Friday, December 30, 2005

The world is getting better... so help it along...

You’ll be glad to know that my essay on Professionalism vs the Age of Amateurs was listed as a “Top Ten of 2005” by Amazon Shorts! (Now available on my website.)

Pass on the word... and remember to join your proxy power organizations, while you can still get your contibution deducted on 2005 taxes!

I just finished drafting an article for a coming nonfiction book on the dilemmas of nanotechnology. Mine is more general, about doom and singularities and such. Nag me someday to serialize it. I hope to get to religion soon.

otherculturewarIn further support of the contention that our world, rather than growing more violent and dangerous, is actually growing much less so, do drop by an article on SLATE: The Peace Epidemic
The world isn't so dangerous after all. By Timothy Noah -

Excerpt: “[A]fter five decades of inexorable increase [italics Chatterbox's], the number of armed conflicts started to fall worldwide in the early 1990s. The decline has continued.

By 2003, there were 40 percent fewer conflicts than in 1992. The deadliest conflicts -- those with 1,000 or more battle-deaths -- fell by some 80 percent. The number of genocides and other mass slaughters of civilians also dropped by 80 percent [between 1988 and 2001], while core human rights abuses have declined in five out of six regions of the developing world since the mid-1990s.

International terrorism is the only type of political violence that has increased. Although the death toll has jumped sharply over the past three years, terrorists kill only a fraction of the number who die in wars.

Mack's data comes from The Human Security Report 2005, which is put out by the University of British Columbia's Human Security Center, of which Mack is director. Here are some other findings from the report:

* "The dollar value of major international arms transactions fell by 33 percent between 1990 and 2003."

* "The number of refugees dropped by some 45 percent between 1992 and 2003, as more and more wars came to an end."

* "The number of actual and attempted military coups has been declining for more than 40 years. In 1963 there were 25 coups and attempted coups around the world, the highest in the post-World War II period. In 2004 there were only ten coup attempts—a 60 percent decline. All of them failed."

* "[C]ivil (intrastate) conflicts rose steadily until 1992, after which they declined steeply."

...One region must be excepted from this calculus. Interestingly, it isn't the Middle East (though certainly that region is a violent one). It's Africa. According to the Human Security Report, more people are being killed in wars in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined.

==And yet, we are urged to believe that we are in an “emergency” and in a “state of war” that justifies unprecedented secrecy and erosion of our citizen rights of supervision. Can anyone smell a scam, anymore?

Oh, again... do your proxy power. The world may be getting better (cynics are fools) but it’s not getting better anywhere near fast enough to save us (so are pollyanna optimists.)

Only worldchanging pragmatic problem solvers have a clue. Right on....

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Go do your proxy power! (and misc items...)

After returning from a family vacation in Baja California, I am in catch-up mode, dumping all sorts of things on you.... (I’ll yelp an alert when the politics lamp is lit.)

ProxyActivismFirst though, this may be your last chance to get those 2005 charitable domations in. Please look at my Proxy Power article and get others to look at it, too. We may disagree on many things. But you would not be here if you did not think that people can help save ( and improve) the world. Belief in human and social improvability is, I have come to believe, the principal personality trait that separates modernist-pragmatists from the nostalgist romantics that ruled nearly all human civilizations, and made a hash of it for 4,000 years.
Announcement: “Contrary Brin” chosen as a “Red-Hot Blog”...

I just received this message: “Congratulations! Your blog Contrary Brin has been chosen as one of our Red Hot Blogs of the Day!” See:

I couldn’t have done it without all of you....

Bandit wrote in with this: ‘
Captain Cyborg and the problem of evil . This concerns some of the issues with brain download, the two conflicting viewpoints of automation, and man/machine
interface. You get a mention, too!”

Some great Kurzweil links...

*Evolution takes science honours BBC News Dec. 23, 2005
* Research into how evolution works has been named by Science Magazine as top science achievement of 2005, a year that also saw fierce debate erupt over "intelligent design." Science magazine's breakthroughs of 2005: Winner: Evolution in action. Genome sequencing and painstaking field observations shed light on the intricacies of how...

* Better than people The Economist Dec. 20, 2005
* Japanese find robots less intimidating than people. "The prevailing view in Japan is that the country is lucky to be uninhibited by robophobia. With fewer of the complexes that trouble many westerners, so the theory goes, Japan is free to make use of a great new tool, just when its needs and abilities are happily about to converge. "What...

* Creating first synthetic life form Globe and Mail Dec. 19, 2005
* Work on the world's first human-made species is well under way at the Genome Science Centre at the University of British Columbia to play a key role in the production of the first synthetic life form -- a microbe made from scratch. The controversial project is being spearheaded by U.S. scientist Craig Venter. One option for sparking life in...

* Civilisation has left its mark on our genes News Service Dec. 19, 2005
* A detailed look at human DNA has shown that 1800 genes, or roughly 7 percent of the total in the human genome, have changed under the influence of natural selection within the past 50,000 years, probably in response to aspects of modern human culture such as the emergence of agriculture and the shift towards living in densely populated...

This last one is a special interest of mine. I have long felt that evolution accelerated with the discovery of technology, instead of ebbing. (See: Christopher Wills’s book, “Children of Prometheus.”

1. the discovery of beer probably caused the death of huge fractions of human males who could not control their impulses, resulting in a “glass half full” situation that is seldom noticed... the fact that 2/3 of us are actually rather self-controlled.

2. Clothes and other technologies allowed settlement of heights that then forced Tibetans to evolve better lungs.

3. Now that impregnation is optional and no longer obligate with sex, I predict that the locus of compulsion in humans will shift. Sex will become less driven, but we’ll all be descended from people who actively wanted kids. See “A Mote in God’s Eye.” There are good and bad implications.

...and now... the political lamp is lit...

* Always entertaining and unashamedly pointed, try out recent additions to the lively “Armageddon Buffet” site at

* and finally, the following. I am not totally in agreement. I think there is still a chance that this scenario may not fully flower. For example, the Iraqi Shiites may not wind up as pro-Iranian as this guy thinks. Nor as dedicated to punishing us for the horrid betrayal that the earlier Bush admin perpetrated in 91. (They surely have cause for bitterness.) Still, it is a dismally plausible scenario and one that did not have to arise. It took monumental and repeated incompetence (or something much worse) to bring us to this brink.

Iraq: Game Over by Robert Dreyfuss, author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam

. “The last hope for peace in Iraq was stomped to death this week. The victory of the Shiite religious coalition in the December 15 election hands power for the next four years to a fanatical band of fundamentalist Shiite parties backed by Iran, above all to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Quietly backed by His Malevolence, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, sustained by a 20,000-strong paramilitary force called the Badr Brigade, and with both overt and covert support from Iran's intelligence service and its Revolutionary Guard corps, SCIRI will create a theocratic bastion state in its southern Iraqi fiefdom and use its power in Baghdad to rule what's left of the Iraqi state by force.”

“ There isn't any point in looking for silver linings in the catastrophic Iraqi vote. The likely next prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, is a smooth-talking SCIRI thug. His boss, Abdel Aziz Hakim of SCIRI, is the former commander of the Badr Brigade and a militant cleric who has issued bloodthirsty calls for a no-holds-barred military solution to the insurgency. The scores of secret torture prisons by the SCIRI-led Iraqi ministry of the interior will proliferate, and SCIRI-led death squads will start going down their lists of targets. The divisive, sectarian constitution that was rammed down Iraq's throat in October by the Shiite religious bloc will be preserved intact under the new, "permanent government" of Iraq led by SCIRI. The Kurds, ensconced in northern Iraq, will retreat further into their enclave, content to proceed step-by-step toward what they hope will be a breakaway rump state. Earlier this year, after the January 31 transitional elections, the Kurds made their deal with the Shiite devil, winning in exchange two vital (for them) points: that Iraq will have a virtually nonexistent central government will power reserved for the provincial regions, and that revenues from future Iraqi oil fields will go to those regions, not to the state. All the Kurds want now is to take over Kirkuk, which they will do with force, violence, and ethnic cleansing aimed at Arab residents of the Kirkuk area.”

This is a case we any decent person simply has to hope and pray that the incompetent jerks who put us in this situation will prove to be fantastically lucky, and that Dreyfuss will prove too pessimistic, by far. That is my hope, of course.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Some Good News... for a change...

The Progressive Policy Institute... an arm of the DLC .... is source of a number of factoids that I’ve presented here from time to time. Research that - while generally a bit “liberal” in its underlying goal sets - tends to be very pro- vigorous markets, trade and all sorts of other good things that conservatives ought to like.

Here’s the PPI talking about something that I have long maintained, that the world has been getting safer... or it was. WHich simply puts the lie to doom-crying cynics of both right and left.

==The World Has Become More Peaceful==

The Numbers:

Average annual deaths in wars, 1946-1990: 160,000
Average annual deaths in wars, 1991-2002: 90,000

What They Mean:

Despite the headlines and video, a visitor from earlier decades might find the 21st-century world surprisingly peaceful in this holiday season. The "Human Security Center" at the University of British Columbia, uses grants from five high-minded governments (Britain, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland) to survey the world at war. Its report, one of the first systematic attempts to compare the frequency and violence of warfare over the past two centuries, finds surprisingly good news.

* Wars are less frequent; the decade since 1990 has had the fewest international and civil wars since the 1830s.

* Great-power wars are especially rare. No European war has pitted great powers against one another since 1945; none seem conceivable today. While some East Asian flash-points are still live, the Pacific's great powers too have refrained from direct clashes since the Soviet-Chinese border battle in 1969.

Brin note: My generation was "scheduled" to die by the multi-millions in a conventional WWIII. Instead, "all" we had was Vietnam. Traumatic... and it makes one suspicious why someone would want to revisit that experience on America. But small potatoes by comparison. Do we owe it all to the MAD policy of Saint Bomb? Who woulda thunk that such an insane notion would have actually worked?

* Wars are less bloody. Precision weapons make infantry charges and tank battles outdated and reduce civilian casualties. In the 1950s and 1960s, 200,000 people a year were being killed in wars; since 1990 the total has averaged 90,000.

Count backward to illustrate how unusual this is. Between 1000 A.D. and 1945, the longest period of uninterrupted peace among great powers was the 51-year stretch between the battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the Austro-Prussian war of 1866. Europe's present peaceful stretch hit 60 last spring and shows no signs of strain.
I would add that the Clintonian Balkans Intervention went a long way toward completing the job, ending war and blatant tyranny in Europe - even at the “mini” level of the Balkans - for the first time in 4,000 years.

East Asia's calm seems a bit shakier, but is still longer than any comparable period since the second half of the 18th century.

The report suggests several possible (and not mutually exclusive) reasons for this. Some are political; decolonization and the end of the Cold War mean there are fewer nationalistic or ideological reasons to fight, and the spread of democracy may produce less belligerent governments. Another is military -- today's great powers are not only less bellicose but much stronger than they were in the past, with armies, air forces, and navies strong enough to deter any potential aggressor. A third reason is a possible greater respect for international law. Economic issues too may be in play, with trade and cross-border investment strengthening mutual interests and reducing reasons for conflict. According to the report: "The most effective path to prosperity in modern economies is through increasing productivity and international trade, not through seizing land and raw materials. In addition, the existence of an open global trading regime means it is nearly always cheaper to buy res ources from overseas than to use force to acquire them."

Further Reading:

The Human Security Report

PPI's National Security Project:

An exhaustive list of international and civil wars between 1816 and 2002. (Examples: Brazil vs. Naval Royalists, 1894; the Two Sicilies vs. Liberals, 1820-21; Yemen Arab Republic vs. Yahya Family, 1948; Bulgaria vs. Agrarian League, 1923; Nomonhan, 193):

Finally, there’s this hopeful item.

Hopeful in part because Diebold seems to be unraveling before our eyes... but also because the source is the utter-sellout New York Times... maybe finding some guts at last.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Power of Strategic Listening

The Power of Strategic Listening... and why our leaders seem deaf.

Let me offer you all a glimpse of wisdom from someone in the know... from a colleague of mine who is intimately involved in the details of our security operations. This is just a snippet from an unclassified conference on international security. Still, my friend had to be circumspect. Read the following carefully and see how he compares our OVERALL success (or lack thereof) in the generalized War on Terror -- and the intervention in Iraq -- vs our astonishingly competent and successful (so far) involvement in Afghanistan. (An enterprise that began, unknown to most, with the turn-key unleashing of an already existing war plan -- emphasizing professionalism and use of local resources, organized by Special Forces -- that had been crafted almost entirely under Clinton-Clarke, though credit for the go! order belongs to GW Bush.)

“ I spend my time working with the Special Operations community, which consistently gives me useful insights into the functioning of networks. Everyone knows that terror networks are powerful; how about civil society networks?

“Listening is everything in this war on terror – this is the war of hiders and finders. We are in our fifth year since September 11th, 2001. Five years after Pearl Harbor, everything had changed: the war was won, peace had followed, stability was returning to many countries, and so on. We are now in the fifth year after our own Pearl Harbor, and very little has changed. Is this a fight for the future based on commonly-held values, or is it a clash of civilizations? My Special Operations students spend their lives listening. Other soldiers have learned from them to utilize small groups, learn things, and find out information – by listening. By being in small groups and building relationships, they can curtail areas that enemies might otherwise control. So there are good things going on in Afghanistan. There is risk built into the system. I work with fine soldiers for whom every minute is an act of courage in a war that will not be won by carpet-bombing or "shock and awe".

“How does one listen? What is it that you are listening to? What are your messages comprised of? Let me give you some percentages: Mexico – 11%; Russia – 16%; Turkey – 18%; Argentina – 19%. These are the latest "approval ratings" for the United States in countries that we do not target with radio broadcasts or television stations. This is how they feel about us in the 5th year of our war against terror. Are we hearing a response to our public diplomacy or to our policies? The answer is, the latter. So listening has to be in terms of responses to what we say; we ping, and we get something back. The other kind of pinging is what we do in the world. This dimension is often neglected in the business of listening. We think that if we say something catchy or insightful, it will turn people's minds in the right direction. That is not the case. One's actions are powerful drivers of appearance. People's reactions worldwide are to what we do.

“If you were never going to change your policies, and just did what you were going to do, and your information strategy was designed to sell that approach, it would never work. It is a social contract; you need to be open to changing yourself. That is the heart and soul of listening and of strategy. All strategists should listen to Zana Briski when she tells us not to go in with pre-designated goals. Go in, adapt, and the answers will appear. The U.S. Navy, in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) -- (The Afghanistan Intervention) -- for the first time in their history went in without predetermined targets. They listened to sensors and learned what to hit. In the span of history between Alexander the Great and Alexander Lebed, no one conquered Afghanistan. But our commandos toppled a terrible regime and have a sustained operation in the country that is supported by NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). This is a great success story with a thimble full of military force and an ocean's worth of listening. “

You may interpret the subtle hints contained in this excerpt differently than I do I read an implicit contrast with the other war... the one that is bleeding America white, dissipating its credibility, ruining its alliances, shattering our internal unity and serving as a nightly recruiting ground for enemy memes.

The true losers have been moderate Americans, who approve of toppling Saddam, but who remember which bozos propped up that monster and deliberately left him in power when they had him in their hands, in 1991.

Moderates who want to “spread freedom” -- and even are willing to do so forcefully, on careful occasion -- but who also remember that these bozos used to vehemently oppose “the discredited utopian notion of nation-building. “ Their sudden conversion to utopian adventurism might be heartening, if it were sincere and competently executed with sincere attention to listening, and learning, and winning the moral high ground. Notprimarily a boondoggle of gigantic no-bid contracts for cronies and a political excuse for Orwellian politics.

And yes, all of this has fed into the radicalization of America, resulting in the very most simplistic and dopey voices of the left seizing control over the anti-war movement. Voices that ignore the overwhelming necessity and competence and goodness of interventions like the one in Afghanistan, or Clinton’s successful foray into Bosnia, which left the European continent at peace for the first time in 4,000 years. Voices that would have us choose between moronic imperialist klepto-thumping and an almost-equally moronic turn away from our genuine duty to fight evil in a genuinely dangerous world.

Still, despite my distrust of some of the excesses you will find at reflex sites like, the activists at that site are vastly more truthful than CNN or Fox News or O’Reilly (Murdoch’s hand puppet and the great Defender of Christmas). Take the following devastating denunciation by Sen. Byrd, recently reprinted by Truthout.

Monday 19 December 2005 -- Americans have been stunned at the recent news of the abuses of power by an overzealous President. It has become apparent that this Administration has engaged in a consistent and unrelenting pattern of abuse against our Country's law-abiding citizens, and against our Constitution.

We have been stunned to hear reports about the Pentagon gathering information and creating databases to spy on ordinary Americans whose only sin is choosing to exercise their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble. Those Americans who choose to question the Administration's flawed policy in Iraq are labeled by this Administration as "domestic terrorists."

We now know that the F.B.I.'s use of National Security Letters on American citizens has increased one hundred fold, requiring tens of thousands of individuals to turn over personal information and records. These letters are issued without prior judicial review, and provide no real means for an individual to challenge a permanent gag order.

Through news reports, we have been shocked to learn of the CIA's practice of rendition, and the so-called "black sites," secret locations in foreign countries where abuse and interrogation have been exported to escape the reach of U.S. laws protecting against human rights abuses.

We know that Vice President Dick Cheney has asked for exemptions for the CIA from the language contained in the McCain torture amendment banning cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. Thank God his pleas have been rejected by this Congress.

Now comes the stomach-churning revelation that through an executive order, President Bush has circumvented both the Congress and the courts. He has usurped the Third Branch of government - the branch charged with protecting the civil liberties of our people - by directing the National Security Agency to intercept and eavesdrop on the phone conversations and e-mails of American citizens without a warrant, which is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. He has stiff-armed the People's Branch of government. He has rationalized the use of domestic, civilian surveillance with a flimsy claim that he has such authority because we are at war. The executive order, which has been acknowledged by the President, is an end-run around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which makes it unlawful for any official to monitor the communications of an individual on American soil without the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

What is the President thinking? Congress has provided for the very situations which the President is blatantly exploiting. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, housed in the Department of Justice, reviews requests for warrants for domestic surveillance. The Court can review these requests expeditiously and in times of great emergency. In extreme cases, where time is of the essence and national security is at stake, surveillance can be conducted before the warrant is even applied for.

This secret court was established so that sensitive surveillance could be conducted, and information could be gathered without compromising the security of the investigation. The purpose of the FISA Court is to balance the government's role in fighting the war on terror with the Fourth Amendment rights afforded to each and every American.

The American public is given vague and empty assurances by the President that amount to little more than "trust me." But, we are a nation of laws and not of men. Where is the source of that authority he claims? I defy the Administration to show me where in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or the U.S. Constitution, they are allowed to steal into the lives of innocent America citizens and spy.

When asked yesterday what the source of this authority was, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had no answer. Secretary Rice seemed to insinuate that eavesdropping on Americans was acceptable because FISA was an outdated law, and could not address the needs of the government in combating the new war on terror. This is a patent falsehood. The USA Patriot Act expanded FISA significantly, equipping the government with the tools it needed to fight terrorism. Further amendments to FISA were granted under the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2002 and the Homeland Security Act of 2002. In fact, in its final report, the 9/11 Commission noted that the removal of the pre-9/11 "wall" between intelligence officials and law enforcement was significant in that it "opened up new opportunities for cooperative action."

The President claims that these powers are within his role as Commander in Chief. Make no mistake, the powers granted to the Commander in Chief are specifically those as head of the Armed Forces. These warrantless searches are conducted not against a foreign power, but against unsuspecting and unknowing American citizens. They are conducted against individuals living on American soil, not in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is nothing within the powers granted in the Commander in Chief clause that grants the President the ability to conduct clandestine surveillance of American civilians. We must not allow such groundless, foolish claims to stand.

To which, let me add this. Just imagine what would have happened had Bill Clinton done a tenth of these things. How many Timothy McVeighs would have emerged, declaring that the way was being paved for UN black helicopters to land in all of our yards? Or if, instead of REDUCING government secrecy, Clinton had augmented it even a tenth as much as the Bushites have? The utter hypocrisy of decrying any hint of Big Brother when the aroma rises from your chosen foe, but pretzel-bending like taffy in order to excuse total lack of accountability, when it the masks and smoke and veils are spread by your chosen team.


Monday, December 19, 2005

More misc items... including just a little politics...

Geneticists are brewing plans for a collective effort, the Human Epigenome Project, that would map subtle changes in DNA that underlie diseases. As many as half of the genetic alterations that cause cancer, for example, may be "epigenetic" changes rather than mutations -- a small molecule simply latches on to DNA in a process called...

Over 20 million PCs worldwide are equipped with a security chip called the Trusted Platform Module, although it is as yet rarely activated. But once merchants and other online services begin to use it, the TPM will do something never before seen on the Internet: provide virtually fool proof verification that you are who you say you are. Some...

Researchers have managed to teach people suffering chronic pain to reduce their own discomfort simply by controlling their thoughts. Patients were able to reduce pain by about 50 percent by viewing real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging of the activity in their rostral anterior cingulate...

== Myths of Free Trade ==

Myths-of-free-tradeHere’s an excerpt from Myths of Free Trade By Sherrod Brown -- that shows that Smith was much more of a pragmatist than he was a purist-platonist ideologue.

As Adam Smith wrote in his 18th century book, "The Wealth of Nations," "When the regulation is in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable — but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."

Smith advocated high wages as beneficial to employer and employee alike, and he advocated the abolition of slavery because “the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.”

The distinguished American economist John Kenneth Galbraith said about "The Wealth of Nations:" “It is much celebrated by the ministry of the righteous right, few of whom have read it. “Were they to do so — disapproval of the corporate form, approval of a wealth tax — they would be greatly shocked.”

The elite’s interest, he wrote, “is never exactly the same with that of the public, who [the elite] have generally an interest to deceive — and even to oppress — the public.” Smith believed that his invisible hand could do great harm to a nation and its citizens “unless government takes great pains to prevent it.”


Finally, for those of you serious conservatives who are here to contemplate, with an open mind, a world of rapid change... consider dropping in at: Not your father’s Republican party 
The Claremont Institute

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Nonpolitical (!) stuff

Taking a much-needed break from serious stuff and politics. We all deserve peaceful holidays, even amid the rabid and hun-like “War Against Christmas...” that is being perpetrated by those ravening hordes at the ACLU...

So here are a few almost-random items. Just for fun.

=====     ======     ======

Colloquium on the Law of Transhuman Persons Marks International Human Rights Day (from Dec. 9, 2005) The public is invited to listen and participate in a discussion by legal and artificial intelligence experts on the rights of "transhumans" -- defined by the Terasem Movement as "conscious entities who have or who aspire to have human rights, regardless of being of flesh, electronics or a bioelectronic combination." The pioneering 1st...

A "brain" grown from 25,000 neural cells extracted from a single rat embryo has been taught to fly an F-22 jet simulator by scientists at the University of Florida. They hope their research into neural computation will help develop sophisticated hybrid computers with a thinking biological component. The first result could be to enable...

New "thinking tools" -- software for storing, retrieving and generally making the best use of information -- are now available on Mac computers. They include Devon, which uses a "semantic search" process that is more sophisticated than search engines and can bring up files or passages whose meaning is related to what you are looking for, even...

The Dec. 1 issue of Nature looks at what wikis, blogs, digital libraries, Google Base, and other Internet technologies may mean for the future of scientific communication beyond the confines of scientific journals. These tools offer fresh opportunities both before publication, when people are debating ideas and hypotheses, and after, when they...

And now, veering in another direction, do drop by and read this article about those who seem quite busy, laying a path for Nehemiah Scudder:

===  ==== ===

Veering again, I have just finished revising my infamous Star Wars Essay, indicting that universe of many crimes, from plot inconsistency to anti-democracy propaganda. It will be the lead piece in a book that comes out next June, from BenBella Books’ “SmartPop!” series of books on popular culture. (The same puplisher as for my latest book: King Kong is Back! An Unauthorized Look at One Humungous Ape.)

The new book -- Star Wars on Trial -- will feature essays written by eminent and fun authors, taking both sides in a zesty “mock trial.”

Watch for it in June, the same month that Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE online magazine will make history. Meanwhile, do subscribe to ANALONG, if for no other reason than to support modernism.

And buy the Kong book as a gift! You’ll be glad you did. (See (offers) for how to send me self addressed stamped envelopes to return you signed bookplates.

===   ====  ===

Finally, I am on an advisory group trying to figure out future pitfalls of nanotechnology... like whether it really can turn into carnivorous “gray goo” as Greg Bear ortrayed interestingly in BLOOD MUSIC and that Michael Crichton sensationalized more recently. We are starting to put together an anthology of essays about nanotech futures. Here is the fascinating opening 3 paragraphs of one of the most interesting.

Noninflationary Impact of the Personal Nanofactory Robert A. Freitas Jr. 13 December 2005
Is the advent of, and mass availability of, desktop personal nanofactories (PNs) [1] likely to cause deflation (a persistent decline in the general prices of goods and services), inflation (a persistent general price increase), or neither?

Our analysis begins with an assumption that at the end of a 20-year period of introduction, almost every household in a developing country has purchased a PN. The PN will be capable of building any manner of consumer goods using simple molecular feedstock such as acetylene or propane gas that will be piped into the home via a utility connection, similar to present-day hookups that deliver natural gas, water, and electricity. There are other delivery scenarios such as bottled gas feedstock, and more self-sufficient feedstock provisioning scenarios such as solar-powered recycling, biomass/biowaste extraction, or even atmospheric extraction, but these will be set aside in the interests of simplicity.
. If we further assume that (1) the capital cost to acquire the PN is approximately $4400, (2) the PN can produce consumer products at the rate of 1 kg/hr [1], and (3) the PN is operated 50% of the time throughout a useful lifetime of 10 years, then the PN during its useful life produces 44,000 kg of consumer products which have an amortized capital cost of $0.10/kg, a cost that is built into every product manufactured by the PN.

.Assuming the average person in a first-world country consumes 2000 kcal/day of food, and taking the average energy density of food (arbitrarily weighting protein:carbohydrate:fat in a 4:3:3 ratio) as 24 million J/kg [2], then the average person consumes about 130 kg/yr of food. Assuming the average person consumes 4 grocery bagfuls per week of consumer nondurables with each bag containing 2 kg of useful product, then the average person requires 400 kg/yr of consumer nondurables (of which 130 kg/yr is food). The PN is assumed to produce 4400 kg/yr of consumer products. Given that the average person in an industrialized economy needs 400 kg/yr of nondurables, or 1600 kg/yr for a household of 4 people, this leaves 2800 kg/yr either for increased nondurables consumption or for the manufacture of desired consumer durables. Durables might include clothing, appliances, furniture, and cars. Large automobiles that weigh 2000 kg today could weigh as little as 200 kg if made of much stronger diamondoid materials, so the production budget would allow up to 14 diamondoid cars per year to be built. Thus a single PN with the above parameters is probably sufficient to satisfy all reasonable household needs for residents of industrialized countries.

...all right, a little dense. But fascinating! Feel free to discuss.
Oh, and I get full points for dropping politics for a while. ;-)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Idealism vs. Pragmatism: The false dichotomy

Here comes a really long one. I was inspired by the article by Rik Perlman that one of you cited. (If anyone feels like letting Perlman know....)

Idealism vs. Pragmatism: The false dichotomy that has ruined both left and right

In tracing the long journey of neoconservative transformation, from the political wilderness of 1964 to controlling all the nation’s levers of power, journalist Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, describes a tense, decades-long process that gyrated between two alluring attractor states -- idealism and pragmatism - each of them offering both a bright and a dark side.

 “Richard Nixon once instructed a new staffer, Richard Whalen, "Flexibility is the first principle of politics." The conservative movement has understood itself to be the people who unflaggingly answered back to Nixon: "Principle rises above politics." That's a quote from Alf Regnery, in a profile of him this fall in the Washington Post.”

Or, as expressed by conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, conservatism is anchored in: "belief in a transcendent moral order." In the certainty of core beliefs that are absolute and unchanging.

Of course, statements like this are meant to sound admirable, and especially to contrast against Nixon’s famed “realpolitik” flexibility, which was so protean and redefinable that it could range from the very worst dirty tricks all the way up to acts of geopolitical genius -- e.g. reaching out to China -- that redefined the world power balance at a single stroke. (Indeed, many on the right have not forgiven, even though the left conveniently forgets, that Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed a national Health Care bill more far-reaching than Hillary Clinton’s.)

Of course, the irony is greatest when you contemplate how similar this all seems, to quandaries faced by the left, where idealists also claim to base their indignant, uncompromising stand upon a bedrock of fundamental moral principles, while expressing contempt for compromisers, or those who would trade essential truth for practical power.

At both extremes -- the dogmatically principled left and the creed-grounded right -- you never hear anyone mention the most obvious and blatant lesson of human nature -- and human history. That we are relentless and marvelously creative self-deluders. And the most attractive, most voluptuous of our delusions are those incantations that just happen to make “our side” seem saintly and right.

(The truest and deepest cleft in our society must be between those who notice -- and smell something’s too convenient, too suspiciously tidy -- when we see only evidence that makes us feel superior... versus those who never catch or notice this irony. That the universe seems always to confirm just what we want it to. People on one side of this psychological divide are able to say the words that underlie all of science and democracy, as well as true-creativity. The words: I might be wrong. People on the other side -- even very learned and intelligent people -- could read this paragraph a hundred times, without ever truly grasping what it means.)

It may seem that I am bad-mouthing idealism. And yet, what else can one call the passion that a decent person calls upon, whenever we rise up, risking our lives to defend the finest notions -- those of tolerance, freedom, beauty and love? Idealism is as necessary as air. When people turn their backs on principle, you get the very worst side of pragmatism... a cynical pursuit of short-term gain at the expense of others. Contempt and amoral rationalization. Mere manipulative cleverness that has no guiding or trustworthy theme. Or, the thing that even conservatives of his day, like Barry Goldwater, despised most about Richard Nixon.


So, what am I saying? Are both idealism and pragmatism doomed to be scuzzy? One, a tendency toward druglike sanctimony and delusion? The other, a cesspit for the power-hungry?

Fortunately, there are more than enough counter-examples to show that this is not a bipolar situation at all. A better metaphor would portray four attractor states. There are pragmatists who understand a need for solid values. There are idealists grasp the concept of humility.

It is possible, in both cases, to say aloud those wise words from a Dirty Harry move... ”A man’s got to know his limitations.”

conscience-of-a-conservativeOr, as Barry Goldwater put it in Conscience of a Conservative: "we entrust the conduct of our affairs to men who understand that their first duty as public officials is to divest themselves of the power they have been given." This concept goes back to the original American Cincinnatus, George Washington, whose example once had force and redolence in our lives. Before he faded into a cartoon figure with wooden teeth.

Indeed, the entire Enlightenment Experiment has been based upon the notion of taking the very best parts of both idealism and pragmatism and applying them to a steady project of improving society, improving ourselves. An idealism that assertively protects both human rights and individual opportunity clearly feeds into the practical fecundity of both market competition and social cooperation, making each of these tools more effective. The wealth and knowledge thus generated then nurtures further idealistic efforts to expand rights and opportunities.

This virtuous cycle, featuring mutual support between idealistic missions and pragmatic projects, once was the very thing that the word “liberal” originally stood for. And it has been outstandingly successful.

Alas, the problem with the Enlightenment Experiment is that these “mature” approaches to idealism and pragmatism do not nourish our older, darker natures. Look at 99% of past human cultures. Read history. You will see elites of both church and state performing two essential rites.

Glorifying and sanctifying their own worldview... and taking every practical measure to ensure a monopoly of power.

In other words, history shows that idealism and pragmatism have never been opposites or enemies! Instead, they served as partners for oppression, throughout our long, pre enlightenment past. From Plato to Machiavelli to Hegel, the rationalizations offered by bright “idealists” ultimately boiled down to “give power to my favored elites.” These habits run deep through our past; they cling tenaciously and they will die hard.

Hence -- bearing all of this in mind -- is it any wonder how the long struggle over the heart of conservatism finally turned out? In their naive oscillation between “purist” idealism and sell-out pragmatism, the final answer was a rationalized compromise that offered a way to have both.

At the University of Chicago, Professor Leo Strauss tutored future leaders of neoconservatism in platonic techniques for rationalizing pure and self-serving monopolies of power, creating a marvelously self-satisfying notion that lying is moral, patriotic and good -- so long as it is done by princely young philosopher kings. Turning Barry Goldwater’s wrenching call for self-restraint upon its head, the Straussians turned into a prescription to “take power, hold it tenaciously, and call it good.”

In replicating the behavior and rationalizations of every past kingdom, these transformed neoconservative thinkers saw no irony. Nor, while preaching that everybody should read Thucydides, do any of them look in the mirror and see a fellow by the name of Alcibiades.

Rik Perlstein, who knows nearly all of the modern conservative thinkers and philosophers, studied their behavior during that long journey from political exile to triumphant power. He offers a thesis that today’s Republicans “are less the party of Goldwater, and more the party of Watergate.”

Well, Perlman knows this topic much better than I do. Nevertheless, and with all due respect, let me suggest that the situation can be viewed a bit differently. Not as a swing between idealism and pragmatism. But rather as a choosing of the dark side of both.

Goldwater and Nixon are both viewed as martyrs by neoconservatism. Their defeats (in 64 and 73) fuel “never-again” zeal. But in a strange twist, both men are revered for their worst traits, their better parts abandoned. The Barry Goldwater who was a self-doubting idealist, whose solid values include a skeptical, Lockean awareness of human self-deception, is no longer part of the discussion. Nor is Richard Nixon perceived as the pragmatic negotiator, the gamesman who could offer a health care package and start the EPA, just before rocking Soviet momentum off course by rushing off to China. What remains is Goldwater the simplistic dogmatist, and the Nixon who would do anything for power.

(Indeed, some in Arizona recall how the elderly Goldwater proclaimed a fraternal liking of both Clintons and disdain for the recent crop of amoral, secretive neocons. They joke that the state might supply all its power from the spinning in Goldwater’s grave.)

Does this indictment of the right, for choosing the “dark side,”make the far left any better?

Not much. Certainly, they carry the same human impulses, inherited from the same oppressive, rationalizing ancestors. The crucial ability to say “I might be wrong” is every bit as much absent from dogmatic ideologues on that side, as it is on the right.

No, the difference between today’s far-left and far-right is very simple. Role models for the right pervade all of history. Alliances of practical kings and idealistic clergy are seen everywhere in the human past, and their pattern -- described by Machiavelli -- is engraved in human nature.

The left, on the other hand, envisions itself detached from history, and even from human nature. Their idealism appears to be about the New Man (as Lenin called him). They want power, desperately, but feel uncomfortable with the gritty methods that may be necessary to achieve it. They despise the approach of Locke and Franklin as too-American, too-modernist, too much the work of gritty engineers, artisans and bourgeois shopkeepers. And yet, they cannot bring themselves to organize for all out, streetfighting demagoguery, the way the neocons have tactically fomented “culture war,” because that might mean talking to the people. The people. Ew.

Liberals -- true liberals -- have got to face facts. They will not find anything useful or sensible on the left. Not even political streetfighters who are worth a damn. Nor will it do any good to try and copy the methodologies that brought the rightwing back from exile, to wield almost-ultimate power. They are scripted by feudal aristocracy and copying their techniques will do liberals no good at all.

There really is only one place for liberals... and for Barry Goldwater conservatives... to go.

Back to Locke and Franklin. To Truman and Ike. To the new style of cooperation between idealism and pragmatism. The idealism of openness and the pragmatism of accountability. The idealism of opportunity and the pragmatism of ambitious projects. The idealism of cooperation and the pragmatism of competitive markets. The bright and honest style of combining both human traits, though -- as the neocons have proved -- always the harder style to undertake.

The combination that defied our benighted feudal past, filling our world with wonders and offered billions hope.

Abandoning the nonsense of "left-vs-right," we must wage this fight as a battle between past and future. Between our fallible human natures and all the things we want ourselves to become.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Response to our "anonymous Modernist"...

For those of you who missed it, there was a very long and very interesting rant posted in response to the previous blog entry. I highly recommend it for people who have time. SOme parts are hilarious. I decided to respond here at the top level, instead of down in comments.

Dear Anonymous,

Your long and erudite plaint about the rise of cowardice and backward thinking vs. modernist confidence -- was fascinating and -- in many places -- remarkably illuminating. And pretty good writing.

Still, it makes me wonder.... were you aware of how deeply we already went into this topic, months ago? Especially my lengthy screed on “Modernism and its Enemies.” Indeed, that essay was the principal reason that I started this blog, in the first place.

(See also

In any event, it seems you have come to the right place. Although I have lately become fiery-political... because I think the short term calamity of American Democracy is overwhelmingly important right now, in rescuing a civilization from monsters... nevertheless, the OVERALL topic here is still the same. What must be done in order to tap the great reserves of pro-enlightenment attitudes that still surge and flux beneath the surface of a majority of Americans?

THAT is where you and I part company. I see all the same things that you do. Like the fact that John Stewart on Comedy Central is the last voice of modernism left on the air. Or that “reclaiming Christmas” has become the latest in-your-face aggressive Culture War offensive, aimed at keeping the coalitions of the right and left unified in insipid opposition over symbols. Still, I refuse the sick-sweet attractions of cynicism.

Take a gander at so-called “Intelligent Design.” Would they have retreated so far from older “Creationism”... using every trick to dress it up in scientific-sounding and rationalist language, eschewing every reference to religion and even dropping all mention of the age of the Earth/universe (!)... if they did not realize how deeply and strongly science and enlightenment still hold attraction to the American majority? (See my article on this in the next SKEPTIC Magazine.) Yes, 15% think the sun revolves around the Earth. Hey, 15% believe anything. This is not a world of alphas or slans. We are cavemen who have been to the moon and actually changed our minds about racism and sexism and half-broken several other really nasty habits. I find that worthy of some respect.

Here’s the trick. Expect little! Then encourage yourself to be surprised at how full the glass is!

I mean it. That mental strategy is more likely to:

1. leave you optimistic enough to keep trying, instead of shaking your head sadly in despair...

2. make you more persuasive, because people listen to enthusiasm and hope...

3. help you come up with fresh ideas...

4. preserve you from the sick allure of self-righteous indignation. (

Truly, your pessimism was refreshing because it cheered me up! In contrast. Seriously, you reeeeeeeally must do that little exercise I recommend. Go to a street corner and do a slow 360, taking your time to notice all the technologies, institutions, laws, and ad hoc character interactions that you see at work. Do this VERY slowly, in order to notice all the little things we take for granted, street lights and sewers and people who could have hurt or stolen things, but instead took gracious turns, negotiating stop signs with tiny finger flicks of courtesy... Remember these are genetic CAVEMEN whose later ancestors mostly lived under oppressive cabals of feudal lords and incantation-mad clergy. This modernist experiment is still new! And yet, see how many ways they do it well! If you look -- really look -- then, completing your 360-degree turn, you’ll have to admit a really eerie truth.

That your neighbors simply CANNOT be as stupid as they look!

Yes, they look very,very,very,very, stupid. And - often - they really are. But enlightenment civ’s trick is to hold the bad stuff accountable while giving the good stuff freedom to interact. It works astonishingly well. For cavemen.

Moreover, the enemies of the Enlightenment are doing what they are doing for one reason, above all others. Because they are scared. Because if things keep going this way, we may reach a tipping point where feudalism and dogmatism and oppression and retro-nostalgism will lose their final chance. We’ll emerge into light where faith will survive, but not exclusionary hellfire, demure decency will thrive, but not oppressive prudity, cultural traditions will be cherished, but not used as weapons, lively market capitalism will flourish, but not aristocratic kleptocracy, multiculturalism and social nets will be maintained, but not at the cost of PC gestapo-policing of thoughts and speech.

This is the horror that drives anti-engineering loonies of the left and anti-science loonies of the right. This is why they have colluded (unconsciously) to create “culture war”, in order to distract Americans from the Great Project. They are doing this because they were losing!

Take that message and cheer up. Then help us figure out how to win this struggle.

A few specific comments :

It would seem to me that the painting at: (“Stuffing the technological genie back in the bottle”) was meant to be satirical.

You portray the internet as driving reactionary impulses because: “The internet, which turned from a thoughtful discussion salon into a combination red light district / spam factory / plague quarantine zone.

It is now estimated that the time before an unprotected PC connected to the internet gets infected by a worm or virus has dropped to 20 minutes...and still falling.

Please. Soon after the Gutenberg Bible, the biggest uses of printing presses soon became (1) religious hate tracts and (2) porn. Yes, the Thirty Years War resulted. Not something we dare repeat, with atom bombs, plagues and nano-weaponry. But eventually printing did a lot of good.

I do share your loathing of the cabal among electronics makers to make DVD players vastly less usable than VCRs were. These people deserve to go to the same place as those who designed the HP OfficeJet G85 “all in one” printer... somewhere abused purchasers and users get a chance to get even with engineers who betrayed their central tribal mission and our trust.

All told, I wish you would refine your posting. Run it past some friends in order to tone it down from a howl of despair into something that sounds more like a reasoned indictment. Organize, then POST IT online in a way that makes it perpetually accessible, as I have done with many of my rants! People (including me) can then refer to it. But then, it would require that you no longer be “anonymous.” ;-)

Some other items...

This offered by Chris Phoenix: “Marshall Brain wrote a column claiming that technologies like solar
Stirling dishes could solve our energy problems. I calculated that to keep our oil use constant (instead of growing at 2% per year) would probably require $50 to 100 billion worth of solar Stirling dishes installed each year. That doesn't count the land cost, financing, maintenance, infrastructure to replace oil with electricity, etc. And that's just to keep our oil use constant, not to deal with maybe a 5% per year decline in supply.”

Also: “Two of Greenland's largest glaciers are retreating at an alarming pace, most likely because of climate warming, scientists said Wednesday.One of the glaciers, Kangerdlugssuaq, is currently moving about 9 miles a year compared to 3 miles a year in 2001, said Gordon Hamilton of the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute.

The other glacier, Helheim, is retreating at about 7 miles a year — up from 4 miles a year during the same period.

"It's quite a staggering rate of increase," Hamilton said at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Political Battle over Modernity: Part V

I'm planning to post this series, plus the full list of a dozen slicedBread suggestions, at

I know this is a bad idea. Till now I have been able to claim I was at least somewhat neutral, taking sides because one side is awful, not because the other side is great. But in these series, I do seem to be very partisan, talking about what the Democratic Party must do in order to defeat these very BAD examples of conservatism.

Tell you what, in order to show balance, I think I may re-register as a... Republican.

You doubt me? Just wait.


The Political Battle over Modernity


What can we expect in the next few political seasons?

Some things are more certain than sunrise. For starters, standard leftist mantras will dominate the primaries, while candidates vie for support from the passionately committed...

... followed by a frantic, post-convention scurry as candidates earnestly burnish their "moderate" credentials for the November face-off.

Alas, for the poor benighted Democrats, this dance will prove (as always) ineffective. The rightwing-controlled press will recall every vaguely lefty statement that each candidate ever made. Any subsequent explanations or equivocations will be labeled "wishy-washy" or indecisive, a character flaw that is routinely portrayed in the press as more heinous than dogmatic obstinacy.

Meanwhile, there are already dark warnings from the left, that any drive for the center will be punished by the Democratic Party’s home-grown ideologues.

metaphor-politics-electionAs happened to every Democratic candidate, other than the agile Bill Clinton, this quickstep of relentless explanation, clarification, and re-explanation will dominate campaign news. Too-left. Too-moderate. Too wishy-washy in between. These are the Scylla, Charybdis and Styx of every modern Democratic candidacy. And by dancing to this tune, the candidate inevitably wastes both time and resources, then winds up dashed against all three shoals, at the same time.

So, how did Bill Clinton escape this trap?

* First, he relentlessly avoided excluding people and groups, unless it was clearly necessary. He even found things to praise in Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America!" (This is a hint to something the Democrats really ought to try next.)

These Clintonian behaviors weren’t just a matter of tactics, but of personality. In taking this approach, Clinton resembled the inclusive tendencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Moreover, conservatives were right to fear this. It was why the true believers had to be diverted from debates over policy to issues of "character."

* Second, Clinton never bought into the silly and insipid notion of a clearcut "left-right political axis." And when fanatics of left or right tried relentlessly to apply such labels, he simply shrugged it off.

* Third, Clinton only got into real trouble when he lied.

This final item would seem to be a tautology! After all, the self-hypnotic mantra of the far right is that Clinton always lied. And yet, the irony is that he won almost every battle that he ever fought, and most of them weren’t even close. The ONLY fight that was truly a squeaker happened to be the only time anybody was able to prove that he lied.

Now, there are two possible paths you can take from there. One is to say that he wasn’t caught in any other lies because he was so "slick." Too slick to be caught even by the entire apparatus of the GOP, after they had all of the filing cabinets and all the papers of the Executive Branch in their hands, for five long years, along with all of the resources of the Justice Department and the FBI. Right.

The other, far simpler explanation -- but one that neocons cannot conceive, or even parse -- is that, contrary to the mantra, Bill Clinton simply did not lie very much. Despite the howls of derision that this second hypothesis will reflexively provoke on the right, which view is supported by actual evidence?

A detailed rebuttal can come elsewhere. But three irrefutable facts are utterly inconsistent with the standard mantra.

secrecy-3d. (a) Under Clinton the government’s use of secrecy went down to its lowest level since WWII (in contrast to overwhelming Bush-Cheney increases in secrecy, to levels never seen even during the Cold War).

. (b) During almost the whole span of the Clinton Administration, it was subjected to relentless supervision and scrutiny by subpoena-equipped staffers from Republican-controlled Congressional committees -- something that has not happened, even remotely, under the present regime.

. (c) We were promised that Slick Willy and his guys would all go to jail, just as soon as "honest Republicans" got those Executive Branch filing cabinets to pore through. "Any day now..." we were assured during the first six months of 2001. By autumn, people were starting to wonder. Now, five years later, after untold millions in resources spent looking for smoking guns, the total number of Clinton era officials indicted for abuse of their actual powers in office is... still… zero.

These facts are not ambiguous or politically biased. They are simply, blatantly, outrageously plain facts. They put severe test to standard articles of neoconservative faith posited by the right and inflicted upon Americans for thirteen years.

* Finally, Clinton was unashamed of reaching out to particular subsets of conservatism, taking advantage of inherent schisms, splitting the right-wing coalition and luring away support from the other side.

Alas, these efforts were nearly always of short duration. Clinton’s own notion of a Big Tent was always tactical, never strategic, a character flaw that historians may someday deem far worse than sexual pecadillos. As soon as the next political battle came along, the same obdurate "liberal-conservative" party lines re-asserted themselves.

liberal-conservativeBecause classic liberals and conservatives wanted it that way.

Hence, even if the Democrats come up with another political genius like Clinton, and even supposing that he wins the Presidency, that will be no panacea for a revitalized liberalism, or even revitalized moderation. Not if the same self-defeating habits continue to prevail at all lower levels.

Unless something is done about the deeper problem… that of a deliberately induced "Culture War"… the grand strategy of neoconservatism will continue to achieve brilliant success, out of all proportion to the merit of their policies or agenda., detailed examples of liberal suicide....

Return to Part 1: Ideas for Rescuing Modernity

Monday, December 05, 2005

Political Suggestions for a New Administration

I just finished an exhausting push to file 20 suggestions on my website : Go have a look:

#1 A Fresh Deal for Labor and Management.

#2 Reduce Somali Piracy

#3 Save Capitalism with Radical Transparency

#4 Make Government Agile

#5 Avoid Just in Time Economics

#6 Repair the U.S. Civil Service

#7 Free the Inspectors General

#8 Micro-Suggestions to Heal the Depression

#9 Restore the Army, the Navy and the National Guard

#10 Enhance our Nation's (and Civilization's) Overall Resilience

#11 Control the Borders

#12 Investigate Wartime Contracts

#13 Restore Independent Advisory Agencies

#14 Insure the Kids

#15 Truth and Reconciliation

#16 Bring Crooks to Justice

#17 Political Suggestions

#18 Time to End Gerrymandering

#19 A Few Crackpot Suggestions

#20 End Culture War

Enough politics...I will pause to offer a few techie snippets. Thrive.


Cheap Chemical Sensors: Electronic "noses" made from printed electronics could detect toxic chemicals inexpensively.

Technology already exists that can sniff out chemicals in the air and water -- but the detecting devices are expensive, limiting their use. Now Vivek Subramanian, electrical engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has made arrays of sensors cheap enough that they could be widely distributed for monitoring toxins in the environment.

The goal is to "identify environmental problems before they become severe, then react to them," says Subramanian. "One of the major requirements, if we want to do this, is ultra-low cost," he says. Subramanian makes his array of inexpensive chemical sensors using organic semiconductors and inkjet printing technology. The first generation of his devices, which would still rely on costly silicon-based technology to process signals from the sensors, would run about 30 cents a piece, Subramanian estimates. That's a bargain compared with several hundred dollars for today's sensors, he says. Subramanian reported on his work at the Materials Research Society meeting in Boston this week.

(Need I mention this is another EARTH predictive hit ;-)

-A cure for computer viruses that spreads in a viral fashion could immunize the Internet, even against pests that travel at lightning speed, a mathematical study reveals. "Honeypot" computers would be linked to one another via a dedicated and secure network and distributed across the Internet. The honeypots would attract a virus, analyze it...

- Richard Carrigan, a particlephysicist at the US Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, believes the SETI@home project is putting Earth's security at risk by distributing the signals they receive to computers all over the…

In his report, entitled Do potential Seti signals need to be decontaminated?, he suggests the Seti scientists may be too blase about finding a signal. "In science fiction, all the aliens are bad, but in the world of science, they are all good and simply want to get in touch."

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Political Battle over Modernity: IV

The Political Battle over Modernity


We have spent some time analyzing the most effective tool used by the neoconservative movement, in their march to almost-total power ofer the government and institutions of American life. That trick -- almost never discussed in press or punditry -- has been to maintain a broad “big tent” coalition of wildly disparate (and even contradictory) interest groups. This has been achieved through deliberate inclusiveness, in contrast to increasing left-wing dogmatism and litmus tested exclusivity.

This impressive accomplishment is reminiscent of earlier political alliances built by Franklin Roosevelt. It has also involved an incredible dance of vagueness, abetted by a media that will not report on how little some of these interest groups are actually getting, other than lip service.

But it doesn’t stop there. Coalition-building was only the first of many GOP innovations -- weapons that were honed and sharpened during years spent hungry, in the political wilderness. A shortened, abbreviated list of other methods would have to include:

-- fomenting “culture war” as a function of religious identification, regional identification, rural-vs-urban identification, etc., taking advantage of every possible source of resentment.

-- mobilizing wealthy supporters to buy up crucial companies, gradually gaining control over most news media, radio outlets and manufacturers of most of the nation’s voting machines.

-- perfecting the art of state-by-state gerrymandering, in order to maximize every electoral advantage.

-- associating conservatism with Mother-Pie issues like patriotism, military readiness, preservation of the family, and childhood innocence.

-- systematically using Congressional appointments to fill the US military academies with entering cadets selected according to strict political and religious standards. (This one is obscure and possibly very dangerous.)

-- playing upon fear. Of foreigners. Of terror. Of technology gone out of control.

By combining these and other innovative techniques, conservatives -- (or rather, neoconservatives) -- have overcome the inherent disadvantage that they would normally face in direct debates over specific issues.

This particular point is an important one. As shown by public opinion polls, Americans tend to lean in modernist-progressive directions when asked -- in a neutral manner -- about particular policies, ranging from retirement to budgetary restraint, from energy research to science education, from labor law to conservation, from agriculture to border policy, from taxation to global warming, from teaching evolution in the schools to abortion, from excessive secrecy to civil rights, from foreign intervention to transparency and accountability in government. Consensus opinions on most of these issues generally swing neither left nor right... but do tend toward mildly progressive-moderate, with possibly a tilt toward “liberal.” One consistent example would be overall public support for budget balancing as a priority, instead of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Faced with an intrinsic disadvantage when it comes to the broad sweep of policy, the GOP has viewed it as vital that elections not be about these issues. Party leaders needed every one of the innovative methods that we are describing in this essay. Even so, the last two presidential elections were the closest in a hundred years.

What is clear is that today’s GOP knows how to turn narrow victories into overwhelming political power. By applying a wide range of techniques in a well coordinated manner, the far-right has taken over every branch of the federal government, as well as most of the press, eliminating any need for classic political negotiation.

Which raises another interesting point. Those who used to speak in praise of “divided government,” as a restraint on federal excess -- for example, during the Clinton Administration -- are now strangely -- and hypocritically -- silent, as every kind of exorbitant political indulgence is excused during the Republicans’ total monopoly of power.

One outcome has been the most passive US Congress since 1930. Despite the greatest pork barrel feeding frenzy in hiostory, in fact, rates of actual work on Capitol Hill have slowed almost to a dead stop. Most notably the committees assigned to supervise and investigate executive departments have waned into near complete torpor. Especially telling is the fact that President George W. Bush used his veto power less often than any other president in two centuries. So much for the virtues of “divided government.”

Most dangerously, members and supporters of the Bush Administration have also expanded the use of secrecy, to a degree never seen even during the Cold War, back when we faced the towering enmity of a mighty Soviet empire. What is the rationale for this unprecedented dive into shadows? The vague and amorphous threat of “terrorism” -- a foe that has killed fewer Americans in the last decade than routinely die of car crashes in a month.

This push for secrecy is, of course, what elites have always tried to achieve, in every previous society, but never so relentlessly in our democracy. One result; it effectively quashes almost all prospect of accountability.


While we may bemoan what all of this has done to our country, it is important to recall our central point in this article, which concerns political innovation.

And in that realm there can no longer be any doubt about neoconservative creativity and persistence. Their time in the wilderness left them lean and hungry, filled with energy and fresh ideas about how to wage effective political war.

If their opponents choose not to respect and learn from these accomplishments, well then, the neocons will happily take advantage of that, as well.

After successive electoral debacles in 1994, 2000 and 2004, are Democrats ready to perform a similar re-evaluation? Perhaps even readjusting their priorities and methods for a new century?

By all signs, the answer is no. Instead, we seem set for the same pattern, next election, that we have witnessed time and again. "Was Clinton Different? The exception to the rule of liberal self-destruction...

or return to Part 1: Ideas for Rescuing Modernity

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Political Battle over Modernity: III

The Political Battle over Modernity


We have seen that radical conservatives studied hard during their time of exile, after having been pummeled and battered by previous miscalculations. While they languished in the wilderness, banished from government, a clade of conservative thinkers spent this time studying, analysing, learning their political lessons well. Gradually, they refined a set of political tools. These ranged from what a decent person might find admirable to deplorable. But taken together, the ensemble integrated toward a single, practical goal.

Achieving power.

In the last section we discussed one of the most potent methods that they picked up, which is superficial ideological inclusiveness. A willingness to accept anyone into the great Big Tent of Conservatism, given even the slightest excuse to do so.

This has proved a powerful technique, allowing GOP leaders to gather a vast menagerie of political types -- many seemingly incompatible -- into a huge and winning coalition. Abetted by leftist radicals who were only too willing to help the process along, by taking the opposite tactic... one of fierce ideological exclusivity, driving away anyone who might deviate from standard liberal doctrine, even by a single litmus test.

No doubt some liberals will object, claiming that they don’t do this sort of party line exclusion. And yet, it’s easy enough to test. Just take a set of divisive issues from both sides of the horribly insipid but standard left-right divide. For example, a person might believe in:

* Every woman’s total right to abortion . . vs Parental notification for minors

* Support for public schools and teachers . . vs Vouchers for private schools

* Generosity over immigration . . vs Tight control of borders

* No drilling in Arctic Wildlife Reserve . . vs test drilling in ANWR

* Supporting Unions & minimum wage . . vs Letting the market decide wages

* Repealing the PATRIOT Act . . vs Greater powers of vision for the FBI

* Limiting foreign intevention . . vs Active exercise of Pax Americana power

* Restoring taxes on the wealthiest . . vs Letting the market solve deficits

* Complete separation of church/state . . vs Schools/kids need faith-based morality

* Concentrate on conservation/no nukes . . vs Restart the nuclear power program

Of course this list is incomplete, it might go on and on, reciting one oversimplified conflict after another. But I just didn’t have the heart to write any more, so deeply do I loathe these standard and rigidly calcified positions, which seem designed to make negotiation impossible. So, let’s make do with what we’ve written down so far. I think you’ll agree that these ten dichotomies between “left and right” suffice to make a point.

Now, squint and imagine a person who holds all of the positions listed on the left side of the list. Sounds like a stereotypical liberal, hm? (A dismal scarecrow of a sterotype, but one that too many Americans buy into.) So far, it’s all party line. And obvious.

Okay. But now imagine just one out of these ten positions switching, abruptly, to the other column. Pick any one. Only make the switch strong. Opinionated. Vigorously felt and passionately pursued.

Can you honestly picture such a person being welcome at any gathering of liberals? Probably, you have anecdotes of your own, illustrating what happens to anyone who has one or two quirky, off-list points of view. In fact, so strong is this impulse on the left, that activists routinely disparage the moderates in their own movement, disdaining them as “light” conservatives.

This dogmatic/purist tendency goes back a long way. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes the self-destruction of the left amid bloody infighting, during the Spanish Civil War. Moreover, it continues doing harm today. In a very direct way, the obstinately indignant candidacy of Ralph Nader -- based upon pointless ideological nitpicking -- inarguably helped to usher in the Bush Cheney Era.

In contrast, you won’t see that kind of self-imolation on the other side. Look back at that list of ten standard political positions. Again, envision a person who holds nine views on the left side but one strong and vociferous view on the right. Haven’t you seen plenty of “conservatives” who are just like the person you just pictured? Despite holding a mish mash of indiosyncratic beliefs, some classic left, others classically right, and some truly unorthodox, aren’t they -- more often than not -- defined by whichever personal tenet happens to be on the “right”?

And then, doesn't that sense of definition, or identification, have great influence over how they vote?

Please, none of this means that the right is less inherently ideological than the left. It is, in fact, rife with some of the most towering dogmatic lunacies. Or that arch conservatives are more reasonable than lefties. Certainly not!

Moreover, there are exceptions. As described by one blog-correspondent: “... if you're in South Dakota, the Democrats are much more moderate and inclusive than their Republican counterparts. The SD Democratic party will gladly welcome a pro lifer, an anti-guncontrol NRA member, or a fiscal tightwad as a candidate -- whereas you'd be hard-pressed to get on the ballot as a pro-choice, pro-gay, or pro guncontrol Republican.”

Indeed, if you look back to the era of greatest liberal power and success, stretching from FDR to LBJ, coalition-building was a key element of Democrat success, with various groups tolerating each other for the sake of overall party success.

What this pattern does demonstrate is that pragmatism has switched sides. Despite the fact that many on the right are ideological in the extreme, they have schooled themselves to live and work by one iron rule:

Power comes first.

Make alliances with anybody you have to. Make promises and deals. Give lip service to every contradictory dogma.

But take power.

That is the strength of inclusiveness. And it shows just how loopy and self destructive leftist activists have been, in their addiction to the opposite path. The path of righteous, indignant and perpetual defeat.

=== === More Weapons in the Neocon Arsenal...

or: Return to Part 1: Ideas for Rescuing Modernity

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Political Battle over Modernity: Part II

Let's get back to business... the latest serialized essay. This time about the pragmatic nuts and bolts of waging war against a pragmatic civilization...

The Political Battle over Modernity


Keep remembering, throughout this study, that our topic is political methodology. While I make no effort to conceal my preference for one side over another in today’s dismal dichotomy, that preference is not the issue at hand.

(In fact, the thing that I object to most strongly is the secretive monopoly of power by elements that seem determined never to allow accountability to flow again. If the other side ruled under these circumstances, I hope and pray that I would be as loud.)

No, we are not here to compare the relative merits of liberal or conservative worldviews. Rather, the matter that now concerns us is the profound difference in strategy and tactics that have been employed by left and right, during the last two decades of political struggle.

It is in this area of methodology, planning and skilled execution that one side has become utterly dominant simply because, in the purely Machiavellian sense, it deserves to be. Because the right-wing has rationally come up with all of the best moves -- both licit and illicit -- in order to grasp control over this civilization’s reins of power.

Meanwhile, the left seems bound and determined to do everything it can possibly do, to lose.

Take the example we touched upon in Part One. In contrast to the liberal trend of ideological exclusion -- creating lists of rigid positions that any decent liberal must hold --- the greatest Republican accomplishment has been coalition building -- something that Democrats once prided themselves upon.

Indeed, the current GOP leadership has impressively managed to unite dozens of disparate forces that have very few values in common. These groups range --

* from apocalyptic fundamentalists to atheist-libertarians.

* from traditionally reticent isolationists, all the way to aggressive neo imperialists.

* from protectionists and nativists, all the way to those who want our borders thrown wide open, exporting mid-level jobs while importing cheap undocumented labor.

* from budget balancers, all the way to wastrels who bring astounding new heights of chutzpah to pork barrel chicanery.

* from those who define healthy entrepeneurialism according to the rate of small business startups, all the way to those who judge capitalism healthiest when it maximizes the bonuses of top corporate CEOs.

The unification of all these contradictions - and so many others - under a single Big Tent is a remarkable accomplishment and testimony to consummate political skill. How was it achieved?

The answer is remarkably simple. To every possible interest group, the leaders of the right say this:

“You hold one opinion that may loosely be called ‘conservative.’ Therefore please feel free to consider yourself a member of our camp -- and vote with us -- no matter how many other, contradictory opinions you might also maintain.”

Think about how different this is, from the reflex on the left.

“You hold one opinion that doesn’t fit what we call ‘liberal.’ Therefore you must be a conservative, no matter how many other, progressive opinions you might also maintain.”

This point cannot be reiterated often enough. It has suited elements of the left to define “liberal” rigidly, while leaving the word “conservative” vague, encompassing everything they dislike. This tendency has suited their opponents just fine.

Take, for example, the renowned futurist and former Jerry Brown advisor, Stewart Brand, who recently called for progressives to re-evaluate four crucial positions that (Brand contends) have become obsolete in a new century. Among these four flawed but ‘politically correct’ positions is the near-automatic reflex to oppose nuclear power, even as a stopgap to help fuel economic growth and fight poverty while reducing emission of greenhouse gases. Brand contends -- with supporting evidence -- that much good might arise from new uranium-cycle plants that are made in America -- and which will therefore be subject to intense scrutiny -- rather than letting the nuclear power design standard be established in less open societies. Yes, many problems would have to be overcome. But careful application of fission technology might offer a possible bridge to the true, long-term solution -- sustainable, renewable energy sources combined with high efficiency and conservation. (see:

You can well imagine how this proposal was received on the left. Even though Brand’s goal remains as progressive as anyone could ask, he was excoriated as a tool of the establishment. This only illustrates that, to many on the left, any deviation from a standard list of requisite opinions must automatically mean that you are on the other side. (e.g.

Ironically, this reflex has suited the GOP leadership, just fine. It allows them to be just as inclusive as liberalism is exclusive. The result, as we have seen, is an incredible coalition of contradictory factions that now classifies themselves - and reliably votes -- as Conservatives.

(Note that this coalition is maintained, despite the fact that half of these “conservative” constituencies never get a single thing that they actually want! At best, the budget balancers and prudent internationalists, the supporters of small business and responsibly-managed borders, have been paid lip service. Even the hardcore anti-abortion community, loudly cheered by the Bush entourage, has yet to receive a single tangible and effective action from the neocon leadership. Not even one, after five years of totally monopolized power. And yet, they remain loyal, partly because lip service is satisfying and partly because no other camp will welcome them.)

How did supposedly smart liberals allow such a lose-lose situation to develop? One in which political suicide is the order of the day?

True, it can be personally satisfying to disdain and reject those who disagree with your party line. (See: And yet, how can any smart person not have noticed how politically self destructive this has been?

Alas, the neoconservative game plan appears ready to play out successfully, yet again, next political season, as the most active and vigorous elements in the Democratic Party left eagerly repeat this “gift” to the right.

,.. next... The routine rhythm of liberal self-destruction...

or return to Part 1: Ideas for Rescuing Modernity