(The political lamp is out!)
Apparently, my recent single-speaker event on Second Life -- speaking in Extropia during commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s first manned spaceflight -- was one of the most popular and well-attended events in all of 2L history.
Another nice stroke... the next Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference will feature a special panel discussion: 'The Transparent Society' -- Ten Years Later, on May 22, 2008 at 3pm eastern, at the Omni Hotel in New Haven CT. CFP conferences top the gatherings of folk who believe in the liberating power of the internet and new media -- and who fight hardest to keep the web a font of freedom. I first challenged audiences about transparency issues at a couple of CFPs, back in the early nineties, learning from many spirited and informed responses and benefiting from citokate! (Criticism is the only known antidote to error!) I cannot attend the decadal panel of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to choose between privacy and freedom. But a special hookup will let me participate by remote. (Any New Englanders out there, who are also passionate net-freedom defenders? Consider attending!)
See a recent newspaper writeup (and cool picture of me in front of Xian’s terracotta soldiers). Those of you living in Australia and New Zealand may catch some interviews I just gave, helping to promote the History Channel’s “Life After People.”
----- And yet, of course, every time I start getting too big an ego, something happens. My kids deflate it for me. (Thanks guys!) Or else... well... I was prompted to laugh at myself, and my own addictively burdensome self-esteem, when one of you wrote to me recently with the following:
Hi Mr. Brin… Big fan of your site and your works (Earth, Uplift series, and Glory Season). In case you haven’t seen it yet, “I, Cringley” mentioned you in the same breath as Einstein and Knuth – “Our society will continue to create great artists, writers, scientists and engineers because people will be internally driven to greatness in all those fields. How many Picassos do you need in a society? How many Frank Lloyd Wrights? How many Einsteins? How many Bechtolscheims, Knuths, and Brins?”
Seeing as how I think highly of Mr. Cringley’s work as an essayist, I got ever so slightly excited -- well, more bemused -- till I recalled. My days of being the “most famous Brin” are pretty much over. Recognizing the name Bechtolscheim pretty much sealed it. (A brilliant early investor in Google.) And while I console myself that Sergey had me spit into a jar and found that we have a 74.38% genetic overlap, that is just enough for a distant, cousinly nod, now and then. I send him a signed book or two. He gave me a card that’s good for a lifetime supply of free Google searches!
Clearly, Mr. Cringley had this one right. Down ego! Bad boy! Down! (Yeth, Math-ter!)
-------- But hard SF did receive a favorable mention in the mainstream press recently. Read science fiction, especially "hard science fiction" that sticks rigorously to the scientifically possible. "If you look out into the long-term future and what you see looks like science fiction, it might be wrong," she says. "But if it doesn't look like science fiction, it's definitely wrong."
-------- When you are in the Futurist game (either directly or through the imagery of science fiction), you get asked a lot about your “score” or how often the things that you forecast have come true. And, yes, I can wave my arms and point to this list or that gimmick in a twenty year old novel and say “That’s come true at last - what too you all so long?” (I just came across a 1985 essay poo-pooing the then-rife paranoia about “Japan’s gonna own everything!” I think I was one of six people urging historical perspective and calm.)
In fact, though, it seems no great shakes (to me) to take some little trend or news item and extrapolate the way it might affect the future. I find far more intriguing the notion of the self-preventing prophecy, those occasional warnings that stir people so much that they take action, change their ways, or apply wariness -- and thus stave off something dire, something awful. George Orwell did this, so (I contend) did Karl Marx. Rachel Carson, Harry Harrison. That is when a futurist or author shifts from being an unheeded Cassandra to a real world-changer.
I am provoked by two recent articles. The first describes the approaching completion, after 14 years and $8 billion of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, where high energy particle collisions should reveal much more about the underpinnings of natural law. And where - a few worry - there might be accidentally created some kind of planet-devouring monster. A “strangelet” or possibly a microscopic black hole that, contrary to present-day theory, might not dissipate, but instead absorb neighboring atoms and keep growing, voraciously, eventually gobbling up our world. Despite having written a best-seller around this notion, a couple of decades ago, I have never credited the scenario with high likelihood. Still, it falls under the increasingly important field of Risk Analysis, dealing with unlikely but high-stake threats. It seems our destiny, in this new century, to deal with many of these. To learn more drop by the Lifeboat Foundation and see just how calm and rational - and even fun - it can be to wallow with the worrywarts. (I have my own low probability/high consequence cause.)
Indeed, I consider it premature to pick any one fear, or hope, to zero-in upon, monomaniacally. There are just too many possibilities, both up and down.
With so many ways for things to turn, it seems prudent to concentrate on choosing leaders who demonstrate some flexibility of mind, and who do not disparage intelligence as the very opposite of wisdom. Because, at the fringes of this topic, there lurks the Fermi Paradox -- the notion that the universe ought to be teeming with evidence for advance interstellar civilizations, by this late date. And yet, there is no credible proof that we aren’t alone. Did some of those “high consequence” mistakes bring most of our predecessors down? Might it have been one particular error, so alluring that every species tries it, whenever they reach a certain level of development... just before they would have built starships?
----------A LATTER DAY NOSTRADAMUS? ---------
Given my long term interest in the difficulties and rewards of the human obsession with prediction, you can expect that I would find fascination in the attention that has focused on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, chairman of New York University's Department of Politics, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and the author of many weighty academic tomes. He regularly consults with the CIA and the Department of Defense most recently on such hot-button topics as Iran and North Korea and has a new book coming out in the fall that he co-wrote with his pal Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Now, one might take that last fact as prima facae evidence that Bueno de Mesquita is not really “the New Nostradamus”... at least not in the complimentary implication of that phrase. That of actually being able to forecast future events. (Though, there are other, less salutary implications accompanying that comparison.) Still, one’s fascination with the whole topic should maintain an open mind. Essentially, Bueno de Mesquita claims to be somewhat of a latter day (or earlier day) Hari Seldon -- (Isaac Asimov’s character and inventor of “psychohistory”) -- using prim, mathematical models to forecast future mass events, and even the behavior of individual personalities.
An article in GoodMagazine kvells over Bueno de Mesquita, without offering anything like systematic analysis or balance. But clearly, here is a fellow who should be invited into prediction markets and Long Bets, as a player to be tested with close attention to the factor that was most dubious about the original Nostradamus... specificity. Testability.
Of course he has been around for a long time... Rational Choice theory is an offshoot of general game theory and at one level, it is pretty validly rooted in experimental evidence. If he really is onto a valid technique, I would be the first to want to know! Moreover, I explain why it should be among society’s highest priorities to scrutinize all would be seers - not only to debunk charlatans, but also in search of genuine new tools of anticipation.
Alas, the fact that the government agencies consult Bueno de Mesquita is not by itself any big deal. The CIA for many years gave credence to flaky psychics, and Bueno de Mesquita’s political connections speak for themselves. Even if the majority of Intelligence officials have not been suborned by the extremely political administration, certainly groups and elements have been, and that’s all it takes to get “The CIA likes me” on your resume. (Heckfire, I’ve got that, too!)
I admit I have only read the popularized article, so far, though it is redolent with suspicious sounding bits. e.g. a commitment to “nonpartisan rationality”... by a chum of the neocons who flushed away the entire staff and apparatus that Congress once had, for nonpartisan scientific and technological appraisal. Still, one can keep an open mind. Perhaps there are success correlations better than he’s shown. The CIA may want to protect his methods from the copycat effect... the tendency for a predictive trick to grow obsolete, when it starts to be used by masses of competitors. (Only, the insights we might learn - through open scrutiny - could be worth it.) Perhaps time will tell.
--------- A BRAIN, DIVIDED AGAINST ITSELF?------
Folks at the recent TED conference cannot kvell enough about Jill Taylor’s talk about her own experience with a brain hemorrhage. “This is an absolute must watch. Set aside 18 minutes and prepare to be floored. Consensus among TED’sters is that this may be the most memorable and important TED Talk ever. It was certainly the most talked-about presentation among those at TED2008. Enjoy and share with others. And let Jill’s experience inspire, motivate, and change the way you look at life.”
Well, yes. And yet, the biggest part of me -- the contrarian who keeps returning to Earth to be strangled at a young age, again and again as a sort of bohddisatva of “yes, but!” -- that part of me, the part that tried nirvana-seeking, as a sort of demi hippie, during the sixties, can only respond with the same “yes, but” to Dr. Taylor’s vivid and inspiring presentation. Yes, but your fully rightbrain experience was pure, in part because of sudden novelty. Do people feel the same, who are trapped in that state year after year, helpless to be anywhere else? Yes, but can you promise that people, once able to travel fully into lala land at will, won’t become lotus eaters... and did not our ancestors develop left brain dominance for solid reasons?
------ DID ANYONE EVER PREDICT THIS? -----
The European Union... and especially Germany... is coming down hard on Swiss Banking secrecy. “This land of stunning Alpine vistas, which has chosen to remain outside the EU, has always loomed large in the global imagination as the place where the wealthy stash their money beyond the tax man’s reach. The best estimates suggest that image is true, to the tune of $1 trillion to $2 trillion.”
“The scandal that threatens that lucrative business began when German authorities obtained secret financial data from Liechtenstein, Switzerland’s tiny neighbor with similar banking laws. The information in hand, investigators fanned out across Germany to seize documents thought to be related to tax evasion by hundreds of wealthy Germans.”
Cause and effect? All of this started hitting the fan just two weeks after I went to Liechtenstein to try to explain the general concepts of transparency.
I know that two of you have set up wikis to track my predictive score. Is it time to update those? I have collected a slew of material of late....
----- AND ANOTHER ONE ----
How dedicated are you to using a Bluetooth microphone with your phone? Are you dedicated enough to drill a small hole in your teeth to install a tiny mic? Sigh. At least Clarke got credit for not patenting stuff. ;-)
As for cosmic rays being a disproof-by-absence of micro-black-hole MBH disaster scenarios, I have to say that my GUT instinct is that the sheer number of such events would have to have resulted in some fraction of the resulting black holes entering into solar orbit and subsequently colliding with planets, especially since we also have the MBH fluxes from OTHER star systems entering our own, at a wide variety of angles, resulting in more such captures.
I have not done the math. But how many years of CERN collisions would it take to emulate one day’s cosmic ray-generated (and MBH producing) collisions? I’d love to see that figure as the start of a scaling though experiment, to give us an estimate of the number of MBHs that must be part of an ambient background by now, in the galaxy. Our estimates should start there.
Of course, if MBHs do fall into the Earth, then should we seek gravity resonance effects, as in a certain novel? ;-)