Tuesday, November 14, 2006

More Laws! - part two: Making Government (and accountability) Work.

In this series, I began by suggesting a few valuable things that the new Congress might accomplish in coming months, even if they are blocked by presidential vetoes.

I then went on to propose some actual bills that may be worth trying to turn into law. My Top Proposal last time... create the office of Inspector General of the United States, or IGUS. It would take very little, simply re-assigning the IGs in every department and agency into a cohesive service, with traditions and codes of accountability that are no longer under the thumb of high administration officials. Like the Surgeon General, IGUS would personally answer to the people for the ethical and legal health of government, without interfering in policy at all.

There are some very pragmatic short term - as well as long term - advantages to this kind of approach. Instead of engaging in politicized witch hunts, let us first remove the impediments that keep our skilled professionals from doing their jobs. Why not? There is a very good chance that we can use professionals to “clean house”... and keep the house clean... without having to wallow in the filth of Ken Starr-style culture war.


==Following a similar set of themes, here are a few more capsule suggestions:==

* THE SECRECY ACT would ensure that the recent, skyrocketing use of state secrets to avoid accountability -- exceeding anything seen during the Cold War -- shall reverse course.

Without betraying field operatives or vital tactical information, independent commissions of highly-trusted Americans will observe, approve, or set time limits to all but the most sensitive classifications. These commissions will include some members who are chosen (after clearance) from a random pool of common citizens.

Secrecy will still be a useful tool. But we are entering an age when it is simply foolish to count on any secret lasting forever. Also it encourages sloppy habits. But above all, it should not be used as a convenient way to evade accountability.


* THE PROFESSIONALISM ACT will protect the apolitical independence of our intelligence agencies, the scientific and technical staff in executive departments, and the United States Officer Corps. All shall be given safe ways to report attempts at political coercion or undue political meddling in their ability to give unbiased advice.

Further features: appointments to military academies and other special institutions shall be made in ways that avoid dogmatic bias and emphasize excellence. Whistle-blower protections will be strengthened within the US government. Which leads us to...


* THE HENCHMAN’S ACT - It has a provocative name, but the aim is simple. A permanent office will be created, outside the intelligence community, that will confidentially and securely advise any person, in America or around the world, who may be thinking about revealing information about bad activities, including those that are illegal or harmful to the people, or that impair the effective operation of fair markets. According to each individual’s needs, the information may be steered toward intelligence or law-enforcement services, or toward open source networks, or even toward mass media.

Moreover, a system of graduated rewards and prizes will be set up, that encourage emergence of new sources of information about threats to peace or law or public well-being. These rewards will range from financial to public recognition... or else assistance in creating new identities, so that henchmen can turn into whistle blowers in an atmosphere of safety.

A neutral advisory board will ensure that there are no systematic biases in the execution of this program, so that incentives apply to whistle-blowers at all ends of the “political spectrum.”


* THE POLITICAL REFORM ACT: Part One will ensure that the nation's elections take place in a manner that citizens can trust and verify. Political interference in elections will be a federal crime. Strong auditing procedures and transparency will be augmented by a requirement that all voting machines and associated software belong to the People and shall be subjected to relentless open source testing. States will be encouraged to try a variety of incentives to encourage greater (and more secure) voter registration and participation in elections.


* THE POLITICAL REFORM ACT: Part Two will distance government officials from lobbyists. Campaign finance reform will reduce the influence of Big Money over politicians. (A huge ball-o-wax but already on the agenda.)


* THE POLITICAL REFORM ACT: Part Three will begin the process of returning the legislative branch of government to the people, by finding a solution to the problem of gerrymandering.

Declaring an end to hypocritical one-state-at-a-time initiatives, this act will call a meeting of all states, encouraging them to negotiate among themselves a uniform method for ending a modern travesty. It will encourage and insist that states do this in an evenhanded manner without much net injury to any party, either by using independent redistricting commissions or simply by minimizing overlap between state legislature districts and those for Congress. If this 50-state solution in not achieved by a specified deadline, the Attorney General will be required to file suit before the US Supreme Court, seeking redress under the principle of “one person - one vote.”

I admit that I hold out little hope for this last suggestion to be enacted by politicians. At one level, there is all the difference in the world between good and bad politicians, and we should work to help the former to defeat the latter. (Hurrah!) But at another level, they are all members of a political caste that has been complicit in the crime against the citizenry that is gerrymandering. We’ll get around to spanking them all, some day. If some members of the political caste actually help to bring that day a little closer... well then, those few will earn our undying gratitude.

I was going to pause there, but one more item comes from former intelligence officer and consultant Robert Steele... the SMART NATION ACT would “enhance the role of the Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Open Sources by legislatively mandating an Open Source Intelligence Program directing that no less than 1% of the total National Foreign Intelligence Program be allocated to collecting, and analysis of open sources of information in all languages, which are essential to the mission of the secret intelligence community. Among other things, it would create fifty state-based Community Intelligence Centers... and broad networks that permit citizens to report threats (119) and suspicions (114), while also leveraging a global translation network....”

What’s not to like? By encouraging educated and tech-savvy citizens to see themselves as part of the nation’s (and the world’s) collective intelligence (in every sense of that word), we can ensure that this civilization remains agile and not overly dependent upon a skilled-but-narrow set of secretive professionals, who can (because of their small numbers) be coerced or suborned by special interests.

Indeed, there is strong evidence to suggest that this 1% of the intelligence budget that’s applied to open source could provide as much new information - and as many useful correlations - as the other 99% that’s targeted toward the world of cryptic means. (Perhaps reason enough for the less imaginative members of the intelligence caste to resist such moves! But the smarter half, who “get” the nature of the coming century, should see that we have no choice.)


Next time... more capsule suggestions for legislation... before offering some very GENERAL ADVICE for reclaiming a modern, progressive and agile civilization.

==or return to Part 1 of this series

42 comments:

Don Quijote said...

Other than Gerrymandering, Public Financing of Campaigns would probably do more to improve the quality of the political class and governance in this country than all of your suggested reforms.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, but: how precisely do you plan for the nation to keep your IGUS honest? Otherwise the IGUS could cause Christ alone knows how much trouble if he or she wanted to or was suborned. Even assuming the IGs lacked arrest or other powers and could only advise, they could "advise" wrong, for example hide a wrongdoing or manufacture phony evidence of one (for blackmail or just to oust someone).

Rocky Persaud said...

Here's some news about two Inspectors General coordinating an investigation in NASA and the Commerce department.

"WASHINGTON (AP) - Two federal agencies are investigating whether the Bush administration tried to block government scientists from speaking freely about global warming and censor their research, a senator said Wednesday.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D-N.J.), said he was informed that the inspector generals for the Commerce Department and NASA had begun "co- ordinated, sweeping investigations of the Bush administration's censorship and suppression" of federal research into global warming."

Blake Stacey said...

This is so juicy I can't resist the temptation to call an Orange Off-Topic Alert and post a completely tangential link. Michael Crichton believes in magical spoon-bending. Margaret Atwood's take on the matter is not yet known. (Oddly enough, DB's Modernism essay is the third hit for Googling those two names in combination.)

Rob Perkins said...


Declaring an end to hypocritical one-state-at-a-time initiatives, this act will call a meeting of all states, encouraging them to negotiate among themselves a uniform method for ending a modern travesty.


That sounds an awful lot like Congress convening a Constitutional Convention.

Anonymous said...

I just read this in the Washington Post and got flashbacks to the novel Earth:

Amateur Videos Are Putting Official Abuse in New Light

This is not just more successful crystal ballism for you, Mr. Brin, but another great illustration of technology empowering ordinary people for the betterment of society.

gmknobl said...

Not to be too negative but Good Luck!

I want to see these things done and have sent a link of your blog to Nancy Pellosi and and my local rep Rick Boucher but have strong doubts your suggestions will come to fruition. I want them to and will continue suggesting them to my reps but honestly, good luck!

Blake Stacey said...

About the WaPo article which Anonymous posted earlier —

She had just been arrested for drug possession. She had no drugs, her attorney said, but police found some on a friend of her fiance. Police arrested the whole group anyway.

When I read this part, the voice of Frank Zappa sang bitterly through my head. "Shot by the cops as she quietly lay / by the side of the freak she knew / they killed her too. . . ."

I'm glad the article in question drew a connection with the Abu Ghraib photographs. The description of Hemy's reaction when she first learned she had been filmed is also interesting.

Finally, I note that the special investigative commission ordered by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi reported finding "a lack of transparency and accountability of the police", familiar words indeed.

David Brin said...

Who IS this “anonymous” cynic? Who wrote: “Just out of curiosity, but: how precisely do you plan for the nation to keep your IGUS honest? Otherwise the IGUS could cause Christ alone knows how much trouble...”
Well-spoken but unbelievably clueless about the civilization he lives in.

Dig it: the trick for limiting abuses of power is to DISPERSE power and to sic adversarial power centers against each other. You are right to worry that any one power center might be suborned. (Or in the present case, a conspiratorial clique.) But you miss the whole point that an dependent Inspectorate would ADD TO THE DIVERSITY OF WATCHDOGS by increasing the independence of one pack of them!

In fact, blackmail is a serious concern. More reason to widen the variety of witnesses.

Blake, re Chrichton’s spoon bending... well... I believe one can operate with a hierarchy of theories in parallel. Hence:
(1) I invite all bloggers who feel like it to try Crichton’s method and report back here!
(2) While remaining open-minded, I am also skeptical that this person, who has proved to be outrageously romantic and credulous and anti-science in the rest of his life, can be trusted as an observer of natural phenomena. Rumors that he now serves as a de facto presidential science advisor are enough to trigger a flow of tears.

A different “anonymous” (I assume) sent in the transparency link:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp dyn/content/article/2006/11/14/AR2006111401312.html

Yes, indeed. This is what terrifies the mighty. That the masses will feel empowered to fight back. Witness is my favorite charity for fighting tyranny. And yes, I saw it coming. Now... on to the gnomes.

gmknobl.... now YOUR style of cynicism is legit! You take action (e.g. urging your reps to look at these suggestions... then mutter “good luck”... Good for you! I am sure you’d like nothing better than to be surprised. That makes you welcome here

Rob, calling a meeting of the states happens far more often than people realize. Interstate “treaties” are a fascinating side approach to solving problems. The most notable is the Uniform Commercial Code, which was negotiated years ago in just the manner I describe.

It would also put a fierce spotlight on the states that have committed this crime the worst... and offer opportunities for “trades” that leave each party relatively unharmed. But individual politicians would hate it! Losing their safe seats.

That is why I believe my own solution is far better than establishing “independent apportionment commissions.” Simply pass a one-sentence law that there shall be MINIMUM OVERLAP between a state’s districts for Assembly, State Senate and Congress!

This would let the state assemblyfolk gerry their own districts to their hearts content. And frankly, I don’t care! Let neighborhoods who are politically like-minded be lumped together when it comes to one of those three chambers... so long as that is not the only way that the people will be represented.

Under my one sentence solution, the whole political chemistry in the State Senate will be different... with neighbors having to deal with the needs of different sets of neighbors... than in the Assembly. In at least one chamber, members will have to contemplate the needs of BOTH the rich and the poor, perhaps thinking more complex thoughts (for a change.)

Instead of three clones of each other (three stooges?) we’d all have Assembly and State Senate and Congress representatives who are perhaps different from each other, who talk to us in different ways... but who all care about our vote.

OdinsEye2k said...

I've got a Professionalism Act tweak for you, Dr. Brin.

How about we give the professional castes at the agencies some kind of limited veto? What I mean by this, is make all jobs below the top three promoted from within the agency (meaning you've got to have been in the trenches for a while to make it to this level). They will probably be three to nine of these guys (following the general rules of thumb for numbers of direct reports), each responsible for some sub-agency. These guys will be able to vote a veto - majority or supermajority, take your pick - to block political appointments.

Thus, the very worst of the cronies, the Gale Nortons, Michael Browns and such of the world would be stopped cold by the displeasure of the professionals beneath them.

I'd make an exception to this plan for State and Defense, though. I don't know why, they just feel special to me. Like they are part of presidential perrogative.

Andrew Smith said...

Algorithmic redistricting

I am a computer scientist and I approve this message.

Erik Wennstrom said...

Note: This comment is completely unrelated to the blog article above.

I imagine at some point, a writer might get tired of seeing allusions to his own work, but on the off chance that this has yet to happen to you, I offer the following link:

http://www.pbfcomics.com/?cid=PBF202-Post_Apocalyptic.jpg#192

Blake Stacey said...

When I got to this part in the article Andrew Smith posted —

Each district should be a single contiguous territory. At least some states accept the minimal definition of contiguity, allowing regions connected by a single point. There are two places in North Carolina where districts cross each other, which implies that the connecting isthmus must be a dimensionless point.

— I actually did Laugh Out Loud.

As to the IGUS. . . . I think that the very act of organizing all the extant Inspectors General into one uniformed service would help reduce the risk of "oversight abuse". With all the muckracking coming through one highly visible national office, it becomes easier for other people to watch the watchers. The privately-owned media can poke the IG stories more effectively, for example (and so can all the yappers on the Interblag). Then, too, organizing a uniformed service is likely to ensure standards of recruitment and training.

Andrew Smith said...

I think that's technically an awkward way of putting it; to which district does that dimensionless point belong?

A more rigorous method would use limits: The limit of the ratio of area in district A to area in district B within a circle of radius e around the intersection point approaches a constant C as e approaches zero.

I want to see more legislation with this sort of language.

Blake Stacey said...

I think we need more laws written with epsilon-delta proofs. "For every ε greater than zero, there exists an N sufficiently large that a population of N politicians will have exactly ε integrity. . . ."

Speaking of which, have you heard Tom Lehrer singing "There's a Delta for Every Epsilon"?

Blake Stacey said...

And while we're discussing what recording technology does for accountability, here is another sordid tale of Internet intrigue: Blogger Jim Lippard reports that a public-school teacher used his position to "proselytize biblical fundamentalism". A student, Matthew LaClair, records the class and takes the evidence to his principal.

Personal data recording and Internet dissemination, all in one!

Ken Thorbourne took up the story in the Newark Star-Ledger and the Jersey Journal. According to Lippard, some NYC-area radio and TV stations are carrying the story as well.

Comments by PZ Myers (with followup) and Ed Brayton, for reference's sake.

Anonymous said...

RE: Spoon Bending

Here's a little philosophical bit to chew on: it's my belief that we (humanity) has the ability to alter reality through belief. Or in other words, if enough people believe in something, it can happen.

If someone strongly believes in spoon bending then... then spoon bending becomes real. Likewise, faith healing becomes a matter of mass belief. Pagan rituals meant to change reality (ie, magic) are also a focusing of belief to alter reality. Even psychics are ruled by their belief in their abilities (and if that belief falters, so do their abilities).

So then, why do not these faith healers and witches and such have proof of their abilities? Because disbelief is an equally strong force. If you do NOT believe something will happen, you influence reality with your own belief of how the universe should work... and thus the psychics have their powers falter, the faith healers fail to heal, and the pagans show no result for their efforts.

Of course, the other thing is that we can only alter things on a small scale. So belief can't alter things on a huge scale. But on a small scale... who knows, maybe if you believe in bending spoons with your mind enough, the spoons will bend.

David Brin said...

Read the story "Those Eyes" at:
http://www.davidbrin.com/shortstories.html

Don't worry, it's free.

I have contemplated this notion... and I still prefer science.

Andrew Smith said...

@Anonymous

Well... not too many people believe that anymore.

LittleBill said...

Was referred to your site by Beach Bum. Very interesting. I'll be back.

Woozle said...

On the spoon-bending... we've been here before, but just for the sake of thoroughness I'll ask the obvious questions:

- Why didn't Crichton take pictures? Why didn't he at least mention wanting to take pictures but being unable to find a camera?

- Why didn't Crichton give us any more information about the bending process, such as (a) how long it typically takes, (b) whether any people seemed to find it easier or harder than others did, (c) any particular "self-distraction" techniques that seemed to work well?

I haven't had time to try the experiment this time around, although I have tried it in the past (when I was some decades younger and less inclined to be skeptical and thus fail through "disbelief"), with no noticeable bending or softening.

Patrick said...

Great as usual Dave, and I am a huge fan of the Henchman Law idea (since I read Kiln People), but I'm not sure you haven't missed something.

Why should it be a government agency that rewards whistleblowers? We talk, both here and on the Web, about the power of distributed amateurs. Why shouldn't we harness that power for the Henchman Prizes?

This is, after all, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people." Why should we rely on one reluctant group of the people, when another is ready and waiting.

How about a civilian organization devoted to using a distributed network of fundraisers, pro-bono attorneys, and P.R. reps to reward, protect and make famous those who come forward? As you suggested it would be: "outside the intelligence community", and politically "neutral". Court-proof confidentiality could be provided by attorney-client privilege.

I'm a new [and probably too idealistic] attorney, and would be willing to volunteer. I am sure there are hundreds more out there, or even reading this page.

So I'm not going to waste time or dicker around. Anyone reading this interested in the idea can email me at henchmanprize@gmail.com.

Anonymous said...

I too can bend spoons! Of course, I need to be wearing an insulated glove so I don't burn myself when using a propane torch on the spoon handle...

As for magic and all that... I've seen things (with witnesses seeing the same things) that cannot currently be explained by science. It is entirely possible that there are other forces out there that we consider "magical" in nature... but that follow set laws and rules.

Hell, for all we know, maybe people are manipulating dark matter and think that is magic. ;)

Rob H., Tangents Reviews

David Brin said...

Patrick, right on. I only suggested the Henchman's Prize here as an agency/law because the TOPIC here is advice to the new Congress.

In fact, I have long held that this is an ideal thing for someone like George Soros or Warren Buffett to fund, Something utterly world-changing.

see:
http://www.davidbrin.com/eon1.html

Imagine a million $ prize + new identity for anyone who blew the whistly on "the worst thing" in any given year. Purposely vague in order to get all political groups to erupt with disloyal henchmen...

henchmanprize@gmail.com ???

Yeow, you are a mover. I will certainly let you know if a rich (enough) dude ever nibbles on this - or my dozens of other ideas. Alas, my curse is that society listens to me JUST enough to keep me prosperous and free of (most) self-pity... and nowhere near as much as it ought to, for its own good!!!! ;-)

---

Re the power of suggestion, I do believe in its power! All magic is dependent upon subjective reality and thus not as "fair" as, say, a bullet. In fact, you will see a nifty little allegory about that at:
http://www.davidbrin.com/jackwilliamson.html

In fact, I studied self-hypnosis and became pretty good at it. Can leave my arm suspended for hours. Amazing stuff... but totally different than spoon bending, which tries to impose subjective whim upon objective reality.

Let me be frank, this is what we all WANT! See:
http://www.davidbrin.com/temptation1.html

But it is not what we NEED, right now. Fantasy tales cater to the solipsist in us, romantic, who wants the world to obey! We saw Billy Mumy play that kid in the famous Twilight Zone episode. Down that road is everything despicable... but also lots of beauty.

OTOH: when Norman Mailer was writing SPACE, he said he was shocked to realize NASA was achieving TWO miracles:

1) they were ACTUALLY gooing...to...the...moon.

2) they were succeeding at making it boring.

I don't give a damn if Michael Crichton is bored with science. It is the only thing we've ever done that was FAIR! He was tall on the playground, I wasn't.

I want fair.

Blake Stacey said...

Has anybody told Michael Crichton about James Randi's million-dollar prize? (It pleases me that Randi's page is the first Google hit for "million dollar prize". Go Mr. The Amazing!) Maybe Crichton figures he's rich enough without it. . .

Blake Stacey said...

And as for the power of belief. . . .

If we could manifest our beliefs as reality, then the Black Death would not have ravaged every country between China and Portugal, inclusive. Rome would never have fallen, and each pharaoh of Egypt would have lived quite literally forever. Millions of people have believed for each of these causes. Those people who believed are now, every one of them, dead, their causes lost or forgotten.

Mao Zedong did not "live for ten thousand years", despite the wishes made publicly and sincerely by tens of thousands of his followers. Perhaps Chinese belief isn't as good as the American kind?

Knowing that beliefs always conflict, how can the "belief makes reality" idea account for anything at all? Was there a battle on the spirit plane between Japanese self-security and gung-ho American faith in their atomic superweapon, a battle lost by the Japanese in August 1945? A hundred thousand ghosts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki must wish they had believed harder.

I expect many Jewish families of Weimar Germany believed their situation could not turn out so badly, that they could bear whatever troubles they faced. National Socialists must have believed very strongly — or does the belief our modern Holocaust deniers spout so vocally that Nazi crimes never happened rip those crimes from the cosmic tapestry?

Anonymous said...

Who says that belief works on a macroscopic scale? Perhaps it only works on very small things. Perhaps it sometimes can only influence something tiny... like a neurochemical firing in a brain (ie, a thought).

The microscopic scale is in many ways far more powerful than the macroscopic scale. Take the power of the atom... something so absolutely tiny can be devastatingly destructive (or beneficial if utilized properly).

Belief too can be a powerful and dangerous weapon. Think of the power that belief has to take a man, convince him that he will achieve immortality and a place at God's right hand, if only he straps on a bomb and walks into the middle of his enemies before detonating it, killing dozens of his foes with him.

The power of belief has launched many a war. When improperly utilized it can be quite devastating. And yet... take a simple man. Give him cancer. Convince him that he will die of that cancer no matter what. There is a strong chance that despite the treatments used to fight that cancer, no matter how "easy" that cancer is to fight traditionally, that person will die. Alternatively, people have survived against diseases that should have slain the afflicted, except for the iron will and belief that they will survive, that they will overcome this disease.

The power of belief should not be underestimated. Perhaps it can't be utilized to "toss fireballs" or do "D&D"-style magic. But who is to say that it cannot affect those outside of them? Who is to say that the collective belief of a congregation can't help a person recover from an illness that should have laid them low... or that a pagan can enact a ritual to bring about an end.

The truth is... we don't know. Science and technology can do many things... and yet the more we learn, the more we realize that there is much we do not know. A couple hundred years ago we didn't know of X-Rays and the like. We didn't have the technology to identify them. But they existed. They existed despite our inability to know of their existance.

What else remains to be discovered?

Rob H.

Ben Tilly said...

Here is a proposal for handling gerrymandering.

Any proposed redistricting shall be rejected if it would have resulted in more than a 5% discrepancy between the popular vote and the representation in the previous election.

This would need some modifications. For instance there are cases where the stated aim is impossible to satisfy, and you'd need to take that into account. For instance suppose that the Libertarians polled 10% in the previous election but that support was not concentrated in any county. There is no way in a winner take all system to get that outcome. (A real world election with a outcome similar to this was the 1993 Canadian Federal election.)

But the overall approach seems sound to me. Do not try to ban gerrymandering techniques. Just disallow any division that would have given gerrymandered results in a recent election.

André Hansson said...

I think it is a good advice to be a just a little skeptical of the idea that government shall audit itself. Having branches of government auditing eachother, or having a specific branch of goverment with this task is a good idea. It adds to the separation of powers, but it should be complemented with some new forms of outside scrutiny as well.

Some general transparency legislation which prevents secrecy unless really called for would go a long way in arranging for the spontaneous emergence of external forces of government scrutiny. If the information is available there are going to be people interested in taking part of it.

These interested citizens might organize in myriad of ways into private associations dedicated to government scrutiny (and other power concentrations as well). In fact, there are already several types of organizations like this; scam and myth busters, consumer watchdogs etc. Why not one that scrutinzes government.

But just the presence of transparency legislation might not be enough. Sweden, my home country, is generally credited with having the most far-reaching transparency legislation in the Western world (although it applies mostly to government, not business or private citizens), but government scrutiny is still no particular concern for the "average" citizen. It still resides mostly with traditional media.

Woozle said...

AndrĂ© – according to While Europe Slept (which I'm about halfway through reading), European government and journalists both belong to a sort of ruling elite, pretty much work together, and keep themselves somewhat separate from the hoi polloi. (Europeans found it astonishing, the book says, that Ronald Reagan was once a lifeguard; no European politician would be caught dead with anything like that in his history).

This would have the practical upshot that the only possible meaningful transparency would have to come from the people; if that is absent, then any apparent "transparency" would be largely for show.

I'm not saying I believe this; I'm still early in the data-collecting phase, and would be interested in your take on it.

It would also seem to reinforce your point about government accountability needing to come from outside – at least in Europe; I think in America, at least until recently, most journalists have considered themselves to be more "of the people" than a sort of auxiliary political arm. Perhaps one of the (deliberate?) results of the recent kleptocracy has to bring American media more in line with the European condition?

If that's not too brutally hijacking Our Esteemed Host's topic...

Anonymous said...

Actually, the vast majority of our journalists are "of the people". The only ones who aren't are those that the White House selects to take questions and the like. And perhaps the owners who own the papers as well.

Rob H.

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

Call me ignorant, but I still don't get what's impressive about spoon-bending.

I've bent spoons many times. Take spoon in hands. Apply force. Bend spoon.

I've even done it by rubbing the spoon's neck until it heats up. ... so? what's impressive about any of this?

It's straightforward physics, reliant on the fact that spoons are honestly really flimsy.

David Brin said...

Having lived in Europre twice, I agree that there are some deep character differences. For example, Americans, meeting at a party, right-off ask "what do you do?" (for a living.)

Advice when travelling in Europe, you yanks: DON'T DO THAT! To an American, it translates as: "So, what did you choose as the interesting way you spend most of your waking hours?"

But I guarantee a European will HEAR you say...
...and tell others afterward that you said...
"So, how much money do you make?"

In fact, it's an interesting experiment in subjective warping. I actually tested it out on purpose, a few times, and it happens, absolutely and universally, the way I described. I do not mean this as an insult but as a caution. There are ways that Americans are easily as prone to subjective warping and stereotyping. I simply mention this because, yes, RR was a lifeguard and proud of it. There are still real differences that a common language mask.

Alas, Rob, journalists in the 21st Century have (so far) proved to be at-best utter wimps. Keep your eyes open folks, as to who just bought the Clear Channel radio network...

CJ-in-Weld said...

I think we were better off when journalists were hard-boiled working-class guys with cool hats and a lot of attitude. I'm not saying there's no room for the elite liberal journalism major, just that there's maybe less diversity among reporters nowadays....

David Brin said...

My dad, Herb Brin, was exactly that brand of hard-boiled journalist, covering the gangland beat in 1930s Chicago, snagging rides on paddy wagons, snapping pix of blood-drenched tenement murder scenes, before switching over to Stars and Stripes during the war. (Also a poet with some international repute.)

Remember "Schindler's List"? He found Oskar Schindler and wrote the first articles that came to Steven Spielberg's attention. Marched with Martin Luther King, covered the Eichmann trial, stood about thirty feet awa when Robert Kennedy was shot...

So it's in the blood. But I have better hats.

Blake Stacey said...

But, as you said at ICCS, you change them so often the hair suffers for it!

;-)

Lenny Zimmermann said...

Just to jump on the bandwagon, a bit, I've also forwarded all of these posts, with my endorsement, to Senator Mary Landrieu, the only Democratic representative I have here in Louisiana. (The other Senator seems to be rather ultra-neo-conservative, David Vitter, and my Congressman is Republican Bobby Jindal, whose not too bad on technology-related issues, but votes too closely with the Republican leadership for my tastes, anyway.)

David Brin said...

Thanks Lenny. I hope to post the whole series of suggestions as a unit, soon.


OTHER MATTERS:

Many of you may have heard of the kid who recently taped his public school science teacher ranting about how most of his students will be damned for not repeating the same incantations that he does or for believing in evolution.

"After taking the matter to the school administration, one of
Paszkiewicz's students, junior Matthew LaClair, requested a meeting with the teacher and the school principal. LaClair, a non-Christian, was requesting an apology and correction of false and anti-scientific statements. After two weeks, a meeting took place in the principal's office, wherein Paszkiewicz denied making many of these comments, claiming that LaClair had taken his remarks out of context. Paszkiewicz specifically denied using the phrase, "you belong in hell." He also asserted that he did nothing different in this class than he has been doing in fifteen years of teaching.

“At the end of the meeting, LaClair revealed that he had recorded the remarks, and presented the principal with two compact discs. The teacher then declined to comment further without his union representative. "

Some of the commentaries on event this mention my book The Transparent Society - which predicted this kind of citizen (and student) led accountability by mass access to tools.

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/11/whats_so_unusual_about_this.php

As I see it, there are two levels:
(1) the imbroglio, which will (yay) see this monster ejected from public education and see him become a celebrated martyr on the red america circuit.
(2) the actual argument between the teacher and some bright kids, who (though the tape is hard to hear) make you kind of proud, exhibiting exactly the rambunctious minds that American education systems engender and that standardized tests never measure.

Alas, you keep hoping the kids you hear on tape could skewer the maniac better. They tried hard, but we need to get a short and punchy list of talking points out there. Ways to demolish fanatics like that teacher:

Here are just three that quickly came to mind:

1) How come you creationists don't talk about vertebrate evolution anymore? You avoid the most recent 3 billion years, concentrating only on microbes four billion years ago, where (naturally) the evidence is weak. Why the shift?

The reason is obvious. You can no longer stand up to overwhelming geological evidence of the Earth's age. Or the fact that every year more species are discovered and nearly all of them fit right into the evolutionary trees, exactly where (and when) expected.

2) Look at your argument. You say "evolution is just another faith, without firm evidence." Can you hear what you are saying? You implicitly assume that "faith" is something lower than proof! In order to reduce the authority of science, you clearly try to bring it down to the level of "just another religion."

Are you too stupid even to see how you are insulting yourself and your whole world view? You are implicitly attacking religion!

3) The new "intelligent design" strategy is to never mention the Bible. But you did, right here in class, so it’s fair game. (Big mistake!) S now I challenge you. As a classroom experiment, let's take all the world's known species of land creatures and calculate how much room two-of-each-kind would take up, then give them all some cage room, and finally calculate the size needed for an ark. (These calculations are available on the web.) You’d need an empire state building.

Now let’s say Noah and his sons need ten minutes to prepare one plank....

and so on....

Rob Perkins said...

Let me do a little devil's advocacy here, while also acknowledging the silliness of young-earth hypotheses, because those ignore not just geological evidence, but also *linguistical analysis* evidences from the so-called "inerrant" texts of the Bible, which are approached no Evangelical/Baptist type should ever reject, since they use those approaches to verify document authenticity for Bible books.

As a classroom experiment, let's take all the world's known species of land creatures and calculate how much room two-of-each-kind would take up, then give them all some cage room, and finally calculate the size needed for an ark. (These calculations are available on the web.) You’d need an empire state building.

[devil's advocate]
As another classroom experiment, I propose that we take the building blocks of life, such as the amino acids, temperatures, pressures, and atmospheres which the theory claims forms the primordial soup, and combine them all to see if prokaryotes form.

What are the possible outcomes of the experiment?

Can the experiment shed any light on the question of the origin of life?

Is there a scientifically valid experiment which can show that any part of the course of the Universe's history has been accidental?
[advocate]

And by all means, if you can stump a teacher with sophistry as banal as what David has proposed, then by all means fire him; he will have proven himself too rigid a thinker for the high school.

Rob Perkins said...

Regarding the use of recording devices in a classroom, I wonder if there's ever been a teacher's union which has howled its objection to the idea. The teachers I've discussed the notion with have universally rejected the idea, claiming that there would be too many misunderstandings among the community at large if the records were ever publicized.

There is already an adversarial relationship between teachers and school administrators anyway (through their union).

Even so, I think I'd still want webcams in the classroom, along with pickup mics, pointed squarely at the teacher. The records can be quasi-public; open to inspection by only the parents of a classroom student and school administration, unless a judge or arbitrator releases them. That alone would prevent the misunderstandings, and might also serve to prevent certain classes of abuse between teachers and students, as well as putting a watchful eye over volunteers in that classroom.

Andrew Smith said...

Of course, Noah could have borrowed God's backups of each creature's DNA...

...never underestimate the bandwidth of an ark full of tape drives.

Jack said...

Raising fleet fuel efficiency standards would appear to be such a no-brainer that dozens of GOP Congressfolk are already crowding aboard the band wagon.