Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Potpourri time!

Scalable-city-brown* One of the absolutely coolest things you’ll see is a demo of the Scalable City Project by Professor Sheldon Brown (my partner in the Exorarium Project ). See a 360 degree look at the demo in action recently in Vienna.

* One is only micrometers wide. The other is billions of light-years across. One image shows neurons in a mouse brain - the other is a simulated image of the universe. Together, they suggest the surprisingly similar patterns found in vastly different natural phenomena.

* The Chinese government has enlisted more than 37,000 peasants to man anti-aircraft guns in an effort to alter weather patterns. • Estimated monthly changes in the mass of Greenland's ice sheet suggest it is melting at a rate of about 57.3 cubic miles per year. • A blimp system for the Pentagon, which will be three-fourths the size of a football field, is expected to have its first test flight in 2010.

• Fastest-Evolving Human Gene Linked to Brain Boost -- (New Scientist -- August 16, 2006) The fastest evolving gene in the human genome is one linked to brain development. A study of differences between the human and chimp genomes has identified a gene associated with neural growth in the cerebral cortex – the part of the brain involved in processing thoughts and learning – as having undergone “accelerated evolutionary change”.

• FDA Approves Viruses as Food Additive -- (CNN -- August 18, 2006) A mix of bacteria-killing viruses can be safely sprayed on cold cuts, hot dogs and sausages to combat common microbes that kill hundreds of people a year, federal health officials said in granting the first-ever approval of viruses as a food additive.

* Frozen Mice Have Healthy Pups -- (BBC -- August 15, 2006) Mice kept in the deep freeze for 15 years have fathered healthy offspring, say scientists in Japan and Hawaii. It offers hope to those trying to bring extinct animals back from the dead. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers wrote: "If spermatozoa of extinct mammalian species (eg woolly mammoths) can be retrieved from animal bodies that were kept frozen for millions of years in permanent frost, live animals might be restored by injecting them into oocytes from females of closely related species."

• "Typhoon forecast to make land this evening," said the message sent to millions of mobile phones in the coastal city of Jinjiang and surrounding Fujian province. Authorities in Fujian have sent 18 million messages with storm information during five typhoons this year. Text messages have become a key tool for Chinese authorities during this year's unusually powerful typhoon season. Nearly one-third of China's 1.3 billion people have a cell phone, creating a rival to television and radio as a way to reach the public.

* Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder have now figured out how to project the results of global futures scenarios, based on sophisticated computer predictions — formerly just rows of numbers — as changing colors on a 5-foot sphere with the continents outlined on it. A number of these spheres are now being installed in museums around the United States and the world, so the world can see what it's in for. The meltdown of Greenland's ice sheet is speeding up, satellite measurements show. Data from a NASA satellite show that the melting rate has accelerated since 2004. If the ice cap were to completely disappear, global sea levels would rise by 6.5m (21 feet).

• There are now more overweight people across the world than hungry ones, according to experts. Researchers told the International Association of Agricultural Economists the number of overweight people had topped 1 billion, compared with 800 million undernourished. Obesity is rapidly spreading, while hunger is only slowly declining among the world's 6.5 billion population.

And now, this about our brave new world. Super Surveillance could be available in 3-5 years if a new super LIDAR project succeeds. In 3-5 years, remote imaging could have 1000 times better resolution. Currently it is 2cm resolution for US military satellites. They are suggesting that they can achieve 2 micron resolution which is about the wavelength of infrared light. However, even using that resolution for a 10 gigapixel image would only have 20cm (8 inches) by 20cm (8 inches) for the area being imaged. So it would be more useful to dial back and use less resolution most of the time to get a wider field of view.

Fannish Corner

Back in Spanish! Although science fiction novels don’t seem to stay in print in Spanish very long -- most of my novels have dropped out of print -- there is a lovely new edition of GLORY SEASON, issued by EdicionesB. (People can always write to the publisher and demand they bring the others back! ;-)

Finally, someone sent me this choice tidbit:

There are two things that I want you to make up your minds to: first, that you are going to have a good time as long as you live - I have no use for the sour-faced man - and next, that you are going to do something worthwhile, that you are going to work hard and do the things you set out to do.

-- Theodore Roosevelt, talk to schoolchildren in Oyster Bay,
Christmastime 1898


Tony Fisk said...

Since the title is 'potpourri time', I'll take the opportunity to point out the 'Citizens Against Terror' website. I haven't investigated it in-depth, but it seems the sort of site that people here would like to know about.

Anonymous said...

Do I detect a rodent theme in this post?

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence.

Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

--Calvin Coolidge

Anonymous said...

"The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." - Calvin Coolidge

"We were -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on." - Pete Seeger

Just felt like offering a counterexample. ;)

Anonymous said...

The Chinese government has enlisted more than 37,000 peasants to man anti-aircraft guns in an effort to alter weather patterns.

Ha. We got them beat easy. We have a few million SUV-driving peasants altering weather patterns all the time.

Anonymous said...

Oops, missed this one, sorry.

Researchers told the International Association of Agricultural Economists the number of overweight people had topped 1 billion, compared with 800 million undernourished.

Which I take to mean:

The number of improperly-nourished people in the world is 1.8 billion.

Sidereus said...

Another amazing Cassini photo:


The snapshot showed Enceladus sweeping through the E ring, extending wispy, fingerlike projections into the ring. The scientists suspect the ‘fingers’ consist of tiny ice particles being ejected from Enceladus’ south polar geysers and into the E ring.

David Brin said...

Blake - Many readers are so enthusiastic for PYTHON... and I admit it seems to be the logical successor to BASIC. It allows simple syntax and direct expression of the algorith in sequential lines of code -- which would be highly compatible with the notion of collaborating with schools and textbook publishers. Indeed, as Blake points out, an effort along these lines can be seen at: http://www.python.org/doc/essays/cp4e/

Indeed, Python is so widely available, that the goal might be achieved simply via some kind of DECLARATION... say by a prominent education association... declaring support for a Python-based universal entry-level environment. If well-publicized, that may be all that’s needed for everyone from Microsoft and Apple to textbook publishers to lift their pinkies (a minimal twitch) and make this happen.

Finally, Do you folks wish I used a blog method that let me categorize entries by keyword or topic? I see that on some blogs. Wish I could do it here. Someday I really must jazz up this old thing.

Sidereus said...

More on Greenland's ice melting:

"The researchers calculated that Greenland lost roughly 164 cubic miles of ice from April 2004 to April 2006 — more than the volume of water in Lake Erie."


"Some scientists also fear that if Greenland released large amounts of freshwater that could weaken the counterclockwise flow of the North Atlantic Current. In turn, that would lower water and wind temperatures and could trigger sudden cooling events in northern Europe."

Now, I'm not about to compare this to the awful The Day After Tomorrow movie but, at what point, is this not a top compaign issue?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what to think of this:

California sues carmakers over global warming

One one hand:

Sure, cars are responsible for an awful lot of CO2.

On the other:

Coal powered power plants are responsible for more.

On the third hand:

What would a lawsuit accomplish in the long run?

I would follow in the footsteps of the Royal Society, who just issued a condemnation of Exxon/Mobil for financing groups that muddy the scientific waters. I'd hold hearings and investigate these groups. I'd sue to find out how they're influencing the administration.

* * *

Why is global warming not a campaign issue?

Because even the most deluded understand that curbing greenhouse gasses will mean painful and costly changes. Drive less? Turn down the A/C? Turn off lights, recycle, take a bus?

There are a lot of irate soreheads whose self concept can't deal with that sort of "deprivation."

Spend hundreds of billions of dollars and ruin our national reputation to bomb a country half a world away and torture people . . . sure. Get a smaller car? They'd sooner have their balls ripped off.

Things aren't so bad right now that they can't be blown off or rationalized. So . . . we sleep.

David Brin said...

Stefan, you leave out the cynical alternative.

Some of W's backers are NOT doctrinaire stupidheads. They are smart, if immoral people seeking quasi-feudal self-maximizing optimization strategies.

They can see the world is changing. Hell, they have access to better modeling tools than thee and me. They know what's coming, and want to reposition themselves for a new era.

That means (among other things) they have to reconfigure a LOT of capital. But dumping stocks is a good way to make them valueless! You have to move gradually. Find a whole lot of "greater fools" to buy your old stocks while you re-invest for a post warming future.

Their dream was privatised Social Security. EVEN IF IT WERE DONE IN A TOTALLY HONEST AND SCRUPULOUS MANNER (ha?) privatization would have dumped a hundred million new buyers into stocks in a sudden wave. Exactly the way to boost stock prices, when buyers briefly outnumber any conceivable combination of sellers. Even obvious dogs will uptick and sell well.

(Mind you, I am a market believer, hence I would not mind some mild and gradual experiments in letting SS account owners create partial funds for part of their money. The basic concept might be worth cautious exploring, independent of the fact that the main privatization was a blatant and outrageous scam.)

No, the worst interpretation is pretty foul. That science and technology and political action on Climate Change are being stymied by guys who DO know better, believe desperately in their innate superiority, and plan to make profit out of the transformation.

Of course they are NOT superior. They believe (as Louis XIV believed) in an invulnerability that is a mirage. If they succeed in preventing Enlightenmen Civ from creating a soft ecological landing, then the ructions will be hard. And the truth will come out. And tumbrels will roll.

What godawful fools.

Anonymous said...

For easy to use BASIC, it occurred to me that someone could set up a web site consisting of a single big BASIC window. Use Ajax to connect it to a server running one of the free BASICs to do the computation. Retain the BASIC session between visits using cookies. This isn't too hard, it could be whipped up in a week or two. :)

Sidereus said...



3.3 million-year-old juvenile skeleton came from same species as ‘Lucy’

The fossil revealed just the second hyoid bone to be recovered from any human ancestor. This tiny bone, which attaches to the tongue muscles, is very chimplike in the new specimen, Spoor said.

While the lower body is very humanlike, he said, the upper body is apelike:

The shoulder blades resemble those of a gorilla rather than a modern human.
The neck seems short and thick like a great ape’s, rather than the more slender version humans have to keep the head stable while running.
The organ of balance in the inner ear is more apelike than human.
The fingers are very curved, which could indicate climbing ability, “but I’m cautious about that,” Spoor said. Curved fingers have been noted for afarensis before, but their significance is in dispute.

David Brin said...

Jim, excellent idea.
Siderius, wow. My son is doing a paper on Early Man right now....

David Brin said...

Alas, have NONE of you subscribed to UNIVERSE magazine online? http://www.baens-universe.com/

I figured at least some of you must be sci fi fans, interested in the best new source of great stories and art and other fun... like my new comedy. Also helping to keep the culture of SF going here in the West.

I handed in the comedy Part III, but still might share a peek if any of you are notorious punsters and have one or two to offer based on parts I & II... You'd join a small, elite coterie of commando citokaters....


Anonymous said...


A lot of teachers don't like computers in the classroom.

Plenty of students learned physics and calculus just fine before computers were around...

I don't see the difference between what you propose and the religious right wanting prayer in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

DB, I can believe that there may be a clutch of kleptocrats planning on cynically profiting from greenhouse warming blowback.

Such a scheme is more likely than, say, the cabal of weather-altering climatoligists that Micheal Crichton describes in his novel.

But even if it is really true, I can't really get angry at them for it, any more than I can get angry at my dog for nearly killing my neighbor's cat last spring. It's in their nature to do things like that.

I'm angry with some of my fellow citizens for so easily falling for it. The pundits, think-tank groupies, libertarian* fan-boys and the like who not only have no chance whatsoever to benefit from a scheme such as you describe, but give every indication of earnestly believing that there is no danger.

The longer we wait, the more damage will be done and the harder it will be to implement graceful, painless, market-based fixes. Denying that there's a problem until the shyt really hits the fan will eventually empower the environmental loonies.

By nursing an anti-authoritarian grudge, the irate sorehead contingent aren't being good citizens.

* Today's The Oregonian had a table showing the various gubenatorial candidates' stand on environmental issues. The Libertarian actually thought global warming was real, but best dealt with market mechanisms. Hey, I'm cool with that! But the average libertarian I run into on line seems to have a major delusional chip on his shoulder about environmental issues.

Big C said...

monkyboy said:
"I don't see the difference between what you [Blake] propose and the religious right wanting prayer in the classroom."

Huh? Could you please explain to me how providing resources to teachers for optionally teaching kids a useful skill is in any way similar to forcing religious indoctrination into public schools?

Anonymous said...

P.S. Yes, I was indulging in a bit of self-righteous feel-good above.

I signed up for wind power plan today. I deserve to feel smug. Nyah!

Anonymous said...

Big C,

I'm saying I don't see any difference between including a few lines of code and including a few lines of prayer in a text book.

Personally, I think computers have made humans dumber.

It appears one can even become a scientist now just by learning to cut and paste lines of computer code.

Forget Moore's Law and A.I., computer can stay just as they are and they will soon surpass human in intelligence.

David Brin said...

Guys, guys. M is just being M.

Notice that he didn't even give me a pat on the head for my rant about eeeevil plutocrat neofeudalist stock market conspirators? That's because he really prefers that all problems be "systemic" than do due to some extreme band of horrid ne'er do wells.

We've seen the irony before. My very LACK of cynicism is what makes me believe that folks like that are horrors. While M must always take the cynical view... and hence, ironically, sees nothing unusual or remarkable going on!

Big C said...

monkyboy said:
"I'm saying I don't see any difference between including a few lines of code and including a few lines of prayer in a text book."

Why? This is a bald assertion and you've provided no facts or reasoning to back it up.

"Personally, I think computers have made humans dumber."

The words non sequitur come to mind. Just another assertion with no connection to the first statement. Do you have an argument that supports this? Does this have any bearing on Blake's suggestion about providing support to teachers?

"It appears one can even become a scientist now just by learning to cut and paste lines of computer code."

Nice strawman. I don't believe anyone was advocating throwing away traditional methods of teaching math and science and replacing them with having kids "cut and paste" code.

What I did see people proposing was using teaching algorithms via computer programming as a supplemental vehicle for teaching math and science. Adding an additional tool to the toolbox for teachers, not replacing all previous teaching methods. How is this religious indoctrination again?

Do you also wish people still used slide rules instead of scientific calculators?

Anonymous said...

Teachers have a limited amount of class time, Big.

Any time spent on coding is time taken away from real learning...

I'm not always cynical, Dr. Brin.

I just spent the last few days watching the last (*sniff*) season of Arrested Development...great stuff!

Big C said...

monkyboy said:
"Any time spent on coding is time taken away from real learning..."

Yeah, 'cuz it's not even possible that using an algorithm in a computer program to illustrate a concept might actually help learning right? Not even worth the attempt, huh? Merely including code in a textbook and providing resources to teachers so they can incorporate it in their lesson plans is tantamount to forcing it down their throats, right?

You have yet to support your religious indoctrination non sequitur, by the way.

"I just spent the last few days watching the last (*sniff*) season of Arrested Development...great stuff!"

Hey, it's nice to see we agree on something! :)

Anonymous said...


Are you saying you would have no problem if textbooks had a few lines of scripture at the bottom of each page that teacher could, at their option, read to the class?

Big C said...

monkyboy said:
"Are you saying you would have no problem if textbooks had a few lines of scripture at the bottom of each page that teacher could, at their option, read to the class?"

No, because I don't accept your premise that scripture from a religious text is somehow equivalent to computer code. You have yet to explain this premise with any support whatsoever. Just because you say they're equivalent doesn't make it so.

In fact, such a bald assertion on it's face seems quite ridiculous and nonsensical to me. Which is why I asked you to explain it. The fact that you continue to avoid the question reinforces my original opinion of it's absuridity.

Anonymous said...

Religion = Coding:

Learning a few lines of antiquated rules in the hopes it will lead to a better life.

Studying either will in fact make you dumber and probably lead to poverty.

Big C said...

Erm, okay. More assertions and equivocation with no reasoning, facts, or logic to explain them.

Religious "rules" are moral and behavioral laws that may or may not be valid depending on who you ask. They're subjective because they're based on human beliefs.

Coding "rules" are the constraints for creating formal instructions that will make a machine perform calculations you want it to do to solve math problems (among other things). It's objectively demonstrable that if you can write the instructions correctly, the machine will perform the calculations correctly.

I'll say it again: just because you say they're equivalent doesn't make it so.

And how, exactly, does learning how to write a computer program make one "dumber" and "lead to poverty?"

Anonymous said...

I don't want to turn this into the big 'n' monky show, but:

Poverty..any child learning how to code now will have to compete against 100 million Indian and Chinese kids just as good as they are but willing to code for $2 an hour.

As far as dumber...the more machines do for us...the fatter we get...think of it as childhood brain obesity.

Big C said...

I'm about ready to call it quits as well. You're not convincing me, and I guess I'm having little impact on you. Oh, well...

"Poverty..any child learning how to code now will have to compete against 100 million Indian and Chinese kids just as good as they are but willing to code for $2 an hour."

I never said learning how to code meant you had to become a computer programmer as a career. You do know our entire modern world is built on software, right? Nearly every modern machine or device has a microchip running program instructions in it. Knowing fundamentally how software works, including its power and its limitations, to make computers calculate and control electronic devices, might be a useful skill for everyone to learn.

"As far as dumber...the more machines do for us...the fatter we get...think of it as childhood brain obesity."

Did you ever do word problems in math class? Which required more intelligence and thought: setting up the problem and figuring out what quantity you were looking for, or mechanically doing the arithmetic to find the answer?

The first is analogous to developing an algorithm to solve a problem (coding), and the second is analogous to executing the algorithm (running the program and getting the result).

Learning how to develop and implement algortihms doesn't seem like intellectual "junk food" to me. It's a key tool for problem solving.

And you still haven't supported your equivocation between religious scripture and computer code.

Xactiphyn said...

It's always fun to watch monkyboy go at it and everyone else jump. I'm still not sure what percentage is serious and what percentage is trolling BS, but he certainly has found our buttons to push! And as a natural born button pusher (recovering... maybe) I can't help but smile.

So M, what would you suggest my ten-year-old study to succeed in her future endeavors?


As far as global warming and ice shelfs go, I'm a bit worried that this will be another example of Mother Nature using strange attracters rather than simple acceleration. It really wouldn't surprise me much if the Greenland ice cap collapsed in only a few weeks time, starting at any moment, from today to several decades from now.

David Brin said...

Big C, chill. Think of this as an experiment. ANd yet another irony.

The incantatory mind set probably STILL makes up a majority of the human species. In most civilizations, it was THE official mind set... that the greatest power is achieved through right incantations.

The fact is that opponents of science cannot view science except as a competitor or rival to their own preferred incantatory systems. Hence the profound hostility toward science that you see among romantics of all stripes, including BOTH the "far right" and the "far left."

In parsing their disdain for science, they reveal their inclination by constantly misunderstanding (or deliberately misconstruing) what science is about. The postmodernists say that it is just another system of incantatory semantics, and a rather oppressively bullying one. The neocons and fundies call it "just another religion" without ever pondering how this logically disses religion, in genral!

It is useless to try (endlessly) to explain the myriad ways that science is simply OUTSIDE of the incantatory worldview. Indeed, there is a very real minority of SCIENTISTS who - by fundamental personality - can never escape viewing their fields through the lense of incantation.

(At some level, hell, we all do.)

This relates to what I believe is the great culture war that we are experiencing right now. The REAL culture war. The war against scientific modernism that is being waged by allies who supposedly hate each others' guts... but hate us much, much more.

We have got to stop giving in to their blandishments. Just because Cheney and Crichton are fanatical enemies of the Enlightenment doesn't mean that we must become cynical-romantic repeaters of lefty cant.

Yipes, I did not mean to blather so... and to insult Monkyboy beyond the extent that he clearly enjoys provoking. (M! You remain welcome here! ;-)

Rob Perkins said...

My only comment is that "religion=coding" appears to be an incantation, all by itself, just like any other atheistic shibboleth appears to me.

Anonymous said...


I enjoy being called a romantic.

I'm not anti-science...I just see it as some government-funded project that hasn't produced anything useful in 50 years.

I see its defenders in league with the other faith-based folks who don't want any objective measures of success (see Iraq) applied to their efforts.


I wish I knew what your child should study to have a shot at...fulfillment?...when she gets out of school, but I don't.

Here's something that occured to me the other day, for what it's worth:

If you're willing to work for an equity stake in a company instead of a salary...not even the Chinese can underbid you and take your job.

Tony Fisk said...

Prayer or coding exercise? Why not have both?:

Q: O' Lord, won't you buy me, a Mercedes-Benz?

CarProcurer oLord;
CarFactory mercedesBenz ("MercedesBenz");
Car &myCar = oLord.WontYouBuyMeA (mercedesBenz); // QED

(and don't the kids just love it!?)

In case you missed my earlier comment, David, if you're concerned about the increasing obscurity of the nuts and bolts of software, get in before the next layer vanishes - try emulating shared pointers in C++. (ie dynamically allocated memory that automatically disappears when it's no longer needed.. how do they do that!?)

(M: The Chinese send your business into bankruptcy? Still, it's a fair notion. Be more concerned by the brazilian, who's been doing radical things like that for a while)

Rob Perkins said...


SUV's were most popular because gas was about $1 a gallon. Going down to twice that won't make them that popular again.

W.B. Reeves said...

I'm not anti-science...I just see it as some government-funded project that hasn't produced anything useful in 50 years.

MB, were you breathing fifty years ago? I ask because, assuming that you never suffered from the crippling paralysis attendant to the recurring epidemics of polio, you would owe that fact in large part to Government sponsorship of science.

For Myself, I underwent an angioplastic stent procedure several years ago which would have been impossible without the scientific advances of the past five decades.

Similarly, without the advances in climatology and environmental sciences we wouldn't be discussing global warming, much less possessing the competence to model possible solutions.

I don't know about you but I think the obsolescence of iron lung wards and the other accomplishments cited to be useful.

If you don't consider computers useful and actually think them detrimental, I have to wonder why you're wasting so much time on one.

While it may amuse you, I must agree that your positon does indeed seem romantic, to which I would add reactionary as well.

BTW, if you think that computers are dumbing people down, I would expect you would support Brin's call for demystifying their inner workings through generalizing the expertise needed for their operation. Given the centrality of this technology in contemporary society and for the foreseeable future, this would be a massively empowering event, comparable in human social history only to generalized literacy.

The alternative, it seems to me, is to simply replicate the culture of passive consumption and docility that we already suffer from.

Anonymous said...

I would add that coding has several things going for it from an education standpoint. As mentioned it provides some insight into how a computer works (which is at least as useful as any shop class can be said to be, which I, personally, think can be a pretty darned useful class, mind you!) Coding also, however, provides a very obvious and useful framework outside of the sometimes obscure confines of mathematics and the sometimes abstract framework of many sciences to delineate logical and critical thinking skills.

The straightforward, logical world of programming provides not only a method by which to pattern logical thought, but putting that code into use provides instant feedback on how correct the progression that was coded is. I fail to see how "prayer" has any such framework.

I would also add that when all is said and done I also fail to see how such knowledge would "dumb down" society. Our history, especially in this country, is one built upon using the knowledge of our predecessors. While we may not, necessarily, need to know how something our ancestors created works, although some of us certainly will learn it, is it not enough that we can use that knowledge to build upon to make even further leaps.

M, I would pass along one little thought experiment for you, though, since you wish to claim we have made, effectively, no scientific progress in the past 50 years. I can’t take credit here, that belongs to Don Boudreaux over at http://cafehayek.typepad.com/hayek/2006/08/were_much_wealt.html, and further expounded upon (to be more relevant to this argument, I believe) by Will Wilkinson at http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2006/08/31/boudreauxs-time-machine/.

"So, it’s 2004 and you make $35,000 (let’s pretend its individual, instead of family income). A gangly professor with crazy hair drives up in a time-traveling Delorean and offers you the 1967 equivalent of $46,000 (that’s a 31 percent raise!) if you’ll let him drop you off in 1967, where you’ll live for one year. You say, “Right on!” and take a lift to yesterday.

So now you’re in 1967 with about $8,500 in your pocket, and you’re ready to roll. Have you become wealthier? "

It goes on to explore what "wealthier" really means in terms of what conveniences (and scientific advances) you'd be losing in going back. I think we've been over this before, but if you really can’t open your eyes and see the scientific advances we've made in the last 50 years, then you're just refusing to look for them. Meanwhile, feel free to head on back 50 years into the past and enjoy how scientific advancements must have made life so much better. I'll be much happier to stay here, thank you very much.

David Brin said...

Lenny, in fairness (and as part of my "yes...but..." fetishish for contrariness) let me say that in the fifties I saw orange groves in Orange County... you could park at the beach... California had not been invaded by 10,000,000 $$%#$! Americans...

But no... I cannot keep that up. In 1962 I saw WHITES and COLORED restrooms. My father was sprayed with firehoses, marching with ML King... sprayed by some of the same men who now sport pictures of King on their walls and claim to have been "all for" civil rights, all along.

While I am a big fan of science, it is in our HEARTS that the biggest progress has been made... along with the HUGE IRONY that we seem unable to even acknowledge this fact. We are better people than our parents were... because they had the guts to fight to MAKE us better...

...and we are lesser people than them, because we seem gutless at this moment. Turning away from their modernist ambitions to change the world. To make it better. A feat they actually achieved!

You could get dizzy following that whirl of ironies. Until you finally get off the whirl, roll up your sleeves and say enough. Cynics like M are excellent counter-examples to every means at our disposal that would empower us to resume the fight.

That is one reason I keep saying that he's welcome here!

Guys, step back and look at the assumptions sets. You cannot prove to him that science is better than the incantatory systems that preceded it. Because he assumed that it is just another, lying incantatory system!

Under that assumption, pointing out that we have more toys and medicine today will gain no leverage. It just proves that you are a materialist. Phooey!

No, what bugs the romantic-cynic most is when they catch a glimpse of the thing that also terrified Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth and Sartre and all their ilk.


It is honesty... as opposed to the systematic (though sometimes gorgeous and moving) lies of romantic incantation. It is the arrival, in power, of those prissy, honest, sincere boys and girls who refuse to be bullied any more on the playground. And that is what really ticks the cynical romantics off.

I know. Because I am one of them. I know them, root and branch. Body and soul.

Anonymous said...

We seem to actually be debating the meaning of objective truth here.

When Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon's surface on July 20, 1969, how many people (or scientists) would believe that, 37 years later, our manned space program would be limited to a few fingers-crossed flights a year to a tiny space station in low Earth orbit?

I don't think any amount of Clappers, George Foreman Grills and thinner cellphones can hide the fact that we've been treading water scientifically for the last few decades.

Perhaps countries only have a brief period during which they can do great things before they begin to go to seed?

W.B. Reeves said...

Under that assumption, pointing out that we have more toys and medicine today will gain no leverage. It just proves that you are a materialist. Phooey!

Except that M's assertion is itself materialist in character. He stated that science hadn't produced anything "useful" in the past fifty years.

Two assumptions are implicit in this position. First, that prior to this science had produced "useful" things. Second, that there is some objective standard for determining usefulness.

Now if MB wants to argue that science is nothing more than another "incantory system" he is, of course, free to do so. It's a very popular attitude these days. Practically a social convention.

However, if he's going to make assertions that by their nature validate materialist conceptions, he's ill positioned to complain that his critics are materialists.

If the charge of materialism is sufficient to invalidate the criticism, it is equally sufficient to invalidate his original assertion.

Moreover, does romantic cynicism require a complete indifference to human suffering?

Anonymous said...


Over 10,000 children a day die painful deaths because they don't have access to clean drinking water.

They could be saved for less money than the cost of the latest super collider...which may turn out to be completely useless.

I think it is the "scientists" who have been completely indifferent to human suffering...

They keep asking for funding for "research" that is fun, interesting, and beyond the judgement of the people who fund their work, and has little chance of solving the most obvious problems humanity faces.

42 pointless years of looking for the Higgs boson...is it any wonder scientists have less respect in America than used car salesmen?

Anonymous said...

First time poster, long time lurker (since the beginning, I think!).

MB, while it's of no comfort to someone dying from hunger or starvation that more affluent people across the world are doing something as "pointless" as unlocking the secrets of the universe, your statement implies that doing fun/interesting research and doing humanitarian tasks are mutually exclusive. They aren't. We can do esoteric scientific research and we can do humanitarian work. The problem is not scientific. It's political.

Tony Fisk said...

Seconded, Lisa.

MB: you speak as if hunting for Higg's is *all* scientists have been doing?

On a separate note, universal access to clean drinking water requires political will, not new technology. A number of cheap solutions are available.

David Brin said...

A falacy of tendentious comparison.

MB draws his comparison by taking widly distributed figures based upon what it would cost to create local water treatment facilities in 100,000 poor locales around the world...

...using tools, technologies and methodologies derived 100% from science.

And yet, does he compare this cost to - say - the amoung that Westerners spend on movie popcorn? Or on utterly useless, drivel-spreading, crypto-marxist university lit professors?

Or to the public hemhorrage that our treasury bleeds every year into the gaping and insatiable maws of ungrateful plutocrat vampires, who call their tax breaks sacred while demanding we protect them from terrorists? (Here of course, I suspect we'd agree... but the topic here is not politics per se. Rather it is logical fallacies.)

In fact, every culture spent some surplus on grand projects directed at the gods. Ours include spce probes and colliders, which actually increase our knowledge of objective reality. Any knowledge we can't use, maybe our kids will.

In any event, being that kind of people helps to make us WORTH surviving and enduring.

But notice, that isn't the only logical fallacy. He also avoids altogether discussing the pertinent aspects of incantation and objective reality. I have posed them directly, yet no response. Nor can there be any. There cannot, for reasons I already gave.

Please, I am not giving these responses for M's sake. Let him be himself and welcome.

No. I write in order to use him to cast shadows on interesting topics. Above all, how CAN we communicate with the very large minority of humanity who genuinely believe that science is a useless and somehat bullying incantarory system, instead of something entirely new?

Their response will always be to attempt to draw us into incantation-struggles wherein, no matter which side "wins", the modernist agenda loses.

Big C said...

I know I probably shouldn't bother, but I'll try again. Your point about our society "going to seed" may be accurate - but not in the way you mean. Basic scientific research is the "seed corn" on which new technologies are built, and eliminating that research is cutting off our path to any new discoveries that might lead to technologies that can solve our problems.

If you haven't already, I recommend reading Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

In the end of Chapter 23, Maxwell and the Nerds, he nicely refutes all of your arguments. It's eerie how he hits all the specific points you've raised in your last two comments. I've added bold emphasis to a couple of places to highlight where some of your specific points are addressed. Sagan also touches on how scientists sometimes fail to adequately make a convincing case to the public for support of basic research.

...As I was typing this, I see David and others have provided cogent responses. Sagan's points dovetail quite nicely with their comments.

I present an excerpt below of the end Chapter 23 from pages 397-400. Sorry for the length, but I hope it's relevant for the discussion (all typos are a result of errors in my transcription, not in the original text of Sagan's book):

"Basic research is where scientists are free to pursue their curiosity and interrogate Nature, not with any short-term practical end in view, but to seek knowledge for its own sake. Scientists of course have a vested interest in basic research. It's what they like to do, in many cases why they became scientists in the first place. But it is in society's interest to support such research. This is how the major discoveries that benefit humanity are largely made. Whether a few grand and ambitious scientific projects are a better investment than a larger number of small programs is a worthwhile question.

"We are rarely smart enough to set about on purpose making the discoveries that will drive our economy and safeguard our lives. Often, we lack the fundamental research. Instead, we pursue a broad range of investigations of Nature, and applications we never dreamed of emerge. Not always, of couse. But often enough.

"Giving money to someone like Maxwell might have seemed the most absurd encouragement of mere "curiosity-driven" science, and an imprudent judgment for practical legislators. Why grant money now, so nerdish scientists talking incomprehensible gibberish can indulge their hobbies, when there are urgent unmet national needs? From this point of view it's easy to understand the contention that science is just another lobby, another pressure group anxious to keep the grant money rolling in so the scientists don't ever have to do a hard day's work or meet a payroll.

"Maxwell wasn't thinking of radio, radar, and television when he first scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnetism; Newton wasn't dreaming of space flight or communications satellites when he first understood the motion of the Moon; Roentgen wasn't comtemplating medical diagnosis when he investigated a penetrating radiation so mysterious he called it "X-rays"; Curie wasn't thinking of cancer therapy when she painstakingly extracted minute amounts of radium from tons of pitchblende; Fleming wasn't planning on saving the lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mold; Watson and Crick weren't imagining the cure of genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray difractometry of DNA; Rowland and Molina weren't planning to implicate CFCs in ozone depletion when they began studying the role of halogens in stratospheric photochemistry.

"Members of Congress and other political leaders have from time to time found it irresistible to poke fun at seemingly obscure scientific research proposals that the government is asked to fund. Even as bright a senator as William Proxmire, a Harvard graduate, was given to making episodic "Golden Fleece" awards - many commemorating ostensibly useless scientific projects - including SETI. I imagine the same spirit in previous governments - a Mr. Fleming wishes to study bugs in smelly cheese; a Polish woman wishes to sift through tons of Central African ore to find minute qunatities of a substance she says will glow in the dark; a Mr. Kepler wants to hear the songs the planets sing.

"These discoveries and a multitude of others that grace and characterize our time, to some of which our very lives are beholden, were made ultimately by scientists given the opportunity to explore what in their opinion, under the scrutiny of their peers, were basic questions in Nature. Industrial applications, in which Japan in the last two decards has done so well, are excellent. But applications of what? Fundamental research, research into the heart of Nature, is the means by which we acquire the new knowledge that gets applied.

"Scientists have an obligation, especially when asking for big money, to explain with great clarity and honesty what they're after. The Superconduction Supercollider (SSC) would have been the preeminent instrument on the planet for probing the fine structure of matter and the nature of the early Universe. Its price tag was $10 to $15 billion. It was canceled by Congress in 1993 after about $2 billion had been spent - a worst of both worlds outcome. But
this debate was not, I think, mainly about declining interest in the support of science. Few in Congress understood what modern high-energy accelerators are for. They are not weapons. They have no practical applications. They are for something that is, worrisomely from the point of view of many, called "the theory of everything." Explanations that involve entities called quarks, charm, flavor, color, etc. sound as if physicists are being cute. The whole thing has an aura, in the view of at least some Congresspeople I've talked to, of "nerds gone wild" - which I suppose is an uncharitable way of describing curiosity-based science. No one asked to pay for this had the foggiest idea of what a Higgs boson is. I've read some of the material intended to justify the SSC. At the very end, some of it wasn't too bad, but there was nothing that really addressed what the project was about on a level accessible to bright but skeptical non-physicists. If physicists are asking for 10 or 15 billion dollars to build a machine that has no practical value, at the very least they should make an extremely serious effort, with dazzling graphics, metaphors, and capable use of English language, to justify their proposal. More than financial mismanagement, budgetary constraints, and political incompetence, I think this is the key to the failure of the SSC.

"There is a growing free-market view of human knowledge, according to which basic research should compete without government support with all the other institutions and claimants in the society. If they couldn't have relied on government support, and had to compete in the free market economy of the day, it's unlikely that any of the scientists on my list would have been able to do their groundbreaking research. And the cost of basic research is substantially greater that it was in Maxwell's day - both theoretical and especially, experimental.

"But that aside, would free market forces be adequate to support basic research? Only about 10 percent of meritorious research proposals in medicine are funded today. More money is spent on quack medicine than on all of medical research. What would it be like if government opted out of medical research?

"A necessary aspect of basic research is that its applications lie in the future - sometimes decades or even centuries ahead. What's more, no one knows which aspects of basic research will have practical value and which will not. If scientists cannot make such predictions, is it likely that politicians or industrialists can? If free market forces are focused only towards short-term profit - as they certainly mainly are in an America with steep declines in corporate research - is not this solution tantamount to abandoning basic research?

"Cutting of fundamental, curiosity-driven science is like eating the seed corn. We may have a little more to eat next winter, but what will we plant so we and our children will have enough to get throught the winters to come?

"Of course there are many pressing problems facing our nation and our species. But reducing basic scientific research is not the way to solve them. Scientisits do not constitute a voting bloc. They have no effective lobby. However, much of their work is in everybody's interest. Backing off from fundamental research constitutes a failure of nerve, of imagination, and of that vision thing that we still don't seem to have a handle on. It might strike one of those hypothetical extraterrestrials that we were planning not to have a future.

"Of course we need literacy, education, jobs, adequate medical care and defense, protection of the environment, security in our old age, a balanced budget, and a host of other matters. But we are a rich society. Can't we also nurture the Maxwells of our time? To take one symbolic example, is it really true that we can't afford one attack hellicopter's worth of seed cord to listen to the stars?"
[Earlier in the chapter he mentioned how Congress pulled the plug on funding SETI, when it's cost was equivalent to the cost of just one attack hellicopter per year]

Anonymous said...

I understand the "seed corn" of basic research, Big.

But things like String Theory and the Higgs boson seem to be in the not even wrong category of science.

And yet...many scientists have doctorates, funding and awards resting on them being continued to be taken seriously.

Not an atmosphere that encourages scientific objectivity.

I'll just repeat a previous question I've asked here:

If you ask average Americans to name some famous living American scientists, could they come up with a single name?

I don't think so.

The Republican war on science is easy for them to win now because nobody is respected enough to counter their propaganda.

Anonymous said...

It is an interesting question, David.

How to convince someone that science is something new, something that isn't just another leap of faith by which people have claimed to understand the world in the past?

A first step would be to ask how it is *we know* this?

I think that, in order to start answering that, we should accept that we don't actually *know* anything. A scientist regards everything as supposition and conjecture (that, in itself, is an unusual outlook). Starting from that point, science seeks to reduce the size of those 'leaps of faith' rather than just accepting them (or, in the recent ID furore, actually trying to add them!)

This is achieved by a recursive system of speculation, observation, prediction, and verification.

And here we come to it: the above is also a formula, a recipe for an evangelical incantation that 'things be as I believe'.

The only things different about it is that it has a place-holder for a mirror, and it allows for the possibility that 'what I believe' may change.

Feel free to persuade me otherwise!

On yet another topic.

Bombing Al Jazeera HQ? Hell, that's nothing. How about Pakistan?

(Just shifting to the beta blog: *now* they tell me I can't post to non-beta blogs with my user name?! Is this a beta thing? Hmph!)

Anonymous said...

There is a place-holder for a mirror, tony, but is the mirror always there?

Consider Newton, arguably the greatest scientist in history.

His later life was devoted to less than scientific studies.

All I see these days are batters swinging for the fence, when what we really need is a few singles.

David Brin said...

Singles are hit every single day. Every hour. Subscribe to DISCOVER and wallow in it.

Some of the most promising news may come from batteries. Electrical storage may be about to burgeon, allowing us to skip biofeul (a scam) hybrids (good but unnecesary for city life) and hydrogen (a pernicious and horrid scam) into the era of genuine electric city cars.

This is done by the application of imagination, ingenuity, cooperation, competition, attention to detail and hard work that are the underpinnings of the enlightenment.

Ah, me, the romantics do like ONE of these trits. Guess which one. Use your imagination.

Anonymous said...


1. noun. a very intelligent but annoying person


Sidereus said...

Reality bites back?

Here in Red State Indiana, there has been a noticeable decrease of "W” and related automobile bumper stickers during the past year, let alone, the past 3.

Additionally, there is a noticeable increase in anti-W stickers . . .

The general attitude of the average person is doubt. Their “faith” and unquestioned loyalty in W has diminished . . . enough to vote Democratic? Probably not, but . . .

Wanting to believe in W has paralyzed common sense. Let’s be kind to those who may be looking for an alternative this time around as it takes a lot of courage, especially around here, to realize that they have been bamboozled.

Do not say, “I told you so . . . It’s all your admin’s fault . . ., etc.,” Instead, find a way to discuss the Democratic position.
As DB stated, advocate voting this November. Important work lies ahead . . .

Anonymous said...

David Brin Said:

Some of the most promising news may come from batteries. Electrical storage may be about to burgeon, allowing us to skip biofeul (a scam) hybrids (good but unnecesary for city life) and hydrogen (a pernicious and horrid scam) into the era of genuine electric city cars.

Why is hydrogen fuel a pernicious and horrid scam?


Anonymous said...

"Instead, find a way to discuss the Democratic position."

I wish they'd let us know what it WAS!

Letting the administration paint the GOP into a corner by repeatedly appealing to the most conservative portion of its base is a strategy, but you can only go so far on that.

David Brin said...

I share the despair, Stefan.

Even ONE dem congressperson could craft a simple "agenda of action items" like those I enumerate at:

It doesn't have to be a "contract"... though I think deliberately using that metaphor, would be powerful, not self-hurting at all! It would both tribute the good parts of 1994 and mock, mercilessly the 90% betrays since.

Still, if you don't want a formal list, then pick a few items! Just IGUS... the Inspector General of The United States could be a rallying cry! Who could object to that without looking evil!


Anonymous said...

Dang . . . it never stops:


Audit Finds Education Department Missteps

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A scorching internal review of the Bush administration's billion-dollar-a-year reading program says the Education Department ignored the law and ethical standards to steer money how it wanted.


In one e-mail, the director told a staff member to come down hard on a company he didn't support, according to the report released Friday by the department's inspector general.

''They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the (expletive deleted) out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags,'' the program director wrote, the report says.'

* * *

I'm not a conspiracy freak, but it doesn't take a paranoid to conclude that if it weren't for 9/11, the adminsitration would have spent the last five years keeping out of jail.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, Dr. Brin, after watching the pathetic spectacle of the Democrats not making ANY kind of newsworthy statements all last week while Congress was debating the bill Bush etc want to authorize their system of secret prisons and torture, I'm not sure if ANYTHING could motivate them to be competent enough to stand up. If they win, it'll be despite themselves and because the Republicans in power have quit even the pretense of caring about what makes America America.

I mean, seriously, they let three "maverick" Republicans hog the spotlight, who then caved in under pressure and "compromised" by giving the president everything he wanted. Which will make torture legal by defining anything we do as not-torture, and prevent any judicial overview of the secret prison system.

Some America in the 21st century, huh?

W.B. Reeves said...

One question Nate.

Would it have been better for the Dems to come out full tilt boogie in support of McCain, et al, thus elevating them from the status of leaders of the GOP opposition to that of leaders of the general opposition, only to have them cave as they have done? If the Dems had been tailing after the GOP's three amigos on the issue, exactly how much credibility would they possess if they then broke with them over the noxious deal they produced? I suspect the Dems would have found themselves trapped, married to whatever rotten compromise that McCain and co. ginned up.

As it stands, the Dems retain complete freedom of action on the issue. Whether they'll use it or not is another question.

Anonymous said...

Who said anything about supporting them? The Democrats should have been up there fighting against this kind of bullshit first. They should be talking about how the President wants to make torture legal all the time. They should be talking about the things the President's already done. Then it's not them joining McCain et all, it's McCain et all joining them on the side of Not Being Evil Bastards. And maybe several other congresscritters would be shamed into not supporting torture, but I kinda doubt it, the modern Republican party being what it is.

Of course, maybe they're chickening out because they have polls they think means torture would be a losing issue for them. And if that's true, then I'd say America's probably already dead, if torturing people is something that many people are in favor of.

W.B. Reeves said...


Seems I misunderstood your point. Put that way, it's hard to disagree.