device, “we can rewrite it as often as we like,” said Sander Otte, an experimental physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the lead author on the new paper.

They can actually arrange individual atoms. When I was growing up, no one had ever seen an atom. They were too small to be imaged, even by electron microscopes. Scientists did not invent the scanning tunneling microscope, which allows individual atoms to be “seen” and manipulated until the 1980’s.

Scanning tunnelling microscope

Scanning tunnelling microscope

To build their prototype, the scientists peppered a flat copper bed with about 60,000 chlorine atoms scattered at random, purposely leaving roughly 8,000 empty spaces among them. A mapping algorithm guided the tiny, copper-coated tip of a high-tech microscope to gently pull each chlorine atom to a predetermined location, creating a precise arrangement of atoms and neighboring “holes.”

The team also crafted a language for their device. The stored information is encoded in the patterns of holes between atoms. The atom-tugging needle reads them as ones and zeros, turning them into regular binary code.

The researchers marked up the grid with instructions that cued the software where it should direct the needle to write and read data. For instance, a three-hole diagonal line marked the end of a file.

They still have a lot of work to do before our computers come equipped with an atomic hard drive.

Writing the initial data to the device took about a week, though the rewriting process takes just a few hours, Dr. Otte said.

“It’s automated, so it’s 10 times faster than previous examples,” said Christopher Lutz, a staff scientist at IBM Research-Almaden in San Jose, Calif. Still, “this is very exploratory. It’s important not to see this one-kilobyte memory result as something that can be taken directly to a product.”

Reading the stored data is much too slow to have practical applications soon. Plus, the device is stable for only a few hours at extremely low temperatures. To be competitive with today’s hard drives, the memory would have to persist for years and work in warmer temperatures, said Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist at the Semiconductor Research Corp., a research consortium based in Durham, N.C.

When Dr. Otte’s team took the memory out of the extremely low-temperature environment in which it was built and stored, the information it held was lost. Next, his team will explore other metal surfaces as well as elements similar to, but heavier than, chlorine, to see if that improves the device’s stability.

But, maybe it will happen sooner than we think.

We truly live in a brave new world. If only we stop ourselves from messing everything up.

Who is David Duke?

August 15, 2016

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has come out of whatever rock he has been hiding under to express his support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, so naturally National Public Radio had to go speak with him about his endorsement and his run for a Senate seat from his native state Louisiana.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is running for U.S. Senate and tells NPR that he believes he’ll be getting the votes of Donald Trump supporters.

And he reiterated his own support for Trump, saying he’s “100 percent behind” the Republican presidential candidate’s agenda.

“As a United States senator, nobody will be more supportive of his legislative agenda, his Supreme Court agenda, than I will,” Duke said.

Trump, while he once said he didn’t know enough about Duke to comment on him, has several times disavowed endorsements by Duke. But that hasn’t stopped some white supremacists from publicly supporting Trump’s campaign.

Duke says that Trump’s attacks on Muslims and illegal immigration have brought his own beliefs into the mainstream.

The former KKK grand wizard, who describes himself as advocating for European-Americans, filed to run for an open Senate seat in Louisiana just one day after the Republican National Convention.

Who is David Duke. anyway, and why should anyone care who he endorses or what he is doing?

As noted, David Duke was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. To be more precise, Duke was the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from 1974 to 1980. This is not as impressive as it might seem. The Ku Klux Klan hasn’t really existed since the 1930’s, at least not as a single national organization with a centralized leadership. Instead, the Ku Klux Klan has become a number of small fragmented groups with a handful of members. These rival Klans tend to hate each other, along with other racist groups, as much as they hate Blacks, Jews, the federal government and other perceived enemies. Because there is not any such thing as the Ku Klux Klan is existence any more, anyone with a few followers can start his own Klan with and declare himself Grand Wizard or Imperial Dragon or any other title he wishes. That is just what David Duke did. In 1974 founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and made himself Grand Wizard.

Duke didn’t fit the common stereotype of a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He was not a drunken red neck constantly spouting racial slurs, but an articulate, educated, and telegenic figure who preferred to dress in business suits rather than Klan robes. He tried to change the Klan’s image from a band of violent racists to something like a White civil rights organization with an emphasis on nonviolence and legality. As a result, he became popular on the talk show circuit where liberal talk show hosts, like Phil Donahue, could present him as the charismatic leader of the new, growing and dangerous Ku Klux Klan.

It was all a lie. Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was not rapidly growing in numbers and influence.The Klan remained divided and fractious and the more violent and old fashioned Klans, like Duke’s rival Bill Wilkinson’s Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan were actually more popular among racists. Duke himself was not a particularly good administrator or leader. In the late 1970’s, a reporter for the Tennesean named Jerry Thompson managed to infiltrate the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Invisible Empire and discovered that Duke’s organization was a shambles. Meetings were rare and not well attended. Duke found it difficult to gather a quorum for Thompson’s initiation ceremony. The group seemed to exist more for Duke’s publicity than anything else. By contrast, Thompson found the Invisible Empire frightening with their more violent rhetoric and carrying guns everywhere. Even so, Wilkinson’s group had few members and despite a real  danger of individual Klansmen committing violent crimes, the organization as a whole was fairly ineffective. Thompson tried to play up the Klan threat in his book, My Life in the Klan, but all his investigative journalism managed to convey was how ridiculous Duke and the Ku Klux Klan actually were.

David Duke resigned his position as Grand Wizard in 1980 under somewhat murky circumstances. He claimed that he had become disenchanted because of the associations between the Klan and violence, particularly when he had no power to stop other Klans from committing violent acts. Instead, Duke decided to form a new organization the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). There were allegations that he had used funds from the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to renovate his home. Jerry Thompson reported that Duke had met with Wilkinson and agreed to sell him the membership list for his organization. This was seen as a betrayal by many of Duke’s former associates.

Since then, David Duke has been busy writing and promoting his racist and anti-Semitic views. He was convicted of tax fraud and mail fraud back in 2002. He has also run for public office and generally losing. He did manage to win election to the Louisiana House of Representatives where he served from 1989-1992. He does not seem to have been a very effective legislator. Duke has generally run as a Republican, although he began as a Democrat and joined Ross Perot‘s Reform Party in 2000, working for Pat Buchanan.

The answer to the question, “who is David Duke?”, then, is that he is nobody of importance. David Duke is a failed politician and a failed leader of a fringe movement. There is no reason for anybody to really care what David Duke thinks on any issue. So, why does NPR think Duke’s opinions are worth reading? Maybe the editor’s note at the beginning of the article can explain.

NPR spoke with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who supports Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, because Duke represents the way in which white supremacists attach themselves to Trump’s campaign.

The logic is that because white supremacists support Donald Trump, Donald Trump must be a white supremacist. It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump is hardly running on a white supremacist platform. He has said some unpleasant things about illegal immigrants and Islamic terrorists, but I do not believe that it is racist to insist that we maintain some control over who gets into our country. This is simply guilt by association. Not even association, since I doubt that Donald Trump has ever met David Duke and may well have been telling the truth when he said he had never heard of him.

It is odd that no one seems inclined to look into the past associates of any Democrats. Barack Obama began his political career in the apartment of a left-wing terrorist and attended a church with a racist, anti-American pastor for many years. The Clintons have a number of unsavory acquaintances, not to mention their corrupt dealings with their Clinton Foundation. None of that seems to matter as much as a nobody like David Duke endorsing Donald Trump, just as the Clintons’ obvious corruption is somehow of far less importance than Donald Trump’s more idiotic public comments.

We have had a biased media for quite a long time, but I don’t think that I have ever seen them so determined to choose a winner for the next election, even if it means sacrificing what little integrity they still have and even if it means outright deception. I have never liked Donald Trump very much and I wish that someone else had been the Republican nominee, but I have to say that anyone who the liberal media hates so much must be doing something right.

 


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