Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Manifestos of Optimism... plus science goodies.

My article Prediction as Faith, Prediction as a Tool: Peering into Tomorrow's World” appeared in Futures Research Quarterly, vol.22 no.2 (2006) - the flagship publication of the World Future Society. It has caused a bit of stir...

But nothing like the what impresario/agent John Brockman manages to foment every year or so, when he gathers fifty or so intellectual luminaries for one of those unique, eclectic, annual group-think sessions on his mental Brahmin site “Edge.” This year’s “big question” topic is all about something we’ve been discussing here. The perils of lethargy-inducing cynicism in an era that demands vigorous attention to problem-solving.

See: Causes for Optimism -- The Edge Annual Question: What are you optimistic about? Why?

Only, before you go wading, be warned that it’s a wide, capacious pool... and sometimes even deep. Of course, most of the ideas expressed are kind of ho-hum and even shallow, in a been-there sense. Still, with sparkling minds like Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, William Calvin and many others aboard, you are bound to come across some real nuggets of surprise, insight and wisdom.

Here’s one sample. Chris Anderson, one of the curators of the TED Conference, offered this refreshing reminder that humans are far better tuned to perceive bad news than good:

“The publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better. 

“If you believe Robert Wright and his NonZero hypothesis, this is part of a very long-term and admittedly volatile trend in which cooperation eventually trumps conflict. Percentage of males estimated to have died in violence in hunter gatherer societies? Approximately 30%. Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.

“In fact, most meta-level reporting of trends show a world that is getting better. We live longer, in cleaner environments, are healthier, and have access to goods and experiences that kings of old could never have dreamed of. If that doesn't make us happier, we really have no one to blame except ourselves. Oh, and the media lackeys who continue to feed us the litany of woes that we subconsciously crave.”

I’ll offer a few more riffs on optimism at the EDGE site, during some ensuing postings. But of course, that’s a poor substitute for having a look for yourself... and pondering whether Brockman’s site is achieving its true potential.


And this predictive hit: NASA scientists are developing a speech recognition system that can understand and relay words that haven't been said out loud.

The human body produces a natural painkiller several times more potent than morphine. When given to rats, the chemical, called opiorphin, was able to curb pain at much lower concentration than the powerful painkiller morphine.

If you enhance your workout with the new Nike+ iPod Sport Kit, you may be making yourself a surveillance target. A report from four University of Washington researchers reveals that security flaws in the new RFID-powered device from Nike and Apple make it easy for tech-savvy stalkers, thieves and corporations to track your movements. With just a few hundred dollars and a little know-how, someone could even plot your running routes on a Google map without your knowledge.

While the political debate over global warming continues, top executives at many of the nation's largest energy companies have accepted the scientific consensus about climate change and see federal regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions as inevitable.

An ambitious teenager in Rochester Hills, Mich., is ranked as the 18th amateur to create nuclear fusion - combining atoms to create energy. 17-year-old Thiago Olson set up a machine in his parents' garage and has been working exhaustively for more than two years. His machine creates nuclear fusion on a small scale.

After decades of intensive effort by both experimental and theoretical physicists worldwide, a tiny particle with no charge, a very low mass and a lifetime much shorter than a nanosecond, dubbed the "axion," has now been detected by the University at Buffalo physicist who first suggested its existence in a little-read paper as early as 1974. This is amazing. The axion has been mythical for so long, this is truly tremendous news.

The axion has be seen as critical to the Standard Model of Physics and is believed to be a component of much of the dark matter in the universe. "These results show that we have detected axions, part of a family of particles that likely also includes the very heavy Higgs-Boson particle, which at present is being sought after at different laboratories,"

Boeing-Spectrolab has managed to create a solar cell with 40.7 percent sunlight-to-energy conversion efficiency.

Josh Duberman supplied this one.

"Businessman Joao Pedro Wettlauser was in Cologne, Germany, on Sunday when he received an alert on his phone informing him that someone had entered his vacation house in Guaruja, 54 miles south of Sao Paulo, police said.He quickly turned on his laptop and, thanks to security cameras connected to the Internet, was able to see a tattooed man stuffing goods into trash bags…"

Which is, of course, our future, when the cost of global bandwidth drops low enough, and the value of what's to be protected is high enough, to make it cost effective to engage eyes anywhere. In this case it was pretty simple, with a traditional alarm piping its alert over the phone network; he could have just had the alarm call in the police, though having one's own eyes on the situation avoids paying for false alarms, etc. But imagine when cheap bandwidth means that anyone with some spare time can be drafted into a "hey, watch my stuff, 'k?" network. Some Kalihari bushman's day job will be checking in on Beemers in parking garages in Manhattan.

Alas, the only thing missing was “as forecast long ago by...”

That’s it for now. These things have been accumulating so I have a large store of them... plus a sure-to-be controversial posting, soon, about the biggest danger to the incoming U.S. Congressional majority... anon...


Woozle said...

On that last item... I just had to post a link to the Open Security System idea I posted on my personal wiki in mid-2005, although the idea occurred to me several years earlier (based in large part, I think, on ideas in this wacky book I read in 1998 called The Transparent Society...)

Anonymous said...

Reasons to be dubious about the axion:

To this physicist, the bumps in question look like perfectly normal statistical fluctuations in a small sample: if you don’t know beforehand where to look for a peak, you take a penalty factor in how significant you can claim your result to be because you get to search in many places, and some of them are going to fluctuate. (The whole blind analysis craze has apparently passed the authors by.) Even if you take the paper's claims of the statistical significance at face value, though, this does not count as a "discovery"; it is at best "evidence." Discoveries require five standard deviations (more or less) and reliable, repeatable independent confirmation; that last part is critical (witness the pentaquark fiasco, as belligerently reported and retracted by the New Scientist).

Read more at Uncertain Principles and a little at The n-Category Cafe.

Anonymous said...

Didn't David Drake write a book "Lacey and his Friends" about a psychopath turned policeman in a society were EVERYONE is watched, always?

Anonymous said...

Oh, in addition, your ScienceDaily link is broken. CITOKATE. . . .

David Brin said...

Here are just some of the cool titles on that Edge spot re optimism...

LAWRENCE KRAUSS -Renewal of Science for the Public Good

STEPHEN KOSSLYN-Human Intelligence Can Be Increased, and Can Be Increased Dramatically

ALUN ANDERSON -The Sunlight-Powered Future

MARC D. HAUSER -The End of “-isms” (like commun-ism)

STEVEN PINKER -The Decline of Violence

MICHAEL SHERMER -Science and The Decline of Magic

JAMES O'DONNELL -Scientific Discoveries Are Surprisingly Durable

KEVIN KELLY -That We Will Embrace the Reality of Progress

ANDRIAN KREYE -We Will Overcome Agnotology (The Cultural Production of Ignorance)

And talk about optimism... (!)

J. CRAIG VENTER -Evidence-Based Decision Making Will Help Transform Society

Plus a grudging cynical admission:

ROBERT PROVINE -Things Could Always Be Worse


Anonymous said...

I did some searching for articles about the axion and discovered most news sites had either withdrawn the article or moved its location since Google last indexed their site. One site even said that the article had been withdrawn "at the request of the contributor." Is something going on here? Maybe a premature publication? I did find the following links.

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

I randomly stumbled across this on a recent meander through the web.

I'd like to hear DB's take on the idea there. (Mine is "Nice idea... wish it had a chance of happening.)

David Brin said...

The problem is that there are many legal "scholars" out there -- some of them very learned and bright -- who cannot see the forest for the trees. They have actually turned a corner toward believing all the claptrap about fundamental rights... especially ownership rights... when the underpinning of the Enlightenment has always been pragmatism, aimed at achieving very desirable outcomes.

How can Brin say such a thing! That "rights" aren't fundamental?

Well, time and again I have said that SOME rights have to be treated AS IF they were pure and fundamental and self-evident and "inalienable." Even though history shows just how alienable and NOT self-evident freedom of speech and of thought and knowledge and religion really are. They would have seemed laughable in almost any pre-enlightenment culture. Yet we chant and propagandize that they are basic and pure and unquestionable. Why?

Because only if we convince ourselves of this will we defend them with enough passion and intensity that they won't be eroded by the cheating that lies inside every would-be tyrant or oligarch. And thus, only by treating them as wondrous essences can we get their practical effects... the processes of reciprocal accountability that use freedom as a cleanser and lubricant, resulting in the greatest happiness-generating machine of all time.

Ah, but PROPERTY is another matter. It was protected early on (in some cases like slavery, too well!) But it is never mentioned in the Constitution. Because property is a contingent right. Dependent upon the mood and values of any given time. That mood SHOULD give people wide latitude and freedom to own/invest/capitalize. But every generation must strike this arrangement anew.

Alas, sometimes jurists forget this. They imbue into property some of the platonic essence that should only go to freedoms like knowledge and speech. Indeed, they have lately taken patent/copyright law to absurd degrees, forgetting that Intellectual Property was invented for purely practical reasons... in order to end the obsessive secrecy that craftsmen and others used to fret upon, in order to benefit maximally from their own creativity. A secrecy that hobbled human inventiveness for millennia.

IP law was created in order to LURE creative people into the open, where the eagerly announce their breakthroughs and share them, instead of hiding them away! The lure of reasonable financial gain has worked, drawing this flood of openness and resulting cornucopia of creativity. But when the IP law starts MYTHOLOGIZING the “property” rights of powerful entities - to “own information” - above the beneficial effects of rapid sharing, then something has gone wrong.

I say this as both a copyright and a patent holder. BOTH SIDES IN THIS ONGOING DEBATE TEND TO OVERSIMPLIFY! The righteous “commons” folk forget that we must still find reasonable ways to reward the creative.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood/Disney/Microsoft moguls and their lawyers who have forgotten the roots of it all, threaten us with a stifling, choking of elitist ownership that would incense Adam Smith, if he were alive today.

n8o said...

The Nike/iPod "security flaw" isn't new. We all need to realize there are uniquely identifiable always-on radios we all willingly carry around already: mobile phones. Why would a voyeur track you by your iPod or Nikes when he could just use your mobile signal? The same also happens to be true of your wifi equipment (laptop).

CJ-in-Weld said...

Did you really mean "property" doesn't appear in the Constitution? Or merely that when it does, there is a clear implication that people may properly be deprived of it:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb, nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.

Anonymous said...

Considering the range of any nike+ipod tracking device is about 60 feet it require an extensive network of devices to track your location over even a small area.

Also this is an interesting read about the whole intelectual propterty debate, it takes the stance that patents and copywrite are socially harmful and that creators can make more than their opprotunity cost from their first mover status.

Naum said...

Ah, but PROPERTY is another matter. It was protected early on (in some cases like slavery, too well!) But it is never mentioned in the Constitution. Because property is a contingent right. Dependent upon the mood and values of any given time. That mood SHOULD give people wide latitude and freedom to own/invest/capitalize. But every generation must strike this arrangement anew.

So true, and it disheartens me to hear the endless mantra of "property rights" as if it were some holy unassailable writ, carved as a universal truth, oblivious to any other tenets of reality.

Since I was old enough to ponder things through and divorce myself from all the Ayn Rand (and other Libertarian books advocating absolute property rights) type philosophy, it seemed to me that property was initially acquired by dispossessing another of it. U.S. history with the Indians is a perfect illustration... seized land, backed by superior tech and stronger organization. These guys that strongarmed then parceled it out to others and grew rich and a lot of the law code centered on protecting their interests. Not that it was all bad, there was tremendous good too, like a mustard seed, that is the spark that set America onto progress...

But it has always bothered me since, to see absolute adherence to rigid property rights, especially when at times it means real human loss.

I say this as both a copyright and a patent holder. BOTH SIDES IN THIS ONGOING DEBATE TEND TO OVERSIMPLIFY! The righteous “commons” folk forget that we must still find reasonable ways to reward the creative.

Disagree here, the "righteous commons folks" indeed recognize that creative individuals are entitled to rewards. Lawrence Lessig, one of the "commons" champions is not an advocate of denying creators rewards.

And the question itself may evolve to be irrelevant, just as it's true for most of the creative display has not been powered by reward -- it's been the ability to scratch an itch, a labor of love, an ability to realize a dream... ...and none of the "commons" folks who toiled to build in an altruistic sense were left unrewarded -- Linus Torvalds, Tim Berners Lee, Larry Wall, etc... ...yet these are the tools that have made 2-way internet accessible to all...

I suppose I'm a bit jaded in this matter, as a freelancer now by choice, in that I and colleagues have experienced the state of affairs with $BigCompanyX where as employees, we sign our "property rights" away to $BigCompanyX as a condition of employment. I'm sure Linux Torvalds or $OtherSuperstar is granted an exception but for the 98% of rest of us, the company owns my creation, even if I do it in my off time... ...that's the IP you sign away to get your job there...

Woozle said...

You don't usually have to sign those waivers as-is, though of course they want you to think so. As someone with a side-business which depended on my ability to write code that I could use for my own purposes, I altered my contract when I was working for someone else so that it only applied to code (or other "IP") created while on the clock and that was directly applicable to my work.

Nobody complained. (I should probably dig up the contract and post the relevant phrasing somewhere...)

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that while the standard Libertarian and Objectivist position regarding property is that it is some kind of inalienable right of its own, there is something of a movement amongst practical and reform-minded Libertarians to accept a more Georgist ( interpretation of property rights. Where property, at least in terms of land, is viewed as a "commons" and taxed as such. Many are starting to view this resurgence as a more libertarian view of better justifying environmental responsibility that is not so easily embodied in the property rights of the individual. (Or of the corporation, for that matter, which I would remind folks that we've discussed here before as being something of a Frankenstein's monster of an abomination of a government-recognized entity with all the rights of a person, but with practically none of the responsibilities.)

Just thought I would point that out for those who might otherwise prefer to always lump Libertarians in with Rand's Objectivist ideals.

Blake Stacey said...

Speaking of lumping people into groups (and of classifying political views in general), I found a fascinating website by a fellow named Aleks Jakulin, entitled "Data Mining in Politics". He uses the THOMAS database maintained by the Library of Congress and looks at the roll call votes, where every senator's vote is recorded. Not all bills receive roll call votes, but for those which do, we have a definite "Yea", "Nay" or "Abstain" from each senator. Standard statistical techniques can then find patterns in this data, grouping senators into clusters without knowing anything else about politics.

Latent variable analysis applied to the 2003 Senate session finds five distinct blocks:

A: the majority Republican bloc, ~35 votes
B: the minority Republican bloc, ~14 votes
C: the non-aligned Republican bloc, ~3 votes
D: the minority Democrat bloc, ~5 votes
E: the majority Democrat bloc, ~42 votes

Each bloc can be interpreted as a single vote which is replicated several times, through its bloc members. Thereby, we can interpret a bloc as a single voting "super-senator", but with a weight proportional to the size of the bloc. It turns out that A and B are most influential, D does make an impact sometimes, and E quite rarely. Republican blocs, especially bloc B, were more cohesive than Democrat ones.

This is exactly the sort of analysis which should be done, on wider datasets gathered in different circumstances, to test the validity of the one-dimensional political axis — along with those 2D social/economic plots which libertarians love!

I am personally suspicious of the social/economic 2D plot. First, it doesn't do any good if you plot people on it and discover they all fall on a diagonal straight line! We can't accept the assertion that "at least two variables are required to describe human political orientations" without data, and who is actually going out and collecting data to hold all these models' feet to the fire? Second, who says my opinions on all "social issues" have to march in lockstep? Can't I have one stance on the income tax — an economic issue — and another on estate taxes or insurance of savings-and-loan deposits? Furthermore, many if not most "social" issues have an economic aspect. School vouchers are proposed to solve an economic problem, namely that schools do not have enough money, but I may object to them on social grounds, since they give an avenue for taxpayer funds to flow into religious organizations. Universal health care springs to mind as a complementary example: we may raise the idea for social reasons and find that others deem it impractical on economic grounds (or at least claim to do so, while nursing in their hearts objections based on social beliefs).

You may deem my political stance horribly devoid of self-consistency. In fact, since I claim that no solution to a Hydra-headed political problem is manifestly obvious, I must embrace a certain amount of "inconsistency" to be true to my essential pragmatist beliefs. Nevertheless, speaking as a pragmatist, I think we cannot solve our problems without understanding human behavior, and in this context, that means we must develop and test models of how the political process actually functions. Even views we think conflict with themselves must have a place in the classification scheme.

Perhaps the idea of ideological continua is fatally flawed, whether those continua have one dimension or more. On the other hand, perhaps if we study the way citizens and senators get out and vote, we will find that they separate into groups which can be characterized by a few, smoothly varying parameters. We cannot tell in advance which model will describe the process best.

Because this is a fundamentally scientific way of viewing the human enterprise — guess hypotheses, devise ways to test them against observations, grant the winners provisional acceptance, repeat — certain sections of the population we study will inevitably reject the entire concept. Postmodern literati, devout Randians and war-mongering neocons will all deem it anathema, if they pay any attention at all, because in their hearts they each reject the lessons of science.

Listen to Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and ask yourself how many of his statements would translate easily to, say, Alan Sokal roasting a banquet of postmodern journal editors? Books are all fact, no heart. Look it up in your gut, not in a book. Platonism in high places!

CJ-in-Weld said...

I'd like to say a little bit in defense of property rights in relation to other rights, such as speech, religion, and so on.

First, I'll concede that property rights have always been circumscribed to some extent, including in England, whence American notions of property ownership derived. If I recall, the usual metaphor in law school property class was that property rights are a "bundle of sticks," each "stick" representing some right with respect to a particular type of property that "society" anthropomorphically grants—to use it, to destroy it, to sell it, to glean profits from it, to limit access to it, and so forth. Not every type of property ownership comes with all the "sticks": a landowner cannot arbitrarily eliminate a longstanding easement, for instance. Or, I suppose, a slaveholder could not (legally) kill a slave. Zoning laws go back a long way too: they pull "sticks" from the "bundle." Environmental regulations do the same.

On the other hand, I think that some basic sense of property rights is at least as important to Joe Blow Schmoe as the more high-falutin' rights set up in contrast here. That is, society would collapse if there were not a general provision in the social contract that honest labor brings an honest return, and that government and others cannot just take the return away.

Most folks actually exercise their property rights more than their speech and press rights, and (I'd guess) more than their religious rights. Freedom of speech and religion would seem like mighty poor comfort without any trust in stability of property rights. Contrariwise, if there were some way to guarantee stable property rights in a context without speech and religious freedoms (I personally don't think there is), lots of people would hunker down and get used to it.

I'll also point out that the high-minded rights we're talking about here appeared in the Bill of Rights, which was originally intended to limit federal, but not state, governments. This is aside from the fact that most state constitutions also explicitly protect speech and religious freedoms—under the original thinking, that was optional to the people of those states! The idea that some or all of the rights in the Bill of Rights restricts the states is a 20th-Century reinterpretation of the Constitution, based on an incorporation doctrine that relies on language in the Civil War amendments.

Thus, in a sense, our enlightenment founders (to the extent they thought as one—an unfair assumption) did not necessarily elevate freedom of speech and religion above mere property rights. They merely sought to keep the federal government's hands out of most areas where freedom might be restricted, and set up thirteen "laboratory experiments" to deal with the rest as local folk thought best.

I personally like that certain freedoms have become universal, but I can't help thinking we have lost some benefit from having different "laboratories" to try out different clauses in the social contract....

David Brin said...

Lenny thanks for a cogent paragraph. If anything proves the contingency of property righjts, it is the blatantly obvious fact that matters of TIME will have to be included in a concept that currently mostly dwells on space and matter. For example, European nations now tax the downstream environmental effects of a product when it is new, in order to amortize the effects on future generations... i.e. the deprivation of THEIR property interests in an Earth with declining resources.

Blake, I share your disdain for most “2D political spectrums.” Almost all that I have seen - including those promulgated by doctrinaire libertarians - are outrageously tendentious, designed from the start to force most acculturated Americans (raised on myths of suspicion of authority) toward the desired corner. They are recruitment or feel-good polemics.

Especially, they fail the test of orthogonality. A useful 2D spectrum should have axes that do NOT automatically affect each other! See my four part iff on this at anearlier version is at:

CJ you will not see me railing against ALL property rights. Not at all! I have stated that patents had deeply pragmatic ends that should be retained as goals, even if patents and copyrights themselves fade away. The four great accountability arenas are COMPETITIVE after all.

The left is insane not to recognize the need to incorporate our vigorous competitive drives. The right is loony (and deceitful) to claim that those drives don’t naturally lead to cheating, unless fiercely curbed by fair and decent rules. Rules that are contingent to each generation, as it learns more about human nature and economics and other factors, growing wiser as time goes on.

But in order to do this, SOME rights cannot ever be “contingent”. Wisedom comes only from totally free knowledge and speech.

(Aside, Hernando deSoto has been strongly pointing out that assured property rights and civil law in developing nations could be the big key to ending poverty there. So long as the pragmatic goal is DISTRIBUTED wealth not a new aristocracy.)

Anonymous said...

Off-topic warning. I'd put this somewhere else, but you haven't put up a message board on (hint, hint).

Regarding the lack of interest in your Holocene patent: perhaps one reason that people aren't that interested in simulating the subtle nuances of face-to-face conversation is that, well, face-to-face conversation really wasn't very good to begin with! My parents argue all the time, constantly interrupting each other, repeating themselves, shouting, and otherwise completely failing to communicate anything at all other than anger and frustration. As crude as it is, I actually find AOL Instant Messenger to be a much better way to discuss things than engaging in the traditional "shouting match." You can't shout down someone else over AIM, you can't interrupt what the other person chooses to type, and you have more time to digest what is being said. You can even keep a record of the conversation for future reference.

Also, learning a new user interface is difficult. The more complexity you build in, the more effort it takes to learn how to use the program. People are simply going to avoid using complicated software unless it's essentially become the equivalent of a fundamental literacy skill (such as Microsoft Word or Microsoft Outlook), their job is to use the software, or they're gamers who use complicated software for fun. The basic chat room interface has survived for so long in part because it is very simple. You type something and press Enter, and then it appears for everyone else to read. That's it. Even the 60-year-old manager who has his secretary print out his email can understand it.

Also, I think you're underrating the depth of the one-on-one AIM conversations that your average college student engages in. The kind of meaningless flirting you describe is more properly attributed to 12-year-olds, and it doesn't much matter how you equip 12-year-olds for communication, most of them won't have anything to say that would be meaningful to anyone outside their immediate social circle.

Anonymous said...

I still think that Holocene would go over great with anime fans who want their chat sessions to look like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Make that the default skin, and you're in business.

Anonymous said...

Apparently "Science Daily" is literally science daily -- go there one day later and it's gone. doesn't work. Alternative URL please.