Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Speech... and our prospects... from many angles

Well, all right. If it takes a political genius to defeat the politics of manipulation and cynicism in this country, isn’t it nice that America can still produce genius?

As an experienced public speaker, I watched Barack Obama’s acceptance address at many levels. Of course it was inspirational, well-targeted and powerful -- a masterful example of polemical strategy, tactics and manifest sincerity of purpose. I also watched a fellow who was able to both memorize and extemporaneously wing it, as he (to my trained eye) re-adjusted to a few stumbles and even shifted some phrases, in mid-stride. Obama’s speech was not rote-delivered, but steered by a man who was thinking the words while speaking them. That vastly increased the sense of conversation with us, a trait that FDR mastered, Bill Clinton studied, and JFK -- for all his brilliance -- never understood.

It truly was a pivotal moment in American politics. About half of my (minor) reservations about BHO were settled by this speech -- and by the way he handled the entire convention. For example, I counted six times that he referred to science and technology as pressing national needs. Once, my friends, is perfunctory. Twice is policy. Six times is a call to action. That wasn’t for political impact -- (what fraction of the TV audience cared?) -- but an expression of perceived importance.

My remaining quibbles are mere motes that I can wave aside for other times, after the republic is saved and conditions return for normal argument. What matters is that I know this fellow will do the basic things that I want and need, simply by ejecting knaves and traitors and thieves from their grip over our throats and wallets, and allowing civil servants and officers to do the jobs we hired them to do.

That, alone, would expose most of our wounds to cleansing air and light. Even just that would save us. (And why wouldn’t he unleash professionals from the oppression of political hacks? One aspect of Obama that no pundit has mentioned: he has probably the shortest list of political IOUs in the history of the nation. I mean, whom does he owe? However long a list you make, any other pol will have one many dozens of times as long.)

All the rest -- the policy corrections, the return to international sanity and resumed faith in negotiation (international and domestic), a soothing of division and a return to ambition for new endeavors -- all of that is just frosting to me.

Still, the prospect of a genius -- without JFK’s or Clinton’s flaws -- might be an alluring one. If I let myself believe...

By the way, if you missed Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention, here it is. Brilliant, of course. He did at least mention the Republican war against science, something rare for politicians to note or notice. I wish he - or someone - would mention the devastation wrought upon the US Army and military readiness, in general. But it is clear that this fellow knows us, probably better than anybody.


--- OTHER POLITICAL / POLICY-RELATED MATTERS ---

SECRETWARGet your hands on AMERICA'S SECRET WAR, by my friend, international security expert George Friedman. I found much of his book fascinating, cogent and smart. Well, the first half or so. All the way from pre 9/11 to the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. You’ll learn a lot!

Unfortunately, George from that point forward weaves some astonishing just-so stories. First, continuing the party line that we are in a life-or-death “war” against Jihadist forces. (In fact, I was the first to predict such a “war” back in 1987 -- though I meant it in subtler ways, dealing with a clash of cultures, and not some 90% mythological Al Qaeda bogeyman)...

...only then George goes on to create a wholly original theory that I had not seen before -- that the Iraq War’s secret rationale -- excusing the deliberate lies about WMDs and such -- was to intimidate the Saudi government, cornering and forcing it to cooperate and provide intelligence to help corner Al Qaeda.

I’ll leave that remarkable theory for folks to pursue in “discussion” below. Just let me say that the book is very worthwhile on two levels. The first half is filled with fascinating facts, woven together well. And... well... the second half merits a Hugo Award.

As for my own explanation of this “war”... that it was perpetrated in order to achieve exactly what HAS been achieved -- the demolition of our alliances, our reputation, our status in the world, our finances, our military readiness and so on... exactly as Vietnam did to us... well...

------ Are we being commanded, from above, to lose this war? -----

The bounty offered by the U.S. government for the capture of Al Qaeda leader Abu Ayyub al Masri:

2006 - $5 million
2007 - $1 million
2008 - $100,000

Add to this the disbanding of entire intelligence units that had been assigned to trace the money flow to terror-related organizations and a seemingly endless list of other odoriferous (smelly) circumstances.

--- Meanwhile, as we sleep.... ---

Scary stuff from the Lifeboat Foundation site. See the 2008 report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States From Electromagnetic Pulese (EMP) Attack (April 2008.) The House Armed Services Committee held hearings July 10th, 2008. http://www.empcommission.org/reports.php

Nice buzzword/terminology : Graceful degradation

Facts and "realistic" assessments mixed in, shared:
1. Estimation of approximately 90% death toll is possible "within parameters"
2. Estimation of a year and a half to order replacement equipment to key systems, from abroad
3. Tested, estimation of 10% of cars to stop working, most (not all) to restart regularly
4. Launch over Caspian sea and tests of Shahab 3 to detonate in orbit show EMP intentions, no others come to mind
5. Explicit Iranian doctrine including EMP
6. It doesn't take advanced or large-yield nuclear weapons
7. China and Russia have been developing such EMP devices, as opposed to their Cold War strategies
8. With a Scud B you could cover one of the coasts
9. Estimated we'd have three days supply of food

"The impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to potential adversaries who are not as dependent on modern electronics as we are." -- Dr. William R. Graham,

---- And finally ---

An interesting essay on the Chinese rationalization for having the rule of law without democracy.

Oh, the next president will have his hands full, all right. And that is just the beginning.

You heard it here first. Prepare for the rise of ten thousand Timothy McVeighs. Demographically, that’s not very many, actually. We are getting better. But those few... they’ve been dormant... but they will make Al Qaeda look like pissant amateurs....

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Unusual Perspectives... Uplifting Dogs... and science stuff

Announcing a new David Brin “fan page” on Facebook! for news and updates. See also a site for people who think “The Postman is the best movie ever.” Of course, then, there is the rumor that both the book and the movie are iconic rallying symbols for the pro-democracy movement in Kazakhstan... or so I’ve been told.

--- A Brin-terview ---

While visting IBM Research, I did a brief, ten-minute oral-essay about how science fiction can change the world. IBM has podcast it. This is separate from my hour-long (and detailed) talk about Third Millennium Problem-Solving: Can New Visualization and Collaboration Tools Make a Difference? That much longer talk will be available online. I’ll let you all know.

--- Unusual Perspectives ---
See the ever-brilliant and entertaining Kevin Kelly talk about how far the web has come in its 5,000 days of existence... and where it may go in the next 5,000. He points out that the number of transistors currently linking online has reached about the same number as the neurons in a human brain. (A papallel I made in EARTH, published just before the web arrived.)

=
Another site worth a visit: the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. A great guy, Robert D. Atkinson, is president and has interesting things to say about rediscovering our role as a scientific and technologically innovative civilization.

---- Unusual Worries ---

For its 60th Anniversary, the Rand Corporation invited its staff around the world to propose “important policy issues not currently receiving the attention they deserve in the public debate” — issues, in other words, that might be on the back burner today but will likely become front burner issues within the next five years. The listed eleven top responses are fascinating. (Though I can think of a dozen even bigger items they left out, of course.) See especially “a new Anti-American coalition” and “From Nation-State to Nexus-State.”

----- Betting on Tomorrow ----

I’ve long pushed for better ways to track those in society who seek credibility, influence or power by bandying confident forecasts about future events.

Now, Nigel Eccles talks about Hubdub.com, a site that tries to generate a lot of fun while encouraging folks to stick their necks out, betting on matters like the VP sweepstakes or the Dow Jones or potential Olympic flag bearers, with credibility scores rising or falling with outcomes. “At the moment you can tell a user’s historic accuracy by their net worth. In the next week we are going to introduce star levels which will translate those amounts into something that it is easy for a casual reader to understand (e.g. I might be a 5-star technology predictor but only 1-star on politics). We are also going to give users the ability to post their credibility to their blogs and profiles on social media sites.”

It’s a worthy effort, applying some of the methods developed recently for Prediction Markets, but also suffering from some of the faults of PMs. Above all, it remains just a game because people come to Hubdub in order to play, or when they are confident. My Predictions Registry concept goes a bit farther. It would actually “out” the hundreds of thousands of people in our society who practice the art of predictive sleight-of-hand -- demanding influence based upon forecasts, but hedging and evading accountability when things turn out differently Still, go ahead and try out Hubdub.

------ Some Quandaries Just Need a Little Imagination ---

When Leona Helmsley died in August 2007, she left all but a few million dollars of her perhaps $8 billion estate to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, making it easily one of America's largest foundations. She also left a brief document indicating that the entire trust be used for the care and welfare of dogs. "The trustees recently hired a philanthropic advisory service to help them figure out a way to remain true to Mrs. Helmsley's intentions while at the same time pursuing broader charitable goals with her foundation," reported the *New York Times*("Helmsley Left Dogs Billions in Her Will," July 2). Rather than pay estate taxes of $3.6 billion to the government, Helmsley has stipulated that the money be held in trust for perpetuity. Madoff argues in her op-ed that "the law should not encourage people to tie up their resources – and ours – for all time."

Indiana University professor of public affairs and philanthropic
studies Leslie Lenkowsky suggests that Helmsley may have been trying to support animal welfare as a heretofore neglected charitable cause compared to, say, child welfare – and that Congress and the American people give her that right.

I have a completely different take on how to re-interpret the Leona Helmsley bequest of many billions to "benefit dogs." While intellectuals squirm in order to find ways to evade or re-interpret her clear (if perhaps addled) intent and apply the funds to "animal welfare" or to the environment or to children, I believe there is another interpretation that might both broaden the use of her trust and keep direct faith with her wishes.

The money might be applied, to some extent, to the detailed genetic analysis of dogs (a first-draft genome already exists), in unprecedented detail, down to the cellular and molecular level, their neuronal and behavior qualities, etc. The resulting perfect map of an animal species would:

1) serve to benefit dogs - perhaps eliminating or palliating every canine disease - exactly as the donor wished.

2) have profound side-benefits for the understanding of all mammalian life processes, as well as exploring new methods for analysis that can be applied beyond dogs, thus benefiting humanity... and ecology, for that matter.

3) have another effect that is utterly pro-dog, while benefiting us all. It could be a prelude to commencing the "uplift" of dogs, continuing a process we have been engaged-in together for at least the last 10,000 years of human-canine interaction -- arguably our longest-lasting and most extensive project of all. By applying these funds to such dog centered research, humanity might - for example - increase canine intelligence and abilities, gaining fresh insights into intelligence itself, while helping this most cooperative of all friendly species to partner with human beings in ever more meaningful ways.

If overall canine “happiness” were included as an essential parameter, would not, say, a doubling of canine intelligence be a "benefit" under Mrs. Helmsley's wishes? While enabling the foundation to expand upon her dictate, without bending or breaking it?

My argument is simple. Instead of trying to waffle reasons to broaden the Helmsley bequest, it might be possible to dive into it, in profound and enthusiastic detail, and achieve great things for humanity and the world, while remaining true to the original (albeit somewhat silly) concept.

--- And Now the Misc-tery Data Dump! ---

InnoCentive is a company that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges) to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes for resolving them. The company gets a posting fee and, if the problem is solved, a “finders fee” equal to about 40 percent of the prize. The process, according to John Seely Brown, a theorist of information technology and former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, reflects “a huge shift in popular culture, from consuming to participating” enabled by the interactivity so characteristic of the Internet.

The prevailing theory of aging is being challenged by Stanford University Medical School researchers. Their discovery contradicts the generally held hyopothesis that aging is a buildup of tissue damage similar to rust. The Stanford findings suggest specific genetic instructions drive the process. If they are right, science might one day find ways of switching the signals off and halting or even reversing aging. (But, accident or not, it would not have been reinforced if it did not offer an evolutionary advantage... and thus be hard to turn off. Some people simply do not thinks things through.)

Adding lime to seawater increases alkalinity, boosting seawater's ability to absorb CO2 from air and reducing the tendency to release it back again. The process of making lime generates CO2, but adding the lime to seawater absorbs almost twice as much CO2. The overall process is therefore 'carbon negative'. However, the idea, which has been bandied about for years, was thought unworkable because of the expense of obtaining lime from limestone and the amount of CO2 released in the process. Shell is so impressed with a newly developed approach that it is funding an investigation into its economic feasibility. (Note an added benefit. Increased alkalinity would also compensate for potential acidification if iron is added to seawater to boost plankton and foodchain productivity in “desert” sea areas, pulling out even more CO2.)

The Highlands Forum has released its late summer reading list. Blogmembers are welcome to report back on any of these!: ”Among the six books are one novel and five works of timely nonfiction. On the nonfiction side are important books that tell us much about our world, where we may be going, and what we might do to make things better. They range in theme from the failure of states and the plight of the people in those states (The Bottom Billion, Fixing Failed States) to the rise of alternative forces to states (Terror and Consent), to the process of creating effective, cohesive groups that might affect the outcomes of elections, resulting in stronger states (Here Comes Everybody, Millennial Makeover). On the other side is a novel regarding the science of complexity as well as the people and organization from which the deep insights on complexity arise (The Edge of Chaos)“

Solar system travel posters.

Miniaturized DNA Sewing Machines "Japanese researchers have found a way to build long threads of DNA using miniaturized hooks and bobbins. In fact, they've demonstrated how to manipulate delicate DNA chains without breaking them. They've designed these laser-directed microdevices to pick up and manipulate individual molecules of DNA.

MIT researchers turn everyday windows into solar panels. The technology could soup up traditional panels by 50%. To create the concentrator system, researchers mix multiple dyes that they basically paint onto a pane of glass or plastic. The dyes absorb light across a range of wavelengths. The energy then is pushed out to the edges of the pane, where it's stored in solar cells there.

Somebody try out http://dermundo.com/ and report back about how this new multilingual publishing tool powered by the Worldwide Lexicon project works! Let by Brian McConnell.

---
And a final quotation I saw while taking the Family, recently, to some big stone faces...

“I think that we can perhaps meditate a little on those Americans ten thousand years from now, when the weathering on the faces of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln shall have proceeded to perhaps the depth of a tenth of an inch, and wonder what our descendants—and I think they will still be here will think about us. Let us hope that at least they will give us the benefit of the doubt, that they will believe we have honestly striven every day and generation to preserve for our descendants a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.”
Franklin Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore, 1936.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

An important new blog... and news from Worldcon and the high plains...

First off... we've all just returned from a high plains family odyssey -- from Denver (the World Science Fiction convention) to Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Devil's Monument and several cool caves (a family interest of ours.)

The Denver World Science Fiction Convention was a bit small (they are steadily getting smaller) but charming, friendly and one of the sweetest I ever attended. (My first worldcon ever was Denvention II in 1981.) Among the highlights:

1- SKY HORIZON received the Hal Clement Award for best science fiction novel for Young Adults.

2- I got a chance to do this fabulous panel with much-talented artists Frank Wu and Teddy Harvia, in which I essentially did stand-up storytelling improv with images or elements shouted from the audience while Frank and Teddy sketched. It got rather rollicking and manic, with Frank & I standing on the tables doing surfer moves, then leading the audience in chants and songs, then getting REALLY silly. There must be a dozen blog entries and youTube postings about that one event.

Now, on to important matters...

-----

An important announcement: Russ Daggatt has finally started a blog. A truly insightful fellow, Russ is a great source of collated political data and common-sense "ostrich-bait." It’s about time that his compilations became available to a wider audience. (Thus saving me the chore of frequently re-posting them!)Catch his entries at: http://daggatt.blogspot.com/ and do spread the word.

Oh, and an (apolitical/philosophical) aside: John Brockman’s THE EDGE site has posted my appraisal of Mark Pesce’s latest speech, siddling toward elitist cynicism and renunciationism. I think you’ll find both sides interesting.

*** A GENERAL/POLITICAL POTPOURRI ***

Here’s a good “ostrich” article on Salon.

Fearing I would go crazy and shoot the TV.

Oh, the June-July Armageddon Buffet is online! http://signsandportentsofarmageddon.blogspot.com/

The Bush Administration has ignited a furor with a proposed definition of pregnancy that has the effect of classifying some of the most widely used methods of contraception as abortion.

-------
One angry investment specialist and champion of transparency is Michael Lewitt of Hegemony Capital Management (http://www.hegcap.com/). Via John Mauldin, I’ve been reading Lewitt’s cogent comments on the continuing efforts by those in authority to bail out the system (especially their cronies), along with insights on the deal by Merrill and the woes at GM. Lewitt is scathing about how the rules have been tweaked and the civil servants distracted, allowing the development of... ”...beggar-the poor, boost-the-rich policies... or a capitalism-for-the-poor, socialism-for-the-rich economic model that American financial authorities have adopted over the past two decades.”

All of which reinforces my belief that our problem in recent years is not so much that we have had bad shifts in “law.”Rather, what we’ve seen is a near abandonment of law, with a civil service that has been crushed, cowed, suborned, distracted, or bullied into not doing the jobs that they were hired to do. Indeed, I’d be interested in a comparison of regulatory enforcement actions that were taken by New York State vs the SEC, on a yearly basis since 2001. My impression is that New York State engaged in far more supervision, auditing, accountability and law enforcement than the federal agencies that are supposedly our main line of defense.

---
This is pretty big. In May this year, the multibillion-dollar oil giant Exxon-Mobil acknowledged that it had been doing something similar [to the tobacco lobby]. It announced that it would cease funding nine groups that had fuelled a global campaign to deny climate change. Exxon's decision comes after a shareholder revolt by members of the Rockefeller family and big superannuation funds to get the oil giant to take climate change more seriously...

...and that's enough for now. Just keeping my hand in. Do look for a local tight race to help with. That's where the real action is.

db

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A (completely!) non-political potpourri!

I’m mostly going offline for a little bit, so I figure I’ll toss out a few random jumbles of flotsam and jetsam, in order to keep the sharks fed in the meantime. (I may check in, under comments... or maybe not!) Have fun.

(Oh, and lack of time or a sane interface means I’ll not be hot-linking much. Sorry.)

------------
At last, a stab in the direction of a predictions registry. ”Think you've got the gift of foresight? The Washington Post has partnered with Predictify , an online polling service, to create a "Prediction Center" that allows readers to vote on possible outcomes for selected stories. Users will be able to leave their predictions and discuss their beliefs on an integrated comment thread.

Predictify, which launched in 2007, goes beyond basic polling systems by integrating discussion features and monitoring a users' accuracy score across the entire service. While there isn't currently a way to weight one question more than another, the site's algorithm does take into account the type of question and the accuracy rate of participants. To offer an incentive for users to take part in the polls, the site has also implemented a premium program that allows companies to sponsor a poll and reward the most accurate participants with cash. In return, these sponsors are entitled to the demographics data that the service asks for with each vote. “

Note, this lacks most of the added features that could turn something like Predictify into a truly useful tool for accomplishing what society really needs:

-
systematic ways to appraise predictive success/failure.
-
ways to overcome natural human feigning, backdating and retro-disavowal.
-
sufficient attractiveness to draw in a large critical mass of participants.
-
a widely-accepted way to “out” those who claim predictive acumen, but refuse appraisal or accountability.
-
discovery of “3-sigma” forecasters so attention can be given to their methods.
-
rewarding “2-sigma” people with greater access to those in power.

Predictify appears to take some baby steps toward a few of these desiderata -- baby steps that could be so much more.

In contrast, for all of the hype that has recently been given to “prediction markets,” they in fact make almost no efforts toward achieving these goals. Indeed, their entire drive is in other directions.

-----
See an interesting - if shallow - New York Times Magazine essay about “The Trolls Among Us” - profiling some of the “types” who choose to bushwack other people on the Net, the way their ancestors would lurk behind bushes (if they were poor) or simply grab victims openly (if they were lords). Oh, we’ve had a few troll problems here. But that’s not the segue. It is about so many things we’ve discussed here. Transparency & accountability. Self-righteous indignation (google exactly those words.) And about “getting” what this civilization is about.

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I have had issues with Bill Moyers, especially his disappointing sycophancy toward that infamous plagiarist and propagandist for oppressive, feudal-romantic, storytelling-uniformity, Joseph Campbell. Still, Moyers does care and has loads of passion, reminding me a lot of my late “crusading-journalist” father. Hence, I feel it’s worth referring folks -- during an era when Edward R. Murrow is spinning in his grave -- to Moyers’s latest offering. A Hippocratic Oath for Journalists.  (Thanks Mel.)

----
One of my casual mini-essays -- written in response to a debate on John Brockman’s site THE EDGE, has raised some ripples. Based on Nicholas Carr’s cover story in the Atlantic: “Is Google making us Stoopid?” Have a look at responses by Danny Hillis, Clay Shirky, Larry Sanger and yours truly.

And see my new EDGE posting, taking issue with another cyber grough. Mark Pesce.


----
Oh, I have a few of these (Extraterrestrial Civilizations) in stock. Maybe I can retire!

---
From the Transparency Front: Last month, PeopleFinders, a 20-year-old company based in Sacramento, introduced http://CriminalSearches.com/, a free service to satisfy those common impulses. The site, which is supported by ads, lets people search by name through criminal archives of all 50 states and 3,500 counties in the United States.... A quick check of the database confirms that it is indeed imperfect. Some records are incomplete, and there is often no way to distinguish between people with the same names if you don’t know their birthdays (and even that date is often missing)....

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A cool academic conference that may actually show a few sparks, next year, is the Ninth History of Astronomy Workshop, at Notre Dame, Indiana, July 8 - 12, 2009. Eminent SETI scholar Michael Crowe is among the organizers.

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Misc science alert: Rapid changes in the churning movement of Earth's liquid outer core are weakening the magnetic field in some regions of the planet's surface, a new study says. For true?

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Catch this promising vertical algae reactor! 

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And the violinist spoof in the subway. You’ve heard of it. Still, ponder it again. We need to lift our heads more and be open to the unusual.


-----
And now an example of how many ways that even smart people misunderstand the Enlightenment. Even its defenders!

The New Scientist Magazine lists - Seven Reasons Why People Hate Reason. “From religious fundamentalism to pseudoscience, it seems that forces are attacking the Enlightenment world view – characterized by rational, scientific thinking – from all sides. The debate seems black and white: you’re either with reason, or you’re against it. But is it so simple? In a series of special essays, our contributors look more carefully at some of the most provocative charges against reason.”

See: Why people hate reason.

Alas, even in the very first paragraph, the New Scientist team illustrates the fault of accepting false definitions and thus creating a lose-lose situation for your side, from the very start. Because, in fact, it is flat-out wrongheaded to claim that “reason” is the fundamental premise of the Enlightenment!

Indeed, by basing a defense of the Enlightenment on a defense of reason, we expose it to justified doubt, and possibly even great harm.

Oh, certainly , “reason” played a role in the long fight against feudal and theocratic bullying. When the first universities of Europe rediscovered the Greek classics, via Arabic translators, in the 13th Century, the socratic logic espoused by Plato became a rallying point for the first great western Youth Movement, pushing back against dark, ecclesiastical mysticism. And yet, of course, Plato was no friend of democratic values. Indeed, his so-called “reason” has always been dubious, elitist, tendentious and easy to poke full-of-holes. Amounting to a ritualistic pattern of incantations, platonism has proved a powerfully seductive force for rationalization and subjective self-fulfillment. An underpinning for “philosophical” calamities like Hegel.

Sometimes logic -- and especially its cousin, mathematics -- can suggest useful directions of interest, pointing science, philosophy and political thought toward new doors, new thresholds. It can be especially useful as a negative tool, to pillory and demolish really awful positions. Still, through hard experience, we have learned that logic and reason can only suggest, propose, refute, perhaps stimulate, but it is far more limited than its greatest adherents suggest. Because no model built out of words can truly describe, let alone predict, the complex behavior of physical systems, let alone those made up of intricately-interacting human beings. Outside of math itself, logic and reason cannot be relied upon to prove anything.

Alas, a large part of the Enlightenment movement -- the branch led by continental scholars of France and Germany -- bought into the notion of pure reason. From Descartes to Sartre, they focused on logical incantations that always just happened to “prove” preconceived beliefs. Marxism, Nazissm and dozens of other tragedies emerged out of this fundamental mistake -- the notion that you can prove things with words.

(And don’t I often try to do exactly that? O, it is seductive, all right!)

Fortunately, the movement had its own version of the Protestant Reformation, a rift that saved it, when the Anglo-Scottish-Dutch wing branched off, declaring fealty instead to Pragmatism. To empiricism and the preeminence of experiment over theory. Oh, this wing had its own desperate follies -- like Radical Behaviorism and Logical Positivism. Still, the chief overall result was a system or zeitgeist that could adapt to new developments, quickly discover mistakes, subject earlier assumptions to criticism, and negotiate new solutions to problems.

Hence, I find it tragic and disappointing that the editors of The New Scientist -- a British based publication -- should fall for the rhetorical trap of defending reason as the core element of the modern Enlightenment. All it does is set things up so that all of the legitimate complaints against reason can be used as weapons against something much bigger and more important. Against the far greater and more important Pragmatic Enlightenment that has brought us so very far, and let us earn so very much.

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And now, a micro-essay-rant! (That I had tucked in a corner, meaning to spiff it up. Well, maybe not...)

THE RETURN OF THE UNCONSCIOUS....

One hundred years ago, the world was obsessed with the notion of the unconscious mind. Sigmund Freud was only the most prominent of a veritable wave of intellectuals, sages and scientists promoting the notion that we - each of us - consist of multiple layers, components or sub-selves, many of them in conflict with each other. Or keeping secrets from each other. The notion influenced both capitalists and Marxists. It propelled the social movements of the Roaring Twenties and gave millions an explanation for the Madness of the Great War.

At one level, this was a clear and epochal breakthrough. In his original INTRODUCTORY LECTURES, Freud spent many pages leading medical students through a series of simple experiments designed to demonstrate to each of them the existence of their own unconscious minds. This was Freud at his best, before he spun off, down paths of fantasy, self-delusion, sex obsession and downright, domineering guru-dom -- all displayed vividly in his later NEW INTRODUCTORY LECTURES. (Thus, unintentionally demonstrating some of the pitfalls that await any human who is lured by adulation away from the collegial criticism of science.) Today, you have only to see the wild ways that people leap to misinterpret each other -- in an argument or when skimming blogs or emails -- to witness the old unconscious in action. Or, ever notice how -- at a party -- the buzz of conversation fades into background... until somebody mentions your name? Clearly, much is going on, beneath the surface. Only part of your mental process is accessible to the melange that you blithely call “me.”

So why do we discuss the unconscious so little, nowadays? For one thing, there seemed to be no clear model of why the inner self would be secretive, concealing itself and even playing nasty tricks upon the upper-outer personality. A myriad sub-theories suggested different fundamental motivators for this, from Freud’s inherent sexual conflict to Adler’s power theory to Jung’s mystical archetypes, to traumatization of immortal cosmic souls by mind-warping technologies used by the evil Lord Xenu. In their rush to find a universal, general process or cause, the authors of these explanations reflexively avoided anything even remotely resembling falsifiability, scientific testing, or any reference to the Darwinian evolution that made us.

And then, along came psychopharmacology. At first, new drugs seemed to replicate the effects of psychotherapy, while therapy seemed to elicit changes in brain chemistry -- a chicken and egg situation that was bemusing... till newer drugs seemed to win the argument, hands down. In part because of better fine tuning, but also because therapy -- and especially psychoanalysis -- were so time consuming, expensive, and based upon a domineering style that was out of tune with a more liberated, individualistic era.

Finally, somebody seems to get it! ON DEEP HISTORY AND THE BRAIN, by Daniel Lord Smail, suggests that we constantly trigger altered mental states, simply because they are self-reinforcing... or possibly addictive. Excerpted from a review: ”By snorting -- suddenly creating a sound -- the slack-minded horse elicits an automatic “startle response” — flooding its brain with chemicals, delivering a jolt of excitement and relieving, at least for a moment, the monotony of a long day in an empty field. If horses can alter their own brain chemistries at will (and have good reasons to do so), what about human beings? In “On Deep History and the Brain,” Daniel Lord Smail suggests that human history can be understood as a long, unbroken sequence of snorts and sighs and other self-modifications of our mental states. We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing.”

All of which is deeply connected to my longstanding assertion that such inner states give an entirely different perspective on addiction in human beings. (Anybody know how to contact this Harvard professor?)

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Okay, that’s a whole bunch or raw meat, tossed into the pool. I may check in, under comments, once or twice. But otherwise, I’ll be taking a break for a week or two. You folks keep the community fizzing, yes? I’m sure there will be lively discussions.

Oh! Some time it a few months, I think it really will be time to ditch Blogger and get a really good blog client onto http://www.davidbrin.com. We can discuss it in the fall.

Now go yank-awake some ostriches... nicely.... ;-)

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Some coolstuff... then Daggatt Compares the Tax and Economics Plans!

I’ve just returned from giving speeches and conultations for IBM, back east. No time for much of a detailed weekly missive. But I will offer something in two parts.

First, some interesting non-political items well worth a link or a look. And second, a guest editorial by one of the finest bloggers who never bloggeed -- Russ Daggatt -- concerning a close comparison of the tax and economic plans of McCain and Obama.

1) Cool stuff:

Movie trailers for novels? Wow. Suddenly, they’re all over the place! See a pretty cool one by my friend and part-time collaborator, Jeff Carlson, for his new novel PLAGUE WAR!

And see Greg Bear’s new book City At The End Of Time.

And while we’re at it! Author Mark Raynor ran a cool contest -- apparently on his own -- for photoshopped images based upon classic sci fi stories/novels. There are two Postman references (first and last images). But some of the Bradbury, Van Vogt and other references are choice!

See a worthwhile video about space-based solar power. Some of the numbers are obviously cooked (their extrapolation of year 2100 energy needs pretty clearly leave out expected benefits of efficiency and conservation.) But the overall concept is sound, over the long run.


...and more...

Want to start a petition?
See http://www.gopetition.com/

Citizenship is about a lot more than just voting! In addition to joining my local CERT team and helping in the San Diego fires (http://www.citizencorps.gov/cert/) I've also helped a friend who has been leading an effort to create Project-KID... a systematic approach to bringing in basic child-care into disaster areas and utilizing local volunteers to handle this urgent need in skilled ways. Please have a look at these two web sites (only turn your audio volume down first!) http://holdsafe.pbwiki.com/ and http://www.project-kid.org/

We saw that in San Diego's fire crisis, a rich region with undamaged infrastructure was able to pour vast amounts of goods and volunteers into the evacuation centers. Even so, the child-care situation was mixed, at best. (Turns out the best places put healthy kids to work! e.g. taking care of animals. They were far happier and less bored.) Now, lessons learned here and in New Orleans etc are being applied to creating a turn-key set of kits and guides that can help manage childrens' needs in crises, from ideal cases (San Diego) to really rough situations.

Lenore says: "One of the key leading edge applications for this, we believe, is to make provision for dependent care for first responders and other essential personnel, who can't show up to do the work they are trained to do if they can't find child care for their own kids. Turns out this is particularly challenging in public health emergencies, where they utilize a lot of nurses, but we know fire and police also face these needs. We have had more than one emergency responder say that this could be a good mission for some CERT team members."


...and now...

2) Re-lighting the political lamp with some sharp insight... sharper than I can offer in a rush... this time we’ll substitute a guest presentation by Russ Daggatt, who shares these gems with just a few dozen friends online, instead of writing the editorials and blogs that his wisdom deserves.



=== The Economic and Tax Plans of Obama and McCain ===

Just for the record -- and before diving into the plans offered by Obama and McCain -- here is an update in our comparison of eight years under Clinton versus nearly eight years under Bush:

Job growth under Clinton : 22.7 million jobs – 237,000 per month.
Job growth under Bush: 5.8 million jobs – 72,000 per month (and going DOWN).

There has been a net loss of jobs every month so far in 2008. Bush will have the distinction as the first president since World War II to preside over an economy in which federal government employment rose more rapidly than employment in the private sector (civilian federal government employment went DOWN substantially under Clinton).

The earnings of the average American family (or "real median household income" in economic parlance) peaked in 1999 at $49,222 and has fallen since. This is the first economic expansion in this country's history when household income failed to set a new record. It will certainly decline further this year.

And how did investors do under Clinton vs. Bush? The Dow Jones Industrial Average went up from 3253 to 10,587 under Clinton (325%). It has gone up to 11,503 under Bush (8.7%). The S&P 500 went up from 447 to 1342 under Clinton (300%). It has gone DOWN to 1279 under Bush ( 4.7%). The NASDAQ went up from 700 to 2770 under Clinton (395%). It has gone DOWN to 2347 under Bush (-15.3%)

When Bush took office oil was $31/barrel. Now it is roughly $125/barrel. (That’s what happens when you put oil men in the White House.)

When Bush took office it took 93 cents to buy a Euro. Now it takes $1.56 to buy a Euro.

When Bush took office gold was around $250 an ounce. Now it is $915 an ounce.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The US economy did MUCH better under the fiscally-responsible “high tax” policies of Clinton than under the irresponsible “borrow and squander” policies of Bush.

So what do Obama and McCain plan to do about our fiscal mess?

Every day on the campaign trail, McCain and other Republicans claim Obama will increase taxes while they will cut taxes. Unfortunately, this is not true. (I say “unfortunately” because we need to get serious about our budget deficit.) Obama will also cut taxes … but by less than McCain. First, an explanation. When talking about proposed fiscal policies, it is important to distinguish between “current law” and “current policy.” Under a “current law” baseline, all of Bush's tax cuts are assumed to expire on schedule and the Alternative Minimum Tax is expected to balloon unobstructed. This means that if nothing at all happens, the default event will be that federal revenues will jump significantly, causing both the Obama and McCain tax plans to look like massive tax cuts.

Under the “current policy” baseline, it is assumed that Congress continues to "patch" the AMT and decides to continue the Bush tax cuts indefinitely. The only credible scoring of the proposed tax policies of the two campaigns is by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center . According to their analysis (), compared with current law, McCain would cut taxes by $4.2 trillion over 10 years, while Obama would cut taxes by $2.8 trillion. Compared with current policy, McCain’s policies would result in a $600 billion loss in revenue over ten years, while Obama would increase revenue by $800 billion over the same period.

The two candidates’ tax plans would have sharply different distributional effects. Senator McCain’s tax cuts would primarily benefit those with very high incomes, almost all of whom would receive large tax cuts that would, on average, raise their after-tax incomes by more than twice the average for all households. Many fewer households at the bottom of the income distribution would get tax cuts and those tax cuts would be small as a share of after-tax income.

In marked contrast, Senator Obama offers much larger tax breaks to low- and middle income taxpayers and would increase taxes on high-income taxpayers. The largest tax cuts, as a share of income, would go to those at the bottom of the income distribution, while taxpayers with the highest income would see their taxes rise significantly.


Now check this out: The report notes that McCain has been describing his tax plans on the campaign stump differently than the formal plans that his campaign gave to the Tax Policy Center for evaluation. If you use the tax plans McCain himself describes, he would reduce revenue by nearly $7 trillion over 10 years. In other words, they believe the “official” McCain plans understates the revenue loss by $2.8 trillion. The Tax Policy Center also believes the “official” Obama plans are unrealistic, but working in the other direction. They assume his plans will cut taxes by $367 billion less than the plans described by his advisors – they believe the actual 10 year revenue loss from Obama’s plans will only be $2.4 trillion.

One final point: The Tax Policy Center report makes a preliminary attempt at comparing the cost of the health care plans proposed by the two candidates (as both would result in a loss of revenue): [I]mportant details of both plans are not known, so we made assumptions that might or might not be consistent with the final plans proposed by each campaign. Under our assumptions, if the plans took effect in 2009, the McCain plan would cost about $1.3 trillion over ten years and the Obama plan would cost about $1.6 trillion.

Both campaigns propose measures that they believe will reduce the rate of growth of health insurance premiums, which would reduce the cost of their new subsidies and existing public programs. We did not evaluate the effectiveness of those measures and did not include savings from health care cost efficiencies in our estimates. Under our assumptions, Senator Obama’s plan would reduce the number of uninsured Americans by about 18 million in 2009, and 34 million in 2018. Almost all children would have coverage because the law would require it, but nearly 33 million adults would still lack coverage in 2018.

Senator McCain’s plan would have far more modest effects, reducing the number of uninsured by just over 1 million in 2009, rising to a maximum of almost 5 million in 2013, after which the number of uninsured would creep upward because the tax credits grow more slowly than premiums. Both plans are highly progressive, although Senator Obama’s plan targets subsidies more toward low- and middle-income households and is thus significantly more progressive than Senator McCain’s proposal.


The Obama health care plan would include about over 10 years. If you include those tax cuts along with his other tax proposals, he is proposing tax cuts under both current law and under current policy. Under current law (i.e., Bush tax cuts lapse), he would be cutting taxes by around $3.4 trillion. Under current policy (i.e., Bush tax cuts continue), he would be cutting taxes by around $200 billion. In neither case, is he proposing a tax increase, let alone “the largest tax increase in history” or any of the other nonsense McCain and other Republicans are saying.

Fascinating stuff. Thanks Russ.

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