Saturday, December 30, 2006

Today's "centrifugal" net is NOT an "arena" or commons.

There is a lot of fuss going on about Time Magazine's decision to put a mirror (framed by a computer screen) on its latest cover and announcing tat the 2006 Person of the Year is... "you." Which translates as Joe and Jane Public -- millions of us -- who are starting to flex our cyber-empowered wings and express ourselves as never before.

Yes, of course, I believe in all of that. I very early touted the citizen-empowering aspects of this new era, in preference over the solipsistic approach taken by cyberpunk tales, which kept portraying the electronic age as filled with bleating (though wired) sheep. If we are about to enter an era of "smart mobs" and rapidly coalescing, agile communities of ad hoc expertise, it will not be too soon. Both Vernor Vinge and I have relentlessly portrayed this possibility in fiction... as I did in nonfiction (e.g. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?)

Indeed, my own punditry on this matter goes back to 1985 and as recent as last Monday.

AgeOfAmateursHere's a radio interview I gave on NPR this week, about the coming "Age of Amateurs." And a video interview on The Age of Amateurs, as well.

And yet, I have to tell you (in full blown contrarian mode) that sanguine paeans to the wired age - like those tooted this week by Time - are in many ways no better than the growling-snipings of cynics who dislike everything new. Both groups deeply oversimplify. And the enthusiasts are in some ways more harmful! Because they seem to think (and spread the notion) that all of the pieces for utopian cyber-democracy are already in place!

That the benefits of super-empowered citizenship are already before us, on the table, and the feast is ready to begin.

But the miracle of the Enlightenment has never been like that, and it never will be. We need to look, again and again, at the things that brought about our present day feast of expanded knowledge, freedom and wealth. These things did not arise simply out of human nature, or the sudden arrival of tools like printing.

They emerged from processes like democracy and science and law and commerce, that have been refined with countless fine-tuning regulations, in order to maximize benefits and minimize the unpleasant effects of nasty human habits, like mutual repression and cheating.

We need to remember that nearly all previous human societies actively repressed innovation, freedom and individuality, because these traits will always threaten those who are comfortably ensconced on top. Modernity and the Enlightenment did not just happen. If we want them to continue and thrive, we have to understand what earlier generations of passionate and practical people did, in order to get us here.

DisputationArenasArrowCoverSome of you have read my extensive essay: Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit - written for the American Bar Association - about the underlying common traits of markets, science, courts and democracy -- the "accountability arenas" that have empowered free individuals to compete and create without tumbling quickly into repression and outrage.... for the first time, ever. Alas, over the years since, I have found that people have trouble perceiving some of what the paper describes... or why today's internet just does not yet have what it takes to empower us with a "fifth arena."

Here is one of the key difficult concepts. I describe how markets, science, courts and democracy each have "centripetal vs centrifugal" social phases.

I see these opposite trends having much the same effect for accountability arenas that INHALING and EXHALING have in living mammals. You need both for the system to thrive.

In science, markets, courts and democracy, the CENTRIFUGAL PHASE is when each individual participant may disperse, find allies/collaborators, and safely organize with others under some degree of protection, in a zone where product can be refined and readied for competitive testing.

In science, this zone is your tenured professorship or lab etc: in markets the safe zone is the company/corporation: in courts it is attorney-client privilege and the power of coerced deposition; and democracy has parties.

That's the centrifugal phase and it took civilization thousands of years to realize how necessary it is, in order for these four arenas to function.

Note that this is the phase that exists now, copiously, in the nascent "fifth arena" of the internet!

ALL OF THE TRAITS THAT TIME MAGAZINE CELEBRATES IN ITS LATEST ISSUE HAVE TO DO WITH THIS PHASE. What could be more “centrfugal” than the creation of a zillion self-expressing blogs. Not one of which is subject to any process of accountability.

What the cybersphere does NOT have is anything even remotely resembling the CENTRIPETAL phase that also empowers the four older, more mature "arenas."

What is the centripetal phase? This is where in all of the disparate and dispersed participants in an arena are summoned together by a ritual CALL TO COMBAT. What ensues is a battle - competition - that has transformed ancient human bloody-mindedness into something much more like a game. One in which rules have been laid down to ensure that the outcome of competition correlates at least somewhat with quality of product, and much less with power or influence or other means of cheating.

In science the centripetal competition phase compels researchers to publish papers and present them for criticism. In markets the ritual battleground is retail sales - where customers compare goods and services. In democracy the role is filled by elections, and courts have trials. The STYLE of competition varies wildly among these arenas! So much that (I believe) nobody has ever thought to compare their commonalities as explicitly as I have.


(Take courts. Since the "product" is justice - and possibly life or death - courts cannot afford a high error rate, and hence the centripetal arena phase is costly, meticulous, whereas markets can afford huge inefficiencies in exchange for total fecundity and freedom to innovate.)

Indeed, all of this correlates with the Creative Process inside human minds, where the so-called Preconscious boils up a zillion proto-ideas that are then sifted and culled, till only the "good ones" even rise to consciousness... where the culling process continues. Centrifugal idea-generation, followed by competitive culling. Um... doesn't this ALSO describe the titanic creative process of Darwinian evolution?

You can see where I am going with this.

Presently, on the internet, THERE IS NO EQUIVALENT CENTRIPETAL PHASE that allows us to test ideas, opinions, arguments against each other, using competitive processes to cull wheat from the chaff.

Pearls are said to float upward in shit. But so MUCH of the ranting online today is BS, how can anyone hope for good ideas to actually coalesce and for bad ones to finally die, as they eventually deserve?

For decades I have been trying to come up with innovations that might introduce some competitive power to this new arena. Sometimes, it seems hopeless. As when the clueless editors at Time Magazine blithely announce that we are already in the promised age of empowered citizenship... when half -- fully half of the needed tools are absolutely missing.

Oh, our would-be masters want it this way. Those who would return us to a style of feudalism. They would let us wrangle and spume and EXPRESS ourselves, endlessly online...

...without ever finding ways to turn all of that self-expression into the relentless and joyfully innovative mass creation of a new kind product.

 A new kind of sapiency that is based upon a massively empowered us.

===  ==== ===

See: More articles on Creating the Future


David Brin
Twitter                Facebook

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 InstaPundit.com has caused many sites to link to the article. My favorite so far is at http://www.blog.speculist.com/

Spread word?

=====     =====     =====

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

Monday, December 25, 2006

Science stuff and more!

For a year, one of my biggest, boldest and most popular essays about our future destiny "SINGULARITIES AND NIGHTMARES" has only been available at Amazon.com/shorts to those who were willing to pay me a quarter for my thoughts. Well all right, a year is long enough. Now, by popular request, I have posted it for free access at the Lifeboat Foundation site. This work explores a startling range of possibilities for humanity and the Earth, ranging from dangers that provoke some to call for "renunciation" of hazardous research... all the way to opportunities that inspire others to think that we may soon become apprentice gods.

The Public Readiness Quotient (PRI) is a first-of-its kind tool for individuals, families and communities to determine and evaluate their readiness. See how you stack up against the national average and learn specific steps you can take to better prepare yourself and your family, as well as things you can do to encourage your community, schools, and workplace to be better prepared. (Alas, it does not address the National Readiness Quotient which, if properly scored, would show us far less “ready” than we were before September 11, 2001.)

Along these lines, let us all give some thought to how we can add to the resilience and agility of a civilization that may be sorely tested in the years ahead. Especially with so much of our skilled and professional emergency cadre being sent away and wasted in foreign lands, we should train to stand up and care for our communities in times of crisis. Look into taking CERT training! (Or some local equivalent.)

---- Blog member Tyler August suggested I post this at the top level: “what if there were a zero emissions vehicle that topped 100MPH, went 0-60 in 10 seconds or less, had a range of 250 miles, charged in 10 minutes... and did this seating 5 with a piano in the back? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you bright shining hope. I give you the Phoenix Motorcars SUT.( http://www. phoenixmotorcars.com/ ) The price? Word on the street has it at 45,000USD a unit. At that price, I expect that they'll have a hard time keeping up with the demand...”

And let me add that you’ll want to keep your eyes on Elon Musk’s new Tesla Roadster.

In fact, the classic motor companies are probably in blind panic right now. They have been in denial for years. But suddenly progress in both batteries and electric motor technology have reached a point where news can no longer be suppressed. (They are still trying, though. With all this utter nonsense about “hydrogen fuel cell cars”... a blatant pipe dream that suggests they might keep control over the pipelines forever, despite the fact that “hydrogen pipelines” are a moronic impracticality in humanity’s short term future.)

----- New benchmark tests show how specialized graphics processing units, or GPUs, developed for the games industry over the past few years compare with all-purpose central processing units, or CPUs, that currently bear the brunt of most computing tasks. The lab tests come amid growing efforts to harness the GPU for general high-performance computing, and the UNC paper promises to be something of a showstopper at the weeklong gathering of the supercomputing elite: According to the Chapel Hill team, a low-cost parallel data processing GPU system can conservatively surpass the latest CPU-based systems by two to five times in a wide variety of tasks.

“V ideo gamers' cravings for ever-more-realistic play have spawned a technological arms race that could help cure cancer, predict the next big earthquake and crack many other mathematical puzzles currently beyond the reach of the world's most powerful computers...”

------- Interesting trade snippet from PPI:
Quantity of gold mined, 5000 B.-.1960 A.D.: c. 80,000 tons (estimate)
Quantity of gold mined, 1960 A.D.-2006 A.D.: c. 75,000 tons

Roughly half the gold mined in human history has been dug up since 1960. About half the total comes from five countries: South Africa leads with about 300 tons a year, followed by the United States, Australia, China, and Peru. (Nevada alone accounts for four-fifths of America's 260-330 tons of annual gold production.) (BTW, if you know someone interested... I have an old Caltech classmate who makes a good case that he knows EXACTLY where a “second Comstock” is in easy reach.) The big buyers are jewelers, who accounted for 2,700 of the 3,700 tons of gold "consumed" in 2005. The other major buyers include electronics manufacturers at 280 tons, dentists at 62 tons, other industries 85 tons, and collectors or hoarders of various sorts 600 tons. India is the world's largest buyer of gold; its 500 tons-per-year purchasing accounts for about one-seventh of the total. Other big importers include Hong Kong, Dubai and other Persian Gulf monarchies, and Japan.

------ New York University chemistry professor Nadrian C. Seeman and his graduate student Baoquan Ding have developed a DNA cassette through which a nanomechanical device can be inserted and function within a DNA array, allowing for the motion of a nanorobotic arm. The results, reported in the latest issue of the journal Science, mark the first time scientists have been able to employ a functional nanotechnology device within a DNA array.

-------- Andrew Love supplied these items:
Have you seen this? - universally available web-based tools allow hobbyists and professionals to uncover plagiarism, even if it occurred in the 1800s. More evidence of the age of amateurs and transparent society.
http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif
Also other good news: "Chronic disability among older Americans has dropped dramatically, and the rate of decline has accelerated during the past two decades, according to a new analysis of data from the National Long-Term Care Survey (NLTCS). The study, published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the prevalence of chronic disability among people 65 and older fell from 26.5 percent in 1982 to 19 percent in 2004/2005. The findings suggest that older Americans' health and function continue to improve at a critical time in the aging of the population. "

Over the past decade machine translation has improved dramatically, propelled by Moore's law, a spike in federal funding in the wake of 9/11, and a new method called statistical-based MT. Meaningful Machines, a New York firm with an ingenious algorithm and a really big dictionary, is finally cracking the code.

The 2007 Digital Future Project found that 43 percent of Internet users who are members of online communities say that they "feel as strongly" about their virtual community as they do about their real-world communities. The 2007 Digital Future Project found that Internet use is growing and evolving as an instrument for personal engagement

The discovery of 70,000-year-old artifacts and a python's head carved of stone pushed back significantly the date of the first known human rituals. Until this, scientists had thought human intelligence had not evolved the capacity to perform group rituals until perhaps 40,000 years ago.

...and...

10 Tech Concepts You Need to Know for 2007 From concrete that can flex to sensors that you swallow, here are the technologies you’ll be talking about. From Popular Mechanics...

Keep on thinking ahead.....

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Worldchanging News: Tools for Enhancing 21st Century Citizenship

Now here is a riff on what new technologies could make the most difference?

"What needs to be done in the near future? What worldchanging tool, model or idea will you be watching (or hoping to see emerge)? What key piece of knowledge do we need? What action must we take? What do we do now?"

Tools For Enhancing 21st Century Citizenship

by David Brin (12/06)

Across the 20th Century, a growing array of problems were solved through the application of professional skill. We came to rely increasingly upon professions ranging from medical doctors to law enforcement to teachers to farmers for countless tasks that an average family used to do largely for itself. No other trend so perfectly represents the last century as this one, spanning all boundaries of politics, ideology or geography.

And yet - just as clearly - this trend cannot continue much longer. If only for demographic reasons, the as the rate of professionalization and specialization must start to fall off, exactly as we are about to face a bewildering array of new -- and rapid-onrushing -- problems.

How will we cope?

Elsewhere I speak of the 21st Century as a looming "Age of Amateurs," wherein a highly educated citizenry will be able to adeptly bring to bear countless capabilities and individual pools of knowledge, some of which may not be up to professional standards, but that can find synergy together, perhaps augmenting society's skill set, at a time of need. We saw this very thing happen at the century's dawn, on 9/11. Every important, helpful and successful action that occurred on an awful day was taken by self-mobilized citizens and amateurs. At a moment when professionalism failed at every level. (Hear a podcast on this topic.)

It is important to note what a strong role technology played in fostering citizen action on 9/11. People equipped with video cameras documented the day and provided our best post-mortem footage. People with cell phones organized the evacuation of the twin towers. Similar phones stirred and empowered the heroes who fought back and made the Legend of Flight UA 93.

In sharp contrast, the events of Hurricane Katrina showed the dark side of this transition -- a professional protector caste (crossing party and jurisdiction lines: including republicans and democrats, state, local and federal officials) whose sole ambition appeared to be to staunch any citizen-organized activity, whatsoever. Moreover, the very same technology that empowered New Yorkers and Bostonians betrayed citizens in New Orleans. Thousands who had fully-charged and operational radios in their pockets were unable to use them for communication -- either with each other or the outside world -- thanks to collapse of the cellular phone networks.

This was a travesty. But the aftermath was worse! Because, amid all the finger-pointing and blame-casting that followed Katrina, almost no attention has been paid to improving the reliability and utility of our cell networks, to assist citizen action during times of emergency. To the best of my knowledge. no high level demand has gone out - from FEMA or any other agency - for industry to address problems revealed in the devastation of America's Gulf Coast. A correction that should be both simple/cheap and useful to implement.

What do we need? We must have new ways for citizens to self-organize, both in normal life and (especially) during crises, when normal channels may collapse, or else get taken over by the authorities for their own use. All this might require is a slight change -- or set of additions -- in the programming of the sophisticated little radio communications devices that we all carry in our pockets, nowadays.

How about a simple back-up mode for text messaging? One that could use packet-switching to bypass the cell towers when they are down, and pass messages from phone to phone -- or peer-to-peer -- at least among phones that are of the same type? (GSM, TDMA, CDMA etc.) All of the needed packet-switching algorithms already exist. Moreover, this would allow a drowning city (or other catastrophe zone) to fill with tens of thousands of little spots of light, supplying information to helpers and reassurance to loved ones, anywhere in the world.

Are the cell companies afraid their towers will be bypassed when there's no emergency? What foolishness. This mode could be suppressed when a good tower is in range and become useful automatically when one is not... a notion that also happens to help solve the infamous "last mile connectivity problem." Anyway, there are dozens of ways that p2p calls could be billed. Can we at least talk about it?

The same dismal intransigence foils progress on the internet, where millions of adults use "asynchronous" communications methods, like web sites, blogs and email, but shun "synchronous" zones like chat and avatar worlds, where the interface (filled with sexy cartoon figures) seem designed to ruin any chance of useful discourse. For example, by limiting self-expression to about a sentence at a time and ignoring several dozen ways that human beings actually organize and allocate scarce attention in real life.

When somebody actually pays attention to this "real digital divide" - between the lobotomized/childish synchronous chat/avatar/myspace world and the slow-but-cogent asynchronous web/blog/download world -- we may progress toward useful online communities like rapid "smart mobs." Only first, we are going to have to learn to look at how human beings allocate attention in real life! (For more on this: http://www.holocenechat.com)

Oh, there are dozens of other technologies that will add together, like pieces in a puzzle, synergizing to help empower the magnificent citizen of tomorrow. Facial recognition systems and automatic lookups will turn every pedestrian on any street into someone who you vaguely know... a prospect that cynical pundits will decry, but that was EXACTLY how our ancestors lived, nearly all of them, throughout human history. The thing to be afraid of is asymmetries of power, not universal knowledge. The thing to protect is not your secrecy, but your ability to deter others from doing you harm.

Likewise, I assure you that we are on the verge of getting both LIE DETECTORS and reliable PERSONALITY PROFILING. And yes, if these new machines frighten you, they should! Because they may wind up being clutched and monopolized by elites, and then used against us. I am glad you're frightened. If that happens, we will surely see an era that makes Big Brother look tame.

And yet, the solution to this danger is not to "ban" such technologies! That is exactly what elites want us to do (so they can monopolize the methods in secret out of our skeptical eye). No, that reflex sees only half the story. Come on, open your mind a little farther.

What if those very same -- inevitable -- technologies wind up being used by all of sovereign citizens of an open democracy, say, fiercely applied to politicians and others who now smile and croon and insist that they deserve our trust? In other words, what if we could separate the men and women who have told little lies and admit it (and we forgive them) from those who tell the really dangerous and destructive whoppers? Those who are corrupt and/or blackmailed and/or lying through their teeth?

In that case, won't we have a better chance of making sure that Big Brother doesn't happen... ever?

Oh, it is a brave new world... We will have to be agile. Some things will be lost and others diminished. (We will have to re-define "privacy" much closer to home, or even just within it.)

On the other hand, if we don't panic, we may see the beginnings of the era of the sovereign and empowered citizen. An Age of Amateurs in which no talent is suppressed or wasted, and no problem escapes the attention of a myriad talented eyes.

=====    =====     =====


As many of you know, I have touted the beautiful and fascinating Worldchanging Book as a perfect holiday gift, expressing much of the resonant message of modernist problem solving that we once saw in the old Whole Earth Catalog.

World changing is also one of the prime modernist web sites! Indeed, I'd like to pass on a message from editor Alex Steffen, asking for a little help (in the spirit of "proxy power.") The previous riff I wrote at his request.

" Okay, here's the deal: I need to hit you up for some money. Not much, only $10, but still, your donation is critical for us, and here's why: Yahoo! is offering a $50,000 matching grant for the nonprofit which gets the largest number of donations before the end of the year using its new "charity badges." What matters is not the number of dollars, but the number of donors. Right now, you need 70 to be in the lead, but things are moving fast and we'd like 500 to be safe. We currently have three (though we just started a couple hours ago). If we're winning on Dec 31st, we think one of our major donors may step in and help us with a large donation, so we'll get the full $50K from Yahoo! $100,000 would be a major portion of our annual budget and you can help us win it."

Got it? Do it! Good.

Worldchanging News

As many of you know, I have touted the beautiful and fascinating book, Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century as a perfect holiday gift, expressing much of the resonant message of modernist problem solving that we once saw in the old Whole Earth Catalog.

World changing is also one of the prime modernist web sites! Indeed, I'd like to pass on a message from editor Alex Steffen, asking for a little help (in the spirit of "proxy power.") Then I will launch into a riff that I wrote at his request.

"Okay, here's the deal: I need to hit you up for some money. Not much, only $10, but still, your donation is critical for us, and here's why: Yahoo! is offering a $50,000 matching grant for the nonprofit which gets the largest number of donations before the end of the year using its new "charity badges." What matters is not the number of dollars, but the number of donors. Right now, you need 70 to be in the lead, but things are moving fast and we'd like 500 to be safe. We currently have three (though we just started a couple hours ago). If we're winning on Dec 31st, we think one of our major donors may step in and help us with a large donation, so we'll get the full $50K from Yahoo! $100,000 would be a major portion of our annual budget and you can help us win it."

Got it? Do it! Good.

Now here is a riff on what new technologies could make the most difference in 2007. This one was written in response to Alex's challenge:

"What needs to be done in 2007? What worldchanging tool, model or idea will you be watching (or hoping to see emerge) in 2007? What key piece of knowledge do we need? What action must we take? What do we do now?"

     =====     =====     =====

"Primer" Technologies For Enhancing 21st Century Citizenship

by David Brin (12/06)

Across the 20th Century, a growing array of problems were solved through the application of professional skill. We came to rely increasingly upon professions ranging from medical doctors to law enforcement to teachers to farmers for countless tasks that an average family used to do largely for itself. No other trend so perfectly represents the last century as this one, spanning all boundaries of politics, ideology or geography.

And yet - just as clearly - this trend cannot continue much longer. If only for demographic reasons, the as the rate of professionalization and specialization must start to fall off, exactly as we are about to face a bewildering array of new -- and rapid-onrushing -- problems.

How will we cope?

Elsewhere I speak of the 21st Century as a looming "Age of Amateurs," wherein a highly educated citizenry will be able to adeptly bring to bear countless capabilities and individual pools of knowledge, some of which may not be up to professional standards, but that can find synergy together, perhaps augmenting society's skill set, at a time of need. We saw this very thing happen at the century's dawn, on 9/11. Every important, helpful and successful action that occurred on an awful day was taken by self-mobilized citizens and amateurs. At a moment when professionalism failed at every level. (Hear a podcast on this topic.)

It is important to note what a strong role technology played in fostering citizen action on 9/11. People equipped with video cameras documented the day and provided our best post-mortem footage. People with cell phones organized the evacuation of the twin towers. Similar phones stirred and empowered the heroes who fought back and made the Legend of Flight UA 93.

In sharp contrast, the events of Hurricane Katrina showed the dark side of this transition -- a professional protector caste (crossing party and jurisdiction lines: including republicans and democrats, state, local and federal officials) whose sole ambition appeared to be to staunch any citizen-organized activity, whatsoever. Moreover, the very same technology that empowered New Yorkers and Bostonians betrayed citizens in New Orleans. Thousands who had fully-charged and operational radios in their pockets were unable to use them for communication -- either with each other or the outside world -- thanks to collapse of the cellular phone networks.

This was a travesty. But the aftermath was worse! Because, amid all the finger-pointing and blame-casting that followed Katrina, almost no attention has been paid to improving the reliability and utility of our cell networks, to assist citizen action during times of emergency. To the best of my knowledge. no high level demand has gone out - from FEMA or any other agency - for industry to address problems revealed in the devastation of America's Gulf Coast. A correction that should be both simple/cheap and useful to implement.

What do we need? We must have new ways for citizens to self-organize, both in normal life and (especially) during crises, when normal channels may collapse, or else get taken over by the authorities for their own use. All this might require is a slight change -- or set of additions -- in the programming of the sophisticated little radio communications devices that we all carry in our pockets, nowadays.

How about a simple back-up mode for text messaging? One that could use packet-switching to bypass the cell towers when they are down, and pass messages from phone to phone -- or peer-to-peer -- at least among phones that are of the same type? (GSM, TDMA, CDMA etc.) All of the needed packet-switching algorithms already exist. Moreover, this would allow a drowning city (or other catastrophe zone) to fill with tens of thousands of little spots of light, supplying information to helpers and reassurance to loved ones, anywhere in the world.

Are the cell companies afraid their towers will be bypassed when there's no emergency? What foolishness. This mode could be suppressed when a good tower is in range and become useful automatically when one is not... a notion that also happens to help solve the infamous "last mile connectivity problem." Anyway, there are dozens of ways that p2p calls could be billed. Can we at least talk about it?

The same dismal intransigence foils progress on the internet, where millions of adults use "asynchronous" communications methods, like web sites, blogs and email, but shun "synchronous" zones like chat and avatar worlds, where the interface (filled with sexy cartoon figures) seem designed to ruin any chance of useful discourse. For example, by limiting self-expression to about a sentence at a time and ignoring several dozen ways that human beings actually organize and allocate scarce attention in real life.

When somebody actually pays attention to this "real digital divide" - between the lobotomized/childish synchronous chat/avatar/myspace world and the slow-but-cogent asynchronous web/blog/download world -- we may progress toward useful online communities like rapid "smart mobs." Only first, we are going to have to learn to look at how human beings allocate attention in real life! (For more on this: http://www.holocenechat.com)

Oh, there are dozens of other technologies that will add together, like pieces in a puzzle, synergizing to help empower the magnificent citizen of tomorrow. Facial recognition systems and automatic lookups will turn every pedestrian on any street into someone who you vaguely know... a prospect that cynical pundits will decry, but that was EXACTLY how our ancestors lived, nearly all of them, throughout human history. The thing to be afraid of is asymmetries of power, not universal knowledge. The thing to protect is not your secrecy, but your ability to deter others from doing you harm.

Likewise, I assure you that we are on the verge of getting both LIE DETECTORS and reliable PERSONALITY PROFILING. And yes, if these new machines frighten you, they should! Because they may wind up being clutched and monopolized by elites, and then used against us. I am glad you're frightened. If that happens, we will surely see an era that makes Big Brother look tame.

And yet, the solution to this danger is not to "ban" such technologies! That is exactly what elites want us to do (so they can monopolize the methods in secret out of our skeptical eye). No, that reflex sees only half the story. Come on, open your mind a little farther.

What if those very same -- inevitable -- technologies wind up being used by all of sovereign citizens of an open democracy, say, fiercely applied to politicians and others who now smile and croon and insist that they deserve our trust? In other words, what if we could separate the men and women who have told little lies and admit it (and we forgive them) from those who tell the really dangerous and destructive whoppers? Those who are corrupt and/or blackmailed and/or lying through their teeth?

In that case, won't we have a better chance of making sure that Big Brother doesn't happen... ever?

Oh, it is a brave new world... We will have to be agile. Some things will be lost and others diminished. (We will have to re-define "privacy" much closer to home, or even just within it.)

On the other hand, if we don't panic, we may see the beginnings of the era of the sovereign and empowered citizen. An Age of Amateurs in which no talent is suppressed or wasted, and no problem escapes the attention of a myriad talented eyes.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Back to the (political) state of the world...

Here’s more on the “war against the U.S. Officer Corps.” on Salon.  See my own earlier article, The Under-reported Purge Against the U.S. Officer Corps. Alas, will your favorite obscure pundit ever be credited for prescience? For raising issues YEARS before anyone else does? Sigh.

A final note on the Iraq Study Group... that it seems so badly named. I grew up thinking that a “study group” helps students to prepare for a test. But the test was already flunked, more than three years ago. And now Colin Powell has finally found the guts to start saying so openly

So the new consensus is that nothing has worked and everything in Iraq has failed? Hm. Now that even neocons and Fox News are being dragged (fingernails scraping the sand while screaming “Nooooooo!”) into facing smidgens of reality, we remain with dozens of other quandaries.

1) What to do next. Hrm. I honestly do not like any of the options on the table. What sane person would? In Comments, last posting, I offered the Kurdistan Plus Scenario. It has dozens of problems, but also many advantages. I cannot guarantee that it would survive close examination by experts. But let us be thankful that at least now experts are partly in the loop.

2) Assigning blame. You can bet that Fox et al will be screeching about how this is no time for “partisanship and blame casting.” About how we need to pull together (after the right has spent years tearing us apart). And sneering “So what’s YOUR big plan for getting out of Iraq?” Indeed, I am NOT one of those calling for impeachment or waging total Culture War. (I want to win by ENDING “culture war.”)

Still, blame can and should be cast at least this far... by saying and repeating that “past incompetence should reflect on a group’s future credibility! “If you lied and denied and evaded and invaded and rejected reality and have a perfect record of horrid decisions, it is patriotic for others to SAY SO! If only to force you to admit it and to let some other voices be heard, for a change. Past blunders are totally relevant to your qualifications for continued trust.

3) Explaining the underlying causes. I sometimes feel we live in a Bud Light commercial (“less filling!” vs “tastes great!”), in which we are reduced to screaming at each other over which explanation for our present leadership makes the most sense.

"Brainless incompetents!" vs. "No! Betraying sellouts!"

All right, I am one of the only ones saying the latter. In fact, I think that when supposedly smart people spend a trillion dollars over four years on a relentless plan that squanders our international prestige, our goodwill and ability to lead the world, our soldiers’ lives, our national readiness, national unity and dozens of other treasures, it should at least be pondered -- on the table -- whether such a relentless and PERFECT pattern might have actually been the deliberate outcome, deliberately sought, by men who were and are far more frighteningly competent than we let ourselves imagine.

(Though you guys really ought to see the “2006 in Review” strip of “Tomorrow’s World” by Tom Tomorrow. In which it is pointed out that the CIA’s longtime nickname for VP Cheney was “Edgar.” As in Edgar Bergen. All right it was before your time. But Edgar Bergen was a ventriloquist, you see, who put words in the mouth of a dummy, you see....)

And more... Although one should always read TRUTHOUT documents with a grain of salt, they nevertheless point out many things you did not know and/oir might want to pose as topics and questions you’d sure like answered. Hence I recommend a (not unbiased) glimpse at Sec/Defense nominee Robert Gates. All told, if a quarter of it is true, I’d wish for somebody else. But what can we expect?

Stefan offered a map of the U.S. showing where servicemen and women killed in Iraq were from. Definitely NOT what you’d expect. Show it to all red-county Americans who are still tempted to sneer at urban “manhood.” This is a point that needs hammering. Urban America is not only the prime target of past and future terrorism. It is the ONLY likely target. New Yorkers and Bostonians displayed tremendous courage and patriotic resourcefulness on 9/11. And they are the ones who express fearlessness toward “terror,” disapproving the decision to squander a trillion dollars and our alliances and our readiness in a panicky over-reaction to this threat.

Rather, urbanites wanted to defeat the terrorists the best possible way, by going after them carefully and professionally, but also getting on with our normal agendas... with our normal lives.

And yet, despite that (and knowing that this war is vastly stupid), it appears that Urban America has also stepped up to fight when called upon, sacrificing at least as much as the regions that claim to be the sole bastions of patriotism.

I do not belabor this point in order to insult Red State America. It is a realm of deep values and hard-working folks who have some legitimate complaints about the snooty disdain that they received from a few nasty urbanites, over the years. But none of these things excuse the outrageous over-reaction that has burgeoned during the neocon era, saddling a great nation with today’s moronic leadership and relentlessly dissing the “decadent” cityfolk who are America’s truest “salt of the Earth.”
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See a fascinating and delusional piece predicting a “Saudi-Israeli Alliance” arising out of the arrival of Iran as a nuclear power:

The staggering naivete of this article appears to be based upon several suppositions that have no basis, whatsoever.

Foremost is the assumption that sunni-shiite fractiousness has any meaning above the level of the streets. That the killings and enmity in Iraq have anything to do with the long range goals of the Iranian mullahs and the Saudi-Wahabbi sheiks across the gulf.

In fact, there appears to be very little such enmity. In fact, if we take both groups at their word... and especially look at the messages contained in the textbooks that they teach to their young people... there are many common yearnings. And a common foe. The decadent West.

It is foolish to ignore that both of these oil superpowers were chief beneficiaries of this current war. Both have seen skyrocketing revenues and a much-desired growth in pan-Islamic radicalism, for example.

The textbooks tell all. They portray a war of major worldviews, with the Sunni-Shia conflict relegated to a mere tiff among brothers. I see no reason to assume this is a lie.

Follow the money. The beneficiaries. The textbooks. The genuine and passionate idealism. The common goal of driving our corrupting foreign influence.

Views like the ones contained in this article are chimeras. Utterly delusional. Complex incantations used to distract us from what is really very, very simple. And terrifying.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tis the season...

Well, it's that time again, when we must switch (even if briefly) from discussing politics and science and ambitious “modernist” enterprises over to more elevated thoughts of repairing the world through good old fashioned giving. Tikkun Olam.

Yes, I have spoken elsewhere in praise of the worldwide benefits of American deficit-spending as the principal engine that propells the modernization of peoples and nations all over the globe. And I still believe that this weird economic titan is the unsung "blind hand" that is saving human civilization as we speak, lifting billions up by their bootstraps... and by dint of their own hard work. (Not entirely a "blind" hand. This pattern was planned by sages like Marshall and Acheson, a lifetime ago.)

Still, there is very little karmic reward for saving the world this way. At the petty, day-to-day level, it is not especially generous to grab up heaps of cheap duds and frills and toys at WalMart, no matter how much macroeconomic good (and ecological harm) it does. Moreover, it certainly does not fill in the gaps where crass commerce do little to lift up those in pain.

In other words, commerce won’t do it all, alone. Especially when it comes to matters environmental, or those involving the spread of liberty and free-thinking, or giving the poorest of the poor a chance to take part in this great game of uplift.

ProxyActivismThere are countless beneficial endeavors that can make a huge difference... moreover. they exist in such an eclectic variety that any of you can surely find a few groups out there eager to save the world in exactly the ways that you think it needs saving!

Yea, even if your notions swing to colonizing Mars. Or donating video cameras to freedom activists in developing nations, so that they can bring modern rights and progress through the cleansing light of accountability...

...you name it! Hence, there is simply no excuse for sitting on your fat butt doing nothing, when you can sit on your fat butt and help save the world at the same time!

See how this can be done in my "Proxy Power" essay.

And if you have more than a few pennies? Suppose you happen to be a mere millionaire, wishing you could pump-prime in just the right way to encourage a larger fraction of Billionaires to care and give more? Well then, there's another idea that may interest you.

worldchangingI have also touted as one of the best holiday gifts around, the WORLDCHANGING BOOK.


And now, even more ideas:

Tom Atlee, of the Co-intelligence Newsletter, offers one list:
”If you'd like to give gifts that can make a significant difference to future generations and the evolution of civilization, look for individuals and organizations that are
* articulating new inclusive worldviews,
* promoting wise systemic change, and/or
* building the capacity of communities and democracies to self-organize in healthy ways.
I offer the Co-Intelligence Institute as one such organization.

Other current favorites include:
* The Great Story -- generating a movement for conscious evolution (including of the evolution of social systems)
* Natural Capitalism Institute -- creating an online resource "commons" that will revolutionize the sustainability movement
* National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation -- building the capacity for conversation to change the ways we solve problems and co-create our future.”


I cannot judge these suggestions in detail. (Some of you report on them in comments?) But it sounds like that last goup could use some good “disputation” interface!

And now, about the need...

Here's a statistic of interest, from the BBC: "The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of all household wealth, according to a new study by a United Nations research institute. The report, from the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the UN University, says that the poorer half of the world's population own barely 1% of global wealth. There have of course been many studies of worldwide inequality. But what is new about this report, the authors say, is its coverage. It deals with all countries in the world - either actual data or estimates based on statistical analysis - and it deals with wealth, where most previous research has looked at income. What they mean by wealth in this study is what people own, less what they owe - their debts. The assets include land, buildings, animals and financial assets.

"DIFFERENT ASSETS: The analysis shows, as have many other less comprehensive studies, striking divergences in wealth between countries. Wealth is heavily concentrated in North America, Europe and some countries in the Asia Pacific region, such as Japan and Australia. These countries account for 90% of household wealth. The study also finds that inequality is sharper in wealth than in annual income. And it uncovers some striking differences in the types of assets that dominate in different countries. In less developed nations, land and farm assets are more important, reflecting the greater importance of agriculture in those economies. In addition, the report says the weighting is the result of "immature" financial institutions, which make it much harder for people to have savings accounts or shares. In contrast, some citizens of the rich countries have more debt than assets - making them, the report says, among the poorest in the world in terms of household wealth. However, t hey are presumably better off in terms of what they consume than many people in developing countries."


Ah, but you know what Mr. Transparency thinks?

I think the biggest problem is not so much disparity of wealth but the FOG and secrecy that surrounds ownership in this world. The world's poor include several billions who actually own some land and assets! But who (according to Hernando deSotot) cannot borrow against these assets or leverage capital for lack of good banking systems and clear title. That is the problem at the low end.

At the high end, banking secrecy and hidden ownership are the great scandal of the age and one that those in power probably strive hard (perhaps by fomenting distractions) to keep us from noticing. You can guess what Adam Smith would have thought of that. Denying free market players (in their billions) the information that they need, in order to make fair and wise competitive choices.

People who use such means can rationalize all they want. But they are not believers in capitalism, or markets, or enterprise, or true competition.

They are believers in cheating.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Iraq Study Group: Options at Home and Over There

Well, we’ve had a chance to digest the report of the Iraq Study Group. And while one welcomes this “intervention” by the consigliere of the Republican establishment - James Baker - (plus a smattering of elderly sages and fig-leaf “democrats”) - for infusing a note of reality into what has been a right-wing hallucinatory delusion-fest...

...nevertheless, one has to wonder about the study group’s credibility for several reasons.

1) As Sen. Russ Feingold noted: ”The fact is this commission was composed apparently entirely of people who did not have the judgment to oppose this Iraq war in the first place (nor) the judgment to realize it was not a wise move in the fight against terrorism. Then I looked at the list of who testified before them. There is virtually no one who opposed the war in the first place. Virtually no one who has been really calling for a different strategy... to the war on terrorism.”

2) Indeed, the ISG is rife with people who helped to make the basic mess -- members of the administration of Bush Sr., who deliberately left Saddam Hussein in power, in the Betrayal of 1991, when our administration stabbed in the back an Iraqi Shia population that was at that time truly ready and eager to welcome American liberators with “kisses and flowers.”

So much for the group’s profile-of-merit from the perspective of Sane America. As we have noted elsewhere, this kind of process would work better if we had bona fide predictions registries, that would accurately and objectively track (and score) the credibility of so-called wise men, based on their actual record of being right... I mean, being correct..

Nevertheless, an emphasis on global-scale worthiness misses the point. Comments Russ Daggatt:

The point of this whole exercise was to give Bush political cover to change course. It had to seem "bipartisan" and "above the fray." But it also had to be a group that Bush -- not the Democratic party or the American people or the world, but Bush -- might actually listen to. (Ponder any intervention with an alcoholic.) Bush has no interest in policy. He has never had any interest in policy. Everything for him is about politics and power. The world consists of those who are with him or against him. Any hint that the ISG was against him and it would be useless. There is no need to tell the American people this stuff. They have figured it out. That is what the election last month was all about. (Anyone who is still hanging in there with Bush in support of his Iraq war at this point is probably not going to deal with reality no matter who confronts him with it.)

Hence the retro/aged/fogey/conservative nature of the commission is, in this case, a genuine asset.

So, what shall we do, now that there is a consensus that this is precisely the same sort of mistake that almost wrecked our nation back in the era of Vietnam? (Indeed, if some horrible enemy had taken control over our executive branch - say through blackmail or cronyism or Manchurian Candidate brainwashing - and that enemy wished us harm, what plan would they have followed other than to send us into the same kind of blunderous land war of attrition in Asia that was the only major US mistake of the 20th Century? Can you come up with even one better way for such an enemy to use such power?)

Ah, well. Let us (in good will) ponder the options offered by the ISG. According to Daggatt, there are three primary directions we can take in Iraq:

OPTION 1/ The status quo (otherwise known as "staying the course). Simply in its description of current trends in Iraq, the ISG report makes it abundantly clear that what we are doing now isn't working.

OPTION 2/ Increase troop levels. This is the approach being advocated by, for example, John McCain (and the whole "bomb-them-to-the-Stone-Age" crowd). It is not a serious policy prescription (even if you buy off on all the premises that got us into this disastrous war in the first place).

First, we don't have more troops to send. From Monday’s Wall Street Journal:
"... Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East, recently told lawmakers that the U.S. couldn't maintain even a relatively small increase of 20,000 soldiers in Iraq for more than a few months. "The ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now," he testified in November."

(Note by DB: I find this simply terrifying. The readiness situation is worse than even I thought, and I am among the few who have even raised it as an issue, relentlessly, for the last three years. If Bill Clinton had so thoroughly demolished not only our active duty forces, but our reserves, he not only would have been impeached and convicted, but probably assassinated by now... by many of the same people who now hypocritically avert their gaze and ignore the fact that we are less prepared for surprise emergencies than the nation was, going into Pearl Harbor. Ignoring it because we have been stripped naked by “their” guys.)

(Daggatt resumes:)
Second, if we did have spare forces, we should probably send them to Afghanistan, where there may still be some hope of controlling the situation, instead of Iraq. (DB: I have long maintained that the Afghanistan operation has been totally different. Morally and strategically justified and competently planned and executed. (Especially planned - during the CLinton Administration. And it shows.) Yes, it is a quagmire. But of moderate size and cost. Moreover, in that country, any outside intervention that actually averts outright disaster and does some good is stunningly impressive.)

And third, another couple of divisions, even if we had them to spare, aren't going to make any difference in securing the country and stemming the "sectarian violence" (i.e., civil war).

OPTION 3/ Reduce troop levels. If we can't maintain the status quo and we can't increase troop levels, this is pretty much it. Not surprisingly, that is where the ISG came out. In order to get unanimous approval of its recommendations (and to get Bush to look at it), the ISG made all manner of qualifications and obfuscations on this point. (Like telling the alcoholic to limit, rather than stop, his drinking.) But that is the direction we're headed. And once you start to leave, there is no good reason to drag it out.

DB resumes. Here I don’t necessarily agree. There is a fourth option that I have mentioned in comments:

OPTION 4/ Kurdistan Plus. I believe this approach that might actually accomplish something of value with the troops we have over there, while reducing their exposure and possibly even undoing the harm perpetrated by morons. While assisting the Iraqi government in training and logistics, pull back most of our forces - and actual combat operations - to what I call Kurdistan Plus -- protecting the one part of Iraq that adores us already...

...plus maintaining strong presence in a generous but tractable top tier of Sunni territory, as well. (Maybe fity or so miles in depth. Not only would this region be out of reach of the infamous Sadr militias and the urban maelstroms of Baghdad etc... yet in control over the Syrian border... But it could be within our level of capability to actually pacify competently, even at reduced troop levels (especially with eager/willing Kurdish help).

This would offer Iraqi Sunnis a choice of:
(1) continuing to fight hopelessly against the Shia Government while searching for (harder-to-reach) Americans to kill, or

(2) coming to some kind of understanding with the Shia-led Iraqi government, or

(3) seeking safety in the Northern Sunni Area, voting with their feet to end their insurgency and view Americans as protectors.

Yes, this would seem to be supporting a de facto partition of the country.

So? Deny this and then let the Sunnis and Shias fume. Let them deal with the obvious -- that this is not a situation that they want to see become an accustomed fait accompli. Time will pressure THEM for a change! To start talking fast and get things straightened out quickly, especially if the alternative prospect looks like a permanently expanded autonomous Kurdistan-Plus.

(There is an added, immature reason to do this. Like, maybe, rewarding the people who have NOT spat on us and tried to kill our sons and daughters... our soldiers who - despite blitheringly-awful Washington leadership - have earnestly been trying hard to help people over there.)

Turkey, also, would be motivated to offer its good offices to come up with a regional deal. (Harsher reactions from Turkey might be kept in check by worries about pleasing the EU.) In fact, all three of the regional powers -- Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- would want to start negotiating quick, lest this situation develop into (horror of horrors) a new, de facto state in the north of Iraq. One that is democratic and prosperous and pro-American.... (um, isn’t that what we said we were after?)

Again, this only boils down to common sense. Why not only occupy the parts of the country where we are liked, and not seen as occupiers? There, we could concentrate on rebuilding and protecting those who actually want our protection, and make a showcase that the rest of Iraq would envy.

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Concluding Daggatt’s remarks: The one thing to remember about Bush is that he will never, ever admit a mistake about anything. When, in his news conference with Blair this past week, a British journalist implied that Bush was in denial, Bush said, "You wanted frankness—I thought we would succeed quicker than we did. … And I am disappointed by the pace of success."

SUCCEED quicker than we DID? Pace of SUCCESS? This is like describing falling off a cliff as being "disappointed by the height of our ascent."


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Finally, since we were just talking about credibility, in the thread about predictions registries, let’s take a little trip down memory lane. Anyone remember who - during the early phases of the Iraq intervention - said the following?

"It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."

"[M]y belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . (in) weeks rather than months."

"Well, the Office of Management and Budget, has come up come up with a number that's something under $50 billion for the cost. How much of that would be the U.S. burden, and how much would be other countries, is an open question."

"The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far off the mark,"

“This will be a cakewalk.”

Oh, where is a predictions registry when civilization needs one?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Predictions Registries and Predictions Markets

In "comments" under the previous section, people began pondering the notion of prediction-related credibility... how (for example) not one of the members of the Iraq Study Group can claim to have foreseen any of our present problems, while none of the millions who did forecast difficulties seem to have been included in the process of analyzing this catastrophic mistake.

PredictionsRegistryOf course this is a topic I have long discussed, calling for some philanthropist to fund what may be the most effective single endeavor of all time -- better methodologies for finding out who is right a lot, and for denying credibility to those who are consistently wrong -- in the form of a Predictions Registry.

Has there been any progress, at all? The concept that has momentum, at present (a small amount), is "Predictions Markets".

Long Bets, An Arena for Accountable Predictions, is "a public arena for enjoyably competitive predictions, of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake," overseen by The Long Now Foundation. Another example is Intrade, which allows you to make predictions on real world events by buying and selling shares in each event.

I have long argued with Robin Hanson, one of the founders of the prediction markets concept, over whether this is a more useful approach than my own Prediction Registries. (Recall how DARPA got in trouble for sposoring a study of "betting" about future terrorism? One case where the press and the left were loony, because this concept was and remains valid and potentially useful.)


How does the "markets" concept work? Wagering is posited to force people to be both explicit and serious, allocating their predictions carefully in a "market" style competitive arena. I grasp this advantage... and disagree. This kind of thing attracts people with little to lose and with brash axes that they want to grind. So far, the advantages of market style accountability seem not to have appeared.

In any event, I believe these prediction markets have a crucial fault... people want to make predictions and forecasts, but they do NOT want to lose wagers. Hence, while many loudmouths will make public pronouncements, they will not explicitly stake anything on the outcome. Others who have strong reason to believe that a course of action will go badly are intimidated from expressing these views openly.

Hence, these arenas will not attract

   (1) politicians,

   (2) civil servants who believe their political bosses are mistaken,

   (3) lesser-knowns who have no "name-recognition" or resources, but who happen to be right an anomalously large fraction of the time.

My alternative model of registries (or rather, a vast and diverse community of registries) would have a crucial advantage. Participation need not be a voluntary decision on the part of some willing and eager wagerer. Rather, a public figure can be "outed" into having a prediction registered, whether they wanted it made explicit or not. (There should be an appeals process by which someone can say "that's out-of-context" and I did not predict that, specifically. Fine, let them replace the outed forecast with what they DO believe will happen. There can also be room for scenarios weighted by probabilities.)

Moreover, through pseudonymity, even civil service personel (say experts in the MIddle East) could forecast what they believe will happen. While retaining confidentiality and trust within their agency, they would nevertheless be able to establish a clear record. Later they can point to a string of successful predictions and gain deserved credibility.

Again, it seems an experiment worth trying. It would be incredibly cheap. (Like proving the poisonous effects of indignation addiction.)

It could change the world.

And why am I bothering?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Space, Moon, Mars, Artificial Intelligence! Brains! And using SF to help kids.

I was invited by Astronaut Nicholas Patrick to attend his coming shuttle launch... one of the rare night takeoffs. I am sure I will kick myself for decades for turning down this spectacular opportunity to watch one of the greatest sights or/off Earth! But my Google trip, plus other matters, just made it hard to drop everything and go.

Nick is carrying draft copies of some of my chapters and stories into orbit with him, though. So I will be along for the ride.

(Another astronaut, Mike Foale, once left a manuscript of mine in the abandoned Spektr capsule on Mir, on the day a cargo ship collided with the station, and there it languished for a decade before burning up. A couple of days later, Mike’s wife asked me to fedex a replacement, to be sent up with a new toothbrush and sleeping bag. To this day, I am the only author to have his work sent into space as “emergency cargo.”)

In any event, to Nick and his comrades, Godspeed and much success! Return home safely. You are the slender grasp that we still have upon our dreams.

===  ===  ===

Other related news. Yesterday, NASA released photographs that reveal bright new deposits in two gullies on Mars, suggesting water has flowed in brief spurts on Mars within the last seven years. The Planetary Society congratulates the Mars Global Surveyor team for yet another significant scientific discovery. The fact that Mars Global Surveyor lasted so far beyond its projected lifetime has allowed this type of discovery that requires observing the same area over and over again. If this discovery holds, it is very significant. Only a few years ago, the common belief was that liquid water last flowed on Mars over a billion years ago. Now, we see evidence that liquid water may be flowing today and may currently exist in the subsurface. Glimmers of possibility.

Then there is the plan to “return to the moon” by 2020, only fifty or so years after we left. I once worked for James Arnold, who predicted that there would be ice in the lunar south pole crater, where they are now thinking of planting the base. I heartily approve.

And I wish we could add one month’s Iraq War budget to this endeavor, in order to make other fine dreams come true.

And another months worth for energy research. And another to study climate change. And another vs our kids’ mounting debt. And another to rebuild the reserves. And another for readiness. All the things we have neglected in favor of the war game of a pack of nasty little boys.

Heck. At $20 million a day, let’s take ONE DAY’s worth of Iraq wastage and just give a million dollars to twenty americans. It would do more good.

But no, let’s get back to science....

===  ===  ===

When Vernor Vinge and I had dinner with investment guru John Mauldin and his son back in July, we discussed my opinion that -- even as raw hardware -- the brain is radically underestimated. I feel, for example, that Artificial Intelligence (AI) zealots like Ray Kurzweil steeply underestimate the difficulty of matching our brain computational power, and therefore the difficulty we face in matching it.

For one thing, the main estimates for “computer break-even” are based upon the assumption that our brains compute only at synapses. These flashy junctures between axons and dendrites are said to play a role somewhat analogous to the on-off nature of binary switches, in a computer. And so, extrapolating according to Moore’s Law, AI optimists estimate that a supercomputer will have the same number of “switches” as a human brain has synapses, around the year 2025 or so.

Ahem, well for one thing, that won’t make a bit of difference if advances in SOFTWARE don’t rapidly catch up. (My Google visit had something to do with hopeful ways to accomplish that.)

And yet, even if software advances are prodigious... and assuming that a lot of our brain power is redundant or “wasted... even so, I am a bit dubious. This skepticism is based upon my own crackpot notion that synapses aren’t everything.

Yes, they can reconfigure and re-wire and strengthen or weaken and do many non-linear things that binary switches cannot. Another reason to expect to need MORE binary switches than we have synapses. Maybe many more.

But even that isn’t my chief reason.

The way I see it, this model neglects to consider the neuron itself, as a -- well -- cellular automaton... or independent calculating entity... that follows its own complex set of rules in reacting to environmental stimuli. STimuli that include the state and actions of its neighbors, but also chemical washes in the surrounding substrate and so on. There may be hundreds of complex rule sets, each of them interacting with each other non-linearly and mediated/moderated by INTRACELLULAR structures that we, even now, know very little about.

If I am right about this, each neuron could have thousands of potential inner conditions!

Moreover, it makes some sense that, while synapses may be important -- firing a “standing wave” of consciousness and rapid calculation -- memory itself (at least the long term kind) has no business being stored in transitory flashes.

A much more likely place for long term memory to be stored would be within the neurons themselves. (Consider, people who receive powerful electric shocks probably experience disruption of vast numbers of neuron firings. Yet many of them recover without severe long term memory loss, even if short term losses are severe.)

Vernor responded to my hypothesis with skepticism. And yet, always honest and openminded, he wrote to me recently that ”... I ran across researcher(s) who figure that even a single neuron might have the computational competence of a supercomputer.” Here is the reference:

Rasmussen, S. _et al._, "Computational Connectionism within Neurons: a Model of Cytoskeletal Automata Subserving Neural Networks", in _Emergent Computation_, Stephanie Forrest, ed., pp428-449, MIT Press, 1991.


Yipes. I never claimed exactly supercomputer status for neurons. Nevertheless, I have long believed that the available neuronal response set is not JUST in the 1-to-1,000 synapses that they link to. Those synapses don't change position all that often. And they don't add up to enough variability to explain the depth and richness of human memory... at least, not by my figuring.

Reiterating: what could possibly switch very rapidly is the internal rules followed by each neuron itself. There needn't be that many of these variable rule sets. Say, a hundred, for the combined flexibility of response to be tremendous. Maybe on the scale of an old hand calculator. Per cell. If so, zowee.

And it means that calculations showing digital computers reaching our level of computational power by 2025 are way off -- maybe by maybe a century!

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(Dang, that coulda made a good commentary column in a journal like WIRED and I’d’a got paid for it. Some folks deliver less than that. I hope you guys are appreciative.)

----- Science Fiction and Education ----


From time to time, the topic of Education comes up. And people sure have strong opinions!

One of my own endeavors has been to help promote SCIENCE FICTION as a resource and helper in stimulating agile thinking in today’s students.

Are any of you at all interested in this?

The latest effort can be viewed at the AboutSF site, where a variety of lesson plans and other resources are now gathered in a convenient place.

One example curriculum site that was developed for The Postman is way cool. (For the sake of safe archiving, would anyone care to file away a source code backup of this entire site? Just asking. I think the creator is retiring. Would be a pity if it vanished.)

I confess I helped to fund and establish AboutSF. Look especially at the Speculation Speakers portion, that can get great authors to speak at your local (or national) events.

(Of course, if it is a BIG event, that can afford a top-rated national speaker.....)

Back to education and science fiction.... hey we could really use skilled volunteers. (Especially teachers!) Those who are interested in getting active in this effort are invited to visit the “Reading For The Future” web site. http://readingforfuture.com/

See also a collection of articles on my website related to teaching Science Fiction and Using Science Fiction to Teach Science.