Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Will NASA Announce? And Other Wonders...

The internet is abuzz about NASA's coming Big Announcement on Bioastronomy. (Thursday Dec.2 at 2pm EST.) Speculation abounds, much of it suggesting that there will be news about signs of life on one of the 500+ exoplanets that have been discovered, outside our solar system.

Speaking as both an astronomer and a science fiction author... and as one who has long participated in these fields, having served on some of the relevant committees... I am most definitely interested and will be tuning in!  Still, I have to say that were this a matter for wagering, I would lean away from the trendy consensus.

For one thing, you can learn a lot just from the composition of Thursday's panel:

Planned participants are:
-     Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA HQ
-     Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobio research fellow, U.S. Geol. Survey
-     Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, Goddard Space Flight Center
-     Steven Benner, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution
-     James Elser, professor, Arizona State University

Pause and consider. There are no exoplanetary astronomers. None. If there were new spectroscopic data about -- say -- exoplanetary atmosphere composition, wouldn't there be an expert in that field?

 Hence -- and judging from the types of expertise represented -- I would hazard to guess it may have to do with fresh discoveries in prebiotic and biotic chemistry. (One of the panel members has forecast imminent shortages of easily-mined free phosphorus on Earth. Will that be our next  resource crisis? See it described in my next novel -- EXISTENCE.)

Of course, I could be out there, chivvying and pillorying my own contacts in the field.  I have plenty and would probably get the real deal, within hours.  But why spoil the suspense? Anyway, I want to stay on the "First Contact rolladex."  That means not abusing privileges. So I'll just tune in, like everybody else, and see!

Other Space News

One way to reduce launch costs: manufacture parts in space. A new company, Made in Space, proposes launching 3-D printers into orbit and using them to manufacture parts for spacecraft (satellites or the space station) – which would then be assembled in zero gravity. This would reduce the need to bring spare (plastic) parts. Broken pieces would be recycled as ‘feedstock’ for rapid prototyping.  (I led the VERY FIRST pre-study of this general concept that was ever funded by NASA and the California Space Institute, back around 1984.)

Will we be able to grow crops on other planets to sustain human colonies? Scientists analyze soils on the Moon, Mars and Venus for potential agriculture.  Aeroonics is another possibility for soil-less agriculture.
Project Icarus
is a Tau Zero Foundation (TZF) initiative in collaboration with The British Interplanetary Society (BIS). Daedalus was a BIS project in the late 1970's conducted over several years, to design an interstellar probe for a flyby mission to Barnards Star. Over three decades has now passed and it is an opportunity to revisit this unique design study.

Earlier this week my son and I stood in our backyard and observed the International Space Station crossing through the night sky  -- an inspiring sight. If you want to know when and where to look, check Heavens Above for your geographic position. It tabulates the location of the ISS, and satellites, as well as any visible comets.

And  Science Fiction!

 The 100 best movie spaceships.

How does Serenity compare to a TIE Interceptor, or Babylon 5 Station to a Klingon Transport vessel?  Starship Dimensions, an online museum of vessels inspired by science fiction, puts it all to scale, contrasting dimensions of starships to real-life vessels. 

And Miscellaneous Cool Stuff

The idea that we are entitled a life of happiness is a relatively new one. Past generations were more likely to accept their lot in life – with happiness a function of birth, bestowed by the fates or the gods, the reward for a virtuous life – or even delayed til a glorious afterlife. We who are less patient, believe it is our due, and yet, in the bustle of modern life, few seem to attain it…See A History of Happiness.

Seems time for some inspiring songs!  Starting off, we went and saw Steve Martin and his bluegrass group perform this one in person, last month.  Second time it was done on their tour. Heh.

Daniel Radcliffe sings one of my old favorites, Tom Lehrer’s The Elements live on television. Now THAT is the way Harry Potter oughta be! A nerd who uses his brains as much a he does his ubermesch-demigod innate magical power!

  In fact, if you'd like to see that fantasy (a brainy-nerdy Harry Potter, who fights for the Enlightenment and for the rest of us (!) see "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality." It's an ongoing, web-published, not-for-profit (for obvious reasons) re-imagining of Dr. Rowling's famed mythos... and it really is very, very very good.

Oh. Need anti-gravity or antimatter? How about immortality at $11 a gallon? 

Fun abounds.

Only, next time... "Mr. Transparency" weighs in about Wikileaks!


Stefan Jones said...

The boffins on the CONTACT email list think we might be hearing about life signatures on Titan.

* * *

If Wikileaks releases, as promised, confidential communications detailing the operations of one of the mega-banks whose chicanery dragged us into recession, I'll forgive them a lot.

'brises': What happens eight days after you have twin boys.

Brendan said...

"See it described in my next novel -- EXISTENCE"

I would love to. Any idea when it will be finished/released?

David Brin said...

Gotta find time to finish it.

Dang teenagers.

supra shoes said...

lucky to read your blog!

Stefan Jones said...

Aww, c'mon, parental neglect is character-building!

What I've seen of Existence is funny and thoughtful and packed with neat-o ideas and needs finishing!

Tim H. said...

Another interesting bit about wikileaks, wired posted that interpol has released a "Red Notice" for the arrest of Julian Assange for sex crimes. Funny to hear about that so soon after the announcement of impending releases about a major bank.

Eugene Duranin said...

"There are no exoplanetary astronomers" cause there are no exoplanets, but 500+ alien invaders ships :) Giant bio-ships! :)

David Brin said...

My friend, USC biologist Joe Miller, speculates: "Unsubstantiated chatter is that a terrestrial non-carbon-based lifeform ("shadow life") may have been discovered. Speculation is that it is arsenic-based. I'm skeptical--that begins to sound like Hal Clement biochemistry!

"However, it is possible that arsenic could replace phosphorus in DNA and possibly in other reactions that usually use phosphorus. We will know tomorrow"

My response: Elser and Benner would seem to support Joe's suspicion of something having to do with phosphorus. And yes, an arsenic replacement would be huge news... to biologically erudite people who know the role Phosphorus plays. But I doubt such news would have major public resonance. The popular response is likely to be "Whaaa?"

David Brin said...

Joe Miller adds: "The other thing about phosphorus is that it is a really high energy species. Phosphorylation is still the most common way to activate enzymes, and then there is ATP, the main energy source in terrestrial biochemistry. And the activation of the majority of receptors in the body involves phosphorylation and dephosphorylation of G-proteins. If arsenic can substitute for all of that, we are talking about a very bizarre form of life, even if it is still carbon-based."

I don't mind seeing something replace phosphates in proteins and even DNA -- weird but conceivable.

But a replacement for ATP? That would be utterly bizarre.

Tacitus said...

Dang. I was hoping SETI had picked up "Klatu, Barudu, Nictus" with a spectral shift indicating "they" would be here next month.

Tacitus said...

Oh, and Mr. Martin did the atheist song when he appeared in Wisconsin a couple of months back.

He puts on a good show.

(One of my sons is a banjo player)


rewinn said...

@Tim H - here's the Interpol Red Notice.

Amazing co-incedence, is it not? That out of all the thousands of alleged nonconsensual sexual acts committed every day, this one should bubble up to the top of the priority list?

I'm still of two minds about wikileaks, but does Interpol really have to insult our intelligence?

ell said...

I suppose arsenic-life would be too poisonous for us to eat, but if we ever meet them, would we be poisonous to them?

Woozle said...

Somewhat related to the idea of manufacturing stuff in orbit -- how about not de-orbiting all the scrap materials already up there?

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad someone is actually working on the orbital trash-collection problem, but tossing it back down here would be a waste of epic proportions -- a crime against humanity on a par with allowing Skylab and Mir to burn up.

At least, that's my take...

(P.S. Nice job on the blog redesign -- I realize it was probably done some time ago; I've been rather busy, and mainly just reading the RSS feed.)

Ian said...

Speaking of giant alien bioships, what did people think of Skyline?

I know it was panned by the critics but I thought it was excellent.

SteveO said...

I thought I posted this earlier, but apparently not...

The NASA announcement is probably this.

"There's word from some scientists today that there may be three times more stars in the universe than was previously thought — and many, many planets that could support life."

Here's hoping it is something bigger though!

Word verification whosinet: that thing that is made up of a bunch of tubes.

Tony Fisk said...

I thought said teenagers had a stake in your next novel getting published? (Or are they being overly enthusuastic proof readers?;-)

Heck! If you really can't stand the suspense I'm sure you'll find the scoop on wikileaks, if you can get to the site (headline: Julian Assange is a toxic alien life-form. Approach with caution!)

muthori: evil clothes-eating moths

Brendan said...


Apart from the graphics of the aliens and the ship, the film was awful. I really felt it was a waste of money. I didn't find any reason to like any of the characters, the story was bad, and as happens way too often-was one scene too long.

Tony Fisk said...

Skyline sounds like a case of what I call the 'Dr. Who' effect:
good stories can cover for bad effects, but not vice versa.

(and, yes, Dr. Who often features bad stories covering for bad effects!)

Speaking of which, what about 'Monsters'?

Robert said...

Off on a slight politics bent, it looks like President Obama has betrayed the American people who voted him into office by blocking attempts by Spain to prosecute the Bush Administration for the torture of Guantanamo detainees of Spanish citizenship. Let's face it. Obama isn't going to do any special prosecution of Republicans. He's going to do his absolute best to protect Bush and his cronies despite the fact these people betrayed the very fundamentals of what it means to be American.


And now on a science bent: the number of stars in the universe may be triple what was originally believed. I must admit some curiosity: what does this revelation do to the percentage of matter to dark matter to dark energy that has been bandied about? And does this mean that there may be in fact a mundane explanation for dark matter: it truly is just matter that we're not seeing because it's not bright enough?

Rob H.

P.S. - I'm still waiting on an answer to my question about black holes and why event horizons would prevent virtual particles from recombining....

Anonymous said...

On Skyline...

Aside from the aforementioned ship design, there was one other interesting part about the movie. In their story, humanity had no weapons that could affect the aliens. No human caused lasting harm on any alien. Humanity simply lost and died.

(I'm assuming Jarrod and his girl were dealt with less than ten minutes after the movie ended.)

I don't recall seeing that outcome show up in film often, so it seems different.

Aside from those two things, it was one of the most vacuous movies I've ever seen. And it wasn't redeemably bad in a campy, charming way, either.

Brendan said...

And it was so really believable how the Stealth bomber needed to get to point blank to fire off its nuclear missile

Tony Fisk said...

All these oversight committees are *such* a waste of the taxpayers' money. So let's start by disbanding the climate change committee. After all, our attitudes make it a self-fulfilling prophecy that it is a waste of money (aka making our own realities)

Spleen vented, I will turn from arsenic-based lieforms (...oops! I mean life-forms) to your question, Rob.

Speaking as someone who never delved deeply into cosmology (ie feel free to laugh), I think the answer is time.

As its anti-partner approaches the event horizon, a virtual particle observes it moving more and more sluggishly (a photon is still travelling at c but would be getting red-shifted to blank). The two experience a form of inflation in the space between them, making it take longer to reach back to each other.

So, virtual particles near a black hole may recombine, at the end of time (which, according to some theories, is when all the black holes get together to plan the next aeon).

(Hmmm! Singularicon?)

flishlur: an exotic alien dish not at all like swedish meatballs

Ilithi Dragon said...

I enjoyed Skyline as a horror-thriller action movie with a sci-fi bent. The directing was a little off, and the near-miss-survival events were pushing the line between exciting and silly, but it was a very enjoyable movie. The actual sci-fi content is very low, it's NOT a sci-fi movie with elements of horror, it is first and foremost a horror-thriller movie, that has a sci-fi setting. There were a number of minor science/technical nitpicks (not being blinded by the nuke flash, especially the guy looking at it through the telescope, the F-22 gun rounds hitting inches from the main characters without giving them a scratch), but they're largely trivial, and hardly outstanding for Hollywood science goofs.

As for humanity dying off/the two central characters being killed minutes after the movie ends, not what happened. They've already got a sequel in the works.

Brendan said...

Sequals? Please say it isn't so. One Age reviewer called it the worst film this year, and I would agree. It is certainly the worst I saw.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I should say, I think it's reasonable to assume that the aliens in Skyline would have encountered a defective brain problem before and could deal with it.

To allow for a sequel requires another unrealistic defect on the alien's part. :P

E.G. The super advanced aliens can't locate you if you hide behind the island in the kitchen! They don't have any advanced way of finding you!

Robert said...

Attempt #2:

Posted without comment


This is an article concerning the Russian newspaper Pravda calling Sarah Palin a traitor to the United States, and the author's opinions of this and of what Palin and the GOP have become. Well, I post it without comment because it's said quite well here. ;)

Rob H.

Robert said...

By the way, Dr. Brin, Blogger seems to be taking posts I submit (with word verification and the like) and then after posting them, retroactively removing them from the system. It doesn't even leave a "this post has been deleted" warning or anything.

Rob H., who thinks Dr. Brin would be better off moving to WordPress....

Robert said...

Looks like the alien lifeform is the arsenic-based bacterium that another reader speculated on. It was found in California, showing that the anti-immigration efforts have definitely fallen far short of succeeding. ;) (Would have been funnier if it had been found in Arizona, mind you...)

Rob H.

Robert said...

This is rather promising: researchers have come up with brain scans that detect high-level autism with a 94% accuracy rating; I almost have to wonder if the 6% who were not detected are in fact people with other disorders rather than high-level autism. While the article doesn't state if it detects more severe forms of autism, I'd be willing to bet it can also be utilized in this... and the test can be performed on young children, when therapy has the greatest chance of helping autistic individuals.

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

I'm extremely excited about the Wikileaks post. I've been checking hourly since the diplomatic leeks to see your opinion. Can't wait to read it!

Robert said...

We've a more in-depth article on the arsenic-loving bacteria; seems this wasn't a naturally-occurring beastie that was discovered but rather one that was induced to utilize arsenic but originally used phosphorus (and still had some levels of phosphorus in its DNA).

Still, it's an interesting article. Considering we've had artificially-created organisms before now, I have to wonder if someone will try to build an arsenic-using biocritter from the ground up.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Watching news on NASA channel. My guess - based just on the panelist names - was 100% on target!. Forgive a little touchdown dance? (wriggle wriggle, fist-pump.)

A caution: replacement of phosphate in the DNA backbone is only interpolated, not proved. 2nd, I'll be more boggled if P is replaced by As in ATP! The centerpiece of Earthly life.

So far, this shows Earth life's flexibility, not a "second genesis."

Gilmoure said...

Rob H said... ...thinks Dr. Brin would be better off moving to WordPress.

John Scalzi runs Wordpress and seems pretty knowledgable about running his blog on it.

David Brin said...

I plan to do that someday. I just don't have the time right now.

nick said...

The arsenic story seems to be of considerable public interest because most people know of arsenic as a deadly poison even if they have no clue about the crucial role of phosphorous in biology (life as we know it is based on far more than just carbon). It's dramatic to discover some organism thriving by eating what is death to the rest of us. Also, there's the "alien" astrobiology/Mono Lake spin being put on it to capture the late night Art Bell/George Noory crowd.

This story if it pans out will be a dramatic way to teach about the biological role of phosphorous. It's also an interesting way to introduce the role of oxygen. Oxygen was once also a poison (and still is to many organisms that have gone "underground"). We ourselves are the results of life co-opting a poison to beneficial use.

Another interesting aspect of this story is that nitrogen and phosphorous, not carbon, are the scarcest elements in comparison to the demand life as we know it has for it, as I describe here.

David Brin said...

Read this:

Tim H. said...

P. Z. Myers had an interesting comment on the arsenic-tolerant bacteria here:

Tony Fisk said...

Wikileaks has been shot down: the domain name having been revoked (when did that last happen?)

Tony Fisk said...

... But censorship is just damage to re-route around...to

prosp: A toast! To live long and ...er.

Tony Fisk said...

I find this the height of irony:

WikiLeaks moves to Switzerland http://wikileaks.ch/

(Stick with the raw url, however)

Doug said...

It appears that wikileaks DNS was shut off due to their free DNS hoster couldn't handle the attacks and volume. I suspect they'll be back up once they get a different provider who is set up to handle such a high-profile domain.

Jeff B. said...

Re: science, and anti-science: Kentucky might be helping to develop a creationist theme park:

They're justifying it by the projected tax revenues, but...

Stuart said...

The news keeps telling me about how the Justice Department plans to charge Assange under the Espionage Act. Does anyone understand how they plan to charge an Australian with a political crime against the United States?

Robert said...

Looks like Randall Monroe of xkcd decided to have fun with the arsenic-based DNA news. =^-^=

Rob H.

Woozle said...

I have twice successfully posted a comment only to see it gone a few minutes later. Is there an editorial reason for this, or would it seem to be a technical glitch?

Catfish N. Cod said...

Doug- while the DNS issue does seem to be more about capacity than policy, it is also true that Wikileaks has brought some of it's pain upon itself. Assange has publicly stated that Wikileaks has deliberately placed some of it's servers among non-supportive providers in order to highlight their policies when they get thrown out. I suppose this could be considered some form of nonviolent demonstration.

On the Espionage Act: this may be really so that the leaker can be charged with conspiracy or some such. The authorities that have proper jurisdiction would be Assange home nation, Australia, and his current nation of residence, which may be Sweden, the UK, or Switzerland.

Nonethless, if Wikileaks keeps this up there won't be many places Assange can be and avoid at least harassment. He's simply annoyed too many people at once, too quickly.

David Brin said...

Thanks. That was an excellent article by PZ Myers

BCRion said...

On Wikileaks: I feel they are being reckless and the people doing this have a lot of hubris. It is well accepted that when atrocities or crimes under international law have been committed, then these things should be brought to light. I would applaud this if this were the sole aim of Wikileaks.

Rather, the justification for the information dumps they are doing is that the public has a right to know. This is quite a radical statement as the prevailing thought is that sovereign nations have the inherent right to protect information that protects its security and competitive advantage and allows its agents to conduct operations within the boundaries of international law. For example, most would agree the public does not have a right to know about where soldiers are stationed and how many.

Now, I'm all for having a discussion about where the boundaries of secrecy should be drawn, but the Wikileaks folks did nothing of the sort. Were experts from diverse disciplines of various nationalities consulted? Were those affected allowed to offer comments beforehand? Not as far as I am aware. Instead, they unilaterally declared that their alternative view of things is the correct one.

Their actions have the potential to upset the delicate balance that exists in an incredibly dangerous world. The consequences of such have the potential to be anywhere from minor to catastrophic. With such high stakes, unilaterally pursuing such an ideologically driven agenda contrary to global cultural norms is simply reckless.

Tony Fisk said...

Were experts from diverse disciplines of various nationalities consulted?

Actually, Wikileaks did ask the US government for help in going through the leaked documents. It was refused.

BCRion said...


That's a ridiculous request and they know it. Any comment on specific documents may confirm or deny the validity of classified information. How can an agent say "this is okay" and "this is not" without admitting to the validity of said information and thereby disclosing secrets? You really can't because anything said agent would say "no" to is an effective confirmation.

matthew said...

@ Woozle -
I have had the same problem once in the last three days.

Tony Fisk said...

Hardly ridiculous.

All that need be asked is to point out whether or not a document might implicate someone *at face value* (ie document mentions someone by name). No need to confirm/deny the validity of contents.

Ilithi Dragon said...

I wise or clever intel analyst would also take the opportunity to mark 'sensitive' things that are of complete insignificance, to help mask the things that are of significance.

Hypnos said...

You're missing the point of anarchy. Is Assange is acting as an anarchist then his purpose his not bringing about the reforming of the system, it is destroying the system. An anarchist needs not concern himself with what comes after - anarchy destroys. Somebody else will pick up the rabbles.

An anarchist identifies the current system dying and beyond repair, and himself as the disease - not the cure. There some speech given by a leading Russian anarchist back in the 1910s about this, can't find it at the moment.

Assange says he also has documents on a big bank and on oil companies. Releasing this kind of information in the current socio-economic environment could bring down the whole edifice of industrial civilization once and for all - especially if the real OPEC reserve numbers are in there. With oil at $90 and the financial system still basically bankrupt there isn't much space for manouver.

If the state of decay in the system is put out for everybody to see, it will be the end of it, much like perestroijka and galstnost destroyed the Soviet Union.

It is not an endearing prospect.

Stuart said...

Asking the government to choose which documents should be redacted for the safety of operatives is not a ridiculous thing to ask. WikiLeaks isn't asking which documents are valid - they're probably all valid. And pointing out which documents would be most damaging to operatives wouldn't be more dangerous to the U.S. than letting Assange guess, or release the whole bunch unredacted for lack of guidance.

I suspect the players involved would rather expose their own operatives than have their protection lend legitimacy to something as disruptive as WikiLeaks. As architects of war, they believe by definition that it's okay to trade innocent lives to achieve political objectives.

Robert said...

@Hypnos: I have to call bullshit on that sentiment. If the financial system and the oil industries are built on houses of cards, then it doesn't matter how firm the economy is: revelation will destroy the system. But not revealing just how screwed up things are will also result in the system self-destructing, as we already were witness to in the Global Financial Crisis that started in 2007 and let's be honest, is ongoing now and will be for the next several years.

It is better to get this information out in the open and allow people to see just how fsked up the system is, so we can start working on a new foundation to build a better structure for the financial and energy industries, than to let them continue to make the ultra-rich even richer at the expense of everyone else.

As for the American Wikileaks Diplomacy brouhaha? It's nothing. We've seen some bluntly honest statements about world leaders, which a number of diplomats have found fascinating and which actually puts our diplomatic corps in a good light in terms of their intelligence and ability to do their job. Some egos will be bruised, some people will be more open in their existing dislike of the United States, but it won't be the End Times for the American Government or American Diplomacy.

There are other things going on in the U.S. government that are far more worrisome than the Wikileak revelations. All that Wikileaks has done is aired some dirty laundry. But the funny thing about airing out dirty laundry is that after it's aired out for a bit? It smells a lot better. Ultimately, these revelations will do good. Both for American diplomacy... and for diplomatic efforts across the world.

Rob H.

Robert said...

And now to go off the tangent and back to the scientific discussion previously at hand, here is a geek-out moment on a show on just how much energy can be pulled from concentrated sunlight. The sunlight is basically the amount that three people sunbathing would gather. Except focused on one tiny tiny little point. It's a definite geek-out moment... and while it would be interesting to see large-scale solar-concentrating energy power, I'm sure the environmentalists will cry fowl and claim birds flying into the focused beams of light will turn into little crispy critters. ;)

Rob H., a proud conservationalist

Woozle said...

Now you see it -- now you don't.

Does Blogger have a page for reporting bugs?

Woozle said...

(attempt #8)

I realize this is a little off-topic, but I thought Dr.B might like to be aware of a semi-prominent figure (Eric S. Raymond) claiming that the Bush tax cuts helped the economy (and maybe someone can help me refute it):

"I know this is an article of faith on the left, but it’s completely false. The Bush cuts increased revenues."

As evidence, ESR offered this article, which I will try to get around to analyzing when I can -- but my reading list tends to grow rather than shrink.

(If I do end up diving in and writing an analysis/refutation, I'll link to it in another comment here.)

BCRion said...


The US must say no to all such documents as that is our law. Any agent of the US is forbidden from commenting, in any way, on possibly classified information. If you disagree with that, petition to change the law, not push for violation of the law.

The point being here, who gives WikiLeaks the right to unilaterally adjust the social order as they see fit? Call them reformers if you want. I call them thugs because the only answer to the last question is the "rules of the jungle". There are systems in democratic societies set up to enact change. They may be slow, but they exist.

David Brin said...




Jon said...

This article pretty much agrees with our host here:


and is a bit of a companion piece to "Greetings from Idiot America"

Woozle said...


"There are systems in democratic societies set up to enact change. They may be slow, but they exist."

Free Speech being one such mechanism.

"who gives WikiLeaks the right to unilaterally adjust the social order as they see fit?"

By my limited authority as a citizen of the United States, and as a member of human civilization, I hereby grant Julian Assange permission to make, on my behalf, whatever adjustments he is able to effect to the social order through publishing secrets given to him by those who believe that their careers are less important than making those secrets known to the public.

Good enough? If he needs anyone else's permission, I'll see if I can get in touch with them and ask.

ell said...

From what I've heard, the press has the right to publish without prior restraint. (Modern version of press = Internet.) The soldier who stole the files is on the hook for treason, however.

Fleet Admiral Dragon suggested marking "'sensitive' things that are of complete insignificance, to help mask the things that are of significance." Another technique is shown in Cliff Stoll's "The
Cuckoo's Egg." They made up nonsense files with enticing filenames or information for the spy to steal so that he could be caught. Such files could be included to discredit Wikileaks; for example, anachronisms could be included that disprove the validity of Wikileaks' disclosure. The phony information should be something that is easy for the data thief to overlook but that is easy to point out to the public.

Tony Fisk said...

I'm not sure whether it's law, or simply department policy.

I have no objection to the US government and the DoD getting very narky with wikileaks (it's part of the job description, after all, and I think it sets up a necessary tension between boat rockers and helmsmen: are you sure this is the outcome you want to bring about?)

However, blind adherence to law results in such silly edicts as refusing work to anyone who has read wikileaks.

Bush cuts may have increased revenue. In fact, according to the article David linked to some time back, last year saw the greatest quarterly profits in history. Y'all seeing this trickle down over there?

There was an interesting bit of economic analysis on the news the other night, comparing the boom/bust cycles of Japan, Korea, and China. China may or may not have peaked yet, but the telling point was that both Japan and Korea's economies tanked when consumer spending started to increase
(ie when the middle class got a bit of clout, and all the jobs went hareing of to other countries)

Duncan Cairncross said...


I don't like secrecy for nothing BUT I believe that a government does need to keep some secrets.

I would like to add two things

(1) An official secrets act should have penalties for inappropriate secrecy

(2) There should be am "Inspector General" with the responsibility to audit secrets and prosecute inappropriate secrets

The "default" should be open, with tighter requirements for 5, 10 15 or 20 years secrecy

And covering your arse is not appropriate!

Tony Fisk said...

1. would be good, but requires 2. to enforce.

2. who do you trust your secrets to?

(btw wikileaks appears to have fragmented into a myriad shards (#imwikileaks): good luck taking them all down! Try being a little more pragmatic)

Duncan Cairncross said...

"2. who do you trust your secrets to?"

I don't see this as such a big issue, maybe part of the judiciary?

Just the knowledge that somebody was going to audit your secrets in five or ten years with the ability to then apply sanction would act to reduce the number of inappropriate secrets

Ilithi Dragon said...

On my Christmas wishlist:

OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator. It's a gaming controller that scans your brainwaves for muscle-action signals (blinking, etc.). In other words, it's a first generation puddle jumper control interface.

rewinn said...

@Woozle - The "American Thinker" article is, unsurprisingly, full about rather silly assertions that have a single thing in common: they support the Aristocracy.

Its first chart purports to "prove" that it's a lie that the Bush tax cuts shifted tax burdens from the rich,
by claiming that the income tax AMOUNT paid by the rich increased 2000-2004. But this effect, if true, is largely explained by in increase in income inequality; as people get richer, they pay more in taxes and people fall into poverty, the amount of taxes they pay decreases
and therefore the share paid by the remaining taxpayers increases. The share of after-tax income going to the top 1% rose from 12.2% in 2003 to 14.0% in 2004, an incease of more than 10 percent, so it's unsurprising that their share of taxes paid should have gone up by 1 or 2 per cent. Likewise, Poverty increased about 20% in the Bush years, from a rate of about 11% when he entered office to about 13% when he left.
Similar effects obtained for other non-wealthy income cohorts.

The article also says something silly about the amount of tax revenue being higher than someone anticipated, therefore the tax cuts created more revenue. That is on the face of it a non sequitur since economic reality is more complex. Bush's massive deficits had a side-effect of increasing income tax revenue, since deficit spending is income to *someone* and that someone pays part of that income as income tax. Given that Bush's deficits ranged from 3 to 5 percent of GDP, this may explain much of the the article's claimed $47 billion increase in revenue amount.

The third most laughable claim of the article is that the wealthy are the most productive members of society. That's simply truckling to the Aristocracy. Wall Street gamblers are a net loss to the economy; the minor role they play in helping allocate resources is overwhelmed by the harm they do in making the real economy the servant of financial transactions. It reminds me of the claim that Soviet Commissars are the most productive members of society because they organize the labor of the masses.


About wikileaks, I confess some unease about the idea of "Open Agreements Openly Arrived At" --- but the record of secret agreements kept hidden from the public is not exactly great either.

Wikileaks did a great servie to our nation by showing the video of the murder of Iraqi civilians by an out-of-control Apache helicopter crew ... I know, our government says it was a justifiable mistake but the laws of war require that when you make war in a civilian area you do so in ways that minimize civilian casualties, which obviously didn't happen that time... And to fire upon the people who went to give medical aid to the survivors is a war crime plain and simple.... so if wikileaks is doing harm to anyone, it is first of all to the notion that governments can commit crimes and cover them up.

I find it rather amusing that there is worry we won't be able to make secret deals with dictatorship if they think conversation might be disclosed untimely. On balance, our alliances with these nations have not been helpful to the interest of our nation as a whole, but only to the Aristocracy.

An era with fewer secrets may be uncomfortable, but it will be better. Our nation should be championing it.

BCRion said...

"Free Speech being one such mechanism."

Free speech does not cover the disclosure of classified information among other things.

"By my limited authority as a citizen of the United States...Good enough? If he needs anyone else's permission, I'll see if I can get in touch with them and ask."

You have zero authority to grant that as defined by US and international law as you are not an elected official of a sovereign nation with such authority. I don't have the authority either. If you or I want to change that, we exercise our Constitutionally defined rights to do so.

If we want to change the international standards on government secrecy, there are agencies to begin the process and get the discussion going. I'm sympathetic to the aims of WikiLeaks when dealing with societies that have no means of changing this (totalitarian states) or when true atrocities have been committed; however, many of those directly involved have democratic processes in place to change them and the information released had nothing to do with violations of international law. Yes, civilization is a pain sometimes when it deals with changing the status quo, but it's better than the alternative of the jungle.

I think WikiLeaks sets a very dangerous precedent, even if the actual damage done this time is relatively small. Fundamentally, this is a motivated and small group with no international legitimacy deciding what is best for the rest of the world. That's my issue. I think we should discuss and debate state secrecy; where I think we get into trouble is when we permit people to break laws that are commonly accepted among global culture when lawful processes exist to change them.

Stepping back from WikiLeaks. Circumventing legal processes for expedience for any cause is a bad precedent for civilization and we call those that do criminals, no matter how passionate they feel about the issue. I'm not sure what level of pragmatism is appropriate when you are dealing with criminals. We don't negotiate with people who attempt to blackmail others (as is the case here), we apply the force of law.

Really, my position is that we follow the laws and legal processes for having these important discussions and enact those changes as a result. Further, we punish any violators. This seems how civilization is set up.

Tony Fisk said...

Really, my position is that we follow the laws and legal processes for having these important discussions and enact those changes as a result. Further, we punish any violators. This seems how civilization is set up.

It may seem odd, given my earlier comments, but I tend to agree with this. Laws exist for a purpose and you'd better have a good excuse if you are going to break them. Whether your excuse was good enough is for the courts to determine.

Ironically, one could argue that the bulk of the leaks so far aren't exactly earth-shatteringly important. Which is what has prompted Duncan's suggestion.

Still, apart from a bit of alleged Swedish smorgasbord (which might see him under arrest after the weekend), Assange doesn't appear to have broken any laws directly. (That would be whoever put the documents into the wikileaks dumpster in the first place.) Nor are the papers publishing the leaks being censured. Someone's been playing whack-a-mole with the wikileaks servers, but that's proving to be as effective as blowing up dandelion clocks.

Meanwhile (oho!) Saudi's appear to be the main source of terrorist funding (and, more tellingly, She [Clinton] said it was "an ongoing challenge" to persuade Saudi officials to treat such activity as a strategic priority..)

Robert said...

I was chatting with my friend Bill (who's one of those endangered critters known as a Massachusetts Republican) when I went off on a rant about socialized medicine in California (mind you, I don't see "Obamacare" as socialized medicine - rather, it's corporatist medicine in that it forces everyone to have health insurance while not doing much to properly regulate the health insurance agencies) after some mental health care "professionals" stole my friend's shoes and clothes and locked her up for several hours threatening to institutionalize her because she was "suicidal" when in fact she was just trying to get medication for depression (and wasn't insured).

I then apologized and stated that what California had wasn't socialized medicine and to call it that was an insult to socialized medicine. His response? Well, I'd have been rolling on the ground laughing if I wasn't busy driving at the moment, and I did consider pulling over to indulge in that wonderful laughter.

"Socialized medicine is when you take your doctor out for drinks when you make an appointment."

Now, if people start flinging that into the faces of conservatives whenever they start snarling about "socialized medicine" we might see the world briefly become a lighter place. If only because of the laughter it would bring. =^-^=

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

Does that imply that Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk are all socialist plots?

(Any gathering of above one should be viewed with suspicion!)

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Ironically, one could argue that the bulk of the leaks so far aren't exactly earth-shatteringly important."

The problem is that there seem to be three categories of secrets
(1) Important for National Security
(2) Cover-ups for cock-ups and mistakes
(3) Innocuous information that does not need to be secret

Type (1)
Need to be kept secret
Type (2)
Need to be published so that we the people can see the mistakes our servants have made and prevent them from palming the blame onto others.
Type (3)
Just muddy the waters

By making it a Criminal Offense (felony) to classify as secret something that does not need to be kept secret I would like to reduce the types (2) and (3)
At that point the penalties for revealing a type (1) could be beefed up and properly enforced
(Valerie Plame!)

Robert said...

Actually, the Founding Fathers were socialists and it is part and parcel of the Constitution itself. We have... the Right to Assembly. The Federal Government (and by extension State Governments) cannot deny people the right to gather in groups. It is one of our key rights, right up there with freedom of speech and religion. Sadly, it is also the one right that as been neglected time and time again back a hundred years ago with all of the Union Breaking efforts... and I'm sure we'll be seeing new efforts to destroy the unions what with the wretched job market that is ongoing.

Speaking of which, I think there needs to be a new law to protect people from employer prejudice in job hiring: You Cannot Discriminate Against A Worker Based On How Long They Have Been Unemployed. It seems that one of the reasons for the long-term unemployment? Employers don't want to hire "desperate" employees, and efforts to hire new employees are now coming down to trying to poach other workplace's employees because these workplaces don't want "desperate" people.

Which is truly fucked. Especially when you consider this: would not someone who has been unemployed for almost two years be grateful and more loyal to an employer for hiring them? Sometimes I have to wonder what is wrong with this country. And why some people in industry are so determined to bring about a new welfare culture by enforced unemployment of people just because they lost their job in the first place.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

That all looks reasonable.

Point 2 is the main reason for pressing felony charges.
Point 3 does have the useful effect of confusing the enemy (presumably, one's friends aren't confused, and the judiciary is, naturally, counts as a friend in these circumstances ;-).

glation: The process by which successive layers of gelatine are laid down, leading to great rivers of jelly flowing down from the mountains. The flavours are regional.

Tony Fisk said...

I think it's more a case that someone who has recently been (or even better, still is) employed must QED be in demand for some reason.

I find that employment agencies exhibit a high degree of groupthink. (marketing philosophy being to stand out from the crowd, like everybody else)

rewinn said...

"...Does that imply that Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk are all socialist plots?"

They're SOCIAL MEDIA for goodness sakes - they've got SOCIALISM right in the product category name!

Tony Fisk said...

These commies are becoming so brazenly open!
(is koobecaf some voodoo demonic diety?)

Woozle said...

(attempt #2 for this comment)


"Free speech does not cover the disclosure of classified information among other things."

Free speech doesn't prevent penalties to someone who has been entrusted with information and then disclosed it, but I should certainly hope it protects me from prosecution if I happen upon that information and publish it.

That's the situation Assange is in. He is under no contractual or legal obligation to withhold the information, and freedom of speech means that he can't be arrested just because the powers-that-be don't like what he says.

Unfortunately, it seems freedom of speech is dead, in that they have put out arrest warrants for him anyway. So much for democracy.

"You have zero authority to grant that as defined by US and international law as you are not an elected official of a sovereign nation with such authority."

Governance is by the consent of the governed. I do not give my consent for any law which prohibits the publication of leaked classified information, nor will I cooperate with any effort to execute any such law.

A lot of people apparently agree with me, so there's the authority. We want that information published.

"We don't negotiate with people who attempt to blackmail others (as is the case here), we apply the force of law."

I will not negotiate with terrorist rulers who attempt to gain by force what they cannot obtain through due process.

Our rulers are very much taking a shoot-the-messenger approach here. They would do much better to start instituting long-overdue reforms -- close the offshore detention sites, stop defending torture, stop defending the horrible way we behave in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They wouldn't be dealing with these leaks now if they had addressed these issues -- seriously! -- a year or two ago when everybody knew perfectly well what was going on but couldn't prove a lot of it. Now there's more evidence, they're acting as if the guilty party is the evidence, rather than the war criminals.

Is it illegal? Maybe -- but what our leaders are doing is even more illegal. What kind of due process can we possibly bring to bear on them that will actually work? It's been tried, and they have shown -- over and over again -- their contempt for the process of law and their ability to completely ignore it.

Our government is the rogue here -- not people like Assange who are now doing the only thing that might reverse the present ugly trends.

Tony Fisk said...

It looks suspiciously like twitter isn't trending the wikileaks discussion.

"You may very well say that. I couldn't possibly comment!" - F. Urquhart 'House of Cards'

Woozle said...

(and attempt #5 for this comment, which I posted just before the one above)

rewinn: Fabulous! Thank you. I've added your commentary to my notes on that article. (Please let me know if you would like to be credited differently.)

Unfortunately, my interaction with esr deteriorated after that, so I wasn't able to present him with that argument.

Woozle said...

Duncan Cairncross's suggestion above seems excellent. Strongly seconded.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Guys
Tony said
"Point 2 is the main reason for pressing felony charges."

The trouble is proving that a cover-up or blame deflection is an actual crime is difficult.

This is why the crime should be - - Inappropriate Secrecy -
Miss-use of the Official Secrets Act

That could be a well defined offence that could be prosecuted many years later