Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Political cleanup - Obamacare, religion in politics, and more...

Finishing up a series of four political postings, let me this time offer some thought-provoking snippets.

Number one on the list? Something so simple, yet no American journalist seems to be interested in mentioning it. Have any of you noticed - at all - the fact that Republicans have stopped mentioning “Obamacare”?

AFFORDABLE-CARE-ACTOh, there’s an occasional arm-waved generality from the Tea Party, but almost nothing from the GOP politicians or media. Now why would that be?

Perhaps because - just like Supply Side “Economics,” not one doomcasting forecast about the Affordable Care Act has come true. The rate of rise of medical costs has gone way down instead of up. Millions are now insured, getting preventive care and staying out of Emergency Rooms, while very few others have been much inconvenienced and the general quality of average policies has improved.

"Expanding the number of young adults with health insurance appears to have improved their health and saved them money, according to a new study that is among the first to measure the effect of the healthcare law that President Obama signed four years ago," reports the LA Times.

Even a "flaw" of the ACA - the fact that millions of new insurance purchasers are choosing policies with high deductibles - is having an unexpected effect that believers in capitalism should like. It has meant that these newly insured citizens are very careful and choosy, when it comes to paying that first $2000 or so of medical bills.  They are seeking price transparency, shopping for the cheapest MRI, for example. It's a bloody nuisance and far from ideal. But it has applied hard, downward pressure on prices for many medical services. 

Of course all that may change! The ACA was far from my own first choice - in fact, I dislike its blatant kowtowing to insurance companies. Indeed, it was designed by the Heritage Foundation for Newt Gingrich, adopted for years as the GOP's top platform plank, and implemented in his state by Mitt Romney, before President Obama decided to co-opt and adopt the Republicans’ own  plan…

... whereupon the GOP declared “Ew! Obama likes it! Our plan must have cooties!” And yes, that's what it boils down to.

But watch, if the good news keeps coming you will witness startling agility! You will start to hear crowing on the right, that “Of course it worked! It was our own plan, all along!”

== When is a person’s faith relevant in politics? ==

Religion generally should not be a topic in politics. But here is a simple test for you Americans, to check whether you might be on the wrong side in this civil war.

book-revelation"Does my side include tens of millions of folks who pray daily for events that would kill most of their neighbors, consigning them to eternal torment? Events that would bring to an end all science and ambition and terminate both democracy and the United States of America?”

“If that pretty much describes my fellow partisans… could it be that I am on the wrong side, after all?"

I draw the line when a politician admits to praying daily for the Book of Revelation (BoR) scenario for Armageddon to come true as soon as possible, relishing a global holocaust-war that will result in the slaughtering of most of his/her fellow citizens, ending (forever) all traces of individual liberty and the nation the politician wants to lead.

Whose-raptureDo recall that the BoR was barely voted into the Christian canon, over stiff objections by the best minds of the day. Martin Luther despised its bood-thirsty, vengeful spirit, which runs diametrically opposite to that of the Sermon on the Mount. The recent veer in emphasis, among American fundamentalists, away from the teachings of Jesus toward obsession with BoR ravings, is symptomatic of their bitter resentment of the future — their frantic wish that it - and their disturbing neighbors - would just go away, as soon and as painfully as possible.

And yes, such venomous yearnings are their privilege in a free country! One in which, ironically, no central authority can punish you for your beliefs.

Only there is this. To my mind, anyone who avows to openly — or implicitly — praying for such an event to take place has thereby made his/her religious views pertinent to voters in an election. Voters have a right to take into account the scenario -- and outcomes -- that a candidate relishes. And whether a person who actively seeks those outcomes should be trusted with America's sovereign power.  Or our nuclear weapons.

See what these folks actively yearn for, with amazing art by Patrick Farley.

Clearly, we Americans have been passing through what Robert Heinlein forecast as "The Crazy Years."

== The real SkyNet ==

TransactionFeeTerminateHas High Frequency Trading (HFT) started to fade? Because of Michael Lewis’s book FLASH BOYS: A Wall Street Revolt? Because of SEC investigations? Or something that came earlier — my warning that HFT might result in Terminator? Is there hope? As much as two-thirds of all stock trades in the U.S. from 2008 to 2011 were executed by high-frequency firms; today it’s about half. In 2009, high-frequency traders moved about 3.25 billion shares a day. In 2012, it was 1.6 billion a day. But excuse my cynicism. I will betcha the nerd algorithm wizards have simply moved on to something else that is terribly clever, secret and almost certain to be regrettable.

== Snippets ==

“The idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behaviour that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.”  — John Maynard Keynes. "Some economic consequences of a declining population." 1937.

"The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”  — J. C. R. Licklider, Man-Computer Symbiosis 

813drK5znDL._SL1500_Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group, can only happen when there are zones of real civilization from which shelter and support can be drawn. The tactics - provocative - are those of challenge… courageous and important, while reciprocally reliant on the parts of civilization that “get” and dig what they are doing, and can help protect them from the parts that want the heroes dead.

nd when they are equally effective, the open/individual/market solution is always to be preferred. Moreover, logically, the capitalist alternative that applies to many forms of government paternalism is... insurance.

(Indeed, that was the basis for the GOP's Gingrich-Romneycare health proposal, which president Obama embraced and the GOP then denounced, because he wanted it. Again... cooties!)

On a broader basis, look at where insurance companies are still pro-active and competitive (e.g. fire insurance). There you will find them behaving "paternalistically" in demanding clients take active care to mitigate risk. The lesson? Our pablum simplistic dogmas are not suited to problem-solving in the real world.

== More snippets ==

ending-poverty This graphic from The World Bank shows the world making great progress at reducing "extreme poverty" around the world. Though there are recalcitrant areas… and "extreme" is measured so generously -- at $1.25 income per day -- that your sense of satisfaction should be brief. That threshold, if earned by all of a family's adults, should, in most places, allow their children to attend school. But little more than that.  I have my doubts. A real yin-yang graphic that should have a twin effect…

…to encourage us that solving poverty is possible and so is a better world… using both social and market methods… and that complacency is just as bad as despair.

Laughing at Laffer. Please. When an “economics” theory has not one successful prediction (ever) to point to, are you smart enough to say: “maybe Adam Smith was right about this… and I was wrong.”

And finally... I spoke many times about the Great Big War on Smartypants?  Or war on expertise in any form?  That is being waged by unlikely allies... the very far left and the entire-right?  Dig this: "Why are conservatives so annoyed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson? Because, you know, science..."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Will the “true 21st century” bring us back to feudalism?

Almost exactly a century ago, a lone gunman set in motion events that transformed the world -- ending the lives of millions and shattering empires. With that anniversary in mind, I pondered the clear fact that the last three centuries all seem to have started on their FOURTEENTH YEAR. The brutal arc and themes of the 20th Century - a concave pit that hit its nadir in 1943 - all of it began with shots fired in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914. And 1714 and 1814 were years of similar, transforming portent.

Century-Begin-2014 See my explanation... along with speculation where we might be heading, if 2014 proves to be the "real beginning" of the 21st Century. And sure… that great, over-arching, 21st Century theme might turn out to be pragmatic, adult problem-solving, science and reason! Heck, throw in the Age of Aquarius! I’m all for all of that.

But let’s be frank, the odds have always been against those traits ever getting the upper hand for long. Too many deep, animal drives have propelled most human cultures toward slumping into pyramids of hierarchy and domineering privilege. And rationalization, as portrayed by this poignantly sarcastic piece in the Onion.

Conniving cheaters and their lickspittle excuse-makers will always be an anchor on our ankles, dragging us backward.

== Traitors to the Enlightenment ==

How far does it go? Corey Pein takes on (and eviscerates) one extreme cult — the New Feudalism -- a weird and deeply sick mind-herpes that has infected some of our worst indignation junkies out there -- resentful fanatics who love drawing attention by declaring hatred of democracy, egalitarian justice and science, pledging fealty instead to rule by a new lordly caste.

Neoreactionary-brinLike a parody of evil techie libertarians, these fellows would be funny, if they weren't potentially dangerous. See my own take on this "movement," which declares hatred of all the things that brought us the richest, wisest, gentlest, most productive, insightful, generous, creative, socially-mobile, artistic, scientific and enlightened era of all time. Indeed, delusional rationalization is the greatest human talent, and the one gift in which pathetic under-achievers truly excel.

See the root cause of all this, in my talk: “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?”  Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!

Mr. Pein may go a bit too far by interpolating and extrapolating similar views that he attributes to Silicon Valley libertarian-investor Peter Thiel. Thiel likes to poke at a very wide horizon of concepts and he is entitled, even if some of those what-if experiments push the envelope of plausibility. I can hardly throw stones at that trait! And Thiel has done enough pragmatic delivery of genuine goods and services that he is no under-achiever. Again, if he wants to poke at our heads with provocative ideas — he’s earned it.

indignation-junkiesAs for the others? Facts will not stall indignation junkies, even when nearly all of their assertions prove diametrically opposite to actual truth. It is the Rapture of the Ingrates.

Oh, one final, amusing thing about the neo-feudalists? Their hilarious adoration of Vladimir Putin.

== Putin… the expected one? ==

I kid you not. Track the admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is lavish and open among the neo-feudalists but only softens a little — to “grudging admiration” —among the pundits at Fox. And why not? Everything now happening in Russia suits the Fox Design, as does the Putin narrative. Religion, hierarchy, inherited status, venerated values, top-down monopolies organized around families…

During the Crimea takeover, President Putin derided Western notions of tolerance and universal rights as “barren and neutered.” Said Putin, it is time to resist this scourge of "diversity" creeping in from the West. “More and more people in the world support our position on defending traditional values.”  He asserted Russia’s role to “prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.”

UnlikelinessPositiveSumSocietyI do not blame him for saying this! It is, after all, exactly (almost word-for-word) the dismissal that zero-sum thinkers — even very bright ones — always come up with, when faced with the stunning successes of the Enlightenment West. Our wealth and productivity and power and freedom and joys must have come at a cost! Something precious must have been sacrificed in a “tradeoff.”

Osama, Stalin, Hitler, even the Civil War Confederates… all said the same thing in various ways. Western/northern decadence must have been purchased at cost of our “soul”… or manhood, or grit, or resilience, or style, or willingness to sacrifice.

Zero-summers must believe this! The only alternative, when staring jealously at our innumerable successes, would be to admit “those people in the scientific-tolerant West know a better way to live.” And rather than utter those words, they would rather die, or else make up a good story.

Every generation of Americans, especially, has had to disprove the Zero Sum Canard, sometimes at great cost. In comparative terms, we got off easy with 9/11. The grit and determination exhibited by New Yorkers, who stood atop the rubble and shouted “Is that all you got?” was capped by the courageous rebellion of the passengers on flight UA93, who reacted within minutes, showing what resilience and grit truly mean. No zero-sum society would ever see common citizens react with such rapid agility, resilience or guts.

Positive-Sum-GameI do not blame the zero-summers for not understanding the Positive Sum Game. Zero-sum thinking is deeply rooted in human nature. But understanding why they go back, again and again, to the same dreary rationalization does not mean we must put up with it. Because it always forces us into a position of pain, having to prove, yet again, that we have (figurative) cojones.

We cannot surrender our method — our positive sum revolution. Not even while merchants of fear on both the left and the right are yammering at us to give up and give in to despair.

== Speaking of ingrates… ==

With just a few exceptions, the states whose politicians most-loudly preach small government tend to be much more reliant on it than other states. Red States by far are more dependent on the federal government and are poorer. In aggregate, these states take back much more from the federal government than they put in. More of their gross domestic product comes from direct and indirect government outlays. This turns the takers vs makers debate on its head as those pushing that message represent the end they portend to despise.

Quality-life-america-countyAnd more -- a composite ranking (map) differentiates those counties where Americans are healthy and wealthy, educated and thin... versus struggling, poor and obese.

Sorry. The left has its haters of the enlightenment, too. But our biggest problem, right now, is the New Confederacy. Instead of seceding, this time, they think they have a better plan. They are tearing it all down from within.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A War Against Expertise

== The real war is against reality ==

WAR-EXPERTISEAll right, I keep returning to this recurring theme, but it needs to be hammered... it's about the War on Science… and against all smartypants professions

Forty-three years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, almost forty percent of scientists and twenty-six percent of U.S. journalists (the people in society who interview and question the widest samplings of Americans) called themselves Republicans, only slightly fewer than called themselves Democrats.

scientist-republicansToday, just 7% of U.S. journalists so identify and less than 6% of U.S. scientists. (The latter figure is in free fall and includes folks like me, who have kept their GOP registration for tactical reasons.)

What's changed? Similar steep declines are seen in nearly all of the professions that require extensive knowledge and skill, from teaching and medicine to economics, law, law-enforcement and civil service to university professors in almost every field, even to the U.S. military officer corps.

When I ask my GOP friends (and I remain a registered Republican) to explain this, they reply with blanket condemnation of each of these professions, calling them rife with pointy-headed drones and herd-following myopics, betraying their fields by plunging into political bias. Science, they declare, has been betrayed by the scientists themselves! (When dissing the U.S. military officer corps, they are careful to only condemn "the damn politician generals.")

Okay, then. So... every major skill and knowledge profession... is being betrayed by the folks who chose to devote themselves and their lives to it.  That's... an interesting assertion, argued generally by that most-persuasive modern device, the mass-forwarded facebook jpeg! Today’s postage-free equivalent of a crazy-uncle chain letter! 

How much more convincing that is, than actually talking to the people who -- for example -- while investigating climate change, can actually tell the Bernoulli and Navier-Stokes equations from a cellular automata gas-balance model… from a hole in the ground.

otherculturewar(Name a single exception to this demonization -- mostly by the right, but also perpetrated by some elements of the radical left -- of folks who actually know a lot! Teachers, medical doctors, journalists, civil servants, law professionals, economists, skilled labor, professors… oh, yes and science

After asking this question publicly for a decade, I have seen just three professions listed as exceptions, that are of high intellectual attainment and skill, yet have escaped regular attack by the central cathedral of know-nothingness — Fox News. Can you name those three?)

The mass-desertion of the GOP -- and the crazy, anti-vaxxer far-left -- by all the smart people does not discredit Smart People. It discredits radical "sides" that have gone gibbering loony, by waging war on smart people. 

== The narrative ==

They are voting with their feet, the smartest, wisest, most logical and by far the most competitive humans our species ever produced, who produced the cornucopia of technological wealth upon which we all rely.  How can the Murdochians justify their campaign of hatred against scientists and nearly all other knowledge castes?

SUSPICION-OF-AUTHORITYFirst, you must start with the inherent American cultural tradition of Suspicion of Authority (SoA), which we suckle from every Hollywood film and almost every novel or song.  Liberals express SoA by seeing Big Brother emerging as tyrants did in 99% of human societies, from the entrenched owner-oligarchic caste... and the faceless corporations they now control, instead of armies.  

A decent person of the right is no less afraid of Big Brother! He worries about other elites -- snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats. And fair enough!  I am an Adam-Smithian Libertarian and I remember the USSR, so I can turn my head and fret about that threat!  By all means stay wary of civil servants! Just because they did less harm than aristocratic cheaters have, across 6000 years, that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous!

But the rigidity of both sides, ignoring how their own, favorite elites might be dangerous too, is depressing. In is political fused-spine disease... an inability to turn your head and see that cheaters and would be tyrants loom from all directions.  

Moreover, when one side goes into full-tilt rage-war against scientists and teachers and every other caste of folks who know stuff... WTF is going on?

It is Distraction of SoA. Americans need to fret over some cheating elite. And the last thing the Murdochians want is for poor whites to turn their ire toward the ancient enemies of freedom, who were dealt with firmly, by our parents and grandparents in the Greatest Generation.

 So Fox must find some other elite (or several) to divert attention to.  Just as the plantation lords diverted a million poor white southerners into marching to fight and die for their own feudal lords, against "yankee factory men."  

How are they doing it?  Trace the narrative.  

We all know that being smart and knowing a lot does not automatically make you wise.  Indeed, we all have known smart people who were ninnies. I know some top scientists who I would never hire as a babysitter.  It happens. Even folks who know a field thoroughly must still bear burdens of proof. And they will always be wrong about something.

truthinessOnly notice how that truth has been twisted into a new "truthy" truism.  

If you are smart and know a lot, that automatically makes you unwise.

That transformed and warped message is the essence of the narrative.  And it is deeply, deeply sick.  

In fact, being smart and knowing a lot correlates moderately with being a somewhat wiser person.  Not perfectly. Not reliably in any particular case. Always with a sense of contingency and burden-of-proof...

... but still... are you honestly gonna make a bet with me over the relative levels of wisdom and common sense displayed by - say - the folks in our research centers vs. those living in trailer parks? On average? Seriously?

Start with a truth.  Twist it into a "truthy" lie. It is the methodology of the mad anti-vaxxers of the far-left... and it is the method of the puppeteers controlling today's loony entire-right.

 If you have fallen for this scam, shame on you.

== These fellows must have read Adam Smith ==

James-Madison-corporations"I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality.” — George Washington

"The power of all corporations ought to be limited, [...] the growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be a source of abuses.”
– James Madison

== More Political Miscellany ==

If true, this is very disturbing: Google Is Removing Negative Coverage Of Powerful People from its search results.

This world survey of racial tolerance may surprise you and shatter your close-held impressions.

== And Finally ==

All right, this is just terrific. A generic why I am right and you are wrong” anthem for our (insanely self-righteous) times.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Moon Landing: 45 Years Later

MOON-LANDING-1969Summertime takes me back to 1969, when -- despite national and international traumas that make today's seem petty -- the world did manage to come together over one topic... how glorious that humankind was forging forth into the Final Frontier.

Yet now, I share with millions of other boomers a head-scratching perplexity. Why don’t more of today’s youth care about outer space?

The easy answer would be to seize upon a simple nostrum -- about each era rejecting the obsessions of the one before it. But then, in that case, why is the very opposite true about popular music? Back in the hippie era, music divided the generations! But today? Well, my kids adore classic 60s and 70s Rock. In a surf shop or bike store, all I have to do is mention a few of the concerts that I snuck into, long ago, and the brash young fellers are at my feet, saying “tell us more, gramps!”

life2moonandbackSo why do they yawn, when we turn to the NASA Channel, or when we talk about colonizing Mars?

Or when we brag about being members of a species who walked on the Moon? For certain, you don’t hear astronaut mentioned on any list of dream jobs.

Puzzling over this quandary, I was reminded of something Norman Mailer said, when he wrote his 1960s tome Of A Fire on the Moon. Mailer had begun researching the book amid feelings of smug, intellectual hostility toward the crewcut engineers and fliers he encountered... only then his attitude shifted when he realized, in a startled epiphany that: “They were achieving not one, but two bona fide miracles.”

Feats that -- when Mailer really thought about it -- struck him as truly Biblical in proportion.

1. They were actually going to the Moon!

2. They were actually succeeding in making such an adventure boring

Mailer’s insight came to mind, while I was talking to kids about the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Of all the predictions* ever made about spaceflight, I figure the least imaginable outcome would have been ennui. The endless tedium of checklists that probably turned off as many kids as the romance of space ever turned on.

*(Speaking of predictions. In a 1959 comic strip Jeff Hawke, the writers forecast that the first human landing on the Moon would happen on 4 August 1969, missing the real-life date by only two weeks. Oh, the lead astronaut was named... Armstrong.)

Of course, policy has had a lot to do with it. Members of the astronaut corps were always willing to accept a level of calculated risk similar to -- if more carefully managed than -- the adventurous pioneers of aviation. Perhaps the public might also have accepted the kind of casualty rates that usually occur on a frontier -- they did in Lindbergh’s time. But politicians could not. They wanted promises of “routine access to space.” And so, the shuttle proved an expensive and awkward mix of overblown promises, lost opportunities, unreasonable expense, relentless nit-pickery and mind numbing sameness. 

2001Not at all what we expected, back when my peers sat in dazed wonder, in the front row, watching Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Nor is that entirely a bad thing. As I point out elsewhere, we may have failed to build magnificent, rolling space hotels and moonbases that frolic to Strauss waltzes. But our civilization is a better one, than the one that was depicted in that film -- a smug and overbearing and fanatically secretive world dominated by patronizing white males. 

And if I had to choose... between a civilization that has improved itself and its sense of egalitarian justice as much as ours has, versus one that had taken a little longer to get its spinning space stations and moon bases... well... Let's just say that the hoary old cliche "it's too bad our wisdom hasn't kept up with our technology" may have it wrong, in ironic and weird ways. (For example, the way that both the mad left and the even-crazier right seem compelled to utterly deny the plain fact that so much social progress has been made! A plague on both cynical houses.)

== We are explorers ==

Others are commemorating this anniversary, of course.  I recommend one article in Salon, by veteran journalist Joel Shurkin, who covered the Apollo missions way back when. (This essay was published after Neil Armstrong's death, in 2012.) The ostensible topic - what Armstrong meant to say when he set foot on the moon, is actually banal.  But Shurkin makes some moving points.

EXPLORERS"We should explore space because that’s what we humans do... We explore. We are not content with where we are, we want to see what is over there. It is part of our DNA. When the great explorations of Earth began, there probably were people who told Cook and Magellan and Hudson and Columbus and all the rest that it was a waste of resources or that if God wanted us to find a northwest passage, he would have put up road signs or something. But they went. That’s us."

I nod my head vigorously, but also with a modernist quibble.  In addition to Cook and Magellan and Columbus he -- and the rest of you out there -- should routinely add in names of other, non-western explorers. like ibn Butatta and Cheng-ho and Hotu Matua.  Not only is this simple justice -- and pragmatically it lets you cancel out the "white-male-Euro chauvinist" reflex-accusation -- it also shows that you are one of the horizon-spreaders. Always ready to think outside your old, confining box.

Someone worthy of talking to others about shattering much bigger boxes. About seeking much wider horizons.**

== The Need for Speed! ==

Now consider a few other perspectives. For example: ever since the invention of the steam locomotive, human beings (or their machines) managed, every passing year and decade, to keep traveling faster, at an accelerating rate -- a curve that kept spiking ever more vertical, until we launched the Voyager space probes on their pellmell fling past Jupiter and beyond the Solar System, in the mid 1970s. Extrapolating that curve of ever-greater speed, some expected that we would, by 2010, dispatch probes to distant stars! We might easily have landed humans on Mars, using Freeman Dyson’s marvelous Orion-drive ships. It all appeared as inevitable and obvious as Moore’s Law of computer development seems to a different generation of techie-transcendentalists.

spacecraftOnly then, quite suddenly, the curve of acceleration abruptly stopped -- after 150 years. The Voyagers still represent, in many ways, a high water mark of humanity’s progress in space, culminating and concluding our raucous search for speed. At least, for now.

(Those who believe in an infinite Moore's Law, take note.)

Indeed, millions now look at the Space Race obsession as a mark of earlier immaturity. Sure, we benefit from weather and communication satellites, and reconnaissance-sats spread the worldwide strategic transparency that arguably save all our lives, during the Cold War. The technology spin-offs more than paid for it all and people are moderately proud of robotic space probes like Hubble and Cassini and Spirit and Opportunity.  Moreover, NASA's budget is far smaller than most citizens believe; when polled, they always give an estimate that is far higher.

But, when it comes to dreams of men and women, venturing into vacuum waste, well, you can hardly even find that happening in movie sci fi anymore, let alone our rel-life ambitions.

Certainly, when it comes to the actual Moon itself, I look with skepticism upon any thought of hurrying back there. My own graduate research advisor -- Dr. Jim Arnold -- was the fellow who predicted there might be ice in lightless crater-bottoms, at the north or south lunar poles -- and if it turns out to be true, there may be something useful about the place, someday. Still, despite George Bush's grandiose boondoggle that (thankfully) was cancelled, it hardly seems a useful next destination for us, right now.  Not compared to the riches that await us at near-Earth crossing asteroids, for example. Or that prime piece of real estate that has already caught the Russians' eye -- Phobos. Or the possible abode of life that is Europa.

== But what were we actually doing? ==

And yet, in honor of this anniversary, I want to make two points, in defense of those quaint old missions to the Moon.

First, they serve as a backstop against the gloom and pessimism that seem to be preached by cynics of both right and left, at every turn. How many of the arguments for some ambitious enterprise or another begin with: “If we could go to the moon, why can't we...” 

Damn right. If we could do that... well... we could do a heckuva lot of cool things! If we came up with some good old fashioned, win-win pragmatism and gumption, that is.

Then there is the way that one can connect the Moon Landings to Las Vegas and Disneyland and the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR). Bear with me on this one...

All four were perfect expressions of an indomitable human -- but also crazily American -- determination to do or create things we want, long before any practical technology should have made it possible.  All four were expressions of desire so strong, that all else that was needed was money... just money. Oh, and in the case of Las Vegas, a lot of water. 

The VCR was like the moon shots? Did you ever open one up and watch as it clanked and whirred? What a brilliant, elaborate, insanely complicated Rube Goldberg device! Mass produced so cheaply that almost all Americans had several. It allowed hundreds of millions of people to watch what they wanted to watch, when they wanted to watch it, before any  sensible or efficient digital technologies were available to make it so. 

Get it now? And the lesson? That we are deficient today only in that one thing -- sufficient desire to overcome our stoked up, artificial resentments and get back to working together again, on something cool.  

It is that desire -- and the accompanying genius at pragmatic problem solving -- that the dogmatists and ideologues have killed in us. And that is the real reason we stopped adventuring in space.

== Finally... Apollo may have saved us..==

apollo-artI believe the Apollo missions helped to create some of the most important art in human history.

That's a bold and strange statement. But let me dare to define effective visual art as some work or representation that subtly changes human beings just by the sight of it, transforming hearts and minds without verbal or logical persuasion.

By that reckoning, the 20th century featured two hugely effective works of visual art, both of them gifts of physics! 

First, the terrifying image of the atom bomb altered forever our little-boy romantic attachment to war, beckoning us instead us to grow up a bit in dealing with this new and awesome power to destroy. Defense became the business of serious grownups. Even (especially) among soldiers, war itself is now seen as evidence of failure - an urgent and risky measure arising out of inadequate diplomacy, preparation or deterrence. Sure, there were logical reasons to make that shift.  But art helped it along. The image of that mushroom cloud seared us.  It persuaded, without pallid words.

Ah but then there was the second image that changed us, deeply and forever. That great and transforming work of art was a gift that arrived at the very end of one of the most difficult years any of us can remember - 1968 - twelve crazed and frenetic months that brought most Americans -- and most of the world -- to the brink of exhaustion and despair. Yes, great music washed over us in a veritable tsunami... as did tragedies, war, invasions, assassinations, riots, betrayals, and fed-up demands for transformation.

Only then, a final token arrived -- like a gleam of hope shining at the bottom of Pandora’s Box...when the Apollo 8 astronauts brought home -- just before year's end -- that first perfect image of the Earth, floating as a blue marble in the vast desert of space. A picture that moved even the most cynical hearts and changed forever our outlook towards this fragile oasis world.

I'm willing to argue that this image -- an artwork purely created by humanity’s boldness and ambition... and the chaste innocent truthfulness of science... that transformed us more than anything else. Perhaps making us better, more responsible citizens and world-managers

But also -- one can hope -- possibly sending us down roads that will make us more ready and more worthy, until that day comes when our childrens’ children reverse things yet again, spurning cheap, indignant cynicism in favor of fizzing, confident eagerness, leading them once again to resume chanting:

“Let’s go!”


== ...addenda... ==

1) For more on the process of "horizon expansion" or seeking "otherness"... see my big TED-style talk at the Smithsonian - "Will we diversify into many types of humanity?"  (Follow the slides on Slideshare!)

2) Mark your calendars for one year from today… Pluto!  "We're arriving at Pluto on the morning of the 14th of July 2015. It's Bastille day. To celebrate we're storming the gates of Pluto."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Media Challenge FAA Drone Ban -- and drones conveying beauty?

MEDIA-DRONE-BANTomorrow I will offer comments on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  But first, let's catch up on some important issues.

Drones have already been used on several occasions in the US to document the news. Last week, a storm chaser in Arkansas used a drone to record the havoc wrought by a tornado. But the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been very slow to adopt rules for private and corporate drone use and has taken a draconian zero-tolerance policy on its interim ban on almost all such uses. Now, a number of media companies, including The New York Times and The Associated Press, accused the Federal Aviation Authority of violating the First Amendment.

Is this a difficult problem? Sure! Just imagine a future city scape abuzz with irritating mechanical vultures -- delivery owls and snoopy eye-spies, swooping about, colliding with buildings and each other and power lines, causing blackouts and raining shattered, glowing parts on all below… at minimum, city use should involve devices capable of situational awareness and detection of collision hazards and minimum separation rules. But dig it - we will only get there if the experiments can proceed in a few cities to see what really happens!

Start with Houston. They don't give a darn anyway….

== Drones, androids and robots bring you the news! ==

ROBOTS-NEWS Will human journalists become obsolete? I participated in an online (HuffPost) panel discussion about the latest trend... robotizing the news media.  Here are just a few examples of the trend.

Japan Unveils  It's First Android Newscaster. Not exactly uncanny, yet.  But they're busy. With an expected 7% drop in population, their interest in automation is very high.

AP Will Use Robots to Write Some Business Stories.   - 4000 robo stories in the time it takes human writers to do 300. Shades of Max Headroom! The following couch discussion of this is... fluffy and made me want to replace the panel with robots!  Another News Outlet Is Using Robots To Write Stories...

Apparently most sports stories have come to us this way for several years.  (I suspect decades, even generations.)

== And more drones...  ==

Drones… everywhere!  Illustrating what has sometimes been called Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law… that cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile faster than ML. Now… watch how the flying cams are getting far more rugged, using a simple gimbal in a cage approach!  Watchbirds here we come, yippee.

Oh, but see the very end of this blog for one of the best links you'll ever click, brought to you by a drone.

== The insurrectionary recourse? ==

citizen-uprisingAll the ructions and revolutions overseas raise an earnest question: could it happen here? Dialing in closer: is it still even theoretically possible for a mass citizen uprising to topple the government of a modern, western state? Mr. Harry Bentham makes an earnest effort and raises a few interesting points in “Does Modern Tech Render the 2nd Amendment Redundant?

Alas, his appraisal winds up being rather shallow, simply reiterating his arm-waved and evidence-free assertion that a mass uprising, armed with civilian rifles, could naturally and easily overcome forces of the modern state. Mr. Bentham leaves aside any discussion that:

- Any mass civil ruction will likely feature as many armed civilian "tories" as "rebels."

- Local police have lately been heavily up-armed to close to military levels. Their loyalties in a crisis would complicate matters.

Jefferson-rifle   - Everything depends upon the morale and attitudes of the troops. If they retain strong connectivity and identification with the populace, they will be unreliable instruments of repression.

These and other factors were discussed in my own treatment on this issue -- The Jefferson Rifle: Guns and the Insurrection Myth -- where I appraise whether modern westerners -- and Americans in particular -- still retain an "insurrectionary recourse."

Even more important, I explain carefully why attachment to that ideal is THE driver behind the refusal of the Gun Lobby to consider even modest compromises.

Fireworks== Finally... drones and sheer beauty 

I cannot recall when last an item of media so delighted me. I am... for once... speechless. Though proud to live in ...

...oh, just click this. Full screen. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Brilliant innovators - hopeful signs

First a reminder that a number of TED-style or interview talks are up. THE FUTURE IS HERE: Science meets Science Fiction Imagination, Inspiration and Invention was a lavish event last May in Washington DC, presented by the Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Here’s a link to my talk: Otherness: will we supply our own new diversity? (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!)

Also “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?” My talk at TEDxUCSD finally offers a public version of this disturbing notion I’ve been discussing for years — that an unseen addiction is destroying our civilization.  (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare! )
While we're at it: You can catch more sober reflections on all the Great Big Topics on the TV show "Closer to Truth" - with episodes ranging from SETI to religion to ESP to human destiny in the cosmos. I am interviewed on some of these matters, but I am mere comic relief among the truly brilliant folks like Francisco Ayala who share their wisdom and insights with you.

Finally -- watch a podcast from the planetary Society about coming solar sail missions! There will be several important light-sail missions in 2016! Watch Bill Nye and others (yes... including me).

Now... on to those great innovators!

== Innovation will save us ==

Dean-kamen-slingshot-waterYou cynics out there had better not read this article about one of the heroes of our age, Dean Kamen, whose new water-distillation machines may provide healthy supplies to hundreds of millions of needy people, slashing disease rates and even preventing war. Kamen’s knack for making money while attacking “impossible problems” goes way back. His FIRST Robotics League has made nerdy inventiveness cool and high-status and fun on thousands of high school campuses. Guys like him — and Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and others — prove that it’s not about left-vs-right. It is about deciding to be confident problem solvers, helping us all to win positive sum games.

NEXT: What was the federal government’s role in starting the shale-gas revolution? There is much ado in the press over the arrival (long expected by some of us) of cheap natural gas and renewed supplies of domestic petroleum, developed inside North America. The prospect of U.S. and Canadian energy independence is shaking up political dynamics all over the globe and (among other effects) helping to fuel a new renaissance in American manufacturing.

What seems bizarre is how this has become a crowing point for the Right. The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal regularly runs opinion pieces that criticize federal efforts to advance energy technologies and their commercialization… and completely ignore the past federal role in research and stimulation and infrastructure, that made the shale boom possible. See this piece in Physics Today. Can you spell h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y?

The gas industry itself has spoken on behalf of federal research efforts. “The DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it,” said Mitchell Energy’s former vice president Dan Steward. “You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”

== Inheritance of acquired… nervousness? ==

My colleagues Greg Bear and Mark Anderson have been among those who for years have suggested that Darwinian puritanism blinds us to certain ways that Lamarck might have been at least a little bit right. That some acquired characteristics can be passed to the next generation. Now comes experimental validation of their suspicion… in a way that many of us always knew in our gut. That trauma can get passed down the generations.

FEAR-PARENTSSee this report: Can We Inherit Fear From Our Parents? In a laboratory experiment, traumatized mice appeared to mature normally. It was only when researchers subjected them to behavioral tests that differences became apparent. The traumatised mice appeared to be reckless, wandering into bright, open spaces that mice usually avoid. Yet they also appeared to be depressed. When placed in a tank of water they gave up and floated instead of trying to swim to safety.

“When males from the traumatised litters fathered offspring, their pups displayed similar abnormal behaviour even though they had never experienced trauma. The pups’ insulin and blood glucose levels were also lower than in normal mice – a symptom of early life stress. The offspring seemed to have inherited the effects of their fathers’ trauma. Furthermore, the next generation, that is the grandchildren of the original stressed mice, also showed abnormal behaviours. How could trauma be transmitted down the generations?

“The researchers analysed the traumatised fathers’ brain tissue, specifically in a region called the hippocampus, where memories are formed. They noticed larger than normal quantities of tiny RNA molecules called microRNA. Like tiny switches, these molecules are known to turn the activity of genes on or off.

“An abundance of this microRNA was also detected in the traumatised fathers’ sperm and in the brain tissue of their offspring. Could it be that the microRNA was somehow imprinted with the experience of the trauma, transmitting the memory to the offspring? To answer this, the researchers extracted the microRNA from the sperm of traumatised mice and injected it into embryos. The pups that developed from these embryos displayed the same behavioural and metabolic abnormalities as the traumatised fathers, while pups injected with RNA from un-traumatised fathers did not. It was strong support for the hypothesis that the sperm RNA was transmitting the experience of trauma.”

== More science ==

Thorne-Zytkow-neutron-starred supergiant that contains, in its bowels, a neutron star? The existence of such an object was first proposed by (my friend) Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Anna Zytkow, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK. Now there is a strong candidate to be an observed Thorne-Zytkow object. Amazing.

Goodbye High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). Conspiracy theorists have accused the program of doing everything from mind control to global communications jamming. Now bulldozers await as the research program (on interesting things, not mind control) wraps up.

Exobiologists surveyed more than 1,000 planets for planet density, temperature, substrate (liquid, solid or gas), chemistry, distance from its central star and age. They developed and computed the Biological Complexity Index (BCI) suggesting 1 to 2 percent of the planets showed a BCI rating higher than Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a subsurface global ocean that may harbor forms of life. With about 10 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the BCI yields 100 million plausible planets. At a glance, it seems a shallow conclusion, in part because Kepler results skew heavily toward massive planets orbiting close to their stars. And because Europa-style moons have no need for a Goldilocks Zone and hence may be pervasive.

Neuroscientists have suspected for some time that the brain has some capacity to direct the manufacturing of new neurons. Now generative neurons that stimulate stem cell production of more neurons have been found.

TheGapIn The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals. Psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a “definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose.” Says Ray Kurzweil: “Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children, and human evolution, he surveys the abilities most often cited as uniquely human—language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind, and mental time travel—and finds that two traits account for most of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: Namely, our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on scenarios, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. These two traits explain how our species was able to amplify qualities that we inherited in parallel with our animal counterparts; transforming animal communication into language, memory into mental time travel, sociality into mind reading, problem solving into abstract reasoning, traditions into culture, and empathy into morality.”

Let Phil Plait show you (and explain) the stunning and strange surface of Saturn’s moon, Phoebe.

== Amazing, if true. ==

HP’s new computer technology can manage 160 petabytes of data in a mere 250 nanoseconds.

‘There is something about the brains of high-IQ individuals that prevents them from quickly seeing large, background-like motions.’ Very interesting re differences in brain function. Interesting grist for deep pondering… or else (as I’ve seen)… we’ll see this used by dogmatists proclaiming “see? Smart people must be stupid!”

Papyrus-plant-bookfascinating article in Salon, from the book Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars” by John Gaudet, describes how the papyrus plant gave ancient Egyptians the ability to make boats and use their water world.

Finally, a glimpse at male-female vocabulary differences showing we still have a way to go.