Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Human Evolution: Speeding? Splitting? Borging?... and a dozen Olympics?

A number of recent web-notables all seem to revolve (eccentrically) around the question of human evolution.  Whether it continues. Whether there is such a thing as "selection in groups." Whether our technological (cyborg) augmentations and/or increasing numbers of "non-neuro-typical" society members portend a new splitting of human destiny. And it looks as if I should have set Existence just five years in the future, instead of 35!

For starters, see a short futuristic film by Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo about the "game-ification" of everything. They reveal a near future world very much like the one illustrated in my new novel, a very close tomorrow when you'll overlay reality with meta-information...

...only, instead of using it to solve problems or join "smart mobs" as I depict in a focused drama... some folks will apply such tech in different ways, turning every act, even cooking an egg, into an opportunity for "point-scoring."   Both cool and kinda chilling, it's a thought-provoking little film. These challenges to human wisdom and coping ability will continue piling up.

Anodyne for Anecdotes:  Need a counter-riff to volley back at your friends who gullibly send you forwarded nonsense via email or social media? Disinformation, rumors, assertions and "anecdotes" that are easily disproved? (One end of the American political spectrum now uses only assertions, allegories and anecdotes and has achieved the miracle of becoming nearly 100% fact free. The other political wing seems to be constantly toying with the temptation to follow suit -- heaven help us if/when they do!)  

For a tonic, send your "FWD: emailers" this cogent essay, Dissing the Disinformation, about the ancient, gracious and adult art of fact-checking in this modern era.  Will it accomplish anything?  Yes!  The idiots won't read it or learn anything or stop FWD-spamming their friends with nonsense.  But they will take you off their "FWD: list."

Apparently we are speciating, folks, between those of us still capable of prefrontal lobe usage and Homo gullibilitus.  

And if you believe that...

...see a fascinating - if challenging - discourse by the eminent scholar Steven Pinker about the fallacies of most notions of "group selection" in evolution theory. I don't agree with him on all counts, but it is a feast of clear thinking.

But nature follows many paths. One of the themes in Existence, explicitly stated by several characters, is the question of speedups in human evolution. It might be argued that one of these happened about 35,000 years ago, when suddenly Homo sapiens began drawing cave art, burying their dead and expanded their tool sets by more than ten-fold. I contend similar changes happened with the introduction of beer, and then towns, and the Renaissance-Enlightenment. My new novel attempts to explore this concept from many angles, both pro and con.

And it seems I am not the only one. In this TED talk, Will our kids be a different species? Juan Enriquez sweeps across time and space to bring us to the present moment — and shows how technology is revealing evidence that suggests rapid evolution may be under way.

Speaking of (sub) speciation:  During the nine years it took for me to write Existence, I grew increasingly convinced that the phenomenon of "autistic spectrum" - ranging from deep autism to Aspergers to simply way-nerdy - would become ever-more significant in future years.  Not only because the spectrum appears to be manifesting more often (some call it a "plague"), but also as technologies enable folks who were once isolated and victimized to connect with one another, form interest groups, alliances, pool resources and match skills.  I portray this becoming a powerful force by the year 2050...

...and now it appears that others agree.  Steve Silberman, a longtime contributing editor at Wired will soon be publishing a book, Neurotribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently, which argues that non-neurotypicals will play an ever-growing role in society.  See a fascinating article about this at io9: How Autism is changing the world for everyoneio9 is increasingly the go-to site for all things future and science-fictional.

=== Diverging Humanity: Olympics Edition! ===

With the start of the Olympics, one may ask: Will Athletes ever stop breaking new records? Or will they continue to grow stronger, better, faster...as we approach the biomechanical limits of the human body.  Niven and Barnes portrayed one possibility in Achilles' Choice... that beefed up and drug-accelerated and e-hypered athletes would be given their own, separate olympics in which they could burn themselves out achieving short lives but glorious ones.

In contrast, Daniel Wilson's Amped shows a near future wherein a frightened public over-reacts and legislates against those who get "amplified" with implants. What has already happened?  The Special Olympics offers a venue for the disabled to show off how hard they have developed... "despite."  

Meanwhile, some regular folks are terrified of double amputees who are doing amazing things with those "sproing" legs.  See Aimee Mullins in her amazing TED talk "My twelve sets of legs."

My expectation?  It will be a case of "all of the above." Arguments over where to draw the lines between these groups.  But not much of a fight over whether there should be venues for all of them!  Including... ironically, a new Olympics level that will return to the roots, and be severely drug-tested and rigorously vetted, so that it is only for... amateurs.

Very interesting... and scary:  Can Neuroscience Cure Gaming's Gun Obsession? One researcher wants to use MRI machines to watch video game players and explore how developers can exploit the human brain’s dopamine pleasure-reward circuitry to hook players, and suggests that game developers would not want to light up the striatum constantly in some kind of sensory overload, but believes games could be developed to target players’ emotions with scientific accuracy. Read the article by Lee Hall.

=== Science potpourri ===

Remember that scene in Minority Report when the spider robots stalk Tom Cruise to his apartment and scan his iris to identify him? Things could have turned out so much better for Cruise had he been wearing a pair of contact lenses embossed with an image of someone else’s iris. Reverse-engineered irises look so real, they fool eye-scanners. And no I never believed in iris scanning.  There are so many more reliable bio markers.
Activities that we are engaged in for the first few minutes after learning new information really affect how well we remember this information after a week. Maybe all you really need to do to cement new learning is to sit and close your eyes for a few minutes.

Researchers from UCLA and California NanoSystems Institute have developed a new transparent solar cell, giving windows in homes and other buildings the ability to generate electricity. This new kind of polymer solar cell (PSC) produces energy by absorbing more near-infrared light but is less sensitive to visible light, making the cells nearly 70% transparent to the human eye.

Aerographite: world's lightest material 75 times lighter than styrofoam. Electrical conductor also.


=== And Finally ... ===

Supplement ANY of your classes with videos from Khan Academy... see this.  Seriously guys, it's free and cool and with-it...and potentially uplifting.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Renaming Killers -- the idea spreads

NamesInfamyFolks have been writing in, ever since I posted the latest version of my "Names of Infamy" essay.  In fact, during just the last few days there has been a noticeable media swell - - a growing movement not to mention the name of the Aurora/Batman shooter.

As reported by Molly Hennesy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times:  "Jordan Ghawi, 26, of San Antonio became frustrated by how much of news coverage focused on the 24-year-old Holmes. 'Let us remember the names of the victims and not the name of the coward who committed this act,' Ghawi tweeted Friday afternoon. The tweet went viral. When some Twitter followers noticed Holmes' name trending on Twitter - something Ghawi said bothered his mother - they started a campaign to promote (a victim's) name instead."

On Sunday, Mr. Ghawi made his pitch directly to President Obama, who chose not to mention the shooter by name, in his public remarks.

Not a new idea, this worthy notion goes back to the last century, even long before I proposed it publicly in Salon Magazine (1999), describing the "Herostratos Effect" in which ancient peoples would sometimes expunge the names of those committing heinous crimes.

The pros and cons and means of doing this in a modern context, while preserving full memory, accountability and freedom of speech, lead to some interesting possibilities.

Although my most recent posted version of the Herostratos essay led to some radio time,  I imagine Mr. Ghawi and the others thought of this notion independently -- and more power to them! Good ideas sometimes take time, before finally gaining traction.

Still,  the intellectual/historical side of things may be of interest, if this idea is to build momentum and become a factor in solving a terrible human problem.

=== The absurd nostrums on "gun control" ==

My "names of infamy" proposal is actually quite separate from another matter -- the endless tussle over gun control.

And yet, the two topics inevitably get conflated at a time like this. At least, they were in a flood of emails, comments and assertions on facebook, twitter and this web log, proclaiming that "this sort of thing brings out  hordes of liberals campaigning to eliminate the Second Amendment and gun owner rights."

Speaking as a Smithian libertarian, but one who finds liberals worthy to talk-to, may I respond with a simple request? Will someone please show me this campaign?  Point to specific bills, or sustained efforts, even solidly backed proposals with even a slight chance of enactment.

They don't exist.  And this simple little cartoon from Tom Tomorrow sums it up neatly.

Only one serious gun control notion is getting even tepid mention: to restore the requirement that people get checked out and licensed before blithely purchasing full-on assault rifles with mega-sized magazines.  The very law that would have prevented the Aurora shooter-nut from easily acquiring his means to spray mass death.

That rule was passed, way back in the sane 20th Century, by an old thing called negotiated consensus between sober democratic and republican leaders... a pragmatic measure that led to no "slippery slope," nor any decay in reasonable gun-owner rights. Alas, it was flushed away by the later, crazier breed controlling Congress in 2005.

Now before you call me a lefty nut, please pause for perspective: those who denounced the assault gun licensing requirement  -- and who howl now against its restoration -- seem to have no problem with the ongoing, 70 year old rule against private ownership of full-scale machine guns. So then, it's just a matter of where you choose to draw lines, right?

Jefferson-rifleSee my essay, The Jefferson Rifle: Guns and the Insurrection Myth.

Raising this question: when one whacko can kill or wound 72 people in a couple of minutes, so quickly that no brave bystander gets a chance to tackle him, isn't that a "machine gun" style situation? Can you contemplate that maybe - just maybe - your line-in-the-sand may have been drawn just a tad too far? Is it possible to rediscover the sane art of pragmatic compromise, without fainting away or screeching in dread of a Slippery Slope?

I have shown a possible national compromise that would be a win-win... actually strengthening the constitutional guarantees of basic, essential gun ownership, while at the same time allowing pragmatic measures to be taken that reduce some of the worst calamities... all without a slippery slope.  (That is, I have shown it to the half dozen people who still have both curiosity and the patience to read careful arguments. If you choose not to actually read that proposal, please don't gush forth generalized comments here, about what you presume it to be.)

Anyway, it's all much, much simpler than that.

The Slippery Slope does not exist. Not anymore.  It's a fantasy. And I can prove it.

The fact is - and, again let me remind you that I say this not as a "liberal" but as a Heinleinian-Smithian Libertarian - the right seems completely unaware of a seismic shift that happened under G.W. Bush --

-- when many liberals started arming themselves.

Yes, they are. As is their perfect right.

Now tell that to your crazy uncle and watch multiple expressions pass across his face, as it sinks in.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The First Synthetic Organism: Our Victor Frankenstein Moment?

Remember where you were when you heard or read about this. It’s important.  

In a breakthrough effort for computational biology, the world's first complete computer model of an organism has been completed, Stanford researchers reported last week in the journal Cell. A team used data from more than 900 scientific papers to account for every molecular interaction that takes place in the life cycle of Mycoplasma genitalium, the world's smallest free-living bacterium.

Why is this a whole lot more than your run of the mill bioscience breakthrough?  Until now, knowing the ways and means of a bazillion sub-reactions and gears and wheels did not combine into a clear model of a whole organism. This is a true Frankenstein moment... in the best meaning of the term!  In that before, all we had were countless non-living pieces on the work bench.

Now... we know how to put them together.  Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.

No, seriously.  Bwa-haha.

Biologist Craig Venter -- first to sequence the human genome -- has also been at the forefront of this quest to create synthetic life. See his TED Talk: On the Verge of Creating Artificial Life. In his book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Venter explores these issues -- the challenges and controversies we will face as we head toward biological engineering of genes - and creating digital lifeforms….

Indeed, scientists are now working to create the first digital life form -- by peering into the code of life. OpenWorm is an open source computer simulation aimed at creating a virtual roundworm -- the caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegant), a microscopic nematode. This simulation will encompass every single neuron in the worm, and every connection between neurons.  The result? Watching worm behavior emerge from the data simulation.

In related news: Caltech researchers have created an artificial jellyfish from rat cells and sheets of silicone polymer. It can mimic the swimming motion of natural jellyfish via electrical stimulation which causes rapid contraction of the rat heart muscle cells.

"A powerful demonstration of engineering chimaeric systems of living and non-living components," says Joseph Vacanti of Massachusetts General Hospital. The team hopes to reverse-engineer other marine lifeforms.

Along those lines, take a look at Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, by George M. Church and Ed Regis -- a look at how scientists will selectively alter the genomes of living organisms to…increase longevity, cure disease or …. even bring back extinct species.


==Science forges on! (Now to get politics to come along)==

Do you wish it were possible to transform American politics enough to calm down the "war on science" and transform it - instead - into a debate about science?

That's one goal of the good folks at Science Debate, who urge that matters of science and technology and the future be put on the agenda of candidates for high office, especially during the looming presidential debates. If we could get just one evening when the focus would be on the very forces -- from energy to innovation, climate change to the internet --  that drive change and propel so many challenges? Front and center? Exposing the intelligent cogency - or lack - in the men seeking to guide us into uncharted waters?  Please visit the site. Even better, sign the petition and viral it.

Barring that brilliant - but alas, unlikely, event - the folks at ScienceDebate.org have polled dozens of top scientific groups to come up with The Top American Science Questions in 2012 -- the most important science policy issues facing the United States.  Whatever your affiliation, this year do spend the time to look them over and then do send them on to your local candidates for Congress and assembly and so on.

Try it.  Then note who actually bothers to answer.

==On the Transparency Front==

BikeCams: Cyclists have long had a rocky coexistence with motorists and pedestrians.  Now some cyclists are wearing helmet-mounted cameras to record their encounters, exactly as portrayed in The Transparent Society.

From baby monitors to closed circuit television, 2.4 GHz video transmitters are in many consumer products these days. And yet, most owners of these video devices don't realize they're transmitting an unencrypted video signal that can be picked up by anyone.

See how one activist is offering these feeds on lamp post boxes to increase public awareness... in stunning correlation with scenes in my new novel EXISTENCE.  In a project, From Surveillance to Broadcast, Benjamin Gaulon has posted boxes on street corners, recording video feed that can be accessed, to increase public awareness of the capabilities of this technology.

No more hiding behind anonymity? YouTube is fighting against idiotic and often nasty/racist/sexist commenters by calling for full names when you upload or comment on videos.  We seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place.  Anonymity protects free speech... and unleashes the most vicious instincts from truly awful people.  Is there any way we could get to hold onto some accountability and feedback loops that encourage maturity and decency... while still keeping the most important benefits of anonymity?  (As it happens, I have a way, and someone could make millions while solving the problem...)

=== A Miscellany of Science News ===

Two shock waves in space, intersecting, might create a “regularity singularity” - interesting general relativity.

The National Ignition Facility completed a 500 terrawatt laser fusion shot. Wow.

Move to Kansas City right now!  Google announced plans to build the gigabit network back in February of 2010 and thousands of municipalities competed to be the future home of the planned network. In March, it selected Kansas City as the first  test of a network running fiber-optic cables directly to homes, and delivering Internet speeds roughly 100 times faster than the national broadband average. Watch for details next week.  (In Existence I briefly describe a completely unused, potentially fecund "right of way" into nearly every home!)

Watch an impressive and inspiring film about cetaceans and research into whales - with unbelievable photography - by Fabrice Schnoller and a team of French researchers.

Yes... science marches on.  Let's stay worthy of it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

GeekWire asks David Brin about the World of Tomorrow…

Journalist-author and entrepreneur Frank Catalano took advantage of my book tour for Existence, in order to pin me down with questions about everything from sci fi to human destiny, in this interview that first appeared on Geekwire.

Frank Catalano (FC): What is right with Science Fiction Today?

David Brin (DB):  Science Fiction has so flooded into popular culture and beyond that it's becoming a staple of discussion in politics and philosophy and daily life.  The New Yorker just ran a "science fiction issue" featuring works by some of our literary lights... a few of whom spent decades denying they ever wrote SF. People appear to have realized, at last, that we're in the 21st Century.  Time to buy that silvery spandex outfit, I guess.

Another good thing, the sheer number of brilliant young writers coming down the pike. Michael Chabon, Charles Yu, Paolo Bacigalupi, Mary Kowal, Daniel Wilson, Kay Kenyon.... and dozens more. They can turn a phrase with the best in any genre, any era, and there are so many of them!  Liberated by new technology to explore innovative storytelling methods, like novels with embedded media or animated storyboards... zowee!

FC: What is wrong with science fiction today?

DB: Too many authors and film-makers buy into the playground notion that cynicism is somehow chic and knowing.  So many 50 or 80 year-old cliches are rampant -- e.g. "hey look, I invented suspicion of authority!" -- while nostalgia pushes aside what used to be our genre's golden notion. That we in this civilization might find ways to improve, to solve problems, to become better than we were.  A difficult project, fraught with many pitfalls. But too many portray it now as hopeless.

How pathetic! That beneficiaries of relentless progress should repay that debt by casting doubt on the very possibility?  And lest you mistake this for political, I see the habit spewing from both ends of the hoary, lobotomizing so-called "left-right axis." My late, lamented friend Ray Bradbury called this fetish the very lowest form of ingratitude.

Not that all SF has to be pollyanna sunny or tech-praising-pulp!  Ray plumbed the darkest depths of the human soul, in tales that could freeze your heart.  So?  He considered fantasy chills and terrifying sci fi what-ifs to be part of the process, exploring our dark corners and failure modes, always aiming to achieve effective warnings.  Self-preventing prophecies.

Some of us are rebelling. Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear and others have been laying down a challenge to our peers. If you think we have problems, expose them!  But spare a little effort to suggesting solutions. Or stoking others with belief that we can.

FC: Does the ascendence -- and some would say replacement -- of literary science fiction by multi-sensory media worry you? Editor H.L. Gold, as I recall, once famously said, "the Golden Age of science fiction is 14." Is this still true in an age of 3D movies, realistic CGI even on TV shows, and immersive video games with science fiction storylines and settings?

DB: Good question.  Certainly when it comes to mass media, I can grumble about the immaturity, the cliches, the shallow idea space and the relentless cowardice of sequel-remake-reboot-itis. Whenever I see a new film I deliberately tune down several "dials" in my mind -- critical faculties associated with logic, plotting, science... -- just so I can retain some ability to enjoy a flick in the spirit it's offered.  (Anyway, that helps to keep both my wife and daughter from strangling me, during the show!) And yes, sometimes I get the dials tuned right, though I do resent having to do it.

But we're at the dawn of a new era.  In today's Hollywood, writers are the lowest form of life.  But that will change when a small team - writer-led -- can create a rough, animated storyboard of a film, fully 90 minutes long with spoken dialogue and music, that can gain a web following long before any studio sees it. This new, intermediate art form will change everything and shift the center of power over to story.

FC: What will literary science fiction -- paper or digital -- do best compared to other media forms of science fiction?

DB: Look, it may surprise you that I, the Hard SF Guy, believe there's magic.  But let's define it as the use of incantations to create vivid subjective realities in other peoples' heads.  That's what most magic has always been. The shaman might not really be able to make it rain.  But if his schtick was good, he would get fed!

By that light, we authors, especially in science fiction, are the greatest and most consistent, industrial-grade magicians. We concoct long incantations -- chains of spaces and black squiggles (a million of them in Existence) -- and skilled recipients of the spell (well-educated readers) proceed to scan those squiggles with their eyes, decrypting them swiftly into clever dialogue, deep emotions and insight,  unexpected ideas or star-spanning explosions. This partnership of spell-weaver and incantation-user is stunning, and remains far more effective for the full, rich texture of book-rooted invented worlds - where the recipient of the spell has to invest some energy and imagination - than any competing medium.

FC: You've occasionally dipped your pen into non-fiction, including 1998's The Transparent Society (winner of the American Library Association's Freedom of Speech Award) which seems oddly prescient in  time of privacy leaks and, some would say, sloppy privacy boundries both on the part of companies (Facebook) and individuals. Back then, you effectively said that openness, or letting everyone see the cards each other are holding that could be played on the other -- be they corporate, government or individual -- was the best policy when it came to organization's collecting and hoarding of private information. In the more than a dozen years that have passed, do you still maintain that? Or has your position, well, evolved in light of recent web social media events?

DB: Across at least 6000 years, nearly every civilization stuttered with barely perceptible progress and dismal statecraft.  The Enlightenment's chief tool in changing all that has been a suite of "arenas" in which we can compete, make fresh alliances, buy, sell, argue or negotiate without blood on the floor.  These arenas are democracy, science, markets and justice courts.  And here's the thing.  All four work best when most of the participants know most of what's going on, most of the time, and make good decisions accordingly.  All four enlightenment arenas wither and sicken and die, when denied light.

Dig it, in The Transparent Society I am no radical! I accept that some secrecy is necessary and avow that human beings have an intrinsic need for some privacy.  But here's the irony.  We'll be far more likely to be able to defend some privacy if we all can see! (Thus catching the peeing toms and would-be Big Brothers.) The term is "sousveillance." Look it up!

Oh, while we're at it. Also look up the concept of the "positive sum game."

FC: Many in technology used to say they were heavily influenced by science fiction -- both the literature and, famously, the first television series to treat literate science fiction seriously, Star Trek. Lately, though, tech startups seem to cite their primary influence as other technologists, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Does this show a lack of imagination? Or a lack of good science fiction? Or something else?

DB: Well, once some kids started making billions while turning sf'nal ideas real, who do you think will be the role models?  I just hope those billionaires remember to re-prime the well. There are scores of ways to do it.

FC: Plug time. Since we're talking around Hollywood, if you had to give a high-concept pitch for Existence in a phrase, what would it be?

DB: It's 2050.  People have been smart and solved some problems... but there's a minefield of threats and dangers ahead! At which point a message in a bottle washes on our shore, with an offer and a warning: JOIN US.

Of course, what I'd really do is refer producers to the vivid, three-minute preview/trailer for the book, with gorgeous hand-painted images by the great web artist Patrick Farley. (Yes, books now have trailers; I told you times are a-changing!) tinyurl.com/exist-trailer

FC: What is, or should, the role of science fiction be in inspiring students in STEM or other science-related disciplines, beyond entertainment?

DB: Not all SF or fantasy has to inspire new scientists and engineers. But it's good to know that kids are still reading the challenging stuff.  The tales filled with adeventure and personal drama... but also lots and lots and ideas.

FC: What one thing excites you in science today that even most geeks may not be aware of?

DB: What? And give away my best new story notions before I can write 'em? I was jazzed to learn of Planetary Resources, the new company with deep pockets, aiming to mine asteroids and make us all so rich we can transform Earth into a park.

It turns out that Europa and Enceledus may not be the only ice-covered moons with buried seas. The solar system may contain dozens!

And did you know that mammals have an inherent ability to regrow body parts and limbs? We appear to have abandoned it many many millions of years ago, but docs are learning how to insert the missing gears and crank that old machinery, wow.

Do you doubt I could go on and on? I can.  And  can you imagine that there are those who aren't excited by the possibilities? Or determined to stay alert to dangers, and eager to help progress? Can you believe you're a member of the same species as...  but well, by now those folks aren't reading this interview anymore.

FC: What one writer is writing in science fiction today, aside from you, that you consider a must-read for solid yet accessible scientific extrapolation?

DB: Well I already mentioned some of the young whipper snappers. A great hard SF guy? Vernor Vinge in Rainbow's End. Though I find Stephen Baxter and Rob Sawyer to be right up there.  Geoff Landis gets the science right.  Three English majors, Nancy Kress, Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Bear, have an uncanny knack, as do writers like...
But you asked for just one.  I'll stop at seven, but attach some recommended reading list links.

Now let's cross that minefield.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Names of infamy. Deny killers the notoriety they seek

Now it’s “James Eagan Holmes,” another name we’d rather not know. Opening fire at a crowded Colorado movie theater during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," Holmes killed twelve and injured dozens -- seizing world attention and far more than his fair share of our collective memories.

Though hate crimes, mass murders and school shootings draw the public eye, statistically, there is no evidence of a rise in episodes of wholesale slaughter. Nor is it a uniquely American phenomenon, as illustrated by the horrific acts of Norwegian lunatic Anders Behring Brevik. Though perhaps there has been a rise in the perpetrator's ability to swiftly and easily do harm.

Journalists and shrinks and the public fret over each killer's declared motives, From Brevik's islamophobia to Timothy McVeigh's war against government, to Al Qaeda suicide bombers, to the murderous students at Columbine High School who appeared to be seeking vengeance for bullying. Yet, when we step back and look for common threads, the emerging pattern seems to be less about specific hatreds, racism or anti-Semitism than frenzied, bloody tantrums staged by a string of losers with one common goal — to grab headlines.

“The reason they are doing this is for their moment of glory,” says Marvin Hier, who has studied the subject intensely for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, “when they feel the whole world is stopping to take notice of them.”

This trend isn’t limited to hate crimes. In the chilling story of Cary Stayner — the Yosemite killer — we saw how one man’s penchant for brutality can be sharpened by an appetite for publicity. Soon after he confessed to murdering four women in Yosemite National Park in 1999, Stayner told San Jose reporter Ted Rowlands, “I want a movie of the week.” Though he admitted having murderous fantasies since childhood, Stayner may also have been propelled by a jealous wish for notoriety equal to his brother Steven, whose escape from a pedophile in the late ’70s was indeed dramatized for television.

It’s an all-too-familiar pattern. The Oklahoma City terrorists, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, killer Mark David Chapman and Anders Breivik all showed a yearning for attention, both in the headline-grabbing nature of their crimes and in their polemics after capture. And it extends to less violent outlaws who relish fame, like cyber-vandal Kevin Mitnick, who portray themselves as Robin Hood romantics for what amounts to pissing in the common well. Whatever their diverse surface-rationalizations, it also surely has a lot to do with getting noticed in an era that reveres fame.

Society appears to be trapped, obliged to pay madmen the attention they crave, in direct proportion to the hurt they do.

=== History and biology ===

Small surprise - this is not a new problem. Two millennia ago, in the Hellenistic era, a young man torched one of the seven wonders of the ancient world — the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. When caught and asked why, he replied first with grievances against individuals and his city state, then admitted that he really wanted to make a mark, to be remembered. Since he wasn’t a great warrior, or creative person, his best chance was to gain infamy by destroying something.

Evolutionary biologists explain why this happens almost exclusively among frustrated, under-achieving males.  In nature, a male animal is never assured reproductive success.  He must find some way to be noticed, to stand out, at least a bit.  And the drive to stand out more than just a bit always simmers under the surface... because a risky gamble might bring disproportionate rewards.

"If I can't achieve that through talent or great works or team effort or any of the regular routes... I'll make a splash in ways you won't forget!"

Sure, none of these fellows gets to breed after committing awful acts. It must have been more successful in the Neolithic. It will take millennia - or fierce female selection - to work that crazy recourse out of our genes.

=== A healthy reflex, turned horrid by exaggeration ===

romantic-lonerConditions today are ripe for more of this. Not only has fame itself been made sacred, but countless films and novels feed a culture of resentment by extolling the image of romantic loners, battling vile institutions. On the plus side, this all-pervading mythos fosters a healthy suspicion of authority - or SOA.

(Much of modern politics revolves around which elite you perceive grabbing too much power -  e.g. oligarchs or snooty academics. Culture War might ease a bit, if we recall that other folks'  SOA fears may be as valid as ours.)

Alas though, SOA all-too easily inflates into contempt for all institutions, along with disdain for the very same tolerance and cooperative effort that sustain civilization. Now add another ingredient — the progressive diffusion of destructive technologies into private hands — and you get a recipe for profound unpleasantness in the years ahead. We just don’t need this trend further reinforced by the seductive lure of renown.

=== A possible solution? ===

One answer is suggested by that fellow who burned the temple at Ephesus. He is often called Herostratos. But in fact, many scholars think that is a made-up name, used to replace his true identity, which was expunged. To punish his abhorent act and to deter others with the same aim, the city banned speaking of him. Two millennia later, no one knows for sure who he really was.

Were the ancients on to something? If a sociopath’s attraction to villainy is partly engendered by hope for celebrity, might a “Herostratos law” take away some of the allure, by ensuring the opposite?

Of course things work differently today. Coerced forgetfulness is out of the question in a free society. Newspapers and journalists would have to participate voluntarily. Instead of suppressing actual facts, which are needed for accountability, good results might be achieved simply by making adjustments in style and presentation. After all, reporters assented, en masse, when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh asked to be called “Tim” and the Unabomber said “call me Ted” instead of Theodore. If journalists accommodate murderers in this small way — as a reflex of professional courtesy — why can’t they lean a bit the other direction, after someone is convicted of gross felonies in a court of law?

Courts already do have some authority to order name-changes. Suppose that power were widened — any criminal sentenced for a truly heinous crime could be renamed as part of his punishment, with a moniker that invites disdain. New history books might state: “Robert F. Kennedy was slain in 1968 by Doofus25*.”

The asterisk is there to let anyone find the assassin’s former name in a footnote, if they are truly interested, so no one is actually suppressing knowledge. Nevertheless, the emphasis on a new moniker will take hold.

Who would choose the new names? Judges could get creative, or the public might be invited to suggest appropriate derogations.  Or something random might be the greatest punishment of all.

herostratosHowever it’s done, won’t it make sense for ridicule to replace some of the grotesque fashionableness that’s now attached to terror? It would reflect society’s determination to allocate fame properly, to those who earn it. We would be saying — “You can’t win celebrity this way. By harming innocents, you’re only destroying your own name.”

The idea may seem odd, at first. Maybe even needlessly vindictive. But I promise it will grow more appealing each time the cycle is repeated by some murderous loony who demands our attention with both violence and contempt. Pragmatically speaking, it could contribute to breaking today’s vicious feedback loop by denying sociopaths the attention they crave, perhaps even tempting them to seek help. (Help we all-too-often fail to provide. But that’s another, much harder subject.)

Moreover, this approach to deterrence may give us — civilization’s rambunctious, argumentative, yet cooperative citizens — the last laugh. We can catch, punish and outlast them, of course. But above all we’ll deny villains any chance to win through violence a bigger place in history than the hard-working, creative people they hurt and despise.

Who knows? Some of those angry ones out there, who are teetering with indecision each desperate day, may even decide that it’s better to help lay a few bricks, alongside the rest of us, than to claw after infamy by tearing the walls down.

If they do — if they choose to join us — we should try to welcome them. Listen to them. And learn their names.

-------------------------------
This article originally appeared in Salon and was revised and updated in light of recent events.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bulletins from the Transparency Front


1) Toronto researcher Steve Mann, who was one of the earliest pioneers of wearable computing and augmented reality (AR), and who co-coined the term “sousveillance,” was physically assaulted by employees of a Paris McDonald’s restaurant during a recent family vacation, for the crime of wearing AR visual aids akin to Google’s Project Glass.  We are indeed in an era of rough transition.

2) CBS tours the newly opened Nazi archives on the Holocaust which have been (unbelievably) closed until now.  Now, miles and miles of documents constitute a stunning blow to the denialist cult.  Well... one of the denialist cults.  The drought destroying crops all over the world may budge a few climate denialists.  But then, there are still some who deny tobacco is anything but good for you.

3) More on those terahertz laser scanners that do chemical spectroscopy on materials and vapors around you, without exposing you to ionizing X-Rays or (disturbingly) ever letting you know you are being scanned. This is not an imaging device, but a tool for reading absorbance spectra at the high microwave, low infrared range. “This kind of picosecond laser reads the environment in real-time. That gunpowder residue on your hand from hunting the other day, cannabis smoke particles in your hair, or even a bit of (explosive-boosting) nitrate fertilizer stuck to your shoe could trigger this scanner.

Will that cause an entirely new set of headaches for airline passengers?”  But get used to the new world.  And push for the ability to look back.  To get this for ourselves.

4)  This month, if everything goes according to schedule, your Internet Service Provider may begin monitoring your account, just to make sure you aren't doing anything wrong with it -- like sharing copyrighted movie or music files. Violations may result in an escalating scale from warnings to termination of service.

5) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) secretly spied on E-mails of its own scientists - who were filing whistle blower complaints. Disturbing? Yes, but my perspective is unusual.  I see it as a case of everything working as it should.  Looking back at power worked.  This time.

6) A report from Wired: Saying it wanted to help to protect dissidents who appear in videos shared on YouTube, Google launched a tool Wednesday that can blur their faces in footage uploaded to its servers. Now mind you, this is a stopgap measure.  As more cameras swarm, the bad news is that this won't work for long.  The good news?  If we all can use those cams, then lying - even by the mighty - will get a lot harder. And abusing witnesses won't be a workable option anymore.

=== Politics redux (get used to it) ===

Somewhat turgid, overblown and self-righteous, an article by Sara Robinson on AlterNet nevertheless takes a look at the present Culture War that’s tearing America apart and calls it what it is.  What I have long realized that it is.  Nothing less than Phase Three of the American Civil War.
In fact, I would couch things slightly less radically than  Robinson does in: "Conservative Southern Values Revived: How a Brutal Strain of American Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America: America didn't used to be run like an old Southern slave plantation, but we're headed that way now. How did that happen?"
Nevertheless, let’s be plain, her essential point about the divide between two styles of American aristocracy, one represented by Gates and Buffett and the other by those wanting an old fashioned feudalism to return, is the core conflict tearing the United States apart at present.

Moreover, this phase of the Civil War must end the way the others did --

-- by the blue Union being awakened, roused perhaps by polemical exaggerations like Robinson’s. Into realizing What Fox has accomplished -- what southern yellow papers did at the command of slave-holding elites in 1860 -- destroying any hope of negotiation.

All that is left is for Blue America to win.  Simply - and for the sake of freedom and progress and the Great Experiment - win.

=== Some (mostly) science miscellany ===

A fascinating breakthrough in producing graphene transistors. Will this result in computers based on graphene rather than silicon chips?

University of Granada researchers have developed an “artificial cerebellum” that controls a robotic arm with human-like precision.

The University of Nottingham has begun the search for a new class of injectable materials that will stimulate stem cells to regenerate damaged tissue in degenerative and age-related disorders of the bone, muscle and heart.  This is part of a huge new development in rediscovering the regenerative capability most mammals appear to have abandoned millions of years ago.

For more see Juan Enriquez's TED talk...

The first artificial molecules whose chirality (handedness) can be rapidly switched from a right-handed to a left-handed orientation with a beam of terahertz light has been developed by a multi-institutional team including Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). This development holds potentially important possibilities for uses of terahertz technologies across a wide range of fields, including reduced energy use.

...amazing times...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Accelerating Dangers & Opportunities from Transparency

The future comes rushing upon us so quickly, already I worry that the world portrayed in my freshly minted novel will be old hat long before the time it is set, 30 years from now. (Meaning that we need futuristic and open-minded thought experiments now, more than ever.)

Try these items on for size...

With new laser technology, hidden government scanners will instantly know everything about you from 150 feet (or 50 meters) away, detecting traces of drugs, explosives, bioweapons or gunpowder on your clothes or luggage -- even recording your adrenaline levels. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will install these scanners (a million times more sensitive than current systems) at airports and border crossings across the country -- as early as 2013. The Russians are developing a comparable system.

Now... if this reduces our exposure to x-rays and allows the TSA to tamp down the aggravation at airports, you can expect the new systems to have their upside. On the other hand, this sort of thing could be Big Brother's most delicious dream.  (More on that aspect.)

...then there's this. Cell phone providers received 1.3 million cell phone snooping requests last year from law enforcement agencies seeking information on locational data and calling records. There is little oversight over who can make such requests, or what is done with the information.

Way back in '97, in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom, I made it clear that we'll not stop any of this with whining, moaning or by trying to ban these technologies.  Our only chance? If government - and other mighty elites - are absolutely fated to know everything about us anyway, our sole option is to know everything about them. 

This is the important distinction between surveillance and sousveillance -- looking down vs. looking back.

And though I've covered it at-length from many directions, I expect to be doing so repeatedly, for the rest of my life.

Is it even remotely possible for sousveillance to work?  For citizens to shine enough light upward to remind our civil servants that they are servants?  To keep a choke-chain on our guard dogs, so they never see themselves as wolves?  To remind corporations that they are constructs, and oligarchs that they are not feudal lords, with droit du seigneur?  As it happens, there are dozens of techniques that might help... providing we nurture the calm, rational... but militant... determination to make this practically happen.

Let's start simple. See just one practical approach that - with a very simple slip of legislation that could be written on one piece of paper - and maybe cost 20 million dollars - we might suddenly and smoothly add a layer of safety and accountability to help let us sleep at night. It's no panacea!  But by simply changing how government inspectors general function, we might follow the sage advice of Sun Yat Sen and stymie the bad in government, while aiding the good.

Let's hope that this election cycle someone actually listens.

And another Transparency related item.  This one not only forecast in The Transparent Society  but also in EARTH...

...the tendency of humans to filter out news or opinions or views or even sensory input that we don't like or agree with.  (Yes, one side of the political "spectrum" is currently doing it to psychotic degrees... but the other end does it too!)  We've been finding out that our brains naturally pass disagreeable info and opinions and input through emotional centers rather than those devoted to reason.  But as predicted, electronic "filters" are making things even worse for some, even while opening up vast universes of wonder and possibilities for others.  See "Are we stuck in a filter bubble...hearing only what we want to hear?" Then see how this very issue was dealt with, in Earth (1989).

Indeed. And then comes the new world of "augmented reality."
Patricia F. Anderson wrote: "Graffiti goes virtual with an augmented reality app for your cell phone, called LZRTAG  Shades of @DavidBrin 's early scenes in Existence."  Indeed, the layering of virtual surfaces over our world has already begun. Still images, animations and video can be tagged to real world surfaces, so your smartphone can interact with media, billboards, lampposts or landmarks. Vernor Vinge and I do - however - show where it must eventually lead. That is, where it must lead if we are lucky and do smart things!

To see where it will lead if we drop courage and brains?  Try Nineteen Eighty-Four.


=== Fascinating cases of watching the watchers at work ===

Think I am naive? Teams at Harvard and the University of Hong Kong have been using new software that allows them to watch the censoring of posts on Chinese social-media sites more closely than before. Monitoring the Monitors summarizes their report in The Economist:

The team found that, overall, 13% of all social media posts in China were censored. Yet their most surprising result is that posts critical of the government are not consistently censored. On the other hand, posts urging people to assemble in protest, are generally removed from the internet within hours. Harvard professor Gary King writes, “Clearly the goal is actually to repress people gathering.”

Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, comments. “The goal has never been total control. The goal is to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power.”

The researchers analyzed the posts that had been censored to determine exactly what had made them objectionable to the government. What they found was a constantly changing list of keywords and sensitive topics, resulting in "a cat-and-mouse contest between people and censors.”


=== Keep the dream alive ===

On the recent American Independence Day... with a marathon of the eponymous film playing in the background ... I was reminded of the ways that our revolution has affected the world.  Sometimes for ill - though less than any other great "pax" power across time. And sometimes for profound good.  That may be viewed as biased (though in fact, I am more of a Californian than a yankee).  So I suggest steeping in points of view that might be considered neutral and yet poetically insightful.  Such as this account, by the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, of how a remote Circassian mountain tribe once sat at his feet, demanding stories about ... Abraham Lincoln.

PHASES-CIVIL-WARAre we made of lesser stuff than our parents, or the heroes of the first phase of the American Civil War?  We are in phase three now.

Wake up and end it.  By winning it.


=== Science Miscellany ===

We need to discuss what to do about nuclear waste.  It never made the slightest sense for us to abandon the Yucca Mountain site on account of some supposed small chance that the depository might leak a little in 10,000 years.  Say what? So these people are now willing to talk about sci fi levels of time, when they won’t even discuss a decade from now, on any other issue?  Dig it. In 10,000 years, the stored radionuclides are far more likely to be more valuable as stored "gold", than they are to leak into a desert aquifer.  Read up.

Dinosaur sex! Scientific!  With feathers, yet.  And facial expressions.