Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Fascism - and resurgent Marxism - and other simplistic perils we thought dead

== Ecos of fascism past ==

It is well to look back a few years to the brilliant Umberto Eco’s list of 14 Traits of Fascism, of which the Nazis were just one sub type. It truly is a fascinating (and chilling) list, as Eco avoids the temptation of prescriptive jargon, distilling fascism to common traits we see so very often in authoritarian movements. 

What Eco does not do is show how these are mostly traits not just of fascism but most earlier feudal regimes, going back at least 4000 years, which ruined hope and progress and freedom in perhaps 99% of known agricultural or industrial societies.  A question to ask those who fixate on only bureaucrats and socialists as potential enemies of freedom: how often did that happen, as opposed to freedom suppression by kings, lords, priests and inheritance brats?

The overwhelming prevalence of nasty-stupid feudalism may have galactic implications! A trait that common among humans might also be obligatory in other races, across the stars, helping to explain the “Fermi Paradox” or quandary over the apparent absence of interstellar civilizations. It's a trap that all-too few escape.

==Karl's ghost rises ==

But getting back to Umberto Eco's list, is another question. How do Marxist authoritarian states differ from fascist ones? It seems to me that Marxists - or Leninists, actually - break from the list in traits #1 & 2, while modifying #6  & 10 & 12 in order to mask them with egalitarian/proletarian gloss.

A key point I keep hammering. It seemed for a while as if the works of Karl Marx had been devastatingly refuted by the society that Franklin, Lincoln and the FDR generation built, which broke almost every "ordained" pattern that old Karl thought inevitable -- making a flattened "capitalism" that followed Adam Smith's egalitarian prescription instead, seeking to include ever more groups in flat-fair-creative competitive productivity.

 A few residual red-believers grumbled: "Just you wait. The aristocrats and cheaters will be back to re-establish the worst version of capitalism. A version of feudalism that finally drives oppressed serfs to revolution!" Like many, I shrugged off those cultists...

...only now Marxist works are flying off the shelves, all over the world, and Karl's raving followers rant on every campus and in sweatshops and unemployment lines. Moreover, this resurrection of an undead cult wasn't caused by moderate liberal reformers, or those FDR-loving members of the Greatest Generation, or even Bernie-style Scandinavia socialists. 

The blame is fully at the feet of those would-be lords backing Fox. You did this. You raised the dead. And those zombies will get you.

== Ayn Rand may offer a torpedo to sink GOP fascism ==

Now and then I propose something most of you reflexively reject - reaching out to libertarians. Offering them Adam Smith and liberally-accentuated flat-fair-creative Competition instead of cultish worship of Property. ("C" word, not "P"!) The Koch/Forbes cabal spent billions to suborn this movement, an achilles hell, should libertarians ever wake from the trance. 

So far - yes - it's glacially slow, pointing out that liberals want bedroom freedom, body sovereignty, church separation, are fiscally far more prudent and it's blue states who spur entrepreneurship and are ending the damned War on Drugs. But this new item could actually do it! 

MAGA War on Architectural Diversity to bring back Classical Architecture.

Seriously, nothing you do will cause a randian to rock back and take notice more than rubbing that in their face! In Ayn Rand's best (or least-bad) book, art critic Ellsworth Monkton Toohey oppresses architectural genius Howard Roark with demands for classical columns and conformity to ornate, conservative style. So use this! Nothing could make more clear to that branch of libertarians that yes, it is the Republicans who are the cheaters, looters and repressers of modernity (and science and every other fact-using profession) in favor of a return to feudal-inherited oligarchic traditionalism.

Know one? Hammer this!

== An important dilemma to consider… but beware the sub-text! ==

Robert Zubrin, best known for his advocacy of Mars colonization, is unabashedly forward on many cutting edge issues, often combining incisive insight about the future with a somewhat-mad, rightwing moralizing that seems quaintly decent and naive, in the age of Putin, Fox, MBS and Trump. Take his most recent article in The National Review - The Real Robot Threat - a call for an international treaty against autonomous lethal weaponry - machinery that can be unleashed to target living people without the supervision and control of a human operator.

And yes, human operators do make a big difference. The drone strikes that saw an upsurge during the Obama years were all closely monitored and even from thousands of miles away, Air Force and CIA operators in Nevada frequently called off hits at the very last moment, when they suspected likely civilian casualties (sometimes violating direct orders.) Their rates of cancelation and refusal were far higher than by pilots of fighter-bombers on the scene! Suggesting that the video game generation has not been ‘dehumanized.’ (See the fascinating Mexican sci fi flick “Sleep Dealer.”)

You’ll get none of that conscientious oversight in basic, unleashed auto-targeted systems. So yes, I approve of Rob raising the issue! Though there are many points to quibble in this piece.

First, there’s the Cryptic Elite Effect. Such laws and treaties will be violated by the very ones who are most dangerous with the technology, such as criminal or despotic elites who will only respond to such a treaty by pursuing them in secret. Such controls can only be useful if we first get what I have for 30 years called the PRE-REQUISITE for all goody-goody legislation — widespread and worldwide transparency. And in such a world, the need for such laws would vanish organically, anyway.

Second, alas, Rob’s fetishistic tunnel vision glares throughout the article, for example: “Bureaucracy is necessary for tyranny because it suppresses conscience. The bureaucrat is required not to think or feel. He or she is to be part of a machine. The purpose of bureaucracy is to turn people into automatons.”

Oh what stunning drivel! Oh, sure, bureaucracy can be the tool of whatever society wields it.  And yes, as Orwell, Kafka, Vonnegut and Arendt pointed out, bureaucrats can be great enablers of hierarchical oppression. (I was Distinguished Scholar at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center and my father knew her at the Eichmann Trial.) But Zubrin’s obsession is a way of blaming the tool and letting the hierarchs off the hook.

For 6000 years, those oppressive hierarchs weren’t “bureaucrats” or socialists, but kings, feudal lords and theocrats, fiercely enforcing wealth inheritance for their sons, maintaining 60 centuries of grueling darkness and error and misrule and suppression. The very kind of oligarchic rule that the world’s entire mad right is trying to re-impose upon us, as we speak. Even Leninist and fascist regimes fit that pattern - pyramids of top-down power - perfectly, with only cosmetic changes in symbolism and state cult-religion. 

And such oligarchies have hated one enemy above all -- Periclean Enlightenments, brief eras of flat-open, egalitarian, transparent and fact-driven opportunity, with policies that encourage fair-competition and social mobility and opportunity for all. And yes, as Adam Smith pointed out, these vastly-creative renaissances require bureaucrats to counter-balance the power of lords and the wealthy and other elites.

And yes, that is why the mad right has declared war against today’s largely loyal, intelligent and conscientious civil servants… slandering them as some purported "deep state"... and against all other fact-using professions.

So yes, go read Rob’s missive. It’s thought provoking, so let thoughts be provoked! Only then think beyond, to why it is that a few of our brightest get lured into ancient incantations and magic spells that wind up thwarting the very kind of society they want to defend.

== Who are the crazies at the top? ==

We've all watched the bizarro theater of acting Navy Secretary Modley firing Captain Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt for trying desperately to save the lives of his sailors. Ironically, Theodore Roosevelt himself did something very similar, in order to get his own men away from Yellow Fever infested swamps where the McKinley Administration cynically kept them, for political reasons. Above all, look up the story of Ernest King, who refused stupid orders to endanger his men, aboard USS Lexington in the 1930s. His career seemed doomed. And 8 years later he led the US Navy wearing five stars during WWII.

Consider this: “Billions of dollars allocated for the critical acquisition of additional ships and aircraft vital for Navy and Marne Corps warfighting capability diverted by SecDef Esper for border wall construction. This action undermines our national security and military readiness for political purposes.”

Look at all actions by these idiocrats. Find me one that goes against the itnerests of Vladimir Putin.


== Political miscellany… some of it even funny! ==

Biggest lie? "Drain the Swamp" is near the top. Robert Reich's video lays it out so vividly - make your MAGAs watch!

Trump's new lawyer reportedly steered more than $60 million from his nonprofit to family members.”

HilariousThe Greta Thunberg Helpline: For adults angry at a child.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Science Fiction updates!

I just sent out my annual newsletter… actually, the complaint I get is that they are too seldom! It’s actually been 3 years. You can view a web version of the newsletter… and go to the bottom to sign up to receive future missives!

Sundiver, my first novel, came back into our hands after 38 years. We made corrections, gave it a new cover and introduction. Shout if you might want that long-awaited, collectable hardcover!   (It’s one of my few books that never had one.)

All my story collections -  The River of TimeOtherness and Insistence of Vision - are back! (My best work.) But above all... 
 Need cheering up? See my new sci fi comedy novel “The Ancient Ones.” !!!

== A great reading list! ==

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA, Inc.) announced finalists for the 55th Annual Nebula Awards, that will be presented in Woodland Hills, CA at the Warner Center Marriott during a (now virtual) ceremony on the evening of May 30th. Here is the list, so you can hunt down some good reads by fine authors.

Novel
Marque of Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor)
Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey; Jo Fletcher)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)
A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)

Novella
"Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom", Ted Chiang (from his anthology, Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)
Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, Vylar Kaftan (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)
Catfish Lullaby, A.C. Wise (Broken Eye)

Novelette
"A Strange Uncertain Light", G.V. Anderson (F&SF 7-8/19)
"For He Can Creep", Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
"His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light", Mimi Mondal (Tor.com 1/23/19)
"The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye", Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
Carpe Glitter, Cat Rambo (Meerkat)
"The Archronology of Love", Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

Short Story
"Give the Family My Love", A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)
"The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power", Karen Osborne (Uncanny 3-4/19)
"And Now His Lordship Is Laughing", Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
"A Catalog of Storms", Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)
"How the Trick Is Done", A.C. Wise (Uncanny 7-8/19)

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez (Disney Hyperion)
Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney Hyperion)
Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, Henry Lien (Holt)
Cog, Greg van Eekhout (Harper)
Riverland, Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing
Outer Wilds, Kelsey Beachum (Mobius Digital)
The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)
The Magician's Workshop, Kate Heartfield (Choice of Games)
Disco Elysium, Robert Kurvitz (ZA/UM)
Fate Accessibility Toolkit, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (Evil Hat Productions)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
Avengers: Endgame, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Marvel Studios)
Captain Marvel, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Marvel Studios)
Good Omens: "Hard Times", Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)
The Mandalorian: "The Child", Jon Favreau (Disney+)
Russian Doll: "The Way Out", Allison Silverman and Leslye Headland (Netflix)
Watchmen: "A God Walks into Abar", Jeff Jensen & Damon Lindelof (HBO)

== More sci fi news! ==

The great and mighty SF writer Catherine Asaro has posted the first part from her upcoming book The Vanished Seas

Space Cowboy Books Presents: Simultaneous Times Episode #24 - Featuring short stories by David Brin and Jean-Paul L. Garnier. Travel through space and time with science fiction audio plays set to original music from our team of composers, RedBlueBlackSilver and Phog Masheeen. 

Then consider bringing that nerdiness power to bear on saving the world! At the TASAT project! 

Wanda Kurtçu reports from the recent, Dublin World Science Fiction Convention on how she served on ten panels variously related to diversity! Also about a meeting of  MEGA (Melanin Enhanced Geek Alliance)! She also was the 2019 BayCon Fan Guest of Honor in May. I was writer GoH and we had a lot of fun bandying jokes and talking memes… an amazing person.

I have lectured for the Odyssey Science Fiction Workshop -- a fine (and in many ways far better) alternative to Clarion. Jeanne Cavelos will get you tuned up with all the writerly trick and skills! And donations to the fine cause of developing great science fiction authors should rank on the list for some of you!

Amid all these stories about a "2nd Mona Lisa painting by da Vinci" I am reminded of a wonderful short story -- Bob Shaw’s  “The Giaconda Caper” (1978) about a psychic detective who tracks down FIFTY different versions of that famous painting, most of them still sitting on an apparatus in a cave near Pisa. An apparatus with a strangely mundane yet marvelous purpose and a stunning plot twist. You can find it in his “Who Goes Here” book (which is a novel that also includes this one short story) available on Kindle.

== Good stuff by others ==

Astronomer Andrew Fraknoi published a very short and amusing “sci fi” story about a SETI scenario

This thoughtful end-of-year essay by Dan Wang begins with a riff that makes important points about the recent “trade war” with China, implicitly agreeing with my point that we (America and the West) will do better by stimulating our own innovation (and insisting on a full decade of benefit from each item of IP, than with all the world’s ultimately self-defeating tariffs: 

The US responded to the rise of the USSR and Japan by focusing on innovation; it’s early days, but so far the US is responding to the technological rise of China mostly by kneecapping its leading firms. So instead of realizing its own Sputnik moment, the US is triggering one in China. …  China finds it politically intolerable that the US has an at-will ability to cripple major firms like ZTE and Huawei. It’s now a matter of national security for China to strengthen every major technological capability.”

The author then goes on to a stimulating discussion of Philip K. Dick, Liu Cixin and Olaf Stapledon.

PDK’s novels feature smart—and often even brilliant—elites, who feel hemmed in by forces they cannot understand. PKD’s novels are good at depicting the frustrations of elites, whose only satisfaction comes from toying with the fates of smaller characters. They have good reactive instincts and can manage problems that flare up, but lack the confidence that they can affect larger outcomes, and thus have no real sense of initiative beyond petty matters. That’s the story of an elite in Hong Kong, and I worry that US elites are giving in to the same tendencies. They are well-meaning and well-educated, but also risk-averse and pessimistic: retail sanity and wholesale madness.”

Much more of interest. huh.

In the November 2019 issue of LOCUS there's an interview with L.X. Beckett - who has taken the lessons of "The Transparent Society" to heart (or reinvented them).  Beckett writes in her interview:  "An argument can be made that mostly it's not so much our privacy we care about, except in a few circumstances. It's unequal privacy. I'd be willing to let my life live under that microscope, and let anyone have my whole transcript - if I knew that I could call up any corporate transcript, or if I had those board meeting minutes, or if every time some guy ignored a person saying, 'no, stop!' it actually went into a record somewhere.

"In Gamechanger, the buzzword for that universal lack of privacy is 'mutually assured disclosure.' Everything goes into the Haystack and it's generally assumed that 99% of the information is boring. You still have a form of privacy, just because you're not interesting enough, usually, for anyone to bother reading - the data is going to get used when you and your sister have an argument and she needs to prove that she was right."

Interesting and more intimate than the way I reached the same conclusion, in Earth.

== Videos of brin-blather ==

(1) The “Neo” Project aims to create a vividly beautiful film, 
combining science and art with optimism. They feature my blather 
about peering into the future. Vivid imagery and remarkable sound editing. 

(2) The XPrize Foundation FB-posted a well-produced video 
of me explaining the concept of the self-preventing prophecy, 
and how we gird ourselves through science fiction to face tomorrow's perils. 

(3) Video of my talk on the future of A.I. to a packed house at IBM's World of Watson congress in Las Vegas, October 2016. A punchy tour of big perspectives on Intelligence, as well as both artificial and human augmentation.

There’s an audio version of Sundiver on Audible, which is distributed on Audible via Recorded books, and which you can find here. But again... you could use a laugh right about now!  Yes, you. I can tell, even from here. This might help!

Bee seeing you.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

More repercussions in a plague year... and some long term.

First off, I want to discuss a couple of generalities. Let’s start with a fellow by name of Hyman Minsky, whose insights into the nature of stability in human systems have been getting a lot of attention. Basically, during times of great stability, many people - taking continuity for granted - pile up ever greater amounts of risk without hedging against a reversal... till reversal happens -- a "Minsky Moment" when instability suddenly returns, at which point things shake out amid lots of pain. Perhaps everyone adjusts together, weaning themselves of bad habits and making things work better, with more wisdom. Alternately, things may go as Karl Marx, described, viewing such shakeouts as inevitably both culling the capitalist class and impoverishing workers, leading to revolution. 

Take the example of Japan, which had fine-tuned their economy according to the teachings of American quality and efficiency guru W. Edwards Demming. Taking Demming to an extreme, Toyota led at innovating ultra slim, just-in-time supply chains that squeeze every possible drop of margin from goods and services. Like an athlete who tunes her body to perfectly perform a particular movement, companies following Demming principles aimed for zero on-site storage or stockpiling - equivalent to the athlete’s nonexistent fat reserves. And just like such an athlete, stuck on a life-raft for a week without supplies, Japanese companies learned the “Minsky folly” of their mistake, when an exogenous shock - the Fukushima disaster - shattered supply chains and Japan virtually shut down.

As futurist Jamais Cascio  put it: "The villainization of over-capacity has been a hallmark of the current post-industrial capitalism environment. What we have seen over the past couple of months is the value of slack in a world that’s gone unstable." (Personal correspondence.) Certainly the short-sighted selling off of federal U.S. medical stockpiles, not long ago, is a rabid chicken now coming home to roost. One might wonder if this correlates with the rise of MBAs and decline of engineers in corporate boardrooms.

But back to Minsky’s core lesson. Periods of stability lead to unstable ones and vice versa. That is, if we learn lessons and avoid mistakes of the past. (We will find new mistakes to make.) 

My own take on all of this has been to rail for 20 years, all over DC and media, about our need for Resilient Systems that are robust enough to take shocks and ride them out. See this interview in ACM listing a dozen major ways that we have avoided simple preparations for the next Minsky Moment.


== So what do I predict as outcomes from COVID 19? ==

Sone of the following expands on ideas from an earlier posting, but taken logically farther. Other concepts are new. 

I foresee national and international changes falling into several categories.

Short term tactics:
- A friend reports how they’re doing in Hong Kong - "the city is is still pretty well rocking on per normal… we wear masks… time to amplify that message. Masks work! If everyone wears them. And if that works, it helps the doctors and nurses too." Though yes, we should have surged mask and test production months ago.

Impudent experiments:
- Cities and counties may both spur the economy and take advantage of deserted roads, by sending out many teams of two to four workers - trained in hygiene and safety - to fix potholes and repair empty schools. See this pothole option happening at one iconic London site.

It will occur to someone - likely already Elon Musk - to staff a factory or office entirely with COVID-19 positives who are proved to be symptom free. Hospitals may be forced to do this, sooner than anyone. It is already locally possible, even with the outrageously hampered and uneven US testing system. But later, when testing is more reliable and routine, one might envision opening pairs of facilities for positives and negatives. Even restaurants and resorts.  

{Late note before posting: the same idea seems to have occurred elsewhere (duh?) "German researchers are suggesting that “immunity passports” could be given out to workers who have already caught the coronavirus — meaning they’re now immune — in a bid to get them back to work and help speed up the return to normal society." While there is some question about re-exposure to variant strains, what seems clear is that secondary infections of healthy 'survivors' are almost never lethal. We'll see if the idea 'catches.' Of course it will. Though it depends on testing.}

Technological changes: 
- There will be a Manhattan Project scale push to reduce the ramp-up time for testing kits and vaccines for all future disease threats. Abbott Labs now has a 5-13 minute test. They plan to scale up to 5 million/month, based on apparent need. What they need is 5 million/hour, for the US, and far more for the world. Likewise the 18 month predicted path for a vaccine must and will prove much shorter. 

{Late note: Jacob Glanville's lab aims to bypass a vaccine, which demands the body's own immune system gear up to produce stimulated antibodies, and instead mass produce antibodies industrially for injection into infected people, an approach similar to old-fashioned 'serums' based on the blood of immune persons. As in those lurid sci fi flicks OMEGA MAN and OUTBREAK.}


- Local sourcing has long been predicted, ranging from new-techs in additive (3D) manufacturing (now getting a boost making emergency ventilator parts) to farm-to-table food supply chains. Urban farming will range from home gardens to new tall buildings utilizing the sunshine on their southern faces to both treat their own wastewater and grow organics. Seaborne supply chains will be seen as a negative, as managers seek nearer sources, less prone to disruption. Of course there will be climate benefits.

- Business meetingware and work-from-home software - predicted for decades - languished due to managerial reluctance. These will now advance rapidly. But also expect a real estate boomlet in small scale satellite offices, where employees will spend at least part of each day being personally supervised, so their work-at-home hours can be kept effective. Education will go through similar changes. But what's to be done about those mass-tribal gatherings for sports, concerts and socializing>  Interesting times. 

- Expect a revival of the Obama-era push for nationwide broadband, as proved so useful in South Korea and Taiwan. 

Infrastructure. It goes far beyond potholes and school repairs. Democrats have demanded major programs to rebuild bridges etc while improving the quality (vs. quantity) of jobs and increasing money velocity. Republicans - while speaking the "I-Word" have blocked all such endeavors. All of this changes in a major recession, of course. Expect partisan gridlock to break in this one area. {And as we speak, suddenly Donald Trump is talking infrastructure, yet again.}

Transportation. The shift to Uber/Lyft style ride services will boom, short term. But also mid-scale van/jitney services in big cities… followed by a big push for self-driving taxis. But underground metros may not be finished. Today’s filthy subway trains could be supplanted by smaller, more efficient cars that shunt between lines and report in regularly for disinfecting.

Social effects: It will take more than COVID to end the personal handshake, but those European three-cheek air-kisses may be finished. Elbow greetings won’t last - but the fist-bump is likely the big winner, over time, as a compromise that's about 75% sanitary/safe and good enough for the new -- post-COVID -- normal. (My preference? I like the Roman style fore-arm clasp.)

More impudent measures:
- Elsewhere I spoke of several endeavors that make some logical sense to at least try, on a prototype-test basis, but that were politically too fraught. One of these would be to buy up a few of the countless moribund small towns in rural America, giving the few remaining residents a prosperous new start revitalizing another one. Then the evacuated hamlet might become experiments in - say - offering a voluntary place of space and fresh air refuge to some urban homeless. Or temporary homes for refugee families to work through their paperwork while gardening and farming outside of festering (and expensive) lockup cages. There are plenty of other potential sweet-spot uses, and more come to mind, in the era of pandemic.

Stepping back, remember who is hurting: As usual, those suffering most are the poor and working stiffs. Even if they keep a job and can manage the financial strain, families are stressed out in cramped quarters with many ensuing problems, from divorces and domestic violence to unexpected pregnancies. Others may take this as an opportunity to reconnect, with dads - especially - learning more about the difficult job of raising kids. While supporting actions to help, somehow we must also encourage such folks to do one thing to make a difference. Vote.

And yes, some foresee all this accelerating the exodus of the uber-rich, abandoning us to simmer in festering cities and suburbs. Connecticut, Wyoming and New Zealand have seen such influx. Certainly there is a “prepper” wing of oligarchy that’s bought up whole mountain ranges in Patagonia, Siberia and under the sea. I portrayed that mind set in The Postman and in Earth and in Existence. Of course the smarter half of the zillionaire caste wants no part of such insanity. Nor will such preparations avail the selfishness-fetishists an iota, even if the fit truly hits the shan. There are five reasons why this masturbatory survivalist fantasy is utter proof of mental defectiveness.

Finally Smart Sovereignty:
- Whether this Minsky Moment triggers revitalization and waves of new-creative solutions by an empowered citizenry... or one of Marx's purportedly "inevitable" stages of spiral into revolution... may depend on to what extent we revive civic goodwill and use new technologies to enhance logical, fact-centered. pragmatic civil discourse. Recall that earlier communication techs -- e.g. the printing press, radio and loudspeakers -- all led first to polemical horror shows that made things much worse... before folks sussed the new media and learned to parse truth from populist lies, making things much, much better.

That natural progression took decades, though. Time we simply do not have. 

== The jury is still out ==

I left aside possible outcomes that seem more “science fictional”… 

…e.g. what-if there is more to this virus than meets the eye? We already know that corona viruses are not like the flu. Flu stays in business by mutating rapidly, every year, forcing new kinds of vaccines to be developed. (Again, see my predictive short story “The Giving Plague,” which dives into the many ways that viruses and parasites "negotiate" with their hosts.)

Coronas — like SARS and MERS and the common cold — have a different approach. Somehow they convince human immune systems to “forget” them, so they can re-infect at a later date. Generally with milder symptoms, and some think COVID19 will settle down to be more cold-like, with time. But either way, we may need to add coronavirus immunizations to every new flu shot, in coming years.

But you know I meant more than that, by “science fictional” repercussions. And so… I’ll leave those for another time.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Where might this all lead? Unexpected options and outcomes... and some solace.

I've been asked by so many in the press and media etc. to speculate on "what might be longer term effects of the COVID-19 crisis?" And so, for this weekend posting, let's ponder some of those answers.

Of course there are deeply sobering possibilities. Authors like Mary Shelley, Alice Sheldon, Margaret Atwood, Joanna Russ, Stephen King, Frank Herbert, John Christopher, Cormac McCarthy and even yours truly have cast their eyes to plagues far worse than this one.* Indeed, some of my own past sci fi has proved more pertinent than I’d want! My Hugo-nominated story “The Giving Plague” explores our complex relationships with viruses and such, including several paths a parasite can go down, in “negotiating” with us hosts. 

We'll return to that topic. But for a moment, let’s take a pragmatically optimistic turn. 

== Things we could do now, if we had leadership ==

Earlier I made a modest suggestion for what cities across America and the world might do, to maintain some employment and solve real problems, while our streets are mostly empty. The “Pothole Gambit” proposed that we send out scores of 2-person teams to fill potholes, repair empty schools, etc. Risk to the crews would be minimal, if they take basic precautions, and paychecks would flow. This could be done even before testing is widely available.

This kind of selective-contingent thinking leads further to an almost sci fi extension. Once the U.S. has rapid, effective and plentiful COVID-19 tests (as we should and could have had, two months ago) then why not let companies re-open some factories etc., putting back to work employees who have already gone through their exposure to the virus and the following latency period, whether symptomatic or not? 

Picture a scenario. Elon Musk rents the Pebble Beach Golf Club in order to test and ease-in staff for his Tesla factory... If that works, expand the experiment. Eventually, some restaurants might even bring in Covid-positive staff to serve an only-Covid-positive clientele. 

Sure, one should always look ahead to secondary consequences; would healthy folks in their 20s then deliberately hold COVID Parties, in order to get it over with? I don't recommend this, as it's dangerous for the rest of us... and for an unknown few of those youths(!)... that is unless resort hotels rented themselves out to let this happen while young "invulnerables" stay away from their older relatives? (Envision those 1980s “herpes dating clubs.”)

The same sort of thing could happen for Covid-negatives (though only with much better quick-testing.) Companies might wind up having pairs of offices or twin plants engaged in friendly rivalry, like those in that commercial, that produce the left vs. right halves of Twix bars.  

Or else trade-off and pick-a-side? Envision Disneyland open for positives and Universal for negatives? 

Extrapole some more! "Sectors" of cities divide-up just like in some sci fi flick! ("You're from ZONE TWO? Get away from me!")  Heck let's go beyond the obvious Romeo & Juliet riff. Maybe we'll speciate... !

...no no, forget that last part. Sorry. Professional habit. But the first part seems quite do-able in a gradual and incremental way. 

Note that these two factors are mutually dependent. The Separation Workforce gambit cannot possibly work without cheap, rapid and massively available and accurate testing. And massive testing can only happen if we augment our public services by puttin the immune or semi-immune to work.

Indeed, had Donald Trump pushed to deploy massive testing, instead of sabotaging it at every turn, we'd by now not only have the data we need to fight the pandemic better. We'd also possibly be positioned to implement this positive-negative plan and rescue "his economy." 

== Okay, Earth to Brin. Come back down now... ==

Let's get practical, then. I’m sure you’ve seen reports that an early harbinger of COVID illness is loss of the sense of smell

This suggests a mass experiment that would produce useful data while having zero possible deleterious side effects. If everyone simply scratches and sniffs a lemon, three times daily, the minimum outcome will be cheering up the nation a bit! (Try it now! Go on. I'll wait... And now, aren't your spirits lifted just a little?)

 And if thousands note the time span between not smelling anything and other symptoms, that could be significant data! Is a mass experiment with zero conceivable negative outcomes worth encouraging? (And  doubly necessary, since some doubt has been cast on this "smell test." after all. Can it hurt to check it out?)

== Longer term effects? ==

Technological changes: Assuming the grip of lunacy is pried off of federal government... or even if we have to rely on real leadership from California and New York... there will be a Manhattan Project level push to reduce the ramp-up time for testing kits and vaccines. (Side-bet: this may involve human-animal chimeras to shorten the pathway to antibody discovery and deployment.)

Business meetingware and work-from-home software has been predicted for decades and languished due to managerial reluctance. These will advance rapidly. But I predict also a real estate boomlet in small scale satellite offices, where employees will spend at least part of each day being personally supervised, so their work-at-home hours can be kept effective. This “sweet spot” might reduce rush hour traffic, but also strain middle management.

Expect a revival of Obama-era push for nationwide broadband, as has proved so useful in South Korea and Taiwan. There's a constituency now, for sure. 

Infrastructure. It goes far beyond potholes and school repairs. Democrats have demanded major programs to rebuild bridges etc while improving the quality (vs. quantity) of jobs and increasing money velocity. Republicans - while speaking the "I-Word" have blocked all such endeavors. All of this changes in a major recession, of course. Expect partisan gridlock to break in this one area.

Transportation. The shift to Uber/Lyft style ride services will boom, short term. But also mid-scale van/jitney services in big cities… followed by a big push for self-driving taxis. But underground metros may not be finished. Today’s filthy subway trains could be supplanted by smaller, more efficient cars that shunt between lines and report in regularly for disinfecting.

Social effects: It wall take more than COVID to end the personal handshake, but those pretentious European three-cheek air-kisses may be finished. Elbow greetings won’t last! But the fist-bump is likely the big winner, over time, as a compromise that's about 75% sanitary/safe and good enough for the new -- post-COVID -- normal. (My preference? I like the Roman style fore-arm clasp.)

Of course, many are already commenting and speculating on possible effects upon birth rates, divorce rates, domestic violence and so on. I guess we'll find out.

As usual, those suffering most are the poor and working stiffs. Even if they keep a job and can manage the financial strain, families are stressed out in cramped quarters with many ensuing problems. While supporting actions to help, somehow we must encourage such folks to do one thing to make a difference. Vote.

Epidemiology extends beyond just raging viruses. Will we discover that other chains of cause and effect were broken by cities and states and nations semi-shut down? Certainly not the "viral" effects of rumors and faux-news, which have electronic vectors. But the precipitate drop in traffic accidents may have side effects. Are there contagions of wide variety that we never noticed before, because they were part of the background noise of urban life?

And yes, some foresee all this accelerating the exodus of the uber-rich, abandoning us to simmer in festering cities and suburbs. Certainly there is a “prepper” wing of oligarchy that’s bought up whole mountain ranges in Patagonia, Siberia and under the sea. I portrayed that sick mind set in The Postman and in Earth and in Existence. And of course the smarter half of the zillionaire caste wants no part of such insanity. Nor will all their preparations avail the selfishness fetishists an iota, even if the fit truly hits the shan. There are five reasons why this masturbatory survivalist fantasy is utter proof of mental defectiveness.

Reason number six: we could sure use all hands on deck, right now. And we’ll remember which ones helped, or wallowed in apocalypse fantasies. Oh, however things go down, we will remember each and every one of you.

== Artistic Solace ==

Was that lemon sniff helpful? 

Well maybe I can add a little wry comfort. 

I last posted about this during the "bird flu" mini-crisis in May 2006. 
But it's never seemed more apropos.

In December 1979, NPR ran an evening show called "Unpacking the Eighties" which had some very clever riffs, including a song about the terrible flu we'd all get, around the far-future date of 1986... Alas, in this age when nothing is supposedly ever lost or un-findable, I can't sniff out any trace of this masterpiece!** Still, I'll manage to share something, with a nod to an unknown genius.

Here's a riff I remember by heart... except for parts I made up, in order to fill in gaps:

IT’S A VIRUS

Back in the Pleistocene,
When we were still marine,
a virus launched a quest
to be the perfect guest
And re-arranged our genes.

So to this very day,
Whether you grok or pray,
all your inheritors
count on those visitors
And what they make you pay.

REFRAIN

It’s a virus,
It inspired us,
to rise above the mud.
It’s a virus,
It’s desirous,
of your very flesh and blood.

Now I know your body’s burning,
But don’t give up the ghost.
Tiny viruses are turning you
Into the perfect host.

... 


Though you may curse microbes
who make you blow your nose,
evolution bends
to what a virus sends,
making us recompose.

Though when you least expect
You may be struck down next,
thank the virus, he
put us in misery,
But then he gave us sex!

.

It’s a virus,
Its inspired us,
to rise above the mud.
It’s a virus,
It’s desirous,
of your very flesh and blood.

Now I know your body’s burning,
But don’t give up the ghost.
Tiny viruses are turning you
Into the perfect... 
                        ...host.


Persevere. Endure...



================
*The Last Man, The Screwfly Solution, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Female Man, The Stand, The White Plague, No Blade of Grass, The Road, The Postman.... and so many others.

** I think the artist was named "Jesse" something, but can't be sure.