April 29, 2024

The Magical Mythical Equalized Pupil

The Vermont legislature is playing an expensive shell game… and planning worse. The “equalized pupil” is the shell under which the pea is hidden.

OK. We all know there is a property tax crisis in Vermont. The average amount Vermonters pay in educational property tax is going to go up at least 15% this year. Residents of some districts will see a much greater increase. Educational quality continues to decline according to national standards although we pay more for education per student than most states and have a greater ratio of staff to students than any state. People are voting down their local educational budgets in record numbers, often saying they are trying to send a message to Montpelier. If there are good candidates to run against them (not at all a sure thing!), many legislators will lose their seats in November. The possibility of not getting reelected does get the attention of legislators, so much so that they are planning to appoint a study committee that will report back in eighteen months. How’s that for action?

There are only two ways to avoid gargantuan increases in property tax

      1. Raising other taxes and creating new taxes to support education. Problem with more taxing is that there are many claimants for new revenue (need I mention the endless temporary housing program?) and very few people who want to pay new taxes just so they will have a slightly smaller increase in property taxes this year and in years to come.
      2. Reduce spending on education. Legislators say they can’t do that because school budgets are set locally and Vermonters cherish local control. It is literally true that we vote on our school budgets locally. However, the odds are stacked by statute against local thrift. Because of the way the current property tax system works, all the gain of an extra dollar spent is local and the pain of paying that extra dollar is spread over all the property taxpayers in the state. Looked at the other way, the pain of a dollar saved is local and the gain is spread across the state. How can a responsible local school board ever cut a program?

How do we change incentives so that local school districts become thrifty?

We can’t go back to just having each town use its own tax base to pay for whatever education it wants to provide. In 1997 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled:

“…we decide that the current system for funding public education in Vermont, with its substantial dependence on local property taxes and resultant wide disparities in revenues available to local school districts, deprives children of an equal educational opportunity in violation of the Vermont Constitution…   The remedy at this juncture properly lies with the Legislature.”

We don’t want to perpetuate pockets of poverty. It’s acceptable, to me at least, that it is a state responsibility (meaning all of us) to give each student an opportunity for a good education. Let’s assume, for the moment, that those dollars will largely come from property taxes and be assessed (as they are now) so the burden is apportioned strictly by the value of individual real estate. A half-million-dollar residence pays the same rate for education no matter what town it’s in.

At the extreme (and it might be a good idea), the state could allocate so many dollars to each student and they could take those dollars and go to whatever accredited school, public or private, their parents chose. The budget of each school would be determined by how many students it attracted, which would also encourage excellence.

But that’s not going to happen, at least not right away. A more moderate suggestion, which preserves some local control, is that the legislature determines the cost per student for a quality education and gives that much money from the state-wide property tax fund to each local school district along with standards the district must meet. A district which wants to spend more per student can vote to do so; but the district must raise the extra money locally. Note there is no perverse incentive to spend more as there is in the current plan.

If you don’t listen closely, it sounds like many legislators are proposing exactly this system. But most are not! You have to look for the fine print: it’s the word “equalized” before the word “pupil”. This little modifier makes all the difference.

So what’s an equalized pupil?

Vermont has 84,000 actual students; it has 132,100 equalized students! Stowe and Winooski both have about the same number of actual students; Winooski has almost twice as many equalized pupils as Stowe. The concept of equalized pupil started out reasonably to account for the higher cost of educating a high schooler than a kindergartener. Then small adjustments were added for the local poverty rate and the number of students for whom English is a second language on the theory that these students are also more costly to educate. With Act 127, whose implementation caused this year’s chaos, the legislature completed the process of making these weightings into a full-fledged although hidden welfare system. They declared, with the help of consultants, that it costs more than twice as much to educate a student from a family living below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level as it does a student from a wealthier family. According to the legislature and its consultants, it costs two and a half times as much to educate a student who is not a native English speaker. The result: one actual student who comes from a poor immigrant family counts as 4.52 equalized pupils when doling out funds from the statewide property tax pool.

Let’s say for example, that the cost for a good education in Vermont is $20,000 per actual student. If each district receives this much per actual live student and has to tax itself to spend more, no student is denied the chance of a good education and each district has an incentive to save but none have an incentive to spend less (they would not be allowed to put unspent money to other town uses and would be responsible for meeting standards). Stowe receives $15,400,000 for 770 students and Winooski receives $15,720,000 to educate 786 students.

However, as legislators know very well, that’s not what will happen if the money is allocated per equalized pupil. $20,000 per actual student is $1.68 billion statewide ($20,000 x 84,000 students). The legislature will instead divide the $1.68 billion by the 132,100 equalized pupils and declare a cost of $12,718 per equalized pupil. Stowe then gets $12,921,488 for its 1016 equalized pupils and Winooski gets $25,715,796 for its 2022 equalized pupils. This allocation means Stowe receives only $16,781 per actual student and has no choice but to tax itself to even reach the $20,000/student cost of a decent education in Vermont. To add insult to injury, most legislative proposals and current state law (temporarily suspended) assess a penalty on districts which elect to spend more than the declared statewide cost per student. Meanwhile Winooski has $32,717 to spend on each one of its actual students and no incentive at all to be frugal nor any requirement to deliver good results with this windfall.

You may say “yeah but Stowe is rich and Winooski is poor; Stowe can afford to pay more.” It is hard to feel sorry for Stowe (where I live); but, remember, the tax is already levied on a statewide basis. Stowe has more valuable property than Winooski and will and should contribute much, much more to the statewide fund than Winooski no matter how the money is allocated. But, if property taxes are higher in Stowe than Winooski per dollar of assessed valuation because Stowe must make up for a shortfall in educational funding, it means that someone in Stowe in a $500,000 house (good luck finding one) pays more than someone in Winooski in a house with the same value.

It does cost somewhat more to educate students for whom English is a second language. It arguably costs more to educate students living in poverty (although evidence that the extra money is spent well is thin). If state education dollars are allocated per actual rather than per equalized student, it may be necessary to make some extra allocation to districts with many such students but that should be by honest appropriation rather than the shell game of the equalized pupil and outcomes must be monitored to make sure extra money really results in better-educated students.

A thought experiment

If it now costs 4.5x more to educate some students than others and it costs $20,000 on the average to educate a student in Vermont, shouldn’t we just offer say $40,000 to any qualified public or private school which demonstrates better outcomes for these more needy students and relieve the local school districts of the burden (and the extra equalized pupils)? $40,000 is much less than the $80,000 or so per doubly disadvantaged student we’re giving to the districts which now have the responsibility for educating them.

Two things to remember in November (even if legislators hope you won’t)

    1. Look for the magic word “equalized” in any proposal to fund education equally across the state. In this context, “equalized” means highly inequal.
    2. We won’t have any choice in November if reasonable people, regardless of party, don’t run against legislators who won’t or can’t deal with the hash they’ve made of education and education funding in Vermont.

April 25, 2024

Our Daughter and Family Doing What's Right

At Ohio State University as at many other campuses around the country, Jewish students are being harassed and worse. Our daughter Kate, who lives in Columbus, went with husband Hugh and daughter Lil to the campus today to offer "Jewish mother" protection to any student who needed someone to walk with them. Kate hates confrontation but felt she had to do this. I'm enormously proud of them.



Kate's Facebook post is here.


April 11, 2024

Human-in-the-Loop Artificial Intelligence

Teams of humans and AI agents will be the model for the organization of the future.

There are many tasks which Artificial Intelligence (AI) can’t perform well without help and supervision; it has an unfortunate tendency to hallucinate (make up an answer). For that matter, there are many tasks humans can’t perform well without help or supervision and humans are expensive and in short supply, at least in the work force. Two techniques have been developed in the last year of experimentation with AI and Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT: multi-agent collaboration and human-in-the-loop processes. Both help mitigate hallucination and produce content faster and more cheaply than humans can alone.

Multi-Agent Collaboration

An agent is nothing more than a packaged use of an LLM. The simplest agents accept a human prompt, ask AI to respond, and return the result. More complex agents retrieve information the LLM has not been trained on from a database or from a web search and send that information along with the request to the LLM. Agents can ask the LLM to write code in order to generate a response to the human prompt. For example, if the human wants a graph of the Dow Jones Average (DJA) for the next month compared to the S&P, several agents might be involved. The LLM will not have been trained on data as recent as last month, and so one agent retrieves the daily closing prices of both the DJA and the S&P from the web using the general knowledge of the LLM to formulate the web requests. A second agent writes computer code necessary to produce a graph of the two indices on the same set of axes. A third agent executes the code and the resulting graph is displayed to the user.

Using multiple agents is also a good way to reduce hallucination. Agent One (the writer) generates a draft answer to a question; Agent Two (the fact-checker) does web searches to validate assertions in the draft; Agent Three is a reflection agent which critiques the draft both using the fact-checking results and looking for bad style or bad usage. The answer then goes back to Agent One for revision and back though the gauntlet of agents Two and Three until all are satisfied. The final answer is sent to the human who asked the question. Interestingly (for technical reasons I won’t explain here) even if all agents use the same LLM, they can disagree constructively. However, using different LLMs for the different agents makes the whole process even more robust and reliable.


Suppose the writer, fact-checker, and reflection agents above never reach agreement. Drafts could go round and round forever chewing up expensive LLM cycles. One solution is an arbitrator agent. Another solution is to add a human into the loop. For example, after the first draft has been written, fact-checked, and critiqued, a human is given an opportunity to redraft herself, to modify or accept the critique, and to arbitrate the fact-checking. Depending on what the human decides, the article could go another round and then come back to the human again. The process ends when the human accepts a draft, perhaps after making some more modifications. In more complex processes, humans can be involved in any step the application designer feels is helpful.

A Demonstration

I programmed a demonstration application to write a news story using either the minutes or a transcript of a meeting as a source. With the shrinkage of local news outlets, there are never enough reporters to attend all the public meetings which affect our lives and should influence our votes. AI and LLMs alone can’t create a well-written news story accurately enough. But human editors working with AI can turn out stories which are well-written and accurate… and cheap enough for a local newsroom to afford.

First the human editor specifies how many words the article should be and whether the source is on the internet or the editor’s computer using the screen below.


In the next screen (not shown) the editor gives a URL or selects a local file as the source. An input agent obtains the source document and extracts text from it. The writer agent uses the transcript or minutes to draft an article. The reflection agent does double duty: fact-checking against the source document and checking style. The human editor can then edit either the article or the critique or accept the article as written using the dialog pictured below. If there is a human or agent critique, the cycle repeats with a rewrite.


The source document I used for this article was the draft minutes of a Stowe Select Board meeting. The reflection agent criticized the first draft for not starting out with the most important facts (“burying the lede” in news jargon), for not clearly explaining the disagreement among the Board Members, and from being sloppy with some facts. The second draft was better in these respects and was accepted by the reflection agent. However, I (playing editor) felt it was still not clear in one respect and wrote my own critique. The third draft passed muster. The whole dialog is down below but it’s long.

You can play with this demo app at https://meeting-reporter.streamlit.app/. I don’t charge anything for using it, but you do need to provide your own OpenAI API key to get past the first screen because the LLM being used is ChatGPT4. OpenAI will only charge you a few cents per use, but you do need an account and a paid API Key. If you don’t know what an API key is, you are like most of the world and you don’t want or need one, at least not yet.

Note to nerds: if you want to see or play with the source code, it is open source and available at https://github.com/tevslin/meeting-reporter. It uses Langgraph and Streamlit libraries with a tkinter version available and is hosted in the Streamlit cloud. The LLM is ChatGPT4-Turbo.

See also:

An AI Debate for another example of multi-agent collaboration

https://blog.tomevslin.com/ai/ for more on AI in general

The Transcript of the Session (tl;dr)

The original draft

 In a special meeting held on Wednesday, March 29, 2024, the Stowe Selectboard, led by Chair Billy Adams, convened to address the urgent matter of the Stowe Short-Term Rental Registry Ordinance. The meeting saw attendance from both Selectboard members and a significant number of the public, with 26 individuals participating via Zoom. The session was marked by discussions on the appropriateness of the meeting's timing and the methods for deciding on the rescindment of the recently adopted ordinance.

The Selectboard approved the agenda unanimously after a brief discussion on whether the meeting was necessary ahead of the regular April 10 meeting. The urgency was attributed to a petition received on March 28, necessitating a special meeting to adhere to statutory requirements for public notice. Despite some members expressing concerns over the rushed nature of the decision-making process, the board agreed to proceed with planning for a special meeting of the voters.

Set for Wednesday, May 1, 2024, at the Stowe High School Auditorium, the special meeting aims to vote on whether to rescind the town’s Short-Term Rental Registry Ordinance, adopted on February 29, 2024. The decision came after confirming the venue’s availability and the necessity of holding the meeting within a 60-day timeframe as required by law. Concerns were raised about ensuring adequate participation, with suggestions for a later start time to accommodate working residents and considerations for childcare to aid attending parents.

Amidst the technical discussions, a deeper undercurrent of division within the Selectboard was evident, with members voicing the need for a more collaborative approach moving forward. The meeting concluded with a call for unity and a more deliberate approach to decision-making, highlighting the tensions surrounding the short-term rental ordinance debate.

The Selectboard ultimately decided against holding an informational meeting but agreed on the creation of a fact sheet to be made available online and in the newspaper, aimed at clarifying the ordinance details and the upcoming special meeting process.

Critique from the reflection agent

The article is well-written and adheres to the facts of the source material. However, there are a few areas where clarification would improve comprehension. Firstly, the ordinance the Selectboard is considering rescinding is introduced too late in the article. Mention it earlier to provide necessary context. Secondly, the "deeper undercurrent of division" within the Selectboard needs more explanation. What are the differing views? Lastly, the final paragraph states the Selectboard decided against an informational meeting. This seems contradictory to the fact sheet creation. Clarify this decision-making process.

Second draft

In a special meeting convened on Wednesday, March 29, 2024, the Stowe Selectboard, under the leadership of Chair Billy Adams, gathered to deliberate on the pressing issue of possibly rescinding the Stowe Short-Term Rental Registry Ordinance, adopted on February 29, 2024. The meeting, attended by Selectboard members and the public, with 26 individuals joining via Zoom, was characterized by significant discussions focusing on the timing of the meeting and the procedural aspects of revoking the recently instituted ordinance.

From the outset, the urgency of the meeting was made evident, with the Selectboard unanimously approving the agenda. This urgency was driven by a petition received on March 28, compelling the need for a special meeting to comply with the legal requirements for public notification. Despite reservations voiced by some members regarding the expedited nature of this process, there was consensus on moving forward with the planning of a special voter meeting.

Scheduled for Wednesday, May 1, 2024, at the Stowe High School Auditorium, this special meeting is aimed at deciding whether to overturn the town's Short-Term Rental Registry Ordinance. This decision was reached after affirming the venue's availability and recognizing the legal obligation to conduct the meeting within a specific 60-day window. The discussion also touched upon ensuring broad participation, with proposals for a later starting time to accommodate residents working out of town and the provision of childcare services to support attending parents.

Amid these logistical and procedural deliberations, a palpable division within the Selectboard came to the fore, underscoring differing perspectives on the approach to the short-term rental ordinance debate. This internal discord prompted calls from members for a more unified and thoughtful decision-making process going forward.

Concluding the meeting, the Selectboard opted against hosting an informational meeting, instead agreeing on disseminating a fact sheet through online platforms and local newspapers. This approach aims to demystify the specifics of the ordinance and the procedural details of the forthcoming special meeting, addressing the public's need for clear and accessible information.

My Critique

The minutes do not say that they "agreed on disseminating a fact sheet through online platforms and local newspapers. They simply say that Mr. Adams asked Mr. Safford to have the staff prepare a fact sheet. Please be precise.

Final Article

Stowe Selectboard Schedules Special Meeting Amidst Division


In a special meeting convened on Wednesday, March 29, 2024, the Stowe Selectboard, under the leadership of Chair Billy Adams, gathered to deliberate on the pressing issue of possibly rescinding the Stowe Short-Term Rental Registry Ordinance, adopted on February 29, 2024. The meeting, attended by Selectboard members and the public, with 26 individuals joining via Zoom, was characterized by significant discussions focusing on the timing of the meeting and the procedural aspects of revoking the recently instituted ordinance.

From the outset, the urgency of the meeting was made evident, with the Selectboard unanimously approving the agenda. This urgency was driven by a petition received on March 28, compelling the need for a special meeting to comply with the legal requirements for public notification. Despite reservations voiced by some members regarding the expedited nature of this process, there was consensus on moving forward with the planning of a special voter meeting.

Scheduled for Wednesday, May 1, 2024, at the Stowe High School Auditorium, this special meeting is aimed at deciding whether to overturn the town's Short-Term Rental Registry Ordinance. This decision was reached after affirming the venue's availability and recognizing the legal obligation to conduct the meeting within a specific 60-day window. The discussion also touched upon ensuring broad participation, with proposals for a later starting time to accommodate residents working out of town and the provision of childcare services to support attending parents.

Amid these logistical and procedural deliberations, a palpable division within the Selectboard came to the fore, underscoring differing perspectives on the approach to the short-term rental ordinance debate. This internal discord prompted calls from members for a more unified and thoughtful decision-making process going forward.

Concluding the meeting, Chair Adams specifically requested Mr. Safford to have the staff prepare a fact sheet aimed at clarifying the specifics of the ordinance and the procedural details of the forthcoming special meeting. This focused effort reflects the Selectboard's intention to address the public's need for clear and accessible information without definitively concluding on the method of dissemination.

March 26, 2024

Live on WDEV - Remembering Tim Hayward

Today’s Common Sense call-in radio show with Bill Sayre on WDEV will be “Remembering Tim Hayward—his life and his work, his immense contribution (though out of the lime light)  to making Vermont a better, more affordable, place to live, work and raise a family.” The show is at 11AM on FM 96.1, 96.5, 101.9, and AM 550 and Live Streaming from https://www.radio.net/s/wdevfm.  I’ll be Bill’s guest but all are more than welcome to call in with memories of Tim: 802 244 1777.

See also:

In Memoriam: Timothy Y. Hayward

March 18, 2024

In Memoriam: Timothy Y. Hayward

My best friend Tim Hayward died early Sunday morning. Over the last 50 years, he has been the greatest force for good and effective government in Vermont that you never heard of. He has done more for Vermont and all of us here than most people you hear about daily. Governor Phil Scott’s statement this morning gives the highlights:

“I join so many Vermonters in mourning the passing of our friend Tim Hayward. Tim was a true giant of quiet, selfless service, and he worked every single day to do his part and then some. 

“He was a proud marine, legislator, and senior advisor to many – including Governor Snelling, Congressman Smith, Congressman Mallory, Senator Jeffords – and for 8 years he served as Chief of Staff for Governor Douglas.

“Tim’s most important acts of service, however, were not the many senior positions he held, or officials he advised. His very best work – work he clearly loved – was his mentorship to so many other public servants, who were taught by Tim and who benefited from his example. His impact on our state does not end with him, but will live on for generations to come.

“I was so fortunate that, after being elected Governor myself, Tim agreed to lead the transition team. He helped lay a strong foundation in this Administration.  And he prepared my team for the road ahead.  Always with the rigor and discipline of an old marine, the wisdom of a great coach and the principled heart of the servant citizen.

“I offer my sincerest condolences to his wife Susan, his three children Nathanial, Heidi and Zak, and all of his beloved family and friends.

“In honor of his legacy and service, I have ordered the Vermont State Flag to fly at half-staff on the day of his services.”

Tim was the behind-the-scenes detail person in both the Snelling and Douglas administrations. He was the master of constructive principled compromise. He was the frank and honest voice that political leaders usually don’t hear.

Most people in politics gravitate to wherever a camera is pointing; Tim assiduously hid from attention. It was never about him.

Both Snelling and Douglas had more national influence than you would think a Vermont governor would have, largely through their leadership positions in the National and Republican Governors Associations. Their influence, which was both good for Vermont and good for the country, owed much to the respect that Tim earned from the staff of these organizations and the staff of other governors (and Canadian premiers).

I had the good fortune to work with Tim during parts of both the Snelling and the Douglas Administration. But it wasn’t just luck that got me there. Tim decided that there were jobs that I would be helpful at, convinced the governors to offer them to me, and told me I had no choice but to take a furlough from the private sector. Once I was in the positions, he did his best to help me do what needed doing.

We hiked the Worcester and Manfield ranges with three generations of dogs. I miss Tim Hayward terribly; so will Vermont.

Tim would want me to thank the staff at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, Vt who did a wonderful and caring job through the ordeal of the marine’s last battle for both him and his family. Thank you.

February 29, 2024

How To Get Useful Answers with ChatGPT Plus

Chatbots powered by AI and large language models (LLMs) don’t always answer questions accurately. Neither do humans for that matter. We can’t blindly trust what ChatGPT tells us nor what we read on Facebook or X. Not everything we learned in school is correct. Your neighbor may be smart but she’s not always right. Even mommies make mistakes. Reporters have both biases and blind spots. So how do we get “the truth” or at least useful answers?

ChatGPT almost never gives links to support its answers because LLMs like ChatGPT don’t “know” how they know things. We don’t remember how we know most of what we know. Do you remember when you learned each word in your vocabulary? When and where did you learn that the sun rises in the East? LLMs are trained by reading lots of stuff, some contradictory, some nonsense, much biased. There is inevitably some bias in the selection of training material just as there was bias in the education you got. They often get “finishing school” training from humans who impart their own biases directly (witness Google’s recent embarrassment at what was supposed to be politically correct image generation which ended up deciding that US history is so unracist that the “founding fathers” were actually mostly Indians and women and that Nazi soldiers and Vikings were mainly non-Caucasian). If the answer to a question is important to you, you want to know the source of the information from which the answer was generated.

However, because ChatGPT Plus, which costs $20/month, has access to Bing browsing (which the free version of ChatGPT does not), it can find links to support its answers if you tell it to. Sometimes, if properly prompted, it’ll even find links which cast doubt on its assertion or reveal uncertainty. A simple way to get confidence in what ChatGPT tells you is to ask for supporting links. For example, I asked:

“Is volcanic activity a significant contributor to climate change?”

The first answer I got (don’t feel you have to read it all) was:


Lots of assertions but no backup for them. They could even be hallucinations. Moreover, the last paragraph is politically correct (and perhaps factually correct) and almost certainly a result of the finishing school training ChatGPT had.

So I said:

“Please provide links relevant to the assertions in the last answer and explain how these links support, qualify, or contradict the assertions. for each link. Show the title of the page linked to.”

And got back an answer with references and links (the blue quotes in brackets. They are not live in the picture below but you can click here to open a browser window on my shared chat and the links will be live):


The references appear to be credible and, on following the links, I see that they do support what ChatGPT says they support. However, the evidence appears one-sided and I already suspect ChatGPT of being partial to accenting the contribution of anthropogenic climate change. To assure I’m seeing beyond this possible bias, I asked:

“What references are there including links which would appear to disagree with these conclusions?”

Interesting response (click here for live links):


Now we have pretty good information on vulcanism and climate and also know some of the questions which remain to be definitively answered.

This isn’t only a way to check what an LLM tells you. The first answer could have been something someone posted on Facebook, an essay somewhere, something someone told you in a bar, or a news article. You can send the text or a link or upload a document to ChatGPT Plus and ask it to generate references supporting and questioning assertions. Used in this way LLMs become a tool for detecting misinformation no matter what the source and getting reasonably reliable answers rather than yet one more way to generate half-truths and propaganda.

Practice in checking references is a crucial part of teaching critical thinking. Critical thinking and validating information are now much more valuable skills than a bunch of memorized facts. This use of LLMs must be taught to anyone old enough to go online. Within a year, use of LLMs and browsing will be indistinguishable because AI is being built into search at warp speed and LLM’s with search are better sources by far than classic Googling (open question on whether Google itself survives this transition). Every school and every organization must teach lessons in LLM use like the one in this post now. Avoiding LLMs because they can be a source of misinformation rather than embracing their proper use is educational and managerial malpractice.

See also:

AI Can Help Deal with Misinformation (for a GPT designed to help with fact checking)

More posts on AI

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).


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.


“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:


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

Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 01/2005