Friday, November 30, 2012

Saving the world: Some billionaires try. Now see your lazy-effective way!

You don't have to be reminded. Forward looking folks know this time of year is when we re-assess our annual donations and find ways to help tilt the scales toward a more favorable tomorrow. But is there an aspect of ultimate self-interest?

Consider. What criteria will future generations use, when they decide which people from our era to up/down/in-load or simulate or whatever tech-apotheosis you yearn for them to provide? Won't they factor in not only how interesting you would be to have around, but also how hard you tried to be - in the words of Jonas Salk - a good ancestor?

tpslogoOf course what I'm describing is eerily similar to the deal offered to our grandparents and their grandparents... redemption through good thoughts and good works. Only now we're talking about a process that will be both palpable and propelled by physical law.

(Ironic, huh? Still, whether you are placating a judgmental deity, or earning cred with our future, godlike descendants, it does boil down to the same thing. Help make things better. And maybe there'll be a prize to go along with the satisfaction.)

I've long promoted what I think is the most effective means for a modern, busy person to invest in improving the world... a method that makes efficient use of your time and money, and in ways that those future folk may notice. That method is called Proxy Power. It consists of buying subscriptions to groups and orgs and NGOs who pool their members' dues and influence to support full time activists, who then take action to make a better world on your behalf!

Organizations like the Sierra ClubOxfam, the Red Cross or the ACLU are the great equalizers of our new civilization. They are how millions of smalltimers or average folk can together hire lawyers on a par with oligarchs, or fill a ship with food and schoolbooks, or stop whalers, or preserve an aquifer, or free a whistleblower, or replenish the blood supply, or lobby for a simpler tax code, or help poor girls in Pakistan go to school or...

EFF-logoDo read my old appeal on this matter. Not only in a spirit of philanthropy - perhaps inspired by the season - or to help your children or save your nation and world, but also out of enlightened self-interest and desire to help convince those who hold the keys of heaven -- or a future heavenly simulation -- to smile and admit that you were one of the okay ones.  (Also, at year end you can assess your tax situation and still squeeze a few deductions into 2012.)

== Quirky choices ==

Mix and match organizations who cover the bases you want covered! Say for example: one for hunger (Oxfam? or the Heifer Project?) and two for freedom (ACLU and/or Electronic Frontier Foundation and/or Project Witness)  Followed by one agitator environmental organization (Greenpeace) and one eco-negotiator (the Sierra Club). One that goes directly to helping real people, one or two at a time (e.g. Doctors Without Borders or Habitat for Humanity). Throw in your local library or PBS station, Planned Parenthood and the Libertarian Party or The Planetary Society and The Skeptic Society.... you get the drift. (BTW: I don't send money to all of these, every year.)

skepticOkay, okay. I figure a couple of your choices may differ, or even cancel some of mine! So? We're all winners through lively and informed debate.  And the passionate geeks and attorneys we hire with our proxy dues will be passionately, geekily informed debaters on our behalf!

sierraclub-logoOh, and let me admit that some of my own choices may seem quirky. Every year since 1979, for example, I've sent a small check to a little Treasury Dept. office in Parkersburg West Virginia, to be applied against the U.S. national debt. That's beyond my regular taxes. Sometimes (in lean years) the donation is very small, sometimes larger. Call it a statement in my own mind of how grateful I am, not to live in the 99% of human cultures that would have burned or garroted or skewered or drowned a guy like me before I was sixteen. A society that instead pays and honors me to be like this. So no, I won't commit the churlish, vile sin of ingratitude. No, not that sin.  Others, but not that one.

== And more reasons to believe... ==

Of course, all of this bears upon the notion that cynicism is getting tiresome. Below, I will show evidence that folks are fighting back, ranging from several famous billionaires to a quoted passage from Charles Stross to recent endeavors by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge, Bruce Sterling and myself, persuading science fiction authors to return to the great old can-do spirit.  But first...

A cute "Tree Lobsters" cartoon lays down that same fundamental problem mentioned above... faced by all of those who have bought expensive cryonics contracts, in hope of being revived in some future age.  Why would future folk want you?  By now you know how to answer that. Make a pact with tomorrow.

Or, for a much deeper immersion into the concepts behind all this, watch Jaan Tallin (founder of Skype and venture capitalist) give an amazing Singularity talk about your hope of being a featured simulation.

Speaking of folks worthy of uploading/reviving/whatever? Did any of you see Jon Stewart interview Warren Buffett and his biographer?  The Oracle of Omaha, indeed.  Got rich by being smart. Smart and trustwortthy. Even smart enough to know what it all is really about, and why solipsism is for dopes. Go Warren! (More on good billionaires below.)

Will it work? Mind Meld asks authors, including Brenda Cooper and Charles Stross -- and yours truly -- about optimistic scenarios for our future world. Why they are rare amid waves of dystopias. And how hope really matters.

Of course, at the opposite extreme are the scrooges. See this older posting of mine that lays down the conflict before us. The Relevance of an Old Nemesis - as Even Older Ones Return.

Ponder doing your gift shopping at Costco - where workers earn 45% above industry standard and get profit sharing - versus Walmart, whose employees desperately take in an average of $500,000 in food stamps and other public support, per store.

... and then we come to...

== The Era of the Nerds? ==

Uber nerd Nate Silver on talk shows is such a geek!  But that is so "in" now... that I figure Silver is fielding embarrassing calls from sperm banks.  Here's something only a sci fi author would extrapolate. Watch  the kindergartens for 200 miles surrounding his present digs, 6 years from now. Oh, this will have repercussions for centuries to come.

Speaking of uber-nerds. Sergey Brin asks the election winner to quit his own party.  Not a bad idea.  Related to my Stipulation proposal. Worth pondering.

Aw heck, let's make this whole section about my billionaire acquaintances, Sterling examples of give-back moguls who earned their wealth with brilliant goods and services, but haven't forgotten the context of it all.

Take Elon Musk. Elon's at it again.  Pushing at us to be all that we can be. I sat in his living room one evening and heard about his plans to get a human colony on Mars... must be a decade ago. Now you get to read all about it. How big a statue at the base of Olympus Mons do you think he'll deserve, if this comes true?

Standing next to Elon on Mars? Amazon's Jeff Bezos: the ultimate disrupter - a fascinating look at an American original. One of the transforming figures of our time... and a really nice guy.

All right, in Existence I make it plain, the billionaires will matter, especially if the good ones join us in staving off the depredations of bad oligarchs.  Still, go back to my appeal at the top of this missive. We will matter far more, over the long run.

... and if you need more convincing...

== Back to investing in Optimism ==

There's this, from the fellow who coined the phrase the rapture of the nerds... Charles Stross offers reasons to be cheerful.

"...we're close to exterminating polio and dracunculiasis (aka guinea worm disease) in the wild. (Two extinctions I won't be shedding any tears over.)

'In other news of improvements, both China and India underwent annual economic growth averaging around 10% per year throughout the decade. The sheer scale of it is mind-numbing; it's as if the entire population of the USA and the EU combined had gone from third-world poverty to first-world standards of living. (There are still a lot of dirt-poor peasants left behind in villages, and a lot of economic — never mind political — problems with both India and China's developed urban sectors, but overall, life is vastly better today than it was a decade ago for around a billion people.)

'The number of people living in poverty and with unsafe water supplies world-wide today is about the same as it was in 1970. Only difference is, there were 3 billion of us back then and today we're nearer to 7 billion. Upshot: the proportion of us humans on this planet who are living in third world poverty (unable to afford enough food, water, clothing and shelter) has actually been halved."

Hm... as we've seen this time, there are guarded reasons for tense, tentative hope.

We're navigating harsh shoals but fair harbors are in sight. That's exactly the time when all hands are needed at the sails and tiller and sounding lines, bringing to action every tool of heart and mind!

Cynicism is for saps and indignation junkies and traitors to hope. It is an excuse for laziness, leaving to others the grown-up task of study and research and negotiation and hard work and innovating and saving the world.

We can get there. I just showed you how easy, simple and cheap it is to do at least the minimum, choosing half a dozen groups to save the world for you! And thus you can go on record as one of the good guys.  One of those who helped to make a dazzling future for our godlike heirs.


Anonymous said...

If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.

~ John Kenneth Galbraith

But first, try everything. At least once.

Unknown said...

I work for one of the largest behavioral health companies in the country and medicine is improving.

More prescription drugs are comming off patent and going generic thus reducing the cost of medication.

Second, more and more surgical procedures are done arthroscopically thus reducing the likihood of infections and greatly reduce hospital stay.

A little know provision in Obamacare will have a great positive effect as it come online. Obamacare prohibits the payment to doctors and hospitals for health systems caused injuries and dieases. Think hospital causes MRSA. One would have thought this provision would have been standard in government and commercial policies decades ago but not.

I believe this provision alone once fully implemented will be worth billions and will markedly improve the quality of care.

Stefan Jones said...

I usually spend a weekend afternoon in November sending out $100.00 checks to a dozen and a half or so worthy orgs.

This year, the awful mess Sandy made of my old stomping grounds moved me to give most of my charity allotment to the Red Cross. Habitat for Humanity, Christopher Reeve's group, a charity that hands out livestock, and few others got token payments. And I rejoined the ACLU.

Anonymous said...

If those who might simulate us are still half-way human, I'd expect the vast majority of simulations to be for lolz, with second place to vicarious violence.

The idea of reincarnation comes to mind. Expect to experience a new lease on life as a cockroach in a game of "Stomp'em".

Or, in yet another revival of interest in zombies, you may find yourself addicted to brains, while players hunt you with hand tools.

Or you might get to play a red shirt in Star Trek 17.

That life here is so ordinary argues that either enforcement of laws prohibiting ancestor abuse is very good in the future, or everyone in our future has been brain-clamped to ensure moral behavior, or we got insanely lucky to be simulated in the Alternative Historical Studies department of a prestigious university, interested in seeing whether the Singularity was accelerated or retarded by Barack winning instead of Mitt.

Or maybe (small chance) we're real.

David Brin said...

You kidding Anonymous? Speculations like the one you just posted... THOSE are what the future folk at this moment find hilarious. It's why we're all NPCs in your simulation!

Ian said...

On the ethics of simulation: maybe what leads OUR creators to be at least halfway decent towards us is the nagging possibility that they too might simply be simulation.

On charity:

1. I will recommend once again Kiva lends money to people in the developing world for porjects such as starting businesses or buying living stock. You get to choose waht projects you help fund.

As loans are repaid, you can relend the money.

2. If ny of David's bilionaire frinds are reading, I will once again mention the urgent need to trial Titanium dioxide particulates as a means o reducing global warming.

Anonymous said...

Given that ancestor simulation is/will be practical and far more frequent than the one real past...

...then the idea that we are real is far scarier than the idea that we are a simulation...

...because it implies that probably something bad will happen to our descendents that keeps them from being able to simulate us.

And chances are, it's our fault.

Robert said...

Or maybe we've not yet gotten to the point in time where we have realistic simulations of this level. Sometimes I do wonder, seeing that enough odd things have happened in my life that I suspect there is something out there manipulating my life from time to time... and giggling incessantly while doing so. But then I realize that's just conspiracy theory thinking there. We're reality. There's no Illuminati. There's no global conspiracy. And this is the scariest thing of all, because that means when we fuck up this planet, we have to clean up our mess. No one is going to hit Restart for us or the like. We. Are. Responsible.

Ultimately, this is why conspiracy thinking and fantasy beliefs such as reality-as-simulation is so foolish. It allows people to believe they don't have to take responsibility because someone else is in charge or because we have no control or because it doesn't matter. It does.

Rob H., a firm believer in consequences

David Brin said...

Ian and anon... well said. But ANONYMOUS DUDES! try signing off with a "handle." Anything will do. Just create a way to know you.

Aren said...

Is there a word for naïve sarcasm? Since that would describe my outlook on pretty much everything. Knowing how bad in can get, always keeping in mind the likelihood of Murphy screwing it over, and still trudging on.
For instance, I use flattr. It's a microdonation service that can be connected to all kinds of stuff one can do on the internet – music, blogs, videos, tweets, software, services – and gives them 1/x with x being the quantity of things I flattred. If I didn't flattr anything, the amount of money I set aside per month will be send to humanitarian services like Red Cross.

As for Dr. Brin sending donations to an organization/fund that lowers national debt, I wish something like that would be in place here.

Be that as it may, I can see the argument for us being in a simulation. If we assume the basic premise to be correct – sufficiently detailed simulations are physically possible – then it's reasonable to assume it will be done. If it can be done once, it can be done multiple times with consistent or varying starting conditions. So we're left with an increasing number of simulations, but only one reality. Probability favours us being on the simulation side. (interesting short story related to that: I don't know, Timmy, being God is a big responsibility)
That doesn't mean I want that to be true, though.

Nina Lee said...

Tacitus2 said...


Hate to interject even a little crabby note to an upbeat post.
But penalizing health care systems for things like MRSA infections is going to have some gigantic unintended consequences.
MRSA of course exists in two forms. Hospital/nursing home based and community based.
If an MRSA infection is going to be a financial hit for your hospital you will do anything to avoid this.

Now, since MRSA effectively colonizes all nursing home patients, at least intermittently, your choices are to stop admitting such patients, or to stop looking for MRSA at all. (the high level barrier protection during surgery will of course continue...joint space infections with MRSA are bad, bad ju ju).

As to the community acquired version, it occurs in athletes and such, but has a high concentration in disadvantaged communities.

So, do you really want to keep the oldest and frailest, the poorest and (by some statistics) the brownest out of hospitals?

Of course not. So this provision will be gutted by waivers and watered down by exceptions until it is just another layer of paperwork nonsense.

If you really want to deal with antibiotic resistant infections, take strong action on over prescribing of antibiotics.

"It's the only way to be sure...."


ps always good news when useful drugs go generic. But the topic of how many psychotropics are appropriate and for whom, and the related issues of compliance for reasons other than cost.....another time. T2

Anonymous said...

A small point of order:

I believe it was Scottish sci-fi author Ken Macleod who coined the term "Rapture of the Nerds" in one of his Fall Revolution novels (The Cassini Division", I think).

ArabiaTerra (not the anonymous posting above)

David Brin said...

Good old fashioned True Conservative skepticism from Tacitus.

Ian said...

Tacitus, a relatively straight-forward medical/biology question which may be outside your field of expertise as a practitioner: has there been any consideration of withdrawing some of the older antibiotics from clinical use for an extended period so that the frequency of resistance amongst bacteria decreases?

(I know that some of the multi-resistant strains have mutations to their cell membranes that are effective against a wide variety of different antibiotics.)

The other thing I've wondered about is going right back to the source: expose Penicillium fungii to resistant bacteria and see if they evolve a response.

Tacitus2 said...


Not heard of that being tried here in the States. Closest analog I know of was a while back when Holland and Belgium were facing a big resistant bug issue (I think it was enterococcus, not MRSA).

Holland put into place strict rules. Universal handwashing and certain high level antibiotics only to be prescribed by Infectious Disease guys and gals. Next door, Belgium kept up business as usual.

In short order there was a dramatic drop in these infections in Holland. Belgium, no change. But of course Belgium is a unique place microbiologically speaking....all those interesting strains of yeast to give us the DisneyLand of brewing!


locumranch said...

Cynicism is for saps and indignation junkies and traitors to hope. It is an excuse for laziness ...

Sounds like an advert for the national lottery, or Swift's Grand Academy of Lagado.

Putting aside numerous psychological studies that equate self-identified optimism with self-delusion, and self-identified pessimism with an accurate self-assessment, turns out that effective individuals manage to combine the two:

Optimists were found to have a ‘self-promotion focus’. They preferred to think about how they could advance and grow. Pessimists, meanwhile, were more preoccupied with security and safety.

What the results showed was that pessimists performed better when thinking in negative ways. At the same time optimists were more engaged with their task when they were thinking positive thoughts.

Begging the following question:

Are apocalyptic Climate Change
proponents 'Optimists' or 'Pessimists' ??

Since a belief in climate apocalypse cannot be said to be optimistic, then they must be saps, indignation junkies and traitors to hope.


Greg Byshenk said...

locumranch, don't confuse 'pessimism' and 'cynicism'.

David wrote:
"there are guarded reasons for tense, tentative hope.

We're navigating harsh shoals but fair harbors are in sight. That's exactly the time when all hands are needed at the sails and tiller and sounding lines, bringing to action every tool of heart and mind!

As you point out, pessimists are concerned about security and safety, and see what might go wrong as an opportunity to prevent that from happening. Cynics just think that everything is going to hell and there's no point in trying to change it.

locumranch said...

Interesting parallel, BTW, between antibiotic resistance and the biological response to climate change.

When living organisms are confronted with adverse environmental stimuli -- antibiotics in the case of bacteria and CO2 in the case of phytoplankton* -- these living organisms adapt, evolve and thrive at a pace that confounds the human intellect.

Those who cannot accept the primacy of single-cell biology are living in the past.


* Fixing and converting CO2, phytoplankton produce between 70 and 90% of our world's oxygen supply.

locumranch said...

All hands are needed at the sails and tiller and sounding lines, bringing to action every tool of heart and mind! ...

Again,this is the song of the Grand Academy of Lagado. It assumes that the Captain designate possesses some arcane foresight into the unknown.

The optimist expects a favorable conclusion and he is often disappointed; the pessimist emphasises the negative & unfavorable and prepares for the worst; the cynic expects the worst and he is seldom disappointed; and the skeptic doubts, questions, or disagrees with generally accepted conclusions.

I put it to you that our ship, its course, our culture, our Earth, is either sound, in jeapardy, or going down.

If it is sound, then we should stay the course & just sit tight. If it is in jeapardy, then we should mutiny & seek safe harbour before our captain kills us all. If it is going down, then it's time to scatter & launch the lifeboats.

Paint me skeptic.

Jumper said...

Apocalypse means different things to different people. My opinion is it is related to fear, religion, and panic more than a useful descriptive. Miami is doomed, true. Corn flakes likely also.

No one here gets out alive anyway. That doesn't mandate pessimism.

zoukboy said...

"Throw in your local library or PBS station, Planned Parenthood and the Libertarian Party or The Planetary Society and The Skeptic Society.... you get the drift."

I was with you until I read the words "Libertarian Party." Really? The same party with a fundamentally dishonest recruitment "test" on its website? If your point is to support independent parties I hear you, but you left out a few... ;-)

Paul451 said...

Re: Libertarian party.

I think the idea is to give rusted-on Republicans an alternative to the current madness. Reducing the power of the Republican Party, adding new factions within the House, hopefully breaking the gerrymandering. Hastening the rebuilding of the Republican Party into a sane centre-right conservative party.


Cynicism != skepticism, pessimism.

Cynics can be optimists or pessimists, skeptics or believers. The war in Iraq was desired by cynical-optimist-believers. Critics of the war were mostly skeptical-pessimists (and some cynical-pessimist-believers on the far left).

zoukboy said...

Paul451 said: "Hastening the rebuilding of the Republican Party into a sane centre-right conservative party"

But we already have *that* with the Democrats. :-)

Paul451 said...

From the previous-plus-one thread,

Tom Miller,
"The most likely explanation for the Fermi Paradox is that interstellar travel and communication is just too resource-intensive to do, leaving each sentient civilization as isolated castaways separated by distances that may as well be infinite."

Apologies for flogging a dead horse, but I don't think this solves the problem. With roughly current level of technology, if we had the motivation and patience, we could build a telescope at the gravitational lens focal point for our sun. You need one 'scope for each observed star-system, but it's still vastly easier than interstellar travel. And it gives you an amazing resolution. We could crudely map the continents on an Earth-like planet within ten light years, do spectrographic analysis on the atmospheres of planets perhaps a hundred light years out, and listen in to background radio traffic out to at least several hundred, perhaps a thousand light years.

But more importantly, they can do that to each other. And the two civilisations closest to each other can likely hear each discussing the other, in effect they are already indirectly communicating. And once you start communicating with one civilisation you can detect, why not another a bit further out? And why not ask them to send a copy of anything they detect from the other side (out of your range, but within theirs.) And so. Some civilisations would opt out, but would enough opt out to prevent the formation of a Sagan Network?

And if such a network forms, then our neighbours have been watching us for at least millennia, they know our planet had advanced life. They know we're releasing soot and CFCs and mercury/lead and other industrial pollutants into the atmosphere. By now, it seems likely that a Contact-culture would mean at least one neighbour (and probably several for the thrill of being our "First") would be beaming a direct, narrow focus signal at us, loud enough to detect with planet-based technology, hoping for us to develop radio astronomy soon. None of this requires advanced technology, nor particularly alien psychology/physiology. It just requires time and a statistical averaging (ie, it assumes we aren't special. Copernican Principle. Some will be less communicative than us, some more.)

For that not to be true, civilisation must be so rare that they are thousands of light years apart, on average. And in that case, it's the cause of that rarity that is Mr Fermi's paradox, the lack of communication is just a side effect.

Since we haven't detected a dedicated signal so far, that probably sets a hard upper limit on the number of possible civilisations in the galaxy. And every increase in our listening power, sans Contact, reduces the number of possible civilisations.

[Either that or they know something we don't about broadcasting wildly]

andrew m said...

I don't see why we should disagree with the Tree Lobsters. Is the impulse to believe otherwise, that our actions will make us candidates for simulation, any different than the human appeal for religion?

Jumper said...

Clone ME, Dr. Memory!

David Brin said...

Pau451 as I depict in EXISTENCE, the gravitational lens of the sun provides a lot of data but it is not a focal point image. It requires a lot of finesse and accumulation and hunting around from 550 au out to 2000 au to actually image an object that way. Still worth doing.

I do like the g-lens network. It might not be visible to us here. Need that mission!

Ah... Dr. Memory. Interesting. Provocative. Well-seasoned. And NONE of you is old enough to remember THAT!

Robert said...

I have a solution to the Jewish Settlements in Palestine. My idea is that Palestine remains according to the original treaties. No exchange of property or the like. And in return? The Jewish settlers are allowed to stay. As Palestinian citizens. And have to pay taxes to the Palestinians. You'll see them moving back to Israel so fast it'll cause dust storms.

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

Since the "lens" is a giant ball of fusing plasma, that seems par for the course. However, one advantage of viewing a rotating object, like a planet, is that it effectively "scans" itself past your instruments for you. Allowing you to reconstruct spatially resolved features, even if you're limited to a distorted signal (as with a gravitational lens).

Rob H,
You will never get a deal with Israel in Gaza/Palestine that leaves the illegal settlements on the other side of the border. Amongst the young moderates, you might get an attitude of "yeah, screw 'em, they made their bed, let them deal with the consequences". But amongst the Ultra-Orthodox, "abandoning" the settlements is a high betrayal. And the latter are the dominant and growing political power-base in Israel.

[The old joke: "The situation with Israel is that a third of the population works, a third of the population pays taxes and a third of the population serves in the IDF. The problem with Israel is that it's the same third."]

Carson said...

Two reasons they would want to: human curiosity and previous generations made their world possible. I have been doing this since I started my career. Scientific, Research, Development and Education organizations are your best risk/reward ratio. I have supported and joined some of the following and intend to donate to more groups listed below as times passes.

SETI, Brain Preservation F., SETI League, H+, SENS, Lifeboat, IEET, Planetary Society, Long Now Foundation, CFI, Tau Zero F. & Icarus Interstellar, Future of Humanity Institute, Richard Dawkins F., Skeptic Society, Singularity I., Foresight, Acceleration Studies Foundation,Carbon Copies, National Space Society
Coalition for Space Exploration
Space Frontier Foundation, OpenCog, Alcor, Seastead, Project 2045, B612 Foundation,Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, Neurolinx Research Inst, Immortality Institute, National Center for Science Education, Dian Fossey org. & other great apes saving organizations.

I would say Life Extension research however there is very little evidence of anything working at the with present biotech. We need more billionaires with a passion for science, technology and LIFE. They do seem to be increasing.

David Brin said...

Carson I won't quibble. You are active and involved. It does seem there are only three topic areas, though. We'll do better with space and life extension if civilization prospers, too. And helping girls is the top method of birth control...

..and ONWARD to the next posting.

Spread the word about these two! They aim to save YOUR world!

David Brin said...

Followup: My friend Lenore Ealey- a sage in the field of philanthropy theory - kindly wrote about my "proxy power" proposal -- that middle class folks can maximize their future impact on the world by joining perhaps a dozen groups/orgs that pool dues and numbers to pursue specific positive goals. Lenore's appraisal compares my approach to those of Boulding and Cornuelle with some Baconian philosophical perspective thrown in! Anlso, she adds a list of favorite NGOs of her own for consideration. Go Proxy Power.

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