Thursday, November 30, 2006

Part Three of "The Ancient Ones"... plus other news...

Announcing that Part Three of my ongoing science fiction comedy serialized novel “The Ancient Ones” is now available at Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE Online. Remember that not only does UNIVERSE offer more fiction by great/top authors than you’ve ever seen before, for the money, but they will also match each paid membership with several offered for free or very cheap to students and people living in developing countries! (My idea.) Consider your subscription an act of philanthropy AND self-interest, helping to spread the memes of good science fiction around the world.

While we are listing fun web zines... this issue of The Onion has an especially choice satire: “In response to a Nov. 7 referendum, Kansas lawmakers passed emergency legislation outlawing evolution, the highly controversial process responsible for the development and diversity of species and the continued survival of all life.

Ah, but just to prove even handedness, do drop by the Bible... done in legos.

Ah but then the Creation Museum - motto: "Prepare to Believe!" - will be the first institution in the world whose contents, with the exception of a few turtles swimming in an artificial pond, are entirely fake. It is dedicated to the proposition that the account of the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis is completely correct.

Um, “by his fruits you shall know him”... and apparently these folks “believe” that fake fruit is best.

And returning to Earth...

Another on-target prediction from my novel “Earth”.... where I show a character grabbing a file folder and pulling our a data sheet and feeding it into a sheet reader... a much more convenient for of storage than a spinning disk. Now read on:

Store 256GB on an A4 sheet Techworld Nov. 24, 2006 - New "rainbow technology" allows data to be encoded into colored geometric shapes and stored in patterns on paper or plastic sheets at a density of 2.7GB per square inch and then played back through a computer with a special scanner attached....

In creepily relevant news... Virtual world Second Life was overwhelmed by a flood of "self-replicating" objects dubbed "grey goo"....

Okay then, quick query. Second Life is the biggest avatar world, with 2 million subscribers and an unbelievably awful methodology of discourse. “There” is in second place, using a method that is only a scintilla better.

Can anyone tell me who the third and fourth place avatar worlds are?

Do ANY of them allow visitors to talk to each other in statements of more than one-sentence in length?

-- FINALLY, SOME OTHER ITEMS --

Applying a gentle electric current to the brain during sleep can significantly boost memory, University of Luebeck researchers report. They believe this is due to the pattern of the applied current mimicking that seen in naturally occurring deep sleep, where memory consolidation is thought to take place.

The quantum world is about to get bigger, thanks to a technique that will allow objects big enough to see with the naked eye to exist in two places at once. The trick: eliminate thermal vibrations by bombarding a mirror of roughly 10^14 atoms with photons in a way that damps out thermal vibrations and cooling it to 135 millikelvin.

British scientists have grown the world's first artificial liver from stem cells in a breakthrough that will one day provide entire organs for transplant.

--------

Enough for now! Do spread the word about my posted Suggestions to Congress”! And Don’t be shy with suggestions of your own. Participatory citizenship had better be the theme of this century, or we are totally buggered.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cheer up! We are still in the 20th Century.

I have been nursing a dour notion about what we’ve seen happen to the public mood, since 2000. To me, it seems as if there has been much more going on than myopic commentators perceive. Indeed, I suspect a traumatic reaction to Y2K... that the arrival of a new century has rocked many of our countrymen far more than they allow themselves - at surface - to admit.

How else to explain why a happy, rich, successful and scientific society - one that accomplished miracle after miracle through pragmatic negotiation and ingenuity and neighborly good will - would swing about and choose to dive into nostalgia, spooky romanticism, infighting recrimination and cynical, short-sighted despair?

(Not ONLY from the right, but from every style and variety of indignant dogmatism.)

Is this to be the tone of the 21st Century? A slide away from the Enlightenment and the Great Experiment, shying back when we are on the verge of our supreme triumphs?

Certainly, if we do not wake up and reinforce the experiment, there will be elite powers who attain an array of truly daunting powers, such as real lie detection, personality profiling, and omni-surveillance tools that would make Big Brother look like an amateur. They know that if the people became adept with such technologies, tyranny would automatically vanish forever, so this is their one chance.

On the other hand, if they succeed at monopolizing these tools, the new tyranny could become pretty much permanent. No wonder they are making their big move now.

Is this the way the century... even the millennium... will be? Allowing the experiment to fail, because of a general malaise and failure of nerve? Perhaps.

And yet... I am cheered by a contrarian thought (a trademark habit the will always send me careening from optimism to pessimism and back again, like a bipolar shaman). The thought that centuries tend not to show their true theme until at least ten years in.

More like twelve or fifteen year. Take, for example, significant milestones in the last three of them.

1712 - The first steam engine and harbingers of a rising scientific Enlightenment.

1815 - The Congress of Vienna seals the end of enlightenment revolutions and locks in a century of European crowned consensus.

1914 - This consensus shatters, along with royal rule, as we dive into the savage Age of Ideologies.

If this rhythm holds, then we still have a few years before some great confluence of events will shape Century 21. Perhaps around 2015?

Yes, I have already mentioned one frightening literary coincidence... that Robert Heinlein foresaw the year 2012 as ushering in the reign of Nehemia Scudder “Prophet of the Lord.”

On the other hand, perhaps it will be a time when the momentum of vast increases in prosperity and education and mass internet-propelled access to knowledge and “sousveillance” will reach a critical threshold... literally... and the creative POWER of criticism - citokate - will shine into every dark corner, bringing on an era that Ben Franklin spoke of and yearned for. An era of light.

Ah, well. I told you that - deep down - I am the thing I fear most. A romantic.

----- AND NOW, POLITICAL RIFFS ------

Russ Daggatt is back: “1348 Days: That's how long it took from the declaration of war in World War II to the Japanese surrender. And that is, as of today, how long our Iraq war has raged. (On the other hand, it took Bush only 14 days to prematurely ejaculate "Mission Accomplished" on May 1, 2003. But W. is not know for his attention span.) In other words, as of today, the Iraq war has lasted longer than World War II.

“Certainly Bush and his Republican apologists have never treated the Iraq war anything like WWII. War is one thing. Paying taxes to finance it is another thing altogether. There are limits to the sacrifices Republicans are willing to make for their "generational struggle." Who ever heard of cutting taxes -- multiple times -- during wartime? And even chaos and civil war could not provoke Rumsfeld and Co. into increasing the size of our armed forces -- even by a couple of divisions. Rumsfeld's ideology dictated technology over manpower and damn if this Iraq messiness was going to interfere with his Own Private Reality.

“And then there is Karl Rove. In the Bush White House, all policy is ultimately dictated by politics. And the Rove game plan was always to seek "wedge" issues to "draw contrasts" with the Democrats. Why strive to unite the country to prosecute a war when war can be used as a partisan cudgel to pummel your opponents? Is there is any historical precedent for the president of the United States actively, intentionally seeking to use "national security" to DIVIDE the country during wartime, I haven't heard of it. Either it is damn near treasonous or the war isn't particularly essential to national security. It's hard to imagine FDR accusing the Republicans of aiding and abetting the Nazis. “


Ah, but as Time Magazine reported: “If this week’s announcement that President Bush is to meet Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the capital of neighboring Jordan raised eyebrows, by Friday it was abundantly clear why the meeting couldn’t be held in Baghdad — the Iraqi capital is under siege. After a day of open sectarian warfare on the streets had claimed more than 200 lives, the city’s airport is closed and its residents are forced to remain indoors under a curfew.” Um, weren’t we told that we were “winning”?

Daggatt resumes: “Everything seems to be staked on training Iraqi forces to take over from the US military. The problem is that we are trying to train an Iraqi army when there is no such thing as Iraq anymore. A united Iraq is increasingly an American fantasy. In reality, we are training a Shiite army that will probably eventually butcher Sunnis (as the Shiite militia and police are doing already). In all likelihood, it will also become an ally of Iran and, in the end, turn on us. Sort of like when we trained and armed the "freedom fighters" -- the Muhajadeen -- of Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. They morphed into the Taliban and al Qaeda. That didn't turn out too well. And then we backed Saddam against Iran. Now Bush and co. are asserting that the answer to our problems in Iraq is training the army of a pro-Iranian Shiite government in Iraq at the same time Iran is supposedly the new "Nazi Germany".”

------- AND ALSO THIS------

Keith Olbermann: Lessons From the Vietnam War - comments upon the grotesque statements made by President Bush during his visit to Vietnam. http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/112106K.shtml

"It is a shame and it is embarrassing to us all when President Bush travels 8,000 miles only to wind up avoiding reality again."

Let me reiterate: In Hanoi, President Bush acknowledged that America's unsuccessful war in Vietnam three decades ago offered lessons for the US war in Iraq. Among those lessons: "We'll succeed unless we quit."

Seriously. That is the lesson Bush takes away from the Vietnam war. The standard right-wing narrative. We would have "won" if anti-war types in the US (i.e., the majority of the American population) hadn't forced us out prematurely.

As Russ Daggatt puts it: “Let's see. We spent "only" 10 years in Vietnam. Our peak force levels were "only" 520,000. The war resulted in "only" 58,000 US dead and three million Vietnamese dead and a large portion of the countryside poisoned for generations.”

(And our purpose there was...? To “help the people of Vietnam”, right? No wonder the right only talks about "why we lost" but never about what "winning" would have been FOR.)

Okay, so the party line is now that we lost Vietnam because we "quit too soon."

In other words, we never really gave the thing a fair shot at "success".

Ah, but notice something very interesting... how the right wing has dropped one part of their standard litany about failure in Vietnam!

"Quitting early" is still part of it. But do you ever hear any mention of the biggest and most consistent excuse that they made, for decades, blaming the loss on "outrageous meddling in military decisions by clueless politicians who never served in combat themselves" - hm?

Not a word.

SO MUCH FOR COMPARISONS WITH OTHER WARS. NO WONDER THE BUSHITES CLAIM THAT “COMPARISONS ARE IRRELEVANT. “ THEY ARE, AFTER ALL, BASED UPON ‘FACTS.”

Monday, November 27, 2006

Better online discourse... and easing pollution...

Travel note. I’ll be heading back to Google, this coming Monday, to discuss new visualization interfaces that may enhance 21st Century discourse... inspired by my speech there, in October. During this brief trip, I will have the honor of sharing the podium with the legendary Doug Engelbart, inventor of the mouse and internet visionary. Maybe good ideas will fizz and lead somewhere.

GoogleTalkSpeaking of Google Videos, Submarine officer Andrew Presby sent me this link to a Tech Talk given by legendary physics innovator Robert Bussard (inventor of the sf’nal “Bussard Ram Scoop Drive) who has been working on alternative approaches to fusion power for decades, operating on a shoestring in order to stay under the radar of the big ITER establishment. Instead of Tokomak “magnetic cathedrals” that cost billions and appear to have no reasonable prospect of ever working, Bussard appears to have already passed several fusion milestones with a small machine of staggering simplicity.

Excellent stuff. I am sure most of us -- who are not petro-porkers -- wish him well.

----
Speaking of world-saving technologies, lately the topic of “amelioration” has returned to center stage -- perfectly illustrating how difficult we modernists find our position, right now, hemmed in by romantic radicals on all sides. With the right dominated by anti-science problem-deniers and the left heavily influenced by anti-engineering neo luddites, there is an oversupply of dogma and a painful insufficiency of good old can-do spirit of problem solving.

Is it possible that -- for example -- pollution and global warming can be partly solved by ASSERTIVE means that supplement the main thrust (efficiency and responsible economic habits), rather than having to only focus on answers offered by the New Puritans? (Those who chide and wag fingers, crying “waste not!” without ever noticing that they are the prune-faced reincarnations of Cotton Mather?)

Consider this. Except on low-lying islands like Tonga, people in the developing world do not like the New Puritans. They are willing to listen to mixed programs that offer better and more efficient ways to get them all the goodies owned by people in the West. But they will not put up with being lectured-to about how “you shouldn’t want all that wasteful crap.”

Enough generalities, on to a pragmatic question! Can we eliminate some pollution by “getting rid of” it?

Some amelioration techniques include pumping carbon dioxide underground, or planting vast forests, or spreading iron powder and other fertilizers across the vast tracts of ocean that are currently almost lifeless, lacking a phytoplankton food chain, for lack of nutrients. (Most of the sea is desert, in fact. A far larger fraction than on land.) Unsurprisingly, many such experiments are supported by tiny Pacific isle nations, who would prefer vast new fisheries that also suck CO2 and cool an overheating world.

Here’s another idea I’d love to see some of you look into for us. I have long wondered about the fastest coastal subduction zones where the Earth’s crust nosedives under a neighboring tectonic plate, sinking deeply to recycle over millions of years as fresh magma. It would be interesting to know more about these zones, and whether one or two of them ... e.g. perhaps the Marianas trench? ... suck-down crust down at rates that might be ecologically significant ?

As I describe in my novel, BRIGHTNESS REEF.

Is it conceivable that there might be two or three spots on Earth - say, in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans - where toxics... and even sequestered carbon... could be dumped in such a way that they are sucked downward quickly enough not to be a threat of any kind, way, shape or form... at least none that any foreseeable civilization might blame us for?

Of course, there are those who will react to the very notion with shudders of horror. Indeed, as a lifelong Sierra Club and Greenpeace member, I admit that my own sensibilities are shocked by the initial image... dumping great casks of wastes into some of the planet’s final, pristine places. Even if it means gathering all of the vast amounts that are currently dumped illegally in fragile ecosystems and sending it to a place where it will soon disappear, sucked-down out of reach and out of harm’s way, forever... it is a concept and an image that takes some brave pondering, and still the surface image is an unpleasant one.

There are countless issues. Just how fast does crust get taken in, at the fastest subduction zones? Is it a smooth process? Is there any way to be sure that material that we put there truly will be taken below, and rendered more harmless than if it were fired into space?

Certainly the New Puritans would hate this notion, without even allowing it time to “sink in.” Nor would they wait to discuss the potential tradeoffs, since it attempts to solve this problem with something other than the prescription of abstinence, utter efficiency and hairshirt self-denial.

Still, there is growing evidence that some of them are capable of rational negotiation. Clearly we need to offer the Paul Ehrlich crowd something in exchange.

How about a win-win? Charge a stiff fee for everything that’s dumped into the subduction middens... and then use the proceeds for ecologically beneficial programs? Let’s see. Bad stuff, taken away forever... PLUS...billions collected to buy and preserve habitats... It will take some real dogmatic rigidity to turn down a deal like that one.

That is, if the science supports the idea in the first place.

That is, if the science ever gets done, at all.

Here’s my shopping list of studies that ought to determine:

1) the rate that crust is sinking in the fastest subduction zones,

2) the isolation of material dumped into deep subduction canyons, during whatever time it takes (so that broken drums don't spill contents that recirculate in ocean currents),

3) the uniqueness of the biological communities in these two or three "sacrifice zones,"

4) the volume of material that could be taken away forever, this way,

5) the kind of tipping fees that could be charged.

Any other issues? Any chance of a study? Like so many of my ideas, I simply cannot follow through on this one myself. All I can do is offer it to the wind and hope that somebody can explore it further. I remain cheerfully willing to accept rebuke, if it is proved to be stupid. But I sure hope it’s real proof, and not just dogmatic reflex.

Because I have a special hankering for win-win solutions. Most real modernists do.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Toward a Dynamic 21st Century...

A major theme here is 21st Century Problem-Solving. Above all, we problem-solvers must learn to shrug off the druggie-dogmatists who (from every political direction) feel driven to promote Culture War.

Toward this end, I’ve edited the series that I posted following the recent mid-term elections -- SUGGESTIONS FOR THE NEW CONGRESS -- into a single, coherent article.

Feel free to write in with comments. Better yet, spread word!

And encourage others to post similar “wish lists” of their own! If even a few win-win proposals resonate and do a little good, it will all be worthwhile.

------ More News From The 21st Century ------

One of my wish list items is restoration of neutral scientific advisory systems in government. See a cartoon that illustrates our present situation.

Turning to miscellany... a 14-year-old boy is the first human to play a video game, Space Invaders, using only the signals from his brain to make movements. Getting subjects to move objects using only their brains has implications toward building biomedical devices that can control artificial limbs, enabling the disabled to move a prosthetic by thinking about it.

Scientists claim to have developed a new, genetically altered strain of virus that is highly efficient in targeting and killing cancer cells. The new therapy uses a genetically-engineered form of the adenovirus, which normally causes colds.

World Exports Reached $12.5 Trillion in 2005
Exports as percentage of world GDP:

2005: 28.5%
2000: 24.7%
1980: 20.5%

Face it - “anti-globalization” is just plain stupid. No other thing... no COMBINATION of other things... has ever helped the world’s poor as much as honest commerce. Trade, in which they have some freedom to barter their labor for an honest going-rate, instead of share-cropping for local lords. And yes, multinational-owned factories merit relentless scrutiny! But they are far more easily scrutinezed than local feudal bullies ever were.

The benefits of trade reached transcendant levels (as the people of Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore via (in my own crackpot-yet-obvious view) the quirky/ironic beneficence of Americans’ buying trillions of dollars worth of crap they never needed.

Openly stating this blatant fact infuriates the left, of course, since the New Puritans believe that nothing can be accomplished (if ever) except via copious blame-casting and guilt. Proving yet again that they are (almost) as crazy as the right.

(Remember; I carefully separate indignation junkies of “the left” -- sourpusses who channel Cotton Mather and hate engineering almost as much as right wingers hate science -- from the modernist, problem-solving liberals who can claim credit for most of the good and miraculous accomplishments of America and Western Civilization across the last hundred years.

(Yes, there is some overlap. And yet, nothing is more likely to lead us further into hell than if we continue to conflate these two profoundly different groups...

(...the way Karl Rove conflated sincere “conservatism” with fanatical dogmatism, racism, kleptocratic theft and outright neocon lunacy.)

----- And More --------

One of you wrote in to tout your fun site that presents “News from the year 2020”.

Africa’s political leaders are being offered a $5m prize and a stipend for life if they do not plunder the national coffers or rig elections. Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are backing the initiative to be formally launched tomorrow in London by a foundation started by a Sudanese-born telecom tycoon, Mo Ibrahim. The annual winner will be chosen by a board that presently includes the former Irish president, Mary Robinson. He or she will receive the $5m (£2.6m) over 10 years and $200,000 a year thereafter. They are also allotted $200,000 a year to be given to good causes.

Representatives from MIT and the University of Southampton have announced the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), a multidisciplinary project to study the social and technological implications of growing Web adoption. Featuring web-founder Berners-Lee.

...more soon. I accumulated a lot of cool stuff during the elections...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Practicing What We Preach: “Be Prepared!”

As some of you know, I’ve been punditing and consulting for many years, advising companies, agencies and groups as diverse as Microsoft, Google, the Defense Department and the Society of Complex Systems about future trends. And while my score is far from perfect, I do seem to have a pretty good track record overall (e.g. being among the few to predict (in 1986) both the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent 21st Century conflicts with “macho anti-westernism.” Then there are those accusing me and Al Gore of “inventing the Web”!

Society desperately needs better methodologies to track “prediction and outcome” and there will be more about that, below.

But first, the main point I was leading up to --

Getting people ready for 21st Century Citizenship

Speaking to defense and homeland security agencies, I point out how Hurricane Katrina exposed a deep flaw in our civilization’s resilience -- or robust ability to respond to emergencies. Nearly all members of the “protector caste” behaved terribly, during that crisis, not just FEMA. Almost by reflex, it appears that most agents of federal, state and local authority told common citizens the same thing;

“Do nothing on your own! Just sit there and wait for official help.”
(Help that often did not come.)

In contrast, I have been pushing the advantages of flattened hierarchies and of “smart mob” self organizing citizenry, capable of taking some initiative in a crisis. In doing so, I hearken to notions of dispersed responsibility and reliance upon citizen action that keep faith with American tradition, stretching from Lexington all the way to those old coots in Civil Defense hats, who we boomers vaguely recall from distant childhood. Before that whole network was allowed to collapse and fade away, amid a rising Age of Professionalization.

Do not misconstrue! I approve of professionalism! We need the intense skill of the Protector Caste (e.g. fire, police, military, medical) and every other supremely well-trained specialty, from pilots to teachers to accountants. Professionalization was a great trend - the great trend - spanning the entire 20th Century. It should be honored. It gave us everything...

...and it is fast running out of steam, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone smart enough to read a demographics chart. There must be a supplementary trend, in order to keep up our rates of increasing skill and competence in the face of rising challenges.

I suggest that the theme of the 21st Century will (or ought to) be a burgeoning Age of Amateurs.

But more on that elsewhere. To the point.

While participating in the recent Strong Angel disaster preparedness drill in San Diego, I realized that I was urging expansion of neighborhood-level citizen preparedness - rebuilding some of the old distributed “civil defense” capability - yet I was not involved myself!

(Well, except in Boy Scouts, with two sons who I am always urging to “be prepared!”)

All right, then. Upon realizing this, I promptly signed up for training with my local CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), which is a relatively new nationwide program helping local fire departments organize local volunteers - giving folks a few meager supplies and a few dozen hours of training - so that they can organize their neighbors and do a few useful things in an emergency, till first responders can get around to their area.

We also may have duties in other kinds of crises, e.g. taking low-skill/low-risk jobs like manning checkpoints, thus freeing deputies to do other things.

Supplied with a green vest and hard hat and backpack (all labeled CERT), I’m supposed to try to keep things going in my neighborhood for as much as 72 hours, amid such chaotic situations as earthquakes or fires or terror attacks. We were taught simple search & rescue techniques, emergency triage and first aid, crisis psychology and a little hazmat...

...phew! A real case of “the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know!” It really increases your respect for the professionals... and shows how far we have to go before distributed competence can actually make a difference in the kinds of crises that WILL strike our communities, in coming years.

Hence the moral of this story. CERT is only a few years old and it has a huge task ahead, rebuilding a smidgen of the distributed citizen capability that our ancestors (members of the local militia and/or posse and/or Civil Defense) took for granted. Some locales, like Los Angeles and most of Florida, have very well-organized and advanced CERT teams. Others - like my area - are just getting started.

In any event, I wanted to let you all know what’s going on, so that some of you might look into it, yourselves. CERT (and related programs like TIPS) contribute to a great big puzzle... how to keep complex modern society working and robust enough to thrive in an era of rapidly accelerating change. The more we make use of citizen-based solutions, the less we will have to rely upon either an overstretched professional corps or a nanny state. The latter is a brittle approach.

It is resilience and robustness that we should be aiming for.

---------------------------

Back to prediction:

I do hope someday to post that large article about prediction. And possibly make a strong case that registries should get high priority.

Fads like “Delphi” and betting ought to be augmented by something very basic and comprehensive.... an array of public and private “prediction registries” that would help us to find out who tends to be right a lot -- at least in their public pronouncements. This may sound weird. But once we have such things, people will look back and consider us weird for not having them, or not making this a top priority!

Of course there are a few - ad hoc - efforts already underway. Here is one I’ve mentioned before, tracking modern events/trends that were first mentioned in science fiction. (Some of you are encouraged to (ahem) update that site with any “Brin hits” they may have missed!)

More specifically (as a few of you know very well ;-) there are two wikis that specifically talk about predictive hits found in my novel EARTH.


(And to all yanks -- Happy Thanksgiving.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Making a better world, is not just about politics:

It has been some time since I took a departure from political and social commentary, diving back into the topics that should interest us... cool advances in science, engineering art and the general notion of problem solving.

worldchangingWhich reminds me to remind you to include the book Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century in your holiday shopping. A very attractive volume that is beautiful in its own right. But also the most dynamically modernist volume in the can-do spirit of the old Whole Earth Catalog.

And see a more specialized (but excellent) tome: Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials, by Michael Michaud.

Of course, if you'd like to shake up that Star Wars fan of yours, there is always Star Wars on Trial...

Speaking of forward-looking notions, the New Scientist Magazine ran a sort of Futurological Congress, soliciting brief 50 year forecasts from many (though obviously not all!) of the visionary seers out there.

---
An education related breakthrough: An on-line course in the literature of science fiction, organized with a historical perspective as a parallel experience to the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, now is posted on the K.U. Continuing Education website. The course is a project of AboutSF and was created by Thomas Seay, the AboutSF coordinator. Note that one can view the syllabus and the lessons, etc., by clicking on the appropriate links on the left side. Jim James Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction ku.edu/~sfcenter "Let's save the world through science fiction" (alt address: http://tinyurl.com/yl2kkg)

SFThatTeachesMore about using SF to teach. (Note, I helped to establish AboutSF and was one of its founding donors.) If any of you out there would like to help in an international effort to help kids (and science fiction) by using SF as a stimulating tool for waking up young minds, see the Reading for the Future Project.

Other do-gooder endeavors:

Have a look at the Natural Capital Institute, that began in 2002 as an offshoot of Paul Hawken’s work and writings, in particular his books Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism. Shades of EARTH...

ProxyActivismSee also my article: Proxy Activism for ways you can easily make a difference...

------ SOME SNIPPETS ----

Birds, bees, bats and other species that pollinate North American plant life are losing population. This "demonstrably downward" trend could damage dozens of commercially important crops, since three-quarters of all flowering plants depend on pollinators for fertilization.

Researchers say that the combined use of alternative energies for which we already have reliable technology "could replace all fossil fuel power plants." And that the use of hydrogen for vehicle fuel is a bad idea in most cases - as using electricity directly in vehicles (stored in batteries) rather than to generate hydrogen is three times cheaper.

Silicon Valley firms are driving a sizzling $11 billion worldwide market in solar energy, part of a rapidly expanding alternative-energy economy.

New LED lamps capable of 70 lumens per watt may cut our light-based electrical bill ultimately by more than 90 percent. And Toyota has said that replacing a car's lights with LEDs would be equivalent to getting an extra 20 percent mileage through reducing vehicle weight.

A team found a ‘brain gene’ that appears to have entered the human lineage about 1.1 million years ago, and that has a modern form, or allele, that appeared about 37,000 years ago -- right before Neanderthals became extinct. Leading to the notion that modern Homo sapiens and so-called Neanderthals interbred at some point when they lived side by side in Europe. Neanderthals may have given the modern humans who replaced them a priceless gift -- a gene that helped them develop superior brains. An interesting turnaround!

And my "subvocal" from EARTH is on its way: A new device being created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University uses electrodes attached to the neck and face to detect the movements that occur as a person silently mouths words and phrases. Using this data, a computer can work out the sounds being formed and then build these sounds up into words. The system is then able to translate.

--- AND FINALLY, SOME RESULTS OF MY “BASIC RANT” ---

Swedish programmer Nikko Strom read my Salon Magazine cover story “Why Johnny Can’t Code” and was among the few who seem to have actually “got it”... that even obsolete BASIC is better than nothing... which is what millions of kids now have as a programming language on their so-called “computers” which can no longer compute!. (How did we ever let that come to pass? And why has no one commented on it till now?)

Many students (like my own kids) still have textbooks with “Try It In Basic” exercises... that zero percent of them are even able to try! Make that one or two percent... who have savvy professionals or super-nerds to help them download and decipher obscure interpreters. A travesty, when it would be so easy to just create a simple web site that...

Well, to see how easy, see Strom’s QUITE BASIC web site, which he created quickly, in direct response to my article. Wonderfully intuitive and easy to use, it is designed to ease any student through copying down a few lines of a BASIC program and not only trying it out (with a handy graphics “canvas”) but also STEP through the program, watching variables change, one line at a time! (Something I suggested in the Salon article.) Allowing the brighter students to mentally follow along, envisioning each and every incremental stage and KNOWING that it’s all about algorithms and human-made commands, not magic.

Now if only a million high school math and physics teachers could be told; with this web site, all those BASIC demos and exercises in the older texts are no longer useless! (I’m as proud of this as I am of my recent patent... and it may do more good, it seems.)

Interested in seeing another fine effort - somewhat differently done - toward a similar goal? BASIC-256 is an easy to use version of BASIC designed to teach young children the basics of computer programming. It uses traditional control structures like gosub, for/next, and goto, which helps kids easily see how program flow-control works. It has a built-in graphics mode which lets them draw pictures on screen in minutes, and a set of detailed, easy-to-follow tutorials that introduce programming concepts through fun exercises.

I frankly cannot tell which approach is better for the purpose at hand. Which is to re-establish BASIC as a “lingua franca” that’s available to everybody, every person who has a modern computer with web access.

Again, the aim is not to PRECLUDE other, perhaps much better alternatives, like Python or JavaScript. I am not some retro-kook, ranting that old Basic is better than later programming languages! Indeed, I know that it is inefficient at performing high-volume or sophisticated tasks!

Again, the purpose is to restore a very simple universality that textbook publishers can rely upon - as they did for a decade - well enough to assign little illustrations in class, and know that all students can then type in a few lines (perhaps the only lines of code that some of them will ever type!) ... and thereby get a little taste of moving a pixel by the power of math ... and by math alone.

Any person who has done that, even once, is less afraid of the wizard, standing behind the curtain. He or she has seen the algorithm and made the computer obey. At least once.


There's a lot more stocked up... stay tuned...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

And Still More Ideas! - part three: Security, Readiness, Sustainability... and all that...

In a nonstop post-election rush (hoping to get all this off my chest before ideas completely calcify in Washington), I have been posting a series of proposals and concepts that may be worth implementing because they -

(1) are good for the nation,
(2) are good for the people who chose a new majority party,
(3) keep faith with the spirit of a better 21st Century.

Alas, with Democrats in the Senate well-short of a 60-vote moderate cloture-majority -- and presidential vetoes almost certain -- it seemed prudent to divide my suggestions into three groups.

Actions that Congress can accomplish, even without passing a law.

Simple bills that the GOP and Bush might have to let pass, or else suffer mortal political wounds

Ambitious legislation that the new majorities should try-for... even knowing that passage must await the next president and Congress, in 2009.



All right then. Time for category three.


* THE SECURITY FOR AMERICA ACT will ensure that top priority goes to America's military and security readiness, especially our nation's ability to respond to a wide range of unexpected threats, including natural disasters, surprise attacks or other emergencies.

Reversing a trend that has demolished readiness down to Pearl Harbor levels, our military and other reserves will be augmented and modernized, with emphasis on both agile preparediness and opportunities for enhanced citizen involvement.

When ordering a discretionary foreign intervention, the President must report probable effects on readiness, as well as the purposes and likely duration of the intervention. If those purposes change, the President must state the reasons in clear writing.

Without impeding in the President’s powers as Commander-in-Chief of active-duty military units, this law requires that no reserve unit shall be sent overseas without submitting to Congress for a certified state of urgency. This certification must be renewed at six month intervals. If at any point this state of emergency expires, reserve units shall return to their states within a month, to resume training and preparation for future emergencies.

Furthermore, members of the active duty Officer Corps and non-commissioned officers shall be regularly consulted by an ombudsman’s office, reporting confidentially to Congress on the morale of troops and their level of confidence in their political leaders, as well as contemplating suggestions that are offered, confidentially and respectfully, by skilled professionals.

Keeping with longstanding American tradition, in which past generations of the wealthy always willingly helped pay for urgent wars that must be fought by other peoples sons and daughters, an automatic surtax shall set in, one year after any foreign intervention is ordered by the President, without declaration of war. This surtax will apply to the top 10% of tax brackets, and remain in effect until the previous year’s intervention costs are paid for.

The Commander-in-Chief may not suspend any American law, or the rights of American citizens, without submitting the temporary suspension to Congress for approval in closed session, and setting a clear time limit.

(Comment: Difficult to get past presidential veto? Sure. But, parts of this bill might prove possible, even now. The rest can at least get put on the record. At least it would highlight the fact that reserves are supposed to be mostly held in... reserve! In case of the unexpected. Also we be seen reaching out to the long-suffering men and women in our active-duty and reserve forces...)


* THE SUSTAINABILITY ACT will make it America's priority to pioneer technological paths toward energy independence, emphasizing economic health that also conserves both national and world resources.

Ambitious efficiency and conservation standards may be accompanied by compromise free market solutions, with the goal of achieving more with less, while safeguarding the planet for our children.

Yes, this topic is already on the table... and obvious to any sane and/or patriotic American. Alas, nowadays, when the real rulers want high oil prices and a nation of feulish addicts, it will take more electoral revolutions in order to see much progress made in this area.


* THE TAX REFORM ACT will simplify the tax code, while ensuring that everybody pays their fair share. Floors for the Inheritance Tax and Alternative Tax will be raised to ensure they only affect the most wealthy. And the wealthy will be asked to pay to help defend a civilization that defends their privileges.

Again, much of this is already on the table... and only snippets stand a chance of passage or surviving veto. The neo-feudalists hope that they can retake Congress in 2008 in order to make their ripoff cuts permanent. We need to look long term. As they clearly do.


*THE AMERICAN EXCELLENCE ACT will provide incentives for American students to excel at a range of important fields. This nation must especially maintain its leadership, by training more experts and innovators in science and technology. Education must be a tool to help millions of students and adults adapt, to achieve and keep high-paying 21st Century jobs.

Here is an area where standard politics does not make any sense at all. Obviously some increased standards and testing were needed, in order to increase accountability. The “right” was right to demand more accountability and the “left” was wrong to resist it. At the same time, “teaching to the test” is poisoning one of the things that American education always did well, encouraging vivid creativity at the level of individual students, teachers and classrooms.

We need more experiments and less dogma.


*THE MEDIA FAIRNESS ACT will restore the Fairness Doctrine - or antitrust rules that forbid a given media organization from controlling more than 30% or so of its market. Other measures will help correct a drift toward dogmatism in “news.”

They will fight this, tooth and nail, of course. It goes to the very roots of their power. Don’t bet on even a smidgen surviving vetoes.


A HEALTHY CHILDREN ACT. The blatant blunder of the early Clinton Administration was attempting to create a vast bureaucracy in order to solve health insurance all at once. This paved the way for Newt Gingrich’s first wave of neocons to take over Congress in 1994, which opened the door for worse monsters, later on.

In contrast, if they had simply done it incrementally, by saying “let’s insure all children, first,” who would have dared to say no? Not a majority of Americans! Citizens who have time and again proved much more willing to think “socialistically” (e.g. public schools) when it comes to kids than regarding adults. (In the frontier tradition, grownups should fend for themselves, and never whine about it.)

Yes, this too is at last “on the table.” Howard Dean spoke of seeking insurance for “all Americans under age 25.” Even if it’s 18 years at cutoff, the effects would be remarkable ... and probably insanely popular. Even though actual passage would have to wait till 2009.

----------

And at last I am done...

... well, almost. Obviously, there are lots of areas where I haven’t opined. Like raising the minimum wage (obvious) or trade policy (unbelievably complex) or immigration policy (too emotional for anyone to even begin to be rational.) Hey, there are limits, even for me.

Was it arrogant of me to offer this shopping list -- my own set of wishes for a new and better era?

Sure! But that’s citizenship, for you. And the more of it, the better! As one of those who can claim to have “foreseen” the Web and the blogosphere and all the new media, all I can say is “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Most of my suggestions are aimed at enhancing this trend toward vibrant participatory democracy and unleashed citizen sovereignty. That one common theme may be one that I beat too hard, like a tired drum. But I think a case can be made that it is our only realistic hope. And, maybe, it will get me forgiven for “arrogance”, after all.

Next time I will follow up with some proposals and warnings that come under the category of general political advice. Notions having more to do with Big Mistakes that we have made that have less to do with law and policy, and more to do with bad 20th Century habits.

Bad habits we should shrug off and leave behind..

==Return to Part 1 of this series

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

Monday, November 13, 2006

Now Lets Move on to Laws! - Part one: The Inspector General of the United States

In the first three of these post-election explorations, I was bold enough to suggest a few valuable measures that the House of Representatives might take in coming months, even if they are blocked from passing laws by presidential vetoes.

Some of these measures are win-win-win propositions, letting Democrats be seen taking the high road, while achieving much good for the republic, while additionally helping to drive a corrupt GOP deeper into the wilderness. Where - one hopes - they might commence a regime of fasting and meditation, in order to re-commune with a better brand of conservatism.


Now I’d like to turn to more ambitious agenda items -- actual bills worth turning into laws. Some will strike the public as so needed and fair that the GOP won’t dare interfere.

But first, in fairness, let us start by looking at what the Democratic Senate and House leaders already say they want. One of my best- respected interlocutors, Marty Krasney, supplied some summaries:

Speaker Pelosi’s legislative priorities for a Democratic House:
Increase the minimum wage (within first 24 hours)
Overhaul House lobbying rules (I have already mentioned this)
Enact recommendations of 9/11 Commission
Cut student loan interest rates
Lower Medicare drug costs
Broaden stem-cell research
Reform education funding
Pass labor reform legislation (Employee Free Choice Act)

Over a longer time frame, Democrats have floated numerous policy proposals in some key areas:
Budget/Taxes
Trade
Finance
Energy
Environment
Health Care
Workforce/Education
Telecommunications
Agriculture
National Security/Defense
Judiciary

I won’t examine all of these in detail, but take just one of these categories: Budget/Taxes: For example, Democrats pledge they will “seek” return to balanced budgets. Well, almost. And, these days, almost sure is a big improvement!

Details: More oversight and hearings; return to “pay as you go” budget enforcement rules; Comprehensive tax reform/simplification unlikely; Continuation of middle-income tax cuts (set to expire in 2010); alternative minimum tax reform; extension of some business-friendly provisions (e.g., research and development credit).

Also: may repeal/let expire other tax cuts geared toward wealthier tax payers (e.g., lower rates on capital gains and dividends) to pay for other priorities. Plus some targeted increase in domestic spending (e.g., health care, environment, education). An so on...

(A few comments. 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. (Indeed, no act of betrayal so clearly shows where Bush & co. loyalties actually lie, than their longstanding obstruction of this simple move toward energy independence.)

(Likewise, genuine funding for sustainable energy research will be most welcome. Along with an asserted effort to fund adequate science to finally settle the question of global climate change and (if justified) let us all dismiss the credibility of those shill-deniers.

(On a more amusing note, Dems will probably leave in place the fluke in the tax code that lets the Inheritance Tax go to zero in 2010 and then back to older rates thereafter. Making 2010 the year that elderly moguls hide from their heirs.


----- All Right, It’s My Turn ----

Clearly, the “policy wonks” have been very busy while they were in exile. You can bet they return filled with enthusiasm and with an almost-puritan work ethic! (The trait that probably makes GOP Congressional folk shudder most.)

Still, might there be room on the reformers’ plate for a few more good ideas? Over the next few days, I’ll offer some (including one or two that were mentioned here before).


My Top Proposal... Create the office of Inspector General of the United States...

... or IGUS, who will head a uniformed agency akin to the Public Health Service, charged with protecting the legal and ethical health of government.

No, I am not asking for yet another new bureaucracy! Ninety percent of this service exists today. Every major department or agency already has an internal Inspector General, charged with examining operations and giving warnings - when it comes to minor infractions - or else stepping in when things get out of hand.

The problem? Nearly all of these officials owe their jobs and paychecks to the very same secretaries and directors who head the agencies they must inspect! In some cases, they were old pals, ensuring partiality and conflict of interest.

Only now picture this. What if we made a very simple change, by appointing and assigning and paying all of the inspectors through a civil service unit completely separated from each department’s political chain of command? Indeed, separate from the legislative, executive and judicial branches?

A uniformed service, with its own elite career path like the Coast Guard and NOAA and the Public Health Service... so that the word “general” has real meaning, encouraging higher-than-normal traditions and standards of conduct.

Under this simple law (possibly it could fit on one page), IGUS will command a corps of trusted observers, cleared to go anywhere and see anything. And thereby assure the American people that the government is still theirs, to own and control. IGUS might be appointed by a commission consisting of all past presidents and retired justices of the US Supreme Court, plus other sages, with advice and consent of Congress.

One might imagine special rules requiring inspectors to stay mum when it comes to legal policy decisions that fall rightly in the political sphere, but giving them a range of options when they uncover violations of basic ethics and/or the law. These needn’t all entail immediate revelation or disciplinary action! One might even picture the Inspectorate as a way to provide basic rights to people who are being held under urgent “special circumstances” -- ensuring that those rare exceptions aren’t abused or over-used. And above all, that they are temporary.

Ponder this; the very act of establishing such a General Inspectorate would so clearly be neutral, offering no visible long term advantage to the Democratic Party, that this law would have immediate political effects, triggering so much public approval that (ironically) the Democrats who push this would certainly benefit!

Indeed - (and this will be important, in overcoming a Bush veto) - it is hard to imagine how the GOP (and President Bus) could dare to oppose it.

Consider: there are those who want us to immediately emulate the loony era of Ken Starr, loosing bloody-minded attack dogs across the land in order to ferret out vastly worse and more numerous dastards than ever were seen in the Clinton Era. Part of me wants this, too. But...

...but, in fact, who needs a special prosecutor? We need to uncover truth while MINIMIZING the appearance of petty, immature vengefulness. What better way than to remove impediments that have prevented "the system" from working, all by itself?

When every agency already contains the pieces that we’d need -- all of the right parts in order to create an ideal force for accountability -- how about simply lining those parts up, so that they slip into gear?

Let us first unleash a professional service that serves the people and the republic and the cause of honest government.


==Next time: A series of capsule suggestions.

or see my Suggestions to a New Congress

Saturday, November 11, 2006

What can the House of Representatives do, all by itself? - Step#3

Reprising the topic, yet again...

The new Democratic Congressional majority may face obstinate presidential vetoes. So, before considering bills and legislation, let’s talk about things that the U.S. House of Representatives could do, all alone, to set a new tone in America.

In previous postings we discussed some clever jiu jitsu moves that could BOTH do a lot to establish trust with the voters AND set valuable precedents for the future... while deeply damaging this generation of GOP leaders by starkly contrasting and illustrating their deep turpitude.

Continuing along such lines, here are suggestions # 5 & 6.


5 -- Adjust House Rules To Limit "Pork" - the earmarking of tax dollars that benefit special interests or specific districts.

Yes, this is already on the declared agenda. (Reducing the sheer number of earmarks from 15,000 down to 1,000, the number allocated last time the Dems ran Congress, would help a lot. But we can do even better.)

And yes, I have my own ideas how it could be done. No, you’ll never eliminate the practice entirely. But how about let’s --


-- require that all future earmarks, of any kind, must come from a single pool, no larger than one tenth of a percent of the discretionary budget. Get our representatives adversarial with each other over this, instead of slyly cooperative.

-- Moreover, future earmarks must be placed in clearly labeled and severable portions of a bill, at least two weeks before the bill is voted upon.

-- Earmarks may not be inserted into conference reports.

-- Further, establish a lawful system of “challenges” under which any company or person out there may publicly demand a show-cause as to why they cannot compete to deliver a service similar to the one that had been earmarked... or else challenge the reasons for bypassing normal contract rules. With burden of proof on the recipient of the earmark.



This brings up yet another crime of the Neocon Era. The near-utter demolition of standards for soliciting bids and awarding government contracts. Especially with “war” as an excuse. This should have been a major scandal of the campaign! Far more stringent limits must be placed on no-bid, crony, or noncompetitive contracts. Conflict of interest rules must be strengthened, closing the “urgent” way that a small community of kleptocrats managed to turn the federal contracting process into their own, personal potlatch, rewarding loyalty with multi billion dollar gift fests.

(And this came from hypocrites who dared to call themselves believers in a free market! Adam Smith would curse their eyes.)

-- Carrying this further, why not create an office that is tasked to translate and describe all legislation in easily understandable language, for public posting at least three days before any bill is voted upon, clearly tracking changes or insertions, so that the public (and even members of Congress) may know what is at stake? This office - independent of member pressure - may recommend division of any bill that inserts or combines unrelated or "stealth" provisions.


6 -- Punish K Street. All right, there has to be a limit to highmindedness. Is it forgivable to also want a little outright partisan vengeance? Especially where it is MOST deserved? ANd where it would do the least collateral harm?

I have tried to keep things elevated, so far. But is it all right if one -- just one -- of these suggestions carries a taste for blood?

I choose one that the House Democrats can accomplish all alone, if necessary.
A retribution that the People will not only understand, but cheer!

Under the previous Congressional leadership, a scandalous attitude of outright whoredom led to inviting lobbyists right into Congress and letting them write whole swathes of actual legislation. Moreover, extremist GOP bosses let it be known that they would do no business with firms that had even a few Democrats or independents working on staff! In effect, they required that K Street purge all moderates, as a price of even being allowed into Congressional offices.

This behavior was so outrageous and blatantly corrupt that there simply is no “mature and judicious” response. There must be comeuppance and it must be very intense... a warning never to do this kind of thing, ever again.

Participants in this crooked process must at minimum be banished. (If not prosecuted.) Their lobbying firms must be rendered useless and valueless. Permanently and without a scintilla of mercy.

Sure, many of the same players will be back, the following week, using proxies. There must be followup reforms, like limiting the “revolving door” of rich consultancies for retired officials. Still, I leave it up to Beltway experts exactly HOW to accomplish this... and how to ensure that representatives are not lured back into temptation, yet again, when “normality” creeps back.

All I can say is that I will look with favor on genuine ruthlessness in this one area. I expect most Americans will.

------
Note that so far we have concentrated on things that the House of Representatives can accomplish even if they face obstinate presidential vetoes.

Next time: some actual bills and laws that may be worth considering, if we can get even more ambitious.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What can the House of Representatives do, all by itself? - Step#2

Reprise from last time... What should the Democrats do, in their first days?

Before considering bills and legislation - which may face obstinate vetoes - let’s talk about things that the U.S. House of Representatives could do, all alone, to set a new tone in America.



Here are some more suggestions:


2 -- Require more work days, actually deliberating the Peoples’ business.

All right, that one is a no-brainer, especially after by-far the laziest and most contemptible Congress in more than a century. Just being seen working hard could be an amazing contrast.

On the other hand, the next suggestion may need some chewing-on, before you see the benefits.


3 -- Enforce the “good parts” of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.”

Wait! Don’t hang up! Please stop and think about it. What act could possibly embarrass the GOP more than pointing out half a dozen solemn promises in that “contract” that Republicans betrayed?

Moreover, it would say to the voters: “Hey, we remember your anger in 1994. We acknowledge why many of you wanted us out of power. In fact, here is proof that we listen.”

In case you have political amnesia, drop by http://www.davidbrin.com/contract.html and look over that old “contract” with the eyes of a winner, who can afford some generosity of spirit. And who may be willing to learn from a historically masterful stroke of political polemic. One that did have some “good parts” that millions of Americans found appealing then, and would find even more desirable now:

* requiring all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress;

* arranging for regular comprehensive audits of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse;

* limiting the terms of all committee chairs and party leadership posts;

* banning the casting of proxy votes in committee and law-writing by lobbyists;

* requiring committee meetings to be open to the public;

* guaranteeing an honest accounting of our Federal Budget.


Really, who could object to these particular items?

Indeed, what could be a more powerful blow to the GOP than to remind Americans of these broken promises... and then for Democrats to fulfill them at long last?

And yet, in a strange win-win scenario, this would also strike a note of bi-partisanship! By saying “we will listen to good ideas, wherever they come from.”

Finally, it would perfectly set the stage for rejecting the worst parts of the “contract”. The parts that (alas) did get fulfilled by the GOP.

Portions that only served the interests of a secretive elite.

---

I was going to wait till tomorrow, to present reform suggestion #4. But I am too eager, so let’s get to it right away.


4 -- Restore Independent Advisory Agencies For Science, Technology and other areas of skilled analysis, to counsel Congress without bias or dogma-driven pressure. Ensure that technical reports may not be rewritten by politicians, changing their meaning at the last minute.

No neoconservative crime was more devastatingly dishonest and hypocritical, than for them to have deliberately dissolved Congress’s own technological and scientific staff, while crying out for “more study” before acting on problems like Global Climate Change. This simple act of restoration will show the striking contrast between an era ruled by dogmatic fanatics and return of the “reality-based community” ... the rebirth of basic common sense.

Worth noting: Although presidential vetoes might stymie re-establishment of the full gamut of scientific support, a Democratic Congress can accomplish at least some of this entirely on its own! Each chamber may define its own housekeeping budget and expand its technology/science staffing.

Imagine the note that this would ring, across the land and the entire world. The America of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein is back in business.


Next time: dealing with Pork Wallow Central... K Street.

What can the House of Representatives do, all by itself? - Step#1

We have embarked upon an exercise prompted by a challenge:

What do you think the Democrats should do, from the start, to change the political climate in the USA and begin better days?

Before considering bills and legislation - that may face presidential vetores -let’s talk about things that the House could do, all alone, to set a new tone in America.


1) GOOD COP/ BAD COP: Politically, there are two inherently contrary tasks before Democratic leaders, like Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi.

First, they must strive to end “culture war” in order to help heal the nation and restore adult standards of political behavior. To do this, Democrats must be seen taking the high road -- reaching across the aisle, replacing no-prisoners partisanship with sincere debate and deliberation.

On the other hand we desperately need torrents of light to shine into every dark corner where corruption has festered, these six... no, twelve years. Subpoenas must flow!

But how, without playing into Karl Rove’s trap, making “red” America feel persecuted, feeding perpetual tit-for-tat Culture War?


-- Primly divide the good-cop/bad-cop roles... and say so, openly. Assign one or two committees (e.g. chaired by Waxman/Conyers) the task of finding out everything, protecting whistleblowers and chasing the truth. Announce that the investigations will have clear boundaries in both time and number of House participants... but not in their range of topics or number of witnesses. Give two dozen attack dogs a year and say “the rest of us will not join any chorus of rebuke. Our attention will be on governing.”

Moreover, let the time limit be firm... in stark contrast to the open-ended vindictiveness of Clinton-era witch hunts.*


-- Offer clemency in exchange for truth. In many places overseas, “truth & reconciliation commissions” have been terrifically effective at prompting political sinners (some of them heinous) to fall all over each other, rushing to be first to spill their guts.

If offered a similar kind of immunity by Congressional committees, many perpetrators of recent U.S. corruption may grab for this “bird in the hand” as a better bet than the Presidential Pardon that they have been promised, (for delivery in December 2008.) Remember, every canary that goes free because it sings may implicate several other birds. We can afford to reserve actual jail time for the reticent. Civilization needs truth more than it needs vengeance.

(Indeed, there are ways that Congress might hem in those Presidential pardons, too, without blatantly infringing on Constitutional prerogatives. Something well-worth doing in advance! But we’ll save that topic for another time.)


-- Protect Whistle-blowers. Already mentioned, but unbelievably important. There are dozens of ways to augment today’s incentives for tattling henchmen. Few actions could be more certain to change the culture of secrecy and unaccountability that has been fostered by a childish and unscrupulous leadership caste.


-- Give the minority party a permanent power of subpoena.

(This suggestion rightly belongs in tomorrow’s group #2, but I put it here because it will also help reinforce the image of “good cops.”)

Of course, you do not want to give away every majority advantage. But remember, Politics is more fluid, now. A day will come (maybe soon) when Democrats are back on the outs, yet again. Now is the time to set permanent precedents, by giving the GOP minority what they never had the maturity to give you. The power to summon at least a few witnesses and demand some answers, even when your party is out of power.

Of course, there are worries. Can we guarantee that powerful party leaders will never again stifle independent inquiry, while also keeping things orderly, preventing individual members from using these member subpoenas for petty squabbles?

How about this approach? Allow any THREE representatives to JOINTLY issue one subpoena per year, beyond those voted by committees. One for every three members. That’s 140 member-chosen testimonies. A large enough number to make sure that random pokes at Truth will keep going on, even during eras when a party machine dominates every branch of government. And yet, it’s a number small enough not to disrupt House business too much. (That is, in a House that actually tries to do business.) And requiring some consensus means each trio would discuss carefully how to expend their one-per-year.

This idea has two advantages. First, it will be seen as a genuine act of openness and transparency, unlike the promises of the 1994 Republican Contract With America, that were broken as soon as the ink was dry.

Second, by setting this firm precedent, Democrats may ensure they’ll never again be completely hobbled and gelded, even when they find themselves in a powerless minority.

Even then, they will retain at least a minimal power to ask questions, to demand testimony, to poke away... and to shine a little light..


Next time... offering more proof of goodwill...


-------

Notes:

* One clever trick. Announce in advance that the committees will shrug off minor thievery (below a million dollars) and minor personal peccadillos (like consensual adult sex), concentrating only on misbehavior related to performance of actual duties of office. This may sound elevated and mature, but it also carries devastating symbolism. From Whitewater to Monicagate, such minutia were all that Clinton pursuers had. Not one Clinton era official was ever convicted, or even indicted, for malfeasance in the actual performance of official duties.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

OKAY, SO NOW WHAT?

Has Western Civilization been rescued by - (of all people) - the People?

Has a crucial corner been turned? Out of what has been (so far) a dismal-retro 21st Century, have we begun to regain some 20th Century confidence and belief in our capacity for progress?

All right, that’s pretty florid talk for what was only a mid term election. Let’s keep perspective. The greatest enemy of the Enlightenment in general, and the American Experiment in particular, has always been human nature. Our propensity for indignant self-delusion... especially when the mighty convince themselves that they are all-wise and justified to squelch criticism.

That's a BIG enemy. Let's reprise that wisdom from Jefferson:

“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles."
-- Thomas Jefferson in 1798, after the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Scan history, and you’ll see that the most tediously predictable trend, arising every generation, is an attempted takeover by some conspiring clique - often pretending to be “for the people.” Though no living American can recall an attempted putsch as tenacious and nasty as the one that’s still underway, still eager, vampiric and unsatiated. Still desperately in need of a stake through its heart.

Well, keep your spirits up. Other generations managed to achieve the miracle, resisting the pull of our feudal past. Renewing instead our unique covenant --

America’s ever-optimistic pact with tomorrow.


So now what?

This important little victory will be meaningless if it’s botched, or implemented tepidly, without imagination. Or with a mean spirit that plays into the hands of those who want perpetual “culture war.”

So, if I may, I’d like to offer a few suggestions. A short list of items that I would like to see the new, Democratic Congress accomplish, in coming months. (It will take several postings.) The proposals will fall into two major groups:

(A) What can the House of Representatives do, all by itself, even if legislation is blocked or stymied?

and

(B) What legislative endeavors (actual bills and laws) might Democrats pursue, beyond the obvious? (e.g. raising the minimum wage and all those announced good intentions.)

Why divide things up this way? Yes, there is news that the US Senate will soon join the House on the side of progress and light. Still, even if they do pass a raft of mature and needed laws, they may be stymied by obstinate presidential vetoes.

So, before considering bills and legislation, we’ll talk (next time) about things that the U.S. House of Representatives could do, all by itself, to set a new tone in America.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Final Shots... let's show them what we're made of.

I will be glad when this is over... though it may take us a decade to get the mess cleaned up, budgets balanced, courts neutral again, the civil service and officer corps re-professionalized, our international reputation and popularity back up to levels that we'll need in order to restore alliances and trust and lead again... and so on...

I look forward to non-political postings and topics like the long-delayed series on "Theological Questions in an Age of Science." But still...

...these are the times that try men's souls... If Thomas Paine were alive today, he would recognize the urgency of fighting new aristocratic lords and cronies of the king, who would take away our rights and turn our great experiment into one more tedious pyramid of inherited privilege. Alas, he is NOT alive. So some of us must channel for him, guessing, imagining, knowing what he would say.

Here are some final comments and items and bullets. Use them well.

---
More on the stunning article in January’s Vanity Fair, in which Rummy’s Iraq war cheerleaders, “Cakewalk” Ken Adelman and Richard “Nix Blix” Perle, are falling all over themselves to knife the Pentagon boss who (they say) betrayed all of their fond hopes for a supremely competent Pax Americana, militantly spreading utopian values around this benighted world. Scaling new heights in the annals of Now They Tell Us, the two men blame the “dysfunctional” Bush team for the “disaster” in Iraq and say that if they had known then what we all know now (and what some of us knew then), they never would have pushed to invade Iraq.

Bright dingbats. Writhing rationalizers. But they are welcome. After all, they are here when we (civilization) need them. Their reasons for standing up may be infantile and whiney... but they are here, now, standing up.

Toward the end of this election-eve posting, I will cite another voice from the right who is stepping up... well, partly, in a nervous dance that does not get full points, but at least may help you talk to that wavering conservative who is still on your last minute arm-twist list. See below who I’m talking about; but first, some brief points.

---
Speaking of neocon dopiness, put the lie to “nobody expected to need more troops!” Professionals and adults expected it, all right. And yet, to me it is distilled (as I’ve said before) by the plight of the U.S. THIRD INFANTRY DIVISION. During the initial invasion of Iraq, those heroes did the work of an entire armored corps, saving Donald Rumsfeld’s hash, so that he could caper and crow and proclaim “Mission Accomplished.” Their reward? Relentless deployments in a purgatory of danger and ingratitude. Push this in the face of goppers who screeched at Clinton for putting too-few tanks in Somalia, resulting in 10 (that’s t-e-n) extra US troops lost there. That was bad. THIS is orders of magnitude worse.

---
Along similar lines, Russ Daggatt is really on: ”So let me get this straight. Shiite radical mullah Sadr, who heads the militia believed to be holding a US serviceman, is a key supporter of the Iraqi prime minister who orders the US military to back off from its search for the US serviceman believed to be held by Sadr's forces. And the US complies?!!? And nobody on the right complains? Can you imagine if this happened under the watch of, say, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter? The entire right-wing noise machine would be going ballistic! (Even more than when John Kerry flubs a joke.)”

---
"President Bush demanded that Kerry apologize. Can you imagine that -- Bush demanding an apology for someone stumbling over his words? ... Kerry should have tried the Bush strategy: say so many stupid things, no one cares anymore." --Jay Leno

---
And more: Bechtel, the giant engineering company, is leaving Iraq. Its mission — to rebuild power, water and sewage plants — wasn’t accomplished: Baghdad received less than six hours a day of electricity last month, and much of Iraq’s population lives with untreated sewage and without clean water. But Bechtel, having received $2.3 billion of taxpayers’ money and having lost the lives of 52 employees, has come to the end of its last government contract. (And, mind you, they are absolute pros compared to Haliburton!)

Paul Krugman comments: As for how this could have happened, that’s easy: major contractors believed, correctly, that their political connections insulated them from accountability. Halliburton and other companies with huge Iraq contracts were basically in the same position as Donald Rumsfeld: they were so closely identified with President Bush and, especially, Vice President Cheney that firing or even disciplining them would have been seen as an admission of personal failure on the part of top elected officials. As a result, the administration and its allies in Congress fought accountability all the way. Now, Congress has passed a bill whose provisions include the complete elimination of the Inspectorate whose job it is to shine light on contract abuse....

You can see why a Democratic takeover of the House provokes terror: suddenly, committee chairmen with subpoena power would be in a position to investigate where all the Iraq money went. Ooooooh. But then, there are those pardons.

---
Back to Daggatt: So, two days before the election they sentence Saddam. By contrast, what have the Republicans pushed off until after the election?

The National Intelligence Estimate on the Iraq War.
The Jim Baker Iraq Study Group report.
The Mark Foley Ethics Committee investigation report.

Also, the IRS is postponing notification of back taxes to Katrina victims until after the election.
And the Agriculture Department's "Hunger Report" (usually released in October) has also been pushed back until after the election.

Man, if they are holding back the BAD NEWS until after the election, we're really in trouble.

------
All right, back to that teaser from the beginning of the posting.

Last time I spoke unfavorably of how some other intellectuals of the right have failed us by obstinately refusing to recognize their duty to stand up, when their nation and civilization needs them. (Indeed, to save their conservative movement from spiralling into hell.) One of those I’ve mentioned was George Will, who oscillates frenetically, between sage and rationalizing apologist. Recently, Will took a turn toward the former, when he wrote in a New York Times book review (10/06):

“Brooke Allen, an author and critic who has distilled her annoyance into “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers.” It is a wonderfully high-spirited and informative polemic that, as polemics often do, occasionally goes too far. Her thesis is that the six most important founders — Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton — subscribed, in different ways, to the watery and undemanding Enlightenment faith called deism. That doctrine appealed to rationalists by being explanatory but not inciting: it made the universe intelligible without arousing dangerous zeal.”

Here are some more excerpts from this piece by Will, who is apparently, like Bob Woodward, trying to redeem himself as the Old Union and the Enlightenment rebel against the monstrosity that conservatism has become,

“Eighteenth-century deists believed there was a God but, tellingly, they frequently preferred synonyms for him — “Almighty Being” or “Divine Author” (Washington) or “a Superior Agent” (Jefferson). Having set the universe in motion like a clockmaker, Providence might reward and punish, perhaps in the hereafter, but does not intervene promiscuously in human affairs. (Washington did see “the hand of Providence” in the result of the Revolutionary War.) Deists rejected the Incarnation, hence the divinity of Jesus. “Christian deist” is an oxymoron.

“What Allen calls Washington’s “famous gift of silence” was particularly employed regarding religion. But his behavior spoke. He would not kneel to pray, and when his pastor rebuked him for setting a bad example by leaving services before communion, Washington mended his ways in his austere manner: he stayed away from church on communion Sundays. He acknowledged Christianity’s “benign influence” on society, but no ministers were present and no prayers were uttered as he died a Stoic’s death.

“...In 1781, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged “the Great Governor of the World,” but six years later the Constitution made no mention of God. When Hamilton was asked why, he jauntily said, “We forgot.” Ten years after the Constitutional Convention, the Senate unanimously ratified a treaty with Islamic Tripoli that declared the United States government “is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

... “Christianity, particularly its post-Reformation ferments, fostered attitudes and aptitudes associated with popular government. Protestantism’s emphasis on the individual’s direct, unmediated relationship with God, and the primacy of individual conscience and choice, subverted conventions of hierarchical societies in which deference was expected from the many toward the few. But beyond that, America’s founding owes much more to John Locke than to Jesus.”


----------
And, finally, as long as we’re on the topic of sanctimonious hypocrisy... alas... there are downsides even to giggle news. While it seems righteous and right for the self-righteous to get comeuppance -- and specifically, for the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Pastor Ted Haggard, to be revealed having had a three-year relationship with a male prostitute that include the use of crystal meth -- in fact, Pastor Ted has been among the leaders in the evangelical movement in drawing attention to the climate crisis. So even when we win... we lose.

Ah well. Nevertheless, the hypocrisy is too rich to let go. Dare your friends to compare this to Monica-gate... at any level, and by any criterion, whatsoever. Watch the contortions ensue!


On second thought... maybe we should stop trying to convert “sincere conservatives” at this point. If they haven’t yet realized what’s going on... that it is time to take great-grandpa’s blue uniform out of the trunk and put it on, while singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”... then they have already decided which country and century they want to live in. And it ain’t America. And it ain’t the future.

Turn your efforts to get-out-the-vote. Check on your friends till they find your nagging irksome. Prod the angry cynics off their lazy duffs and drag them to the polls.


"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Franklin D. Roosevelt

"The only thing we have is fear."
George W. Bush



People. We have done better.

We can do better.

Let’s.