Thursday, February 26, 2009
Note, the job of a Futurist is actually not prediction per se, but to lay out a range of plausibilities. Still, some fans do keep track of how often I am right. (And sometimes dead wrong!) Making it worthwhile, I suppose, to use up one of my twice monthly blogs by updating some recent close calls.
Edging toward worker ownership?
The Ford Motor Company can substitute its stock for as much as half of its payments into a retiree health care trust under a deal announced Monday by the automaker and the United Automobile Workers union. The agreement could form the basis for similar deals with GM and Chrysler, which need to cut costs and demonstrate they can survive under terms of federal loans. “The modifications will protect jobs for U.A.W. members by ensuring the long-term viability of the company,” the union’s president said in a statement.
See my list of “100 unusual suggestions for a time of crisis.” This kind of stock-for-concessions deal was near the top of my list. Still, it is only a half measure that stops far short of both Unions and Company recognizing a fundamental fact -- that the workers in-effect already own the car companies... and ought to start acting accordingly. Only they can buckle down, re-arrange the obligations, and trim the companies down for 21st century creative competitiveness. If they wake up in time.
We need to get beyond “left-right” cliches. This is not a matter of socialism, or betrayal of market principles. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with workers and their organizations and pensioners accepting part of their labor value in equity. And once they have the guts to admit that things really have changed, maybe they will also find the courage to accept their responsibility to do whatever it takes to make their own companies work.
Transparency’s double-whammy in the news...
One topic area that straddles my careers in both nonfiction and fiction is “transparency” and the value of open information flows, in a society whose most fundamental institutions -- democracy, markets, science and law courts -- turn rancid and die, whenever the players cannot know what’s going on. My book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? forecast many of today’s quandaries, including economic ructions caused by secretive or opaque business practices. Sound creepily familiar? (It is one of the only public policy books of the 20th Century not only still in print, but quoted more, every year.)
Hence, it was with some pleasure that I read a piece by WIRED Magazine senior writer Daniel Roth last week: Road Map for Financial Recovery: Radical Transparency Now! in which he lays down the importance of business reporting standards that are not only thorough and honest, but also clear and easily parsed by any citizen armed with a good computer. So-called market defenders who call transparency “oppressive meddling” can only be hypocrites, who do not really believe in the most fundamental of all capitalist principle -- that of people making their own best judgements, based upon genuine and useful information.
Along similar lines... Pat Matthews wrote in with the following, about a forecast that I made 20 years ago in a novel -- that Swiss banking secrecy would become a major issue: ”I remember reading EARTH and taking the Helvetian War for granted as the major early-21st Century Crisis, without bothering to wonder what triggered the public mood of anger at their secrecy and covering up for dictators etc.- a worldwide economic crash in which the Swiss Bankers appeared to be the primary culprits, and the witch hunt is on until Helvetia glows in the dark. Yes. This makes SUCH good sense. Different timeline, of course, since it's the American financiers who are now in danger of being tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. But - google for UBS in trouble. Now, several months into the current recession, it becomes painfully clear that you knew what you were prophesying!”
Alas, though, we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
--- Heavenly Messengers ---
And in the realm of science... see my doctoral dissertation at work -- ”Dark comets may be prowling the Solar system, posing a deadly threat to Earth. They are formed when reflective water ice has evaporated away, leaving behind an organic crust - similar to tar and related to the richest parts of carbonaceous chondrites - creating a surface that only reflects a small fraction of the light of normal asteroids.”
My predictive hit on this? Well, it is in two parts. First, my PhD thesis predicted that such layers would form -- now the standard model of comets. Second, my novel (with Gregory Benford) HEART OF THE COMET was the work that predicted the surface layer would be extremely dark. All right, that’s more obscure than forecasting technologies and secrecy campaigns against Swiss banks. Still....
--- Speaking/Consulting in Phoenix? And/or Washington D.C.---
It appears that I’ll be spending the last 3 weeks of July in beautiful, warm Phoenix Arizona, helping the US government in a project brainstorming certain aspects of the future. I’ll have some time on the side - especially evenings - so I’m open to suggestions (and introductions) re: Phoenix-area companies or groups that might want a consultation or speech, laying open some vistas and perspectives on an era of rapid change. Stunning insights guaranteed!
Likewise I will be in Washington DC, for government consultations, April 27-29. I might be able tack on some events either before (4/26-27) or after (4/29-30) if companies or groups make arrangements soon.
------ INTERESTING MISC ITEMS --------
Twisting radio beams into a helical shape as they are transmitted could help ease the congestion in spectrum available for wireless communication, encoding huge amounts of digital data into the pitch.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (very liberal): The "envipolcon/project," study identified that environmental laws in Europe, Japan, Mexico, and the United States had converged toward stricter and more similar regulation in the last 30 years. Simply put, instead of a race to the bottom due to regulatory competition -- the lowering of national environmental standards as a consequence of participation in international competitive markets -- the exact opposite has taken place. Environmental regulation has grown stricter over time in countries that have participated in globalization.
In four studies carried out across different cultural, religious, and political contexts, we investigated the association between religion and popular support for suicide attacks. In two surveys of Palestinians and one cognitive priming experiment with Israeli settlers, prayer to God, an index of religious devotion, was unrelated to support for suicide attacks. Instead, attendance at religious services, thought to enhance coalitional commitment, positively predicted support for suicide attacks. In a survey of six religions in six nations, regular attendance at religious services positively predicted a combination of willing martyrdom and out-group hostility, but regular prayer did not. Implications for understanding the role of religion in suicide attacks are discussed.
Message from Stefan Jones: Philip Jose Farmer dead at 91 Ninety one! May he end up at a good spot along the river(world).
From Frederic Bastiat's 1845 Petition from the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, Sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected With Lighting:“Dear Deputies [of Parliament]: We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price. This rival is none other than the sun ... We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull's-eyes, deadlights, and blinds -- in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country."
Germany Generates Half the World's Solar-Cell Electricity (from the Progressive Policy Institute...) Germans installed 1131 megawatts of solar cells in 2007 -- up from 81 megawatts in 2001 and 5.3 in 1995 -- and now have 3862 megawatts of solar cell capacity. This is nearly half the world's solar-cell megawattage. The panels produced 4.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity last year, or 0.7 percent of Germany's total 621 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. By comparison, America's solar cell capacity is now 830.5 megawatts, and combined with concentrated solar power contributes about 0.2 percent of America's electricity.
From anthropologist David Buss: “Wilson and Daly (2004) provided evidence that men possess a specialized adaptation for discounting the future, valuing immediate goods over future goods. When given a choice between a smaller sum of money tomorrow versus a larger sum of money at a later date, men more than women tend to choose the immediate resource. The discounting function became especially steep after men viewed images of physically attractive women. This shift in the steepness of future discounting did not occur after men viewed images of unattractive women, nor did it occur for women viewing either attractive or unattractive male faces. The male-specific shift in future discounting, rather than reflecting maladaptive impulsivity, reflects an adaptation designed to obtain immediate reproductive benefits when future opportunities are uncertain.” Yeesh. Buss does take some of the impulsive mystery out of it all.
---- Just a wee bit of politics? ----
It’s not about how high executive pay has gone. If you want to see definitive proof which side has is right -- whether the catechism is true that cutting taxes stimulates the economy and raising them quashes the economy -- look at Russ Daggatt’s devastating examination of 1992 to the present. Seriously, go look at this entry. Only monomaniacal loonies would continue to maintain a mantra that has proved so overwhelmingly false. Adults are supposed to admit it, when their every single prediction proved diametrically wrong, across twenty years. The only similar example I can think of is the 70 year delusion known as the Soviet Communist Party.
Also: See a rather clever and painful description of some underlying American (actually, human) reflexes in terms of a deeply immature “cargo cult mentality.” Important caveat. Don’t just think about your opponents, while reading it. Ponder your own side. Even yourself.
Also: Ward Three Morality, by David Brooks, that appeared February 2, 2009 in the New York Times.
--- Finally.... Last chance to Hugo Nominate ---
Alert! If you are a member of the World Science Fiction Convention - (held this year in Montreal in August) -- you have till Saturday night to nominate works for the Hugo Award. I have something available in the novella and “related-book” categories. But don’t let that sway you! At this point, there’s only time to do it online.
(Or whip out your credit cards and join for that purpose! ;-)
Oh, if any of you know a schoolteacher or librarian or educator who works in Montreal, let me know...
Thrive & endure.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Here's a special offer for Hugo Award voters (and everybody else)! Baen's UNIVERSE Magazine has now posted my new novella "Shoresteading" (now available on my website for open-free access to anybody who wants to read a rollicking, near future adventure story, set in a world of rising seas, big ideas and strange hopes!
I provided the very first editorial for the newly launched site of SIGMA - the “think tank of scientific science fiction authors.” SIgma formalizes what has long been a practice at many government agencies of consulting SF writers about our area of most intense interest -- the future and processes of change. The theme of my editorial is one I have discussed before... the increasing brittleness of our civilization - one in which we depend ever-more upon a paint-thin layer of skilled professionals to anticipate and protect us from all possible dangers. An approach that is fragile and deeply contrary to the American tradition. We need to remember our roots, as a civilization that has always depended, also, upon resiliency.
Rounding out a list of “David Brin announcements...”
Starship Sofa has produced -- on its audio magzine Aural Delights a spoken version of my story “Temptation.” The narration is by Julie Davis. A story by Geoff Ryman makes the lengthy experience worthwhile.
The second part of “Temptation” is also up (1hr 20min in to the show). Part 3 will appear soon. (The text of the story Temptation is also available on my website.)
==OTHER INTERESTING ITEMS==
Toys of tomorrow!
A fascinating epistemological analysis ‘The trouble with conspiracy theories’ by Edward Feser, addresses some of the matters I have raised before, e.g. the difficulty of recruiting - and maintaining loyalty from - skilled henchmen in any sort of large scale and ongoing/concealed betrayal of the proncipal belief systems that most of them were brought up in. Neither Fesr nor I deny the existence of small scale conspiracies. In fact, I believe he downplays conspiracies too much.
There are many logical holes in his neat refutation. For example, there are ways that a tight-knit “inner conspiracy” of a few fanatics could control much larger groups who did not consciously think of themselves as committing a betrayal. (Suppose, for example, just half a dozen blackmailed/suborned men held the highest offices in a nation; they could then appoint fools and delusionally partisan rationalizers into lower positions, who could then achieve high levels of damage without the ever becoming aware that they were doing so. The same effect can be achieved through clever use of prodigious amounts of cash.) Still, it is an interesting perspective.
San Diego Science Festival this year.
Speaking of which, see a lovely essay about how the “rightful place” of science is not only in making better tools for a better world, but in teaching by far the highest moral values.
The color red can make people’s work more accurate, and blue can make people more creative.
Google Earth now lets you zoom around Mars.
Note the following might be claimed as a predictive hit on my part... even though some aspects of the reportage itself strike me as, well, a bit fishy. Researchers in Great Britain and the United States have imaged the first high definition imprints that dolphin sounds make in water. The resulting "CymaGlyphs" are reproducible patterns that are expected to form the basis of a lexicon of dolphin language, each pattern representing a dolphin "picture word."
The CymaScope captures actual sound vibrations imprinted in the dolphin's natural environment -- water, revealing the intricate visual details of dolphin sounds for the first time. "There is strong evidence that dolphins are able to 'see' with sound, much like humans use ultrasound to see an unborn child in the mother's womb," said Florida based dolphin researcher Jack Kassewitz. "The CymaScope provides our first glimpse into what the dolphins might be 'seeing' with their sounds." The CymaScope will be used to image the sounds so that each CymaGlyph will represent a dolphin "picture word." The ultimate aim is to speak to dolphins with a basic vocabulary of dolphin sounds and to understand their responses."
There is growing evidence that dolphins can take a sonic "snapshot" of an object and send it to other dolphins, using sound as the transmission medium, so the dolphin's primary method of communication may be picture based.
It sure SOUNDS like what I described many years ago.... (Alas, the link stopped working. As I expected, it may have been too good to be true.)
See the web site of my friend and fellow author T. Jackson King, who has posted a cool variety of stories and chapters.
See an incredibly alien place on Earth
“A major Indian-German geoengineering expedition set sail this week for the Scotia Sea, flouting a U.N. ban on ocean iron fertilization experiments in hopes of garnering data about whether the process actually does take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the deep ocean, a technique that may help reverse global warming.” There are so many variables. (1) I cannot believe that iron will do this all by itself. Indeed, we should start by replicating nature and doing ocean fertilization by stirring up mud from the ocean bottom... exactly as I depicted in EARTH. (2) One issue is iron-caused acidification. (3) Also, could this stimulate more “desert ocean” areas to be useful fisheries? By itself worth testing. (4) There are also regions e.g in the Gulf of Mexico, that are dying of Eutrophy or too MUCH fertilizer washing in from farms up the MIssissippi. In those cases, installing bubblers that inject air into the water might cause fisheries and CO2 absorption.”
China officially started construction of a Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the largest in the world, in a remote southwest region on Friday. Preparation and research for the project took some 14 years. The dish-like telescope, as large as 30 football fields, will stand in a region of typical Karst depressions in Guizhou Province when it's done in 2013. FAST's main spherical reflector will be composed of 4,600 panels. Its observation sensitivity will be 10 times more powerful than the 100-m aperture steerable radio telescope in Germany. Its overall capacity will be 10 times larger than what is now the world's largest (300 m) Arecibo radio telescope developed by the United States, according to Nan Rendong, the chief scientist of the project and an NAO researcher
Mike Gannis stumbled on this Wikipedia entry for a clever but terribly meanspirited British “reality” show.
As Stefan Jones pointed out: “We are as gods and might as well get used to it. So far, remotely done power and glory as via government, big business, formal education, church has succeeded to the point where gross obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG." And now, they have finally put a lot of the WHOLE EARTH archives from 1968-1971 online. Have a look at this marvel. Why, it's like finding out that people were trying hard to invent the internet before there were personal computers! So far just a few of the articles are PDFs. But literally thousands of pages of the ginormous Whole Earth Catalogs and the various journals have been scanned in. Go flip through the first 20 or so pages of The Last Whole Earth Catalog; it's like finding a sub-index of the Encyclopedia Galactica.
I highly recommend looking at the site for Random Acts of Conditionless Kindness (RACK) offering ways to do little things that help a lot.
Bruce Willis’s film SURROGATES will appear in September. “Set in a futuristic world where humans live in isolation and interact through surrogate robots, a cop (Willis) is forced to leave his home for the first time in years in order to investigate the murders of others’ surrogates.” And yes, it does eat off the same plate as KILN PEOPLE... with also some resemblance to Asimov’s THE NAKED SUN. Ah well. I will forgive all if it turns out to be an actual original movie that’s smart and well done! In this era when most studio execs should be shot for cowardice and lack of imagination, that’d be really something.
Researchers Evaluate Climate Cooling Potential of Different Geoengineering Schemes.
*Existing activities that add phosphorous to the ocean may have greater long-term carbon sequestration potential than deliberately adding iron or nitrogen. COMMENT: Then farm fertilizer runoff may not be so bad? Theplume of algae that is "killing the Gulf of Mexico" comes to mind. Might such a site be the best place to seed iron, to try shifting the bloom from algae to plankton? Or would such a plume better reach its potential by bubbling in air, so that anoxic conditions reverse and algae-eaters can then swoop in, turning the region into both a new fishery and a carbon sink?
* On land, sequestering carbon in new forests and as bio-char (charcoal added back to the soil) have greater short-term cooling potential than ocean fertilization as well as benefits for soil fertility.
Interesting anti-cynicism from the Progressive Policy Institute:
In dollar terms, America's ties with poor nations span aid, charity, trade, and remittances. Government aid and private charity flows, at $22 billion and $9 billion, account for the least money but are essential in emergencies and can bolster public health, primary education, and other public services. Remittances are larger -- immigrants send at least $45 billion home from the United States each year raising family incomes in rural districts and urban slums. Imports from low-income countries, excluding energy and goods from China, totaled $405 billion (or $35 billion per month) in 2007. This is a much larger figure than those for aid, charity and remittances, but complements rather than replaces them by supporting tens of millions of middle-class and lower-middle class urban jobs and raising farm incomes, in poor countries.
A quick table on the U.S. role in poor-country finance, excluding energy and China, as of 2007, finds the United States buying about a quarter of poor-country exports; providing a fifth of foreign direct investment, foreign aid, and remittances; and accounting for nearly two-thirds of charitable donations.
The World Bank defines "absolute poverty" as life on $1.25 a day or less (in constant 1993 dollars) and has estimated poverty rates on this basis back to 1981. In that year, 52 percent of the world's people were very poor. By 1990, the figure was 42 percent. In 2005, the most recent year available, only 25 percent of the world's people were very poor. East Asia recorded the most progress, with the absolute-poverty rate falling from 78 percent in 1981, to 55 percent in 1990, and 16 percent in 2005. In one generation, then, Asian poverty fell from the near-universal experience of life to the sad exception. Drops elsewhere in the world have been slower but real: Since 1981, Latin America has cut absolute poverty from 13 percent to 8 percent; India and its neighbors from 60 percent to 40 percent; the Middle East from 8 percent to 4 percent; Africa from 54 percent to 51 percent. In eight low-to-middle income countries without oil -- Chile, Jamaica, Mexico, Uruguay, Egypt, Jordan, Thailand, and Malaysia -- the absolute-poverty rate has fallen below two percent. Conclusion: if poor countries have good education, financial, infrastructure, anti-corruption, and other policies; if they are free of wars and coups; and if rich countries help through aid, trade and easy remittance, poverty often falls quickly and permanently.
United States World Total
Goods imports* $405 billion ~$1.8 trillion
Service imports $71 billion ~$350 billion
Remittances** $45 billion $248 billion
investment $41 billion $215 billion
Foreign aid $22 billion $105 billion
Private charities $9 billion $15 billion
* Excluding oil, gas, fuel and Chinese goods. With energy and China trade, the figure was $1.1 trillion.
** $248 billion in total
The World Bank charts the decline of poverty, 1981-2005.
All right, that last excerpt was a bit long. But it's thought provoking and suggests there still may be hope.
Friday, February 06, 2009
Like anybody sensible, I have reservations about the great big Christmas Tree Stimulus Bill. Half a dozen GOP senators are doing what the whole party ought to do, pointing out reasonable objections and negotiating about them in good faith. Partly because there are still a few reasonable Republicans in the Senate (gerrymandering has insured there are almost none in the House) and in part because they were deputized to do so, by a party that knows what will happen, if they obstruct too much.
First , that Republican party discipline will remain uncannily strong. Second, that a filibuster of the Stimulus Bill comes without silver linings. Yes, party discipline is strong in a GOP that has been honed into an instrument of incredibly narrow dogmatism, especially in the House. But this runs counter to the country's mood, and may backfire.
And this is a losing situation for the Democrats... how? And who then gets the blame, with every bad piece of economic news?
There is something to be said for having the Dems deal with the filibuster threat right up front, by calling the Republicans' bluff. Forcing the issue while the President is popular and the issues are stark would put the GOP on notice and also set the precedent that Obama is willing to face such threats down.
Then, once this shiboleth is broken - and true to his nature - let the President offer his hand.
Monday, February 02, 2009
Having cut back my political screeds to once a month - and maybe twice a month for other matters - let me start February's mensual political flashflood with....
1. THE OTHER “C-WORD”
In my previous missive, I remarked on how President Obama’s inaugural address proposed to “restore science to its proper place.” Signifying that we may (at long last) be departing a proudly know-nothing era. Only later did I recall where I had seen a similar phrase:
Our countrymen have recovered from the alarm into which art and industry had thrown them; science and honesty are replaced on their high ground.
- Thomas Jefferson, on entering office and repealing the Alien & Sedition Acts
Dang, is Obama mining everybody for ideas? First Lincoln, then both Roosevelts, JFK, Reagan, Ike and now Jefferson? Not that I’m complaining about the quality of his sources...
Also last time, I spoke of what I considered to be the most “telling” word in his speech - notable because he did not have to mention it. Of course, I was glad to hear tolerance, responsibility, justice, progress, openness, accountability and so on, spoken with intense sincerity, for a change. Other virtues, freedom and leadership, seemed to be rescued from the bizarre half-meanings they held in recent years. Still, in a sense, he had to mention all of those. But what sparked my interest was a word that nobody expected - and that would win no particular political or rhetorical points. It was totally his own volition to include curiosity. I suggested that this may reveal much about the man.
As a quick followup, before heading on to other matters in a long monthly compendium, I must turn from curiosity to the other “c-word” that lurks, like a ghost at the banquet. Almost diametrically opposite, this anti-virtue represents perhaps the worst trait of the awful gang who left our country such a shambles. No, not “corruption” or “criminality” or “cretinous.” The worst Bush era anti-virtue was certainty.
The kind of absolute certainty manifested by a clade that demolished the very same Pax Americana they claimed to love, by pursuing, with absolute determination (plus contempt for all criticism) policies that proved to be at-best wrong, and often criminally delusional. Even the “reform minded” McCain-Palin ticket shared this strange and childish anti-value, stressing proudly, over and over, their perfection of will, an iron-jawed grit that arises straight from the gut, not out of any namby pamby enlightenment process of assertion, evidence, argument, negotiation or reciprocal accountability. A stubborn, schoolyard obstinacy that is elevated and extolled as something somehow admirable.
This, I believe, is the root cause of the situation that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bemoaned last week, in a blunt warning to Republicans: “We’re all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us. And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one.”
No doubt, in McConnel’s mind, the GOP “region” is geographical -- largely the South and the Mormon Belt. But I think a map that would be even more telling is wherever towns and counties have seen their smartest young people move away, via university and profession, leaving behind those who feel viscerally abandoned, resentful and hurt. I refer to Limbaugh-Land, where citizens have only limited access to diversity, or diverse opinions, but live instead immersed in media voices who preach nothing but indignant fury. And if there is one thing about addictive indignation, we know that it flourishes best in an ambience of unswerving, unquestioned certainty.
Oh, there are some things in life that do merit gritty resolution. Love of family. Loyalty. Freedom (in the true sense, and not reducing it to a tribal totem-slogan). Also courage, charity, and a willingness to keep fighting for a better world -- first through negotiation but also by confronting bona fide “evil-doers.” Heck, I can go for all of that, and fie upon snooty/urban fools who sneer at such things, from an equally-flaky left! We need to improve, a great deal! But of all nations -- especially those that were ever tempted by great power -- none could ever brag of a higher ratio of goodness over villainy and error.
Anyway, wasn’t that supposed to be the purpose of Pax Americana? Moreover, from the ecstatic worldwide reception given President BHO, perhaps people all over the world still feel that ought to be our role. We may have one more chance to prove we deserve it for the crucial time that it takes to forge a grownup civilization. Of that much, I feel certain.
Nevertheless, it’s become clear why right-wing “certainty” has such a grip, festering still, in at least a quarter of the nation. It offers a clear and simple rebutal against those postgrad-educated folk who talk like they know so much -- and probably do -- but who are so superior and irritating. After all, in Hollywood films, isn’t it the villain who goes on and on, in polysyllabic, explanatory monologues about how logical his plan is? Until the hero -- Bruce Willis, or Sylvester or Arnold -- simply shouts “Oh, yeah?” and blasts the scoundrel with utter moral... certainty?
In other words, doesn’t this attitude resonate in American tradition? Without it, might we long ago have tumbled into a different nightmare? Technocracy, or rule by the smartypants? Ew!
During our present pendulum swing back toward sanity and calm thought, let’s remember that the know-nothings do have a complaint. It is 95% crap, but we would be wrong to respond to their moronic contempt with a similar (if reciprocal)... certainty.
2. AN ILLUSTRATION OF HOW BAD IT’S BEEN
Which leads me to an article published recently in the Wall Street Journal by Eliot A. Cohen, Condoleeza Rice’s foreign policy advisor, or the (supposedly) smart guy who guided the smart people who guided Pax Americana for all but two months (so far) of the 21st Century. In “How Government Looks at Pundits” Cohen offered his list of reasons why government insiders have little patience or use for input from others, beyond the narrow circle of those who receive “three-to-six-inch-thick briefing books, every day.”
On the discussion list of SIGMA (the “think tank of scientific science fiction authors”) several members were all-aflutter over how this splash of cold water should remind us outside consultants to keep our expectations low, no matter who is in power or what philosophies or personalities guide our myriad agencies.
Appalled at this complacent acceptance, I’m afraid I went a bit ballistic! Nobody else seemed to recognize Cohen’s article as a lengthy and utterly horrific apologia by one of the chief architects of the demolition of the American Pax,. In-effect, a longwinded whine about how nobody but a uniform and self-referential ingroup should ever expect to be heeded.
In vain, I searched his article for any mention of processes that might track outcomes and/or re-appraise policies in light of predictive success or failure. No mention of the pragmatic aim of finding people - both inside and outside of government - who happen to be right a lot and bringing them into the “briefing books” layer. No interest - or curiosity - about how his own error-avoidance methods might improve. Nor, of course, any awareness that the self-limiting perspective that he described might be a pathology. A perniciously destructive one, that merits correction by smart, sincere, skilled and patriotic people.
What I did find was the following especially bizarre excerpt:
”Do not prescribe a policy that the current group of officials cannot hope to implement because of who they are. I have had highly intelligent individuals -- including some with senior government experience -- sit in my office and lay out perfectly plausible policies that the current team, limited by time remaining in office, the pressure of competing and more urgent crises, and the all important mix of personalities, could never hope to put into effect. Moreover, core beliefs and style constrain policy makers profoundly. So don't ask them to do something outside their range of psychological possibility by, for example, proposing cold-eyed realpolitik to a band of idealists or vice versa.”
So, let me get this straight. We are to be guided by a core “band” that steers the ship of state with gut-level certainty, while accepting no advice, no feedback or course-correction based on ongoing metrics, having culled themselves of not only diversity of philosophy, but any difference in personality? As if any leader worth more than a bucket of warm seawater would not make sure to employ realists and idealists and all kinds that might both temper and challenge one another? Questioning assumptions and seeking good ideas, whatever the source?
Reminder, this was the best and most highly-touted kind of “expert” that we got under Bush. The very brightest of the brightest of those who have been ruling us, all but two months of the 21st century. With results and outcomes that are blatantly obvious to all.
3. CAN WE BE MORE ROBUST?
What bothers me above all else? I’ve raised it many times before, from Defense Department consultations to magazine articles -- the issue of fragility vs resilience, and how much less robust we’ve become. Especially, my teeth ache over small tweaks of public policy that might address so many these manmade fralities and potential failure modes. A few examples:
1) Reversing the inventory tax (e.g Thor Power Tools) into a mild inventory incentive could ease a curse that was bequeathed on us by the same MBA dunces who invented "efficient investment instruments." I speak of "just-in-time" delivery practices that leave our industries and cities without any reserves, to keep us going in case of transport disruptions. (Taxing inventory would seem to be especially unwise right now, when unsold goods are piling up at companies in delicate health.)
2) A minuscule tax on un-hardened electronics - something very small would do no harm but exert perpetual pressure on Intel, Ford etc to come up with chips and electronics that won't be fried by a simple EMP.
3) Require that all cell phones have a backup peer-to-peer, packet-based system, allowing simple text messages to leave an afflicted area, even when normal cell towers are down. Thus empowering citizens to communicate, when they need it most.
4) Tax incentives for companies to sponsor CERT team (civil defense) training among employees and neighbors.
Those are just four (of many) relatively small "stitch in time" policy endeavors that could add robustness to society without costing much at all.
Here is another one from author Wil McCarthy: Adding some capacitance to the power grid would be a big deal, too. The reason our current grid can't support more than about 10% wind power is because it's an LRC circuit with no C. The reason power failures can cascade out of control: same deal. The current system is very brittle. A power grid with distributed capacitance could, for example, go into a "safe mode" where all the interconnects were severed either regionally, locally, or even down the neighborhood level, and run independently for a few minutes (or even hours) while the problem is sorted out. The ability to break up the grid for even a few seconds would make it a lot less vulnerable to spikes, EMP, sabotage, etc. Why not pay property owners to house an ultracapacitor or battery bank, the same way cell phone companies pay for towers? For serious storage, you can even go to hydrolysis and fuel cells, although that's more hazardous and requires more infrastructure. I'm also a big fan of the Mormon practice of keeping a two-year supply of food on hand.
4. A SUGGESTION FOR DEALING WITH GOP TACTICS
Some of you have checked out my “100 unusual suggestions for the Obama Administration” Now here’s another.
Facing Obama’s 70% approval ratings (the highest since Eisenhower), and especially after experiencing the President’s forthcoming and genial engagement, Congressional republicans are playing nice... verbally, that is. Said Mitch McConnell: "I know I'm speaking for every single member of our conference that we appreciated his coming up (to meet with Coingressfolk), and enjoyed the whole exchange." To some extent, Republicans -- along with the rest of the country -- may still be getting used to having a president who realizes Congress exists as an independent branch of the federal government, and not merely as a collection of 535 minor irritants to be alternately steamrolled or ignored. As another GOP aide joked, Obama paid more attention on Tuesday to House Republicans than George W. Bush did in most of the last eight years.
Alas, this did not extend to offering any support for the economic rescue package. (Which, frankly, has in it some items I would like to have seen the GOP members assertively and pragmatically bargain-down! The aren’t always wrong, at the level of specifics.) The GOP members voted nay, as a bloc, in order to position themselves, in case BHO’s program fails.
One tactic the dems might try -- pass, by a narrow partisan majority, a bill without any GOP-loved sweeteners. Then offer a vote on a replacement package that contains such sweeteners, but requiring a super-majority. Let’s see if their business constituents will act swiftly to null out the political gamesmanship.
5. REMINDER OF RECENT ITEMS
Those who have been following my political commentaries know that I have long favored efforts to wean our more decent conservative neighbors away from their reflex-driven alliance with the kleptos and know-nothings who have hijacked their movement. Conservatism, in its better form, deserves a place at the negotiating table, but it can only return to credibility if its saner members gather the courage and patriotism to do what democrats and liberals did in 1947 -- by cutting themselves off from monsters, dogmatists, troglodytes and a bona fide criminal gang.
And an older essay (still relevant).
Those interested in following up on this concept can find more grist for thought in "Building a Rhetorical Bridge To (and For) Reasonable Conservatives," by my colleague in the SIGMA think tank of scientific science fiction authors, Dr. Charles E. Gannon. Most insightful.
Ex GOP Congressman and Heritage Foundation co-founder Mickey Edwards writes about his realization that today’s neocon movement has abandoned Ronald Reagan’s version of conservatism -- along with Locke and Madison and any kind of common sense. Of course, I’ve been long pointing out that it is much worse than that. Today’s “conservatism” has betrayed - above all - Adam Smith and market capitalism. Indeed, its central paradigm is to assist the quasi feudal crony-aristocratism that Smith despised as the worst and most consistent foe of market enterprise.
Somebody refer Mr. Edwards to my paper about the “miracle of 1947”?
Atlas Shrugged Updated For The Current Financial Crisis. by Jeremiah Tucker http://mcsweeneys.net/2008/11/20tucker.html
In The Know: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole? http://www.independent.org/blog/?p=513
And now... although I have more items (a lot!) to offer, I’ll clip and offer them only to the die-hards among you! By posting them below, under “comments.” Some are cute or weird. All political.
Above all, I am hoping that politics will simply matter less, real soon! I am tired of it. I want civilization to consider politics just another problem solving tool, one among many, and no longer obsess on it, as (ironically) has been the case under the error... er, era... of the neocons.