Monday, September 11, 2006

An Era of Strangeness...

There are times when you can understand why the anti-modernists are so frantic. So desperate to prevent the 21st Century from finally arriving.

* Women applying reciprocal accountability with cell cams... exactly as in EARTH and in The Transparent Society. Holla Back NYC, a blog-cum-grass-roots movement uses digital technology to combat street harassment. They urge women not only to take a photo when men hassle or insult them in public, but to make the photo public on I have always found that women seem to grasp the concept better than men do. They have benefited best from every step toward a world of accountability and light.

* Down at the commentary level, Stefan Jones pojted out a site that is of some importance in the struggles for progressive modernism. Following similar lines to my “Proxy Power” notion, a site called the Scientific Activist lists organizations that can take small donations and leverage them into bullets in the hard fight to save Enlightenment Civilization. Give it a look. And then give. (This list is worth noting somewhere and passing along.)

* The first genetic map of colon and breast cancer shows that nearly 200 mutated genes -- most of them previously unknown -- help tumors start, grow and spread. The findings could lead to new treatments for cancer and better ways to diagnose...

"The vast majority of these genes were not known to be genetically altered in tumors and are predicted to affect a wide range of cellular functions, including transcription, adhesion, and invasion," they wrote in their report published in the journal Science. "We anticipate that as The Cancer Genome Atlas scales up, we may be able to identify the majority of genetic changes that cause the most important and common forms of the major cancers," I mean dang. When the process becomes this involved, this complex, this inter-dependent, you have just got to start wondering in extremely science fictional ways. These mutations are starting to look less and less like “accidents” and more and more like something meaningful, as in some Greg Bear novel.

What if you turned ALL of the mutations on... AT ONCE??? Hm...

* Superimposing computer-generated images over real scenes can dramatically help people with visual impairment, say Harvard Medical School researchers. Their device puts a cartoon on top of a person's regular view. It sketches out what the wider field of view looks like and superimposes that on the person's usual view....

* Today's cameras will let you adjust perceived reality, by altering a photo as it's snapped. Some new Hewlett-Packard cameras include a feature that makes subjects look thinner, while another mode makes facial lines and pores virtually disappear. A "skin tone" feature on some Olympus models can give consumers a leisure-class tan.

* Game theorist Robert Axelrod, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, is applying game theory to cancer. The "game" -- to grow a successful tumor -- proceeds more efficiently for all players if they cooperate. The theory could have major implications.

Fannish items.

* For a 40th Anniversary Tribute to Star Trek... in both English and Hebrew!

* An informal interview with me at the worldcon Hugo Loser's Party is now online.

* I've had some of my characters dramatized in unusual media over the years. An Australian fan made magnificent plush toys of the "noor" or "tytlal" characters in BRIGHTNESS REEF and even a Tower of Hanoi game in which successive rings get piled up to make a wise old traeki sage! Now, in the run-up to the 2007 worldcon, I have been given a CD showing details how to make origami figures of various uplift species, from urs and hoon to traeki and even the wheeled g'kek! All by expert Kazuo Sumiya. There are even plans to do a joint performance - (I’ll recite a story while he... folds?) in Yokohama next August.


Anonymous said...

For those who are interested, there's a short article about Axelrod's research on the University of Michigan's news page. There's also an article at New Scientist, but the UMich article is much more well-written.

Anonymous said...



I suppose some could see this as the 7th sign of the coming Singularity!

I see:

A group of white hipsters who "borrowed" an idea from a Vietnamese girl, "borrowed" a name from black culture...and spun it into yet another lame web business.

People wanted us to be like a Craisglist for street harassment and start this all over the place,” May said, “but we want to put our energy into New York City and build a community here

Go hipsters modernists!

Go singularity sellers (almost here!)!

In the the t-shirts:


Anonymous said...

What if you turned ALL of the mutations on... AT ONCE??? Hm...

Here's what you get.

As for HollaBack -- whose definition of "harrassment" is being used? If it's subjective, I could see some serious problems as a result.

Don Quijote said...

a far more realistic looka a our situation: The Sixteen Acre Ditch

The physical symptoms -- a lost war, a derelict city, a Potemkin memorial hastily erected in a vacant lot -- aren't nearly as alarming as the moral and intellectual paralysis that seems to have taken hold of the system. The old feedback mechanisms are broken or in deep disrepair, leaving America with an opposition party that doesn't know how (or what) to oppose, a military run by uniformed yes men, intelligence czars who couldn't find their way through a garden gate with a GPS locator, TV networks that don't even pretend to cover the news unless there's a missing white woman or a suspected child rapist involved, and talk radio hosts who think nuking Mecca is the solution to all our problems in the Middle East. We've got think tanks that can't think, security agencies that can't secure and accounting firms that can't count (except when their clients ask them to make 2+2=5). Our churches are either annexes to shopping malls, halfway homes for pederasts, or GOP precinct headquarters in disguise. Our economy is based on asset bubbles, defense contracts and an open-ended line of credit from the People's Bank of China, and we still can't push the poverty rate down or the median wage up.

I could happily go on, but I imagine you get my point. It's hard to think of a major American institution, tradition or cultural value that has not, at some point over the past five years, been shown to be a.) totally out of touch, b.) criminally negligent, c.) hopelessly corrupt, d.) insanely hypocritical or e.) all of the above.

Bobby Coggins said...

About the power of tech...a recent Immigration Town Hall meeting banned the use of camcorders...but did nothing to stop videos being filmed with tiny digital cameras. I think they did not know the little cameras could be used for that purpose!

I prefer the Star Trek vision over the Star Wars vision.
The Positive force (sorry about the word choice;^>)of uplifting (;^>) knowledge over The Negative force of secrecy.

Also...I think Star Wars is about personal power, not shared as in Trek.

Anonymous said...

I think Billmon's a touch too cynical, Don.

I think you can make a lot of money without breaking a sweat in America today if:

You're amoral, you study your Goebbels, you're willing to shamelessy rip off other people's ideas and you trumpet your product as a great success no matter what the result.

See: Halliburton, Microsoft, Bush administration, the cool kids in the above link, etc.

Don Quijote said...

I think Billmon's a touch too cynical, Don.

You can never be too cynical.

Dog Bites Man

I think it was P.T. Barnum who said that nobody ever went broke underestimating (or in Shrub's case, misunderestimating) the intelligence of the American people. That's not entirely fair: Americans can be very smart, even brilliant, about some things, particularly if those things involve gadgets and especially if those gadgets can be used to make money or kill people. We're a positivist wet dream -- the most relentlessly practical people since the Romans. But our culture and economic incentives all tend to channel our intellectual energies away from subjects that have no immediate utilitarian value. And for most Americans, most of the time, that means away from politics and current affairs, which only rarely have any direct impact on or relevance to our daily lives.

(That's not always true, of course. For some people -- Army reservists, the citizens of New Orleans, the workers in the twin towers -- the impact of politics can be immediate, enormous and lethal. But by then it's usually too late to learn about the issues.)

All this helps create the sea of political ignorance and apathy on which Rovian admirals (and their less competent Democratic opponents) launch their attack vessels, armed with sales techniques borrowed from the advertising industry and the social psychology departments of the major research universities.

At the end of the day the sole hope that I see is that technology and the short-sighted greed of our Plutocrats will destroy the world's greatest propaganda apparatus, Free Commercial Broadcast TV, and if we are lucky it will be destroyed before the country is.

David Brin said...

Alas, DQ, you are SO sure of yourself. So sure that almost everyone in your society -- (but not you) -- misses the stark and pure simplicity of it all.

Where you and I (and modernists in general) part company is not over your specific complaints, many of which we share, but over the stark simplicity itself. I have long envied the beautiful clarity and certainty that romantics apply to their them-vs-us dichotomies. Always a small, virtuous group in the-know, outnumbered by dastards, who are, in turn, vastly outnumbered by sheep.

(Think the Battle of Helm's Deep. Ah, romance.)

Alas, the model does not hold. You relentlessly express the standard romantic view of a fall from a state of grace, but never inspect that purported state of grace, itself! What brought it about. Whence came the very standards by which you judge things!

They arose out of complexity, Don. Magnificent emergent properties by which sheep learned to - in aggregate - be much more than the sum of their insipid parts.

I know that you will never do the exercise that I recommend at:
But I hope others will think of you when THEY do it.

Honestly, I have all my life heard lefties yearn for harsher days that will then propel us into the long-delayed revolution. An idiotic notion, since hard times - and the revolutions they engender - HAVE ALMOST NO HISTORICAL RECORD OF EVER MAKING THINGS BETTER.

True, the neo-fascists are fools, too. For hard times WILL lead to THEIR losing their heads. They are imbeciles, cursing George Soros and Warren Buffett as "traitors to their class" when in fact, men like that are SAVING their class. Because a soft/reformist/modernist version of revolution will save markets from the morons who are destroying them from above.

But that’s not what left-romantics want. They want rolling heads. And hang what that does to the “state of grace.”

Ah, but history - as I've said - is not a favorite topic of incantory dogmatists, these days. (It used to be! Marx used (abused) history relentlessly.) Today, the far left and far right are historical dunces. Alas, Babylon.

Because history shows one thing very clearly. That Americans built both the values you extol and the state of grace from which you claim we fell. And they did it through much less-romantic virtues like calmness and openhanded negotiation and hard work. The very same calmness and apolitical openness that our would-be neo-feudalist masters want us to abandon.

Funny thing about that. YOU want us to abandon them, too.

You and I hate the same bastards, for now. For many of the same reasons. We're allies. For now.

But I know the revolution you want. I have listened to it all my life. I have studied its proponents across not only my own experience but also the writings of three thousand years.

And I'll have none of it.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the demise of broadcast television: I can't wait for television to become Napster-ized. I'd rather download my TV shows than sit through commercials. Advertising-supported TV always felt odd to me. I'd rather pay for what I want directly than go through the middleman of advertising, which I suspects creates negative externalities greater than the value of the advertising to those who pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Or it could be that you, Dr. Brin, are the poster child for confirmation bias.

Even though you admitted you don't think the "accelration of technology" can be measured objectively (I disagree) and you admitted that America's economy has been turning back into a "triagle-shape" for the last 30 say you will continue to push your theory that America is a "diamond-shaped" economy where technology is "accelerating at a record rate."

I'll wager 100 shares of that you think China's economy has been growing three times faster than America's for the past decade because they've embraced "Capitalism."

Rob Perkins said...

Only trouble is, those things have abuses as well as uses-to-combat-abuses, don't they?

Ah well, at least its in the name of RA. For once.

David Brin said...

I will now give up even trying to follow monkyboy's logical reasoning processes. Either I am too unintelligent to track them or they are so bizarre that they truly come from a different kind of logic.

Perhaps I went into sci fi out of a fascination with the alien, but I am also supposed to be a pragmatist. So please, guys, if I try again, I beg you. Metaphorically kick me. Remind me it's hopeless.

Big C said...

I want to post Don Quijote's response to my question from the previous thread here because I think it illuminates ironically how close his point of view is to David's (my question in italics, Don Quijote's response in bold):

[I asked] Okay, could you tell me, specifically, what parts David's definition of "modernism" you disagree with? I'm refering to what David said here:

[quoting David Brin] "We believe in a notion that nearly all human societies deemed both mad and dangerous in the past... and still do in many lands... the improvability and (gradual) perfectibility of human individuals and societies through hard work, increasing knowledge, good will and citokate.

a) Human nature is what it is and I seriously doubt that it will change any time in the near future. we can and we will build better Gizmos but it will not change what we are.

[More quotes from David Brin] "Moreover, we see that our parents and grandparents, who shared this mad dream, strove hard toward achieving it... and that they somewhat SUCCEEDED.

"Their efforts weren't wasted. They weren't fools."

No, they weren't fools, but their children were, the generation that survived the depression && WWII created one of the fairest & best run societies on the Planet, their children are working very hard at undoing their hard work and are very likely to succeed in taking us back to the 1880's.

If "modernism" is bunk, what is the alternative? What do you suggest?

Balance of Power! In Goverment the legislative, judicial and legislative branch keep each other in check, in society at large, goverment, labor & capital keep each other in check and in foreign affairs Countries keep each other in check, a new version of the concert of Europe where the players instead of being European powers are Global powers, China, India, Russia, EU, US, Brazil, keeping each other in check.

I don't see how the balance of power ideas you suggest are different from what David has been promoting with reciprocal accountability. In fact I'd guess he'd consider that a downright "modernist" notion. Also, he's been railing against our gradual slide back into feudalism. The major disagreement I see between David and Don Quijote's positions is where the starting point of the decline was, and how severe it is.

But in terms of how to stop that decline and move forward, you both want to see the "Liberal/Left" reclaim it's political might. This will move toward restoring the balance that has gradually slipped away in the last few years, right?

In fact, I see both David's dour and pessimistic view of human nature, as well as his optimism that we can do better, echoed in Don Quijote's response! Don admits that our grandparents actually did do better than previous societies and improved the human condition after WWII! He's rightly upset that we're pissing away their legacy -- just like David!

So isn't it more important to figure out practical solutions to getting our civilization out of the current mess we're in, rather than arguing endlessly about how far we've fallen from that peak we reached somewhere in the middle/end of the last century?

Finally, a bit of CITOKATE for David: Your passion for the ideas of liberty and accountability are admirable, but I think you sometimes fall into the same trap you've been warning us of: you construct a simple dichotomy (modernists vs romantics) and turn the debate into us vs. them. Folks like Don Quijote and monkyboy may have some fundamental disagreements with you about history, our current situation, and our prospects for the future. But I think they still want the same things you want; for the next generation to be better off than the last, and all previous ones (correct me if I'm wrong!).

Dismissing them as dogmatic neo-romantics may, ahem, give you your indignation fix, but seems counterproductive. There are bigger fish to fry. I got this cogent response from Don Quijote by asking a simple question. I didn't assume he was a neo-romantic lefty extremist who is unreachable. And I know, given, the posting history of Don Quijote and your back-and-forth on this blog, opinions of each other on both sides have probably ossified. I'm suggesting that maybe you guys have more in common than you think.

David Brin said...

Big C what you say is cogent and wise. And indeed, I recognize many values in common with DQ.

Alas, you dismiss as a simplistic dichotomy something that I am offering as a serious observation about human nature... that many people cannot grasp modernism more as a matter of PERSONALITY than of any actual matters of disagreement over foes or agenda.

This is very important. Because we have seen this distinction become critical countless times in the past. The Mensheviks and Bolsheviks BOTH hated Czarist oppression. Lafayette and Robspierre BOTH wanted change in France. Castro moved in and took over a moderate revolution that had already ejected Batista. Sun Yat Sen, the moderate, eventually faded under the hot, romantic sun of Mao.

We Mensheviks are almost always murdered by our radical allies... with the exception of CALM and moderate enlightenment revolutions like 1775-1789. Don't imagine for a minute that George Marshall and Douglas MacArthur were the same, just because they fought the same enemy and saluted the same flag and both declared fealty to freedom.

One of them grasped "freedom" as a subtle and glorious process. The other worshiped it as a tribal totem.

They were different at the level of personality. And at that level, we enlightenment pragmatists have to FINALLY GET IT. We are waging war at many levels. And one of them is to control nasty self-indulgences that threaten everything we believe in.

No, not sex. Not pride. Not hubris. But much deeper and nastier self-indulgences.

I use "romanticism" as an arching emblem for the thing I deeply worry about in my own self, because I know I am a born romantic, the way one honest alcoholic can recognize another. Or ecognize one in the mirror.

Of COURSE it's an oversimplification! Citokate away!

(As I am true to my beliefs.)

But also look hard at my metaphor. Because Robspierre had Lafayette arrested. The terror commenced, worse in some ways than the Bourbons. And eventually the mob turned to a man on a white horse.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

I'll put it simply:

I don't see any facts that back up your conclusions.

I don't think you actually believe what you write...

I think your vision of a better tomorrow is just another flavor of Bush's faith-based cult.

But, I think we are on the same side for now at least...

And if we win...I promise not to finger you dreamers as counter revolutionaries.

reason said...

with regard to the mutations and cancer, I suspect it may be a red herring. I remember reading in the Scientific American a speculative article suggesting that cancer was in fact chaos. The gene copying process starts producing lots of errors, some of which find ways to survive and multiply. As mutations are more likely in some places than others - bingo there is your answer. It sort of correlates with other research on bacteria showing increases in the frequency of mutations under stress. But time will tell.

Shazam McShotgunstein said...

I think the main point of this exchange has been missing:

[quoting David Brin] "We believe in a notion that nearly all human societies deemed both mad and dangerous in the past... and still do in many lands... the improvability and (gradual) perfectibility of human individuals and societies through hard work, increasing knowledge, good will and citokate.

a) Human nature is what it is and I seriously doubt that it will change any time in the near future. we can and we will build better Gizmos but it will not change what we are.

It's not that human nature is changing, or that gizmos might address problems of human nature.

One thing that has been changing, that we've made tremendous progress in, is not in the tangible technology of gizmos but in the intangible "technology" of cultural standards and institutions, of ideas about how to go about deciding what to believe and how to interact with society and how to design the elements of human force and action to the greatest human benefit.

Many of the ideas we take for granted that it never occurred to our distant ancestors to conceive of, like the need to gather lots of evidence that ties together logically and challenge our assumptions before accepting beliefs, and the need for different institutions of power to be segregated and forced to negotiate with each other, and the value of everyone being able to speak their minds freely and contribute what they can to public debate, and the understanding that all human beings share great commonalities that can readily be understood once you get past seemingly alien differences in language and culture, constitute a meta-technology of mental tools for minimizing the unfortunate aspects of human nature and promoting our ability to work together for the common good.

And this toolkit of mental habits has been under increasingly sophisticated and effective development over the broad sweep of human history, in parallel to the development of our gizmos, and requiring just as much hard work and ingenuity and building on the knowledge garnered by those who went before.

Don Quijote said...

One thing that has been changing, that we've made tremendous progress in, is not in the tangible technology of gizmos but in the intangible "technology" of cultural standards and institutions, of ideas about how to go about deciding what to believe and how to interact with society and how to design the elements of human force and action to the greatest human benefit.

Which is undoubtly the reason Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell & Oral Roberts have so few followers.

Shazam McShotgunstein said...

Which is undoubtly the reason Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell & Oral Roberts have so few followers.

What a terrific example. Those clowns certainly do attract a segment of our society that longs for the good old days of letting bigoted fundamentalist religious authoritarians do your thinking for you. And yet, how many such devotees of religious authoritarians do we have in the Western world today compared to at any time in history? Their fraction of the Western world's population has been dropping steadily, opposite a steady long-term rise in secular reasoners, for the past 500 years.

Anonymous said...

Morning David and all
As an aside, since Earth was mentioned in this post. Today's NYT is talking about an engineered shift in the Mississippi's lower course.
Check it out.