Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Guns vs Cameras - which are "equalizers" that can prevent tragedy? Plus transparency news

The most recent mass-shooting tragedy sets into stark contrast two national misfortunes.  At surface, they seem similar -- crazed gunmen opening fire on citizens and lethal misbehavior by a minority of bad cops. But in several important ways, the trends are diametrically opposite.

First - random shooting sprees by deeply sick civilians seem to have no end in sight. Over half of the world's deadliest mass shootings that have occurred in the past 50 years were in the U.S., whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations.  Limiting easy access to weaponry by psychopaths is one blatantly obvious path. So would be courageous investment in education and mental health...

... but the top Roseburg police official mentioned another option we should add to our list of responses. Said the local Sheriff regarding this shooter: 'You will never hear me mention his name.’  Indeed, soon after, the community at-large responded by adopting this approach

At last! I have only been proposing this for 20 years.  See my article on the Erastratos Effect: "Names that live in infamy. Killers want notoriety. Let's not give it to them."

But to be fair and honest, all of this will just nibble at the edges. In one of the most sad-but-clever satirical gambits, The Onion simply re-posts its gun violence article with updated locations and dates, each time this occurs, with the same title: "No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens." Go read it and laugh while you cry, knowing you will read it again and again, in the future....

== Commentary ==

If I may offer a few of my own spins on our most recent tragedy?

-- First, an extra bit of sadness for me, as Roseburg featured in my novel The Postman. If you know the topic of that book, ironies redouble.

-- Second: across all of these morbid tales, it's worth noting that in not a single case has the perpetrator been brought down by an armed civilian bystander... not once. Ever. Though that is precisely the incantation that the NRA uses, while promoting the Campbellian notion of a gun-lugging population. Voodoo, only surpassed by Supply Side "Economics."

In fact, many mass-shooters have been brought down by heroic  un-armed bystanders - like those three young Americans aboard that French train, a month or so ago - who bravely charge the lunatic, usually while he is changing clips. Of all the NRA's insane positions, their fierce opposition to limits on clip and magazine size is the most criminally culpable, without a single justification in defense of normal gun owners. Only... let me swivel and point out that they do not have a monopoly on craziness here.

-- Supporters of Gun Control share some blame! Dismissing their opponents as "gun nuts," they show no inclination to study the deep underpinnings of the "slippery slope" argument that motivates Second Amendment supporters to oppose even the most reasonable reforms.  This despite the fact that political victories are best won by peeling away moderate pragmatists on the opposing side.

If you take the time to dig deep, you'll find a possible way to get around this obstinacy - and peel off moderates - by offering a fair trade. (Especially since any fool can see that the 2nd Amendment - as currently worded - is by far the weakest in the Constitution. Some day the phrase "well-regulated militia" will be interpreted more strongly! Gun fans need to start negotiating now, for a better amendment.)

But someone has to drop simplistic sanctimony first -- getting practical. And you know it will not be them. See this laid out in detail... along with a pragmatic proposal to give all sides what they deeply need. 

In sharp contrast... the apparent wave of cop-on-black violence on our streets, while tragic, is not an acceleration of the problem, but a sign of good trends taking hold! Because the spread of cameras in the hands of civilians -- protected by recent declarations by the courts and the Obama Administration -- is now giving the poor and minorities... and good cops... at last the 'ammo' they need to start getting rid of bad ones. 

Cameras are proving to be the Great Equalizer that guns were supposed to be... but never were.  (See this forecast on p. 160 of The Transparent Society (1997) and in EARTH (1989).)

One of these trends - while tragic in each case - offers hope for the future. 

The other makes us all want to tear our hair out.

== What's your rating? ==

And... the transparency wars continue!

One to five stars for you? Of course this had to come. Launching soon:  Yelp for people: You will soon be able to rate anyone you have interacted with on this new app: with reviews and star ratings assigned to "your exes, your co-workers, the old guy who lives next door. You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose," reads a review in the Washington Post. The launchers of Peeple say they will ban racist and sexist comments, as well as profanity and hateful comments. Yet, announcement of this app has raised a storm of protest on the internet, with potential legal woes down the road.

The good news? This will light a fire under creating real reputation mediation services, a potential billion dollar business – and don’t let anyone tell you that reputation companies already exist. Currently, they are jokes.

== Your data: Sold ==

Want an entertaining jeremiad? Then swing over to the latest from Gregory Maus:  How corporate data brokers sell your life, and why you should be concerned

“For nearly two years, media coverage of the NSA has been near-constant, over concerns about the extent of their data collection on people around the world. But, there’s an even larger behemoth in the shadows gathering information about you. Unlike the NSA, they are accountable to few laws, very little accountability, and no oversight, laughing off investigative inquiries at even the highest levels of government. This is a massive ecosystem, with an insatiable desire to learn every detail of your life and then sell it to those who would use it to persuade you. In effect, it’s a sprawling black market—and as one would expect with a black market, many of the purchasers of this information are criminals who are using it to steal the identities and valuables of many. We can only hope that they’re the worst of the buyers.”

Without any doubt, this is an industry meriting application of searing light and scrutiny.  For example: “MEDbase 200 was selling lists of rape victims for 7.9 cents per name, as well as similarly-priced lists of those suffering from HIV/AIDs, genetic diseases, addictive behavior (conveniently broken down into sub-categories like gambling, sex, alcohol, and drugs) and dementia. The listings were taken down soon after Dixon’s testimony.”

But… isn’t that the point? It was sufficient for such behaviors to be seen for them to be stopped.  To whatever degree they continue, it is precisely proportional to the degree they can get away with it, in secret.  Indeed, that is the only anodyne or answer. It is wholly necessary and wholly sufficient.  Well, almost wholly sufficient. What is not needed is panicky legislation to shut info flows down, with the best of privacy-protecting intentions.  Those selfsame laws will inevitably be used to shelter the very miscreants they are meant to stop.

We need to empower people (or their NGO pallidins) to see better, so they can perceive patterns of info abuse and bullying and apply deterrence upon those who would do such things with our information.

== Vanishing your data ==

And finally... Xerox PARC engineers have developed a chip that can explode into teensy little pieces as part of DARPA's Vanishing Programmable Resources project. Yes... explode.

Who’d want that?  Self-destruction of chips is central to the goal of securing data from thieves — criminal or national. Someday, this chip could be used to keep, say, encryption keys needed to access sensitive data. The self-destruction process can also be triggered not just by a laser, but also via radio signals or a physical switch.

Does this conflict with my goals as “Mr. Transparency”?  Nonsense.  Anyone who thinks that simply has not bothered to read or understand.  

Friday, October 02, 2015

Surveillance: A Golden Age or Dark Days?

My friend and info-perceptive wiseman Peter Swire, who helped to formulate the post-Snowden NSA reforms issued by the Obama Administration, has a series of articles and white papers of interest to anyone who is serious about the core topic of our era.  First, he writes in Slate on The Golden Age of Surveillance: 

“In recent months, law enforcement, led by FBI Director James Comey, has waged war against the “going dark” problem — criminals using secure communications technologies, particularly encryption, to evade justice. Its solution to this problem is to encourage or require technology companies to build in back doors to allow the government to circumvent, say, encryption on your iPhone. But in reality, we are currently in a golden age of surveillance. The “going dark” argument should not be used as a reason to support back doors or other special access by law enforcement to encrypted communications.”  

I agree … only not in the way that he means.  Swire is speaking of legal and above-board means by which law enforcement agencies and other members of our Professional Protector Caste (PPC) can seek information they need, to do their jobs. Making back door access to encryption keys unnecessary.

 I would add that I never deemed it likely the government needs backdoors in order to see. Or rather, I would take odds that they already exist. The real purpose of such lavish public jeremiads by Comey and others -- demanding physical back doors and crypto keys that they'll never, realistically, be given -- may be to make others think there is a “going dark problem.”  

An unusual theory? Oh but I'm skeptical for good reason, having seen it all before – ever since the whole potemkin struggle over “clipper” in the early 1990s. It is blatantly plausible (and not sci fi) that there's more smoke than fire to this show.

== Back to the Swire Papers ==

Peter dials in even closer when he writes about “the declining half lives of secrets.”  Swire maintains that this time metric “is declining sharply for many intelligence activities as secrets that in the past may have been kept successfully for 25 years or more, are now exposed well before.”  

Cogently, he argues: “(that) means that “the front-page” test will become far more important to decision-makers. Even if a secret operation is initially successful, the expected costs of disclosure become higher as the average time to disclosure decreases.” 

This is a matter that I illustrated long ago, in my 1989 novel EARTH, wherein secrecy caching was seen rightly as a temporary and tactical measure, seldom useful beyond the couple of years that efficient law professionals would need, for legitimate investigations. Peter lays out the argument that intelligence officers and other PPC members need to adapt to this new era, when rapidity of information sharing and appraisal can be much more important than the convenience of locking secrets in boxes. I agree. (Though I have always made allowances for short term Tactical Secrecy.) 

He goes on to cite the decline in lifelong (loyal) employment in the Intelligence Community, which has in turn led to what I call the Henchman/T-cell Effect, in which contractors like Edward Snowden are drawn to violating secrecy strictures less by ideology or money or blackmail or any of the old lures, and more for reasons of either idealism or ego. (Generally some mix of the two.) While most members of the IC-PPC express rage at Edward Snowden, for example, 90%+ of Silicon Valley workers deem him to be a heroic whistle blower.  

“The gap between zero and over 90 percent is a sociological chasm,” says Swire. A chasm that the PPC ignores at great peril.

== The grinding process of reform ==

Peter’s third article may seem a bit self-serving, in which he calls passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, ending bulk collection, the biggest pro-privacy change to U.S. intelligence law since the original enactment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. 

To be clear, he was one of five members of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology,  who essentially wrote major aspects of the new reform law.  And while I do deem its work to have been an improvement – for example making the FISA Court less of a star chamber farce by including adversarial processes, at last -- it truly was only the beginning of needed reforms.  

(Noting, of course, that even these partial measures would never have been proposed by a Republican president.) 

What should we do next?  The reforms I'd seek are different from those sought by most privacy activists. Instead of prescribing utterly futile and absurd things like concealment, obfuscation, hiding, or forbidding elites from looking at us, I would emphasize new methods of supervision. Rather than the silly concept of trying blind our PPC, restrictions that will simply be bypassed, then removed the next time there's a scare or panic... let them see, while knowing they are thoroughly seen. 

Methods like IGUS -- the Inspector General of the United States --  would offer us the win-win, allowing our professional protectors to do their jobs while ensuring they are never without independent eyes, scrutinizing their overall behavior. Supervision-sousveillance has a chance of staunching any drift, preventing PPC watchdogs transforming into wolves. 

In contrast, “reforms” that try to forbid our public servants from looking are doomed, over the long run, to be futile, or much, much worse.  

This too is an important read.  Peter Swire is one of those special examples of a fairly common phenomenon – men and women who actually think and know a lot about the public policy issues that they ponder deeply.  I hope he will be a cabinet deputy-secretary soon. And continue to be one of those who listens.

== Transparency Miscellany ==

Another revered friend, Vint Cerf, writes about his latest worry: that a Digital Dark Age might descend for an entirely different reason! Because many of our important records will be inaccessible in the future, because we will no longer have the ability to access the digital media on which it is saved.  And then there’s this: Vint Cerf Wants Your Help Re-Imagining the Internet.

And...  You probably lived under a rock if you haven’t heard that a team of hackers recently released the stolen database of people registered with AshleyMadison.com, the adultery matchup site. The email database alone contains 36 million records. Among those records are 15,019 accounts using either a .mil or .gov email address, listed online... This is going to be interesting!

Call it an IQ sieve for public servants and other "adults."  Those who actually imagined that their participation in such a site would remain secret are probably not up to standards of basic intelligence we need especially in civil or military personnel. On the other hand… apparently AshleyMadison.com did no verification on the signup page. For example, I would imagine (and hope!) that some of those 44 whitehouse.gov accounts were phony. Phony acounts also seem like a good way to get people you don't like into trouble, if you suspect the list will become public at some point.

And... Keep on eye on this: Increased privatization of border security, with a massive surveillance web consisting of balloons and drones, cameras, motion sensors, biometrics and face recognition systems.

Potentially transformative… and in keeping with my own pleas to emphasize technology as a great equalizer. Campaign Zero, an offshoot of the Black Lives Matter protests, has released their prescription for reducing police violence. It includes a call for body cameras, increased "witness" filming of police activities, and a nationwide implementation of a Colorado state law that allows citizens to sue police departments for confiscating or destroying video evidence. 

Setting an example for innovative, 21st Century technique, investigative journalist Bryan Christy embedded fake elephant tusks with specially designed tracking devices. "China is the biggest consumer of illegal ivory.” Surprise surprise.  Some of you will recall a special, heroic scene about this, in EARTH.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Depth of Denial - Some zillionaires can see what's coming

First a political aside: is anyone else wondering about the absence of Paul Ryan from GOP's nomination circus? Ryan (R-Wis.) is House Ways and Means Chairman and one of the most powerful legislators in America.  He was also his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, significant since the Republican Party's normal rhythm is to give the presidential nomination to the Next Guy... whose "turn it is"... either whoever came in second last time, or else the VP nominee. Yet Ryan dropped from the national radar.  

A fact highlighted by John Boehner's sudden departure as Speaker of the House, second in line to inherit any vacated presidency. Ryan declined Boehner’s job. So... what's up? I doubt any "skeleton in the closet" hypothesis. He's still young -- in his forties with small kids... with more chances on the horizon.  Moreover, as unambiguously one of the smartest living Republicans, Ryan may have rightfully seen himself as a poor fit for today's GOP frenzy-asylum -- in which all compete by pushing the envelope of craziness. Too much Barry Goldwater, too little Savanarola or Jefferson Davis or Nehemia Scudder or carnival barker to fit in with this crowd. 

Perhaps Ryan sees his "turn" in 2020... when (we can all pray) the madness abates a bit. 

In fact, today let's now turn and look at some other conservatives who want no part of lunacy. Who see civilization as something good for them, maybe worth compromising for.

== Some of the "trillies" are smart enough to see self-interest ==

Did you see first this in Existence? Some of the smarter members of our world oligarchy are starting to worry about torches, pitchforks and tumbrels -- tentatively discussing how to save their own skins from revolution. 

In a New York Times Op-Ed, former marketing conglomerate CEO Peter Georgescu writes: Capitalists Arise: We Need To Deal with Income Inequality. Joined by his friend Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot, Georgescu warns his fellow 0.01 percenters that “[w]e are creating a caste system from which it’s almost impossible to escape.” The column raises the specter of “major social unrest” if inequality is not addressed. In June, Cartier chief Johann Rupert — worth an estimated $7.5 billion — delivered the same message to his wealthy colleagues, telling them that the intensifying inequality and what it portends “keeps me awake at night.” He told his fellow elites that “We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us.”

Here’s a telling passage, relating today’s inequities to those during the Great Depression, the last time a skyrocketing aristocracy had to ponder its own best interests in a larger light: 

Georgescu and Langone’s mission perhaps finds its best Depression-era analog in Joseph Kennedy, the millionaire father of the eventual president John F. Kennedy, who said of the Depression that “in those days I felt and said I would be willing to part with half of what I had if I could be sure of keeping, under law and order, the other half.” Kennedy, like many (but hardly all) of his elite colleagues, knew that capitalism had to be bridled if it was to survive.”

Pause and ponder this. Is a classic, pyramidal-feudal society - the blatant aim of many oligarchs - even tenable anymore, in an era when an enraged middle class will have all the technical skills in the world? So far, that anger only simmers, repressed by political theater, distractions and everpresent hope. But where do the would-be lords (reflexively and unthinkingly obeying 6000 years of aristocratic habit) think re-pyramidalization can possibly lead, this time?  When brainy kids will have a copy of Marx at one elbow and a bio-synthesis machine at the other, capable of concocting any organic compound and even viruses?  Will gated resorts and robot butlers suffice, in such a future?  Clearly, the smartest and wisest "trillies" (as I call them, in EXISTENCE) can tell things are different, this time.

== Or, are any of them really noticing? ==

Elsewhere, I have compiled a long list of biometric traits that are useful or effective at distinguishing one human being from another.  These range from fingerprints and retinal or iris scans to face recognition, hand-bone ratios, voiceprints, walking-gait, linguistic-semantic habits... all the way to the otto-acoustic sound emissions that many of us radiates involuntarily from our eardrums.  

Now comes news that just sitting in a room you'll leave a unique panoply of bacteria that can be attributed to you!

What does this have to do with the super-rich? Well, read the following and see if you can guess:

"Walking into E at Equinox, nothing seems out of the ordinary from a normal trip to the Columbus Circle gym location – that is, until you approach the retina scanner.... Privacy is a big draw for those with the means to purchase the $26,000 membership – about 50 people at the New York location, according to Garcia — which nets members two private training sessions a week and unlimited access to the facilities, as well as access to Equinox’s Fit3D body scan-technology, which allows both the member and the T4 coach the ability to have a 3D view of the member’s anatomy, offering an objective baseline of various body measurements to craft their program around...."

Um okay.  So rich people are paying high rates in order to offer up their bodies to be measured in every conceivable way, so that unvetted parties will have every single biometric ... ah, I see you are getting it.  But do they?

Safety-through-concealment is a fool's fantasy -- even for elites.

== But the myopic are steering ==

While we discuss billionaires who are sane enough to see which way the wind blows… read here - Where Presidential Candidates Stand on Climate Change - how some are stepping up to counterbalance the lunacy propelled by short sighted coal-Koch-petro-sheiks and lords. Take Tom Steyer, who spent $74 million in the 2014 elections to support Democratic candidates who made climate change a critical issue in their campaign. And Republican businessman Jay Faison will put $175 million behind the campaign of a conservative who embraces the need to combat climate change, according to Politico.

Not the ideal situation, of course, which would be to take the bulk of corrupting money out of politics, the aim of Larry Lessig's campaign. (Join!) Still, perhaps indicative that not all zillionaires are myopic about their own self-interest.

Another amazement from the same article? Who would imagine that Bobby Jindal would come across as the sole sane conservative... at least in the one issue of climate change?  Well, after Katrina, you'd have to be utterly delusional to be a denialist.  But isn't that a modern GOP job requirement?  Read here a survey of the demmie and gopper candidates' position on this vital issue.

== It's human nature at the tiller ==

Oh, but once you put aside a few sapient fellows out there, the chief trait we see at the top of the oligarchic pyramid is a standard reflex observed in nearly all apex aristocrats, across the dismal 6000 years of failure-feudalism -- a rationalization that their luck derived from superiority. Entitlement correlates with inherent right to rule... even to cheat.

An enlightening article portrays the ten multi-billionaires who meddle most in U.S. politics.  Left out?  The sub-rosa influence of three vast, foreign money pools.  First, the Saudi Royal House and related petro-princes who have had a huge say – some might say control – in the GOP infrastructure created by the Bush Clan, and who are co-owners of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox empire. Second, the Chinese government, which ensures that Sheldon Adelson’s by-far most profitable casino properties are the ones in Macao, providing a pipeline of “profits” he can use to influence US politics.  And finally, the network of Swiss and other banking havens that will lose big, if international treaties on financial transparency ever pass – over fierce objections by the Republican Party. 

All of those groups fear one thing above all else.  That electoral reform in the U.S. will eliminate cheating and restore Periclean citizen sovereignty and honest American institutions.  That is their nightmare, and the biggest thing they donate gushers to prevent.

== Snippets: revealing the depth of denial ==

Growing disconnect: U.S. worker productivity rose 22% from 2000 to 2014; pay and benefits just 1.8%.

New NASA data indicates that sea levels have risen four inches in the last two decades:

Hilarious warped messages.  Both the best-yet Bad Lip Reading (of the recent GOP presidential debate) and a classic of Ronald and Nancy Reagan urging kids to get on crack.   And let’s be fair.  There are some rib-tickling bad lip readings of dems, too!

Oh but it is not equal. Consider this: How conspiracy theories poisoned the Republican Party.

And finally... The museum memorial to the heroes of flight UA 93 is open, at last.  The citizen militia that won the War on Terror – and I mean that, at every level – the very day it began. The only problem is that the memorial should be on the Washington DC Mall.

And having plumbed the depths of denial (a river in Africa) that will do for politics... for a little while.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Sentient animals, machines... and even plants!

Oh, sure, politics is important and fun!  But science is even better.  So for our weekend posting... a rundown of cool things we never knew, till now!

== Intelligence: Smarter animals == 

Why the octopus is so smart: fascinating new research indicates that their DNA sequence is expanded in areas otherwise reserved for vertebrates: "It's the first sequenced genome from something like an alien," joked neurobiologist Clifton Ragsdale of the University of Chicago, in a report in Nature.

And now we have super-smart mice: When researchers altered a gene in mice to inhibit the activity of a particular enzyme, these mice showed enhanced cognitive abilities. They tended to learn faster, remember events longer and solve complex exercises better than ordinary mice. See this explored in Science or Science Fiction: Uplifting Animals in Yale Scientific.

Will the mice rise up? See the theme song for.... Pinky and the Brain

Meanwhile, evidence of social learning: New Caledonian crows have been observed to pass tool use from one generation to the next.

In the recently released book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Carl Safina reports on the intricate social interactions, family bonds and distinct personalities observed in mammals such as elephants, orcas, primates, dogs and wolves. Safina delves into the latest scientific research that reveals layers of complex thought and behavior throughout the animal kingdom

Why we're smarter than chickens: A single molecular event in a protein called PTBP1 in our cells could hold the key to how we evolved to become the smartest animal on the planet, University of Toronto researchers have discovered. 

Researchers find new insights into the impressive brain power of dolphins and whales... and how their intelligence evolved. And the variety of dialects (clicks called codes) among pods of the deep-diving sperm whales may indicate signs of cultural transmission of vocalization patterns.

It's long been believed that giraffes were silent creatures; it turns out that they hum to each other -- a low frequency drone, done only at night.

Now it's chimps against drones -- a smack down with a stick. There are increasing signs that drones are harassing wildlife and disrupting their natural patterns. Recently, the National Park Service banned the use of drones in California's Yosemite National Park.

And...sex would be simpler if we were bonobos!

In Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things, M. R. O'Connnor takes an in-depth look at the increasing numbers of animal species threatened with extinction, and the methods scientists use to try to save them, including habitat restoration, captive breeding and genetic management. O'Connor also considers the ethics and problems we face as genetics enables us to resurrect or bring back already extinct species. Will they live in zoos... or newly recreated ecosystems? What would they eat... and what would eat them?

Will humans continue to get smarter as well? See this video discussion of the dilemma of potential human enhancement.  

== Smarter machines ==

A rodent brain chip? A fascinating article describes IBM’s new “True North” chip architecture, which propels the “neuromorphic” revolution in computing, mimicking many of the pattern-recognition capabilities that seem to work so smoothly in the cellular brains of animals… like us.  

What about sentient machines? Oh but will Artificial Intelligence stay loyal?  That’s the quandary getting discussed ever-more, outside of science fiction nowadays. But here’s an interesting offshoot from that question. Will AI entities be subject to addictions?  This interesting article features experts claiming that would be “illogical.” But what are Asimov’s so-called “three laws” if not a kind of ingrained addiction process?  My brief bit in this piece answers.  “They had better be!”

Augmented Reality rolls along. For example, in EXISTENCE I portray a future time when advertisements and meta data about your surroundings will display in banners or postits or symbols, overlain on “reality.”  Now a virtual signage company Skignz can let you place a virtual pin on objects -- pop one above your car, for instance, and it will help you find it when you're in the supermarket car park. Or you can drop a roving pin on a friend at a festival to keep track of him via GPS. Or festival operators can offer signs above the concessions and toilets… or adverts, or rock videos and close-ups of the band, onstage. (See the chapter at the futurist conference, in Existence!)

Following up: in most sci fi depictions, this era will see a tsunami of noise and unavoidable adverts booming out at you, as in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report.” That modality is “push” and I don’t think folks will put up with it.  In Existence… and earlier in Earth (1989) I portray this being a matter of “pull.”  You will select among a myriad realms or levels of AR space, picking one whose offerings and services and rules suit your current needs.

== Intelligent plants? ==

In Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso and journalist, Alessandra Viola, make a case not only for plant sentience, but also plant rights. Interesting, though science fiction authors have been doing thought experiments about this for a long time, e.g. in Ursula LeGuin’s novel “The Word for World is Forest” and in my own “The Uplift War.” Jack Chalker's "Midnight at the Well of Souls" portrayed sentient plants, as did Lord of the Rings.

There is a level where I am all aboard with this.  Ecosystems are webs of health that combine fiercely interdependent predation/competition with meshlike interchanges of sight/sound/chemicals that clearly manifest types of cooperation, even communication.... as I elucidated in “EARTH.”  

On the other hand, I also step back to see the qualities of this book that transcend its actual contents, for it fits perfectly into the process of “horizon expansion” that I describe elsewhere.  A process of vigorously, righteously, even aggressively increasing the scope of inclusion, extending the circle of protection to the next level, and then the next. See also this Smithsonian talk I gave about the never-ending search for “otherness.”

None of this is to undermine the process! Only to help understand it. I fully expect our great grandchildren will all be vegetarians supplementing with tasty, dish-grown meaticultures… and their own rebels will demand that all food come from algae or Star Trek replicators, terrific!  Just pause and step back often enough to see the big picture.

== Biotech updates ==
Tree of Life

Biologists have drafted the first comprehensive tree of life covering 2.3 million species of named animals, plants, fungi and microbes, available for download and browsing.

A new study adds to evidence that viruses are living entities which share a long evolutionary history with cells, and might even be the oldest living creatures.

Might amputees regrow limbs, using their own stem cells laced through a scaffold… made either by 3D printing or using a denatured monkey-arm? It’s an idea explored in my short story “Chysalis” (before I get much, much weirder). But it is also being taken very seriously in labs across the planet. 

In fact, BioBots now offers a relatively inexpensive 3D printer that can print human tissue and skin...and potentially, replacement human organs. However, there are currently regulatory obstacles.

Pathogens travel between species
A disturbing -- and revealing -- look at how pathogens travel between species. A new paper in Scientific Data indicates that as many as three-fifths of human diseases may have been initially passed on by animals.

Everywhere you go... you emit your own unique microbial cloud -- a personalized signature of your own microbiome. Have  you had your microbiome tested? You can have it sequenced at ╬╝Biome, to gain insight into the multitude of microflora co-inhabiting your body.

MIT researchers have developed a low-cost, paper-based device that changes color, depending on whether the patient has Eboladengue, or yellow fever. The test is designed to facilitate diagnosis in remote, low-resource settings, takes minutes, and does not need electricity to read out results. “Color-changing paper devices that work like over-the-counter pregnancy tests offer a possible solution. “These are not meant to replace PCR and ELISA [lab tests], because we can’t match their accuracy,” Hamad-Schifferli says. “This is a complementary technique for places with no running water or electricity.” 

See this way-cool “spaghetti monster”creature at the borderline between coral-like colonies of cells and jellyfish and more complex styles of life.  A reflection on how more complex metazoans got started? Weird-looking, anyway.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Tales of Divisiveness - and the drug high of indignation

Anyone who spends ten minutes around me knows that I appreciate good argument. Heck, Contrary Brin is about having fun by sniping "yeah, I agree with some of that... but here's an exception!" even at your own favorite doctrines. The truest sign of sapience -- I believe -- is an eager willingness to at least notice the group-think errors of your own side.

So why am I down on the divisive mania that has swept the world -- and especially America -- in an era that clearly has many reasons for hope?  Because so many of our bickering feuds are not about positive-sum argument, aimed at persuading the other side to budge, possibly even learning from your opponents. In the tales that follow, below, you'll see example after example where sanctimonious intransigence... the drug high of indignant purity... has poisoned the natively American genius at pragmatic negotiation and compromise and attention to the corrective force of evidence.

Let's start with a letter from one of my favorite politicians -- a courteously parsed, yet-devastating single page from California Governor Jerry Brown -- sent to Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, in response to Carson's snarky dismissal of "scientific evidence for human generated climate change."  The calm maturity of Brown's response is matched by his intelligence, curiosity and hatred of cliched dogmas... yes, including some dogmas of the left. One reason he is so loved in moderate, pragmatic California.

Hence my attempt to stir a groundswell, arm-twisting Brown into the Democratic Party's presidential debates.  To be clear, I don't think Jerry even wants to be president!  But just being in the debates for 6 months would let him shake up all our rigid doctrines, calcified positions and wretched, sourpuss gloom. He -- and we -- would have so much fun!   

== Separating Church and State ==

With his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver is on a hot burn as, week after week, he takes on sacred cows. This time? Televangelist churches, and boy does he turn them a well-deserved inside-out.    

Oliver makes it hilarious! But there is a sober side. For example… how could we reform this outrageous system? Some years ago folks in Colorado got a measure on the ballot to end church tax-exemption.  It started out popular, but the counter-campaign shrieked about how the state could then crush religion, contrary to the Constitution.  Indeed, the first U.S. Chief Justice said “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” 

So in fact, I favor a compromise. Here it is.

Next time a church tax reform measure comes up, include a floor exemption that utterly protects the basics -- a local church of sincere parishioners and the pastor they can barely afford to pay. Here’s how.  Any church gets a property tax exemption allowance of two square meters of floorspace, plus $200 of income per unique parishioner (who is not a member of any other church) up to 200 members. Also, the pastor’s first $20,000 of pay is tax exempt. 

Not high enough? We can dicker over where the lines are drawn, but let’s be generous, so that the state has given religion the benefit of the doubt and so that local, modest places of worship remain (practically) untouched. And richer churches still have that floor, before their far greater incomes start to be taxed, helping to pay for the roads and hospitals and fire and police protection they use, just like the rest of us.  

Further, while funds spent evangelizing are not expensed, actual, charitable good works are. (In fact, I'd make church tithing only a "charitable deduction" for the first $500 or so. Come on!)

That floor-exemption will mean that poor churches are no longer the inherent allies of the televangelist charlatans. Indeed, it drives a wedge between former allies. And it makes the next reform referendum something with a fighting chance.

== And Election politics ==

Ah gerrymandering! Are you proud to be affiliated with cheaters? For example. Business owners try to remove all voters from business district but they forgot one college student! In Columbia, Missouri, the city council created a special 'business' district. This district would be allowed to vote to create a half cent sales tax to pay for local improvements rather than using property tax increases. There is a special rule that says if no registered voters exist in an area, the property owners are allowed to vote BUT one U of M student registered at her CoMO address. And the county clerk has certified that she is the sole voter allowed in the up coming poll. Now the owners are barred from voting. They will have to raise property taxes on themselves (if they want those district improvements) and raise them even more to pay off the debt they incurred to finance this deal. 

This is a familiar thing in California, where most aspects of elective politics have improved markedly, but these legacy “cities” and “districts” have an olden-times grandfathered ability to basically run their own cloistered mafia dens. Did I say we were perfect? But such miscreants are in our crosshairs.

== Back to the Civil War ==

Been doing some reading.  Apparently it is simply untrue to let Robert E. Lee off the hook because he freed his own slaves.  In fact, he owned only a few and as executor of his father-in-law’s will, he delayed freeing that man’s slaves, as required, until 1862, in the middle of the Civil War.  In several writings he did express dislike for slavery on general principles. But he was at best passive and desultory in execution.

Was the Civil War about anything other than slavery?  This video by a West Point colonel-historian examines the issue in devastating detail, with colorful illustrations. He is direct, firm, and clear.  There is no excuse for romantic-nostalgia for treason, when the core and only reason for that treason was so despicable.  Yes, the rebs fought well.  Respect that! But there is no other basis for respect for the Confederate side of any phase – even the current one – of our ongoing Civil War.  

(One critique.  Col. Ty Seidule does not mention the fact that Southerners or their sympathizers actually ran the U.S. Federal Government for most of the thirty years preceding Lincoln’s election in 1860, running roughshod over “states rights” in many matters, such as the Fugitive Slave Act which, in 1852, unleashed swarms of southern irregular cavalry raiding parties across northern states, crashing into homes and dragging neighbors off, into bondage.)

== Did I speak in praise... ==

...Of California?  Well, the Golden State giveth and taketh away.  Sanity, I mean. For example, we know Carly Fiorina very well, here, and rejected her Senate bid by a tsunami. With zero palpable successes to point to, with only failure and collapse ensuing from her time running Hewlett-Packard, what you are left with is slickness ... and sadness for anyone who is fooled. Oh, she seemed so expert when she recited a memorized list of how many Marine battalions and Army brigades we need... and how I wish someone in the press had asked her to define the difference? A delicious gotcha that would have been. An 'oops" of the first order.

Of course the ultimate silliness is for any Republican to claim credibility when it comes to national defense.  At the end of the Clinton Administration, 100% of major US military units were rated 'fully combat ready.' By the time GW Bush left office, not a single major army or marine unit was so rated... half teetered on the edge of frayed and shattered uselessness. Nearly all have now regained that status under Obama... with the irony that Dem presidents treat the military well, yet never brag about that fact. (Since it could miff the lefty-activist wing.) And hence none of you even knew this stark but devastating comparison.

But you will!  Keep dropping by here.  There are plenty of surprises. Just keep this in mind. Some things that are true are also opposite to popular "wisdom."  

It will be an interesting 14 months.