Thursday, December 28, 2006

Looking Ahead... far ahead... and inward...

singularityApparently there has been strong public response to the recent free-publication of “Singularities and Nightmares: Extreme Views of Optimism and Pessimism About the Human Future” on the Lifeboat Foundation site (Now also available on my website.)

"In order to give you pleasant dreams tonight, let me offer a few possibilities about the days that lie ahead -- changes that may occur within the next twenty of so years, roughly a single human generation. Possibilities that are taken seriously by some of today's best minds. Potential transformations of human life on Earth, and, perhaps, even what it means to be human...."

A rave on has caused many sites to link to the article. My favorite so far is at

Spread word?

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Oh, along similar lines, have a look at an item in today’s news. “Gov't watchdogs under attack from bosses” --

”WASHINGTON(AP) - The inspectors general entrusted to unearth waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies are increasingly under attack, as top government officials they scrutinize try to erode the watchdogs' independence and authority. During 2006, several inspectors general felt the wrath of government bosses or their supporters in Congress after investigations cited agencies for poor performance, excessive spending or wasted money.”

Another predictive hit? I have been railing for at least five years, trying to draw attention to a flaw in our civilization’s systems of accountability. An inherent defect in the apparatus for keeping the US government relatively clean and honest. In the post-Watergate reform era, inspectors general were established in every major agency, charged with protecting the public’s interest and ensuring that the law is obeyed. But these IGs were left dependent on -- and often beholden to -- the very same top officials that they are supposed to inspect!

Perhaps this problem was not critical amid the normal (and sometimes astonishingly below-normal) levels of corruption seen in some recent administrations. But amid one that is ripe and redolent with a the stench of kleptocracy, a disease that is akin to gangrene seems to be eating away at every public organ. Including, especially, the immune system that is supposed to protect us.

Read the article... then have another look at my suggestion for how to solve the problem. With a law that could fit on a single page, we might establish the office of Inspector General of the United States (IGUS, remove and safeguard every IG from oppression by the agencies they are supposed to inspect, and establish one more vigorous tool for a free, open and accountable democracy.

See: Free the Inspectors General


Rocky said...

Wasn't Miles Vorkosigan's latest job Inspector General for the Barrayaran Empire? DB, you need to write some "mainstream" fiction where offices such as IGUS is in place! Then sell the movies rights and spread the word!

False Data said...

The IGUS is an intriguing idea. It raises the difficult tension between independence on the one hand and checks and balances on the other, much as the independent counsel position did while it still existed. You can find the full elaboration here, but the punchline is how do you give the IGUS enough freedom to investigate, avoid the problem of a runaway investigator, and prevent Congress from killing its budget? (Sorry, I don't have a good answer to that question.)

Anonymous said...

I woud suggest if the future doesnt disturb you at least a bit then you are just engaging in wishful thinking (something that is very easy to do!).

Afterall change is scary and you would surely be unprepared to suddenly be dumped in a new world 100 or 1000 years from now.
But that doesn't mean it is a bad thing since we aren't (maybe!) the ones who have to live in it.


David Brin said...

Runaway investigator is what we had under Kenneth Starr.... a hundred million dollars squandered on nothing whatsoever.

But that kind of ego and dogma-centered stuff is exactly what a disciplined, uniformed service would aim to overcome -- along with graft and intimidation and all the other corruptions of clear and accountable process.

The same traditions of political neutrality and subservience to the law that motivate the US military officer corps (at least till now) should be instilled in the Inspectorate.

As for Congress killing its budget, well, it has done so with IRS enforcement so it could do that to IGUS, also.

And yet, we are better off with the Inspectorate out in the open, tall and visible and very much its own agency. In which case the attempt to undermine it would be clearly visible and overt, unlike the thousand little stabs that the neocons are using to erode all the separate IGs, who have no where to turn.

Sidereus said...

Two Earth science items:

Ancient ice shelf breaks free in Canadian Arctic:

This is a dramatic and disturbing event. It shows that we are losing remarkable features of the Canadian North that have been in place for many thousands of years,” Vincent said. “We are crossing climate thresholds, and these may signal the onset of accelerated change ahead.”

In the "you cannot be serious!" department:

HOW OLD IS THE GRAND CANYON? PARK SERVICE WON’T SAY — Orders to Cater to Creationists Makes National Park Agnostic on Geology

dbt said...

The right solution is to elect presidents that aren't lying scumbags, but we've done that rarely in the last 40 years.

Blake Stacey said...

One hopes that IGUS will have a higher profile than the Office of Technology Assessment.

Does anyone else here remember the movie Quiz Show (1994)? Rob Morrow is the kind of Inspector we need, not Ken Starr. "And I'll send you a little helpful reminder. You'll notice it because it'll look very much like a subpoena."

Anonymous said...

What we need are effective checks and balances within the government. Take what is currently happening in Massachusetts. A Constitutional Amendment was passed allowing the people to put initiatives on the ballot. If the majority of people vote it in, then in theory the legislature is forced to do what the people want.

Instead, when a tax initiative was passed, the legislature promptly ignored it. And when a large number of people did a ballot initiative to put a Constitutional Amendment on the ballot to ban future gay marriages on a constitutional level for people to vote on... the legislature decided to go on vacation for the rest of the year rather than vote on it, and thus let it die because no one in the legislature could vote on it.

It went to the Mass. Supreme Court which ruled that the legislature was failing in its constitutional duties... and that the courts themselves had no power to force the legislature to do its job. That's right. The Legislature is a power unto itself without any checks or balances. The only way to deal with it is to vote these people out of office... something that has proven impossible with the implosion of the Mass. Republican Party. The vast majority of representatives and senators in Mass. run unopposed.

There is only one thing people can do to fight this... and that is move out of the state. Which is what is happening on a large scale. When states elsewhere are growing in population, Mass. is shrinking and sobbing because corporations and the like are moving out because they don't want to pay the taxes and want to follow the workforce.

Ironically enough, this is creating political inbreeding. As people who oppose the increasingly Stalinistic socialists of Mass. simply move across the border to New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Connecticut, those who remain are those who voted these bastards into office in the first place. Not even scandals are enough in most cases to force them out of office (and when they are forced out, another marginally better person replaces him). Eventually I actually see entire communities trying to secede from the state to their bordering states... similar to one instance in Vermont (of a border community trying to become part of New Hampshire to avoid the taxes of Vermont).

Massachusetts is diseased. What's worse, it's a warning to the rest of the nation, a reason why the nation fears the liberals and democrats of the nation. What if they're just like the socialists of Massachusetts who ignore the demands of its electorate? What if they try to seize control? What if they attempt to wrest control away from the people in a misguided effort to dictate to the people what they believe is right instead of what the people demand of them?

And what of Massachusetts? What cure is there for the increasingly Stalinistic socialism that is rotting the core of this once grand state? If our Founding Fathers were alive today, they would be horrified by what the Shrug and his associates have done... but they'd be equally horrified at the graft and insanity going on within Massachusetts itself, what was once a cornerstone of the drive for Independence from England.

Rob H., Tangents Reviews

Anonymous said...

I posted the link some time ago to a conservative war columnist's view about potential for "entrapment" of US troops in Iraq. On the liberal side, there's a guest editorial today at Juan Cole's site that lays out some of what may be about to happen in the Middle East. (Which very well would make William Lind's dire prediction a probable outcome).

Lenny Zimmermann said...

dbt wrote:

The right solution is to elect presidents that aren't lying scumbags, but we've done that rarely in the last 40 years.

You'd only go back 40 years!?!! I think I'd take it farther back then that. ;)

Dweezil said...

An IGUS could just become another tool of authoritarians. The 3 branches of Soviet government were the Communist Party, which basically ran everything that any government does with the exception of the Military, which was semi-autonomous, and the KGB which worked much like your hypothetical IGUS.

But nobody gets warm fuzzy feelings about the KGB. And the IGUS would probably inevitably become the same sort of thing.

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

I think there's one key difference between the KGB and the hypothetical IGUS: The IGUS would only be inspecting the /government/.

I mean, I could be wrong here, but isn't the reason the KGB was so feared that it could get you no matter what you did?
Well, and the powers it had. I'd hope the powers of the IGUS would basically be limited to fines and firings.

Don Quijote said...

Massachusetts is diseased.

As is obvious from looking at the stats the census produces.

What's worse, it's a warning to the rest of the nation, a reason why the nation fears the liberals and democrats of the nation.

Yes, there can be nothing worse than living in the gulag that is the commonwealth of Massachusetts, after all it only has the fourth highest family median income, the fifth highest household income, the second highest level of education (graduate and post graduate) and one of the lowest poverty rates in the country.

What if they're just like the socialists of Massachusetts who ignore the demands of its electorate?

And produce a highly educated workforce, high wages and low poverty rates, yes that would be hell on earth.

What cure is there for the increasingly Stalinistic socialism that is rotting the core of this once grand state?

We could get rid of the state income tax, sales tax and any other progressive tax that we can identify, finance all the state's activities through a nice regressive property tax and watch the state's various social services & supports collapse, and over a twenty to thirty year period become a northern version of Alabama.

Nate said...

Population, 2005 estimate 6,398,743
Population, 2000 6,349,097

US Census quick facts, MA.

And even though MA is one of the most liberal states in the US, calling it "socialist" or "Stalinist" is frankly ridiculous. There's plenty of criticisms that can be made of MA politics (like how many people keep getting re-elected and leaving many offices stagnant until somebody dies or retires, for example), but that hardly deserves hyperbolic language about dangerous "Stalinist" liberals. Especially when the MA Republican party's implosion is its own damn fault.

False Data said...

While making the IGUS a uniformed corps would help with solidarity and visibility, it doesn't seem likely to preserve independence. Consider, for instance, the active officer corps's reluctance to publicly criticize administration policies.

I can think of three alternatives to make an IGUS-like body politically independent. I can't properly analyze their strengths and weaknesses in the short space of a comment.

First, use some variant of a qui tam or "whistleblower" provision, where private citizens--most likely interest groups--can sue on the government's behalf and receive a portion of whatever damages they recover.

Second, waive sovereign immunity to allow the state governments to investigate the federal one. In this model, the IGUS effectively reports to the state governments.

Third, create two IGUSes, one that reports to the executive branch and one that reports to the legislative, similar to the split between the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office. Any prosecution must, as usual, go through the judiciary.

Rob Perkins said...

Since the state governments are all sick with the same bipartite troubles as the federal, I don't know if dividing IGUS among them would be that fruitful. The two major parties dictate policy and practice these days, and they own all the states as well...

Massachussetts is a fascinating place. I visited Boston on foot last year and didn't come away with the impression that their approach to things is stalinist.

That it's deeply factioned, and that there is calcified corruption is undisputable. The news about the Big Dig, or Rob H.'s examples, are enough to showcase that.

But, it appears to still be a civilization, with controls in place against collapse. Witness the election of Mitt Romney, and his ability to deftly manage, and be deftly stymied, by the various factions in the Commonwealth.

I mean, honestly, this is a place where a *Republican* managed with his so-called enemies to bring a form of universal health care to his State. If that doesn't boggle contemporary stereotype, I don't know what will.

iridescent cuttlefish said...

This notion of Democrats investigating the Republican cesspool is just a toothless, cosmetic PR campaign; how appropriate that the term "good-cop/bad-cop roles" is used to describe the empty gesture that this alleged transparency-in-government effort is without addressing the real problem that caused this sickness in the first place. I have no doubt that Mr. Brin has good intentions. His plan (especially the crucial whistle-blower protections and amnesty-for-testimony provisions of the long-overdue truth & reconciliation work that needs to be done) is logical, well thought and cogent…and doomed to utter failure since it refuses to look at the causes for the mess we’re in.

The truth is as obvious as it is hidden: the wealthiest 2% own more than half the world (and that doesn't even begin to address how they control, influence and direct what they don't directly own.) This blind faith in the virtue of the mythical (and therefore "invisible") hand of the "free market" is what undercuts the otherwise laudable body of work that Mr. Brin has written on reforming the empire. For that is what we're dealing with folks--imperialism, not free market capitalism, which is just part of the high-flying, death-dealing, disparity-ensuring rhetoric with which the owners justify their predations.

I very much agree with Mr. Brin's suggestions for transparency, but they're not enough, for two reasons. First, they don't dismember the hydra that Big Business has become. Anti-trust legislation of the type that's needed would never pass through a congress controlled on both sides of the aisle by the corporations who've looted the treasury and turned American democracy (if it ever really existed) into some kind of Simulacran Republic. Second, the public will not understand the significance of such a reform if they still believe the fairy tale propaganda of American Exceptionalism that informs their textbooks, their movies, and the stirring speeches of corporate apologists.

What I'm suggesting is that the truth & reconciliation work needs to go back a lot further than 1947, when the rule of law was officially subsumed by the national security cabal. If de-Nazification was a necessary prerequisite for the installation of McDemocracy in postwar Germany, than de-Capital-lousing here in the land of the free is even more necessary if we're to have any hope of turning this rabid empire into a country of laws.

I know, I've already been dismissed as a "snarling lefty" (I objected to Mr. Brin's mandatory Joys of Capitalism lecture), but, just in the interest "getting around the old Right/Left antagonisms" (giggle, giggle), you might want to survey a view of the news & issues that's just a little different from the standard thin gruel. Here's one alternative that's not too snarling. I think they're actually libertarians, which puts them way to the right of folks like me. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,
Sense I know you are interested in nanotechnology,
Here is a project you will be interested in and one that you may want to contribute to:


What is a Sandpit?
A sandpit is a residential interactive workshop over 5 days involving 20-30 participants, a director and a number of independent stakeholders. An essential element of a sandpit is a highly multidisciplinary mix of participants taking part to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to addressing particular research challenges.

A sand-pit is an intensive discussion forum where free-thinking is encouraged to delve deep into the problems on the agenda in order to uncover innovative solutions. The sand-pit is led by the Director, whose role will be to define the topic and facilitate discussions at the sand-pit. This sand-pit will be led by Professor Richard Jones of the University of Sheffield. Working with the Director and participants will be a team of professional facilitators who will also help steer participants through the process.

The Challenge

Can we design and construct a device or scheme that can arrange atoms or molecules according to an arbitrary, user-defined blueprint?

This is at the heart of the idea of the software control of matter – the creation, perhaps, of a “matter compiler” which will interpret software instructions to output a macroscopic product in which every atom is precisely placed. Progress towards this goal would significantly open up the range of available functional materials, permitting meta-materials with interesting electronic, optoelectronic, optical and magnetic properties.

One route to this goal might be to take inspiration from 3-d rapid prototyping devices, and conceive of some kind of pick-and-place mechanism operating at the atomic or molecular level, perhaps based on scanning probe techniques. On the other hand, the field of DNA nanotechnology gives us examples of complex structures built by self-assembly, in which the program to guide the construction is implicit within the structure of the building blocks themselves. This problem, then, goes beyond surface chemistry and the physics of self-assembly to some fundamental questions in computer science.

All readers are invited to comment on the thoughts they might have through the comment facility on the Ideas Factory blog

David Brin said...

Sorry Rob, but posing the legislature’s shenanigans as l beral misses the point. Completely separate from the left-right and liberal-romantic conflicts (two very different things) there is the war of the professional political caste vs the citizenry. This latter is manifest primarily in gerrymandering but also in contempt for mass democracy e.g. initiatives on the ballot.

The latter, actually, has some basis. Initiatives can be imposed upon a state by a tiny number of petition signers, who then force everybody to focus millions of dollars and huge attention upon some badly written thing that is either:
* intended primarily to provoke a divisive fight,
* or proposes to help crippled children (oh, and tucked deep inside is a gazzillion for a special interest)
* or forces an issue that legislators wanted kept for themselves to decide.

Note, the initiative process was invented in the progressive west vs troglodyte robber baron conservatism. Today, it is often a TOOL of troglodytes who want to spark another round of culture war. STILL, it is useful ALSO to view it as part of the rising struggle between amateurs and professionals.

Dweezil seems to think that because IGUS might be subject to pressure, we should not establish it. I say the trick is to disperse power. A service that is OUT of the clutches of BOTH the President and Congress sounds good to me. THEY will be watching IGUS to catch its improprieties. The trick is to sicc power centers AGAINST each other. It’s what separation of powers was all about. Adding a separate accountability power can’t be bad.

FD’s suggestion to have the STATES appoint IGUS might be very interesting. I wonder what the Court would make of it.

Cuttlefish is welcome back. DQ was really needing some help holding up the banner of cynicism. Once again let me smile and say that I am glad you are wrong about so very much. Because if you and Don are right about the condition of the world, then you have openly declared that there is no hope, whatsoever.

That is the bind of liberal cynics. They rail against the totally corrupt McCivilization around them and shrug hopelessly over doing anything THEMSELVES. They dismiss all past efforts as futile, while crying out for change.

Feh! If Franklin and Marshall and ML King accomplished nothing, then why should we listen to YOU lazy so and sos!???

Fortunately, you guys ARE wrong.

I believe we can have a gradual world accountability revolution BECAUSE you are wrong, and because so much has already been done.

Oh, I liked “UnKnown News”. Also look up PROJECT CENSORED. ALas, both seem to wear a lefty tilt that probably limits their audience. Shortsighted. By pillorying even ONE lefty item out of every four or five or so, they would gain credibility and audience and thus be MORE successful against the outrageous right wing stories they decry.

Don Quijote said...

Oh, I liked “UnKnown News”. Also look up PROJECT CENSORED. ALas, both seem to wear a lefty tilt that probably limits their audience. Shortsighted. By pillorying even ONE lefty item out of every four or five or so, they would gain credibility and audience and thus be MORE successful against the outrageous right wing stories they decry.

What can I do other than paraphrase Colbert and say "Reality has a leftist bias".

That is the bind of liberal cynics. They rail against the totally corrupt McCivilization around them and shrug hopelessly over doing anything THEMSELVES.

We could have told you in 1999 what a disaster Shrub was going to be and many did, but no one listened, so now it's six years later and most lefties can point to the past and say I told you so. People don't want to learn the easy way, so they will learn the hard way.

Let's take one simple and basic issue, we know that most Industrialized countries have Universal Health Care, we also know that it cost less and produces better outcomes for the population as a whole, but we still don't have it in this country. Undoubtedly when the current system produces enough bankruptcies, pain and deaths, we will go to a Universal Health Care system, but until then nothing will change.

They dismiss all past efforts as futile, while crying out for change.

When things get bad enough, they will change, but not before.

I mean, honestly, this is a place where a *Republican* managed with his so-called enemies to bring a form of universal health care to his State. If that doesn't boggle contemporary stereotype, I don't know what will.

Who is running as fast as possible from his center-right credentials so that he may have a shot at winning the Republican Nomination to run against some yet to be selected democrat for the White House. I am not sure why he is even trying...

Rob Perkins said...

DQ, I confess I simply don't get it. I step in to support the notion that Massachussetts is actually quite civilized, which is congruent to your ideas...

...and you take that as a springboard to say something unpleasant about Mitt Romney?

You're your own worst enemy.

Don Quijote said...

...and you take that as a springboard to say something unpleasant about Mitt Romney?

It's not particularly unpleasant, it's just a fact.

Human Events - Q&A: Mitt Romney Discusses Iraq War, Reagan's Influence and Gay Marriage

No, actually, my view on marriage has been entirely consistent over my political career. And that is that I oppose same-sex marriage. I also oppose civil unions.


I think the flat tax and the Fair Tax both have very favorable elements to them and I respect the features of simplicity and fairness. There are, however, I think some challenges, I think, that have to be recognized in terms of them being politically acceptable to the American people—and, if you will, effectively able to be implemented in a political setting.


As governor, I’ve had several pieces of legislation reach my desk, which would have expanded abortion rights in Massachusetts. Each of those I vetoed. Every action I’ve taken as the governor that relates to the sanctity of human life, I have stood on the side of life.

Like I said moving to the right as fast as possible...

And if he wants to win the republican nomination, he has no other choice.

You're your own worst enemy.
And now you know why I am not nor will ever be a politician.

n8o said...

Were you missing the free-as-in-beer posts of the S&N piece on CRN's Wise Nano Wiki and I seem to recall those have been up since at least June.

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