Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Practicing What We Preach: “Be Prepared!”

As some of you know, I’ve been punditing and consulting for many years, advising companies, agencies and groups as diverse as Microsoft, Google, the Defense Department and the Society of Complex Systems about future trends. And while my score is far from perfect, I do seem to have a pretty good track record overall (e.g. being among the few to predict (in 1986) both the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent 21st Century conflicts with “macho anti-westernism.” Then there are those accusing me and Al Gore of “inventing the Web”!

Society desperately needs better methodologies to track “prediction and outcome” and there will be more about that, below.

But first, the main point I was leading up to --

Getting people ready for 21st Century Citizenship

Speaking to defense and homeland security agencies, I point out how Hurricane Katrina exposed a deep flaw in our civilization’s resilience -- or robust ability to respond to emergencies. Nearly all members of the “protector caste” behaved terribly, during that crisis, not just FEMA. Almost by reflex, it appears that most agents of federal, state and local authority told common citizens the same thing;

“Do nothing on your own! Just sit there and wait for official help.”
(Help that often did not come.)

In contrast, I have been pushing the advantages of flattened hierarchies and of “smart mob” self organizing citizenry, capable of taking some initiative in a crisis. In doing so, I hearken to notions of dispersed responsibility and reliance upon citizen action that keep faith with American tradition, stretching from Lexington all the way to those old coots in Civil Defense hats, who we boomers vaguely recall from distant childhood. Before that whole network was allowed to collapse and fade away, amid a rising Age of Professionalization.

Do not misconstrue! I approve of professionalism! We need the intense skill of the Protector Caste (e.g. fire, police, military, medical) and every other supremely well-trained specialty, from pilots to teachers to accountants. Professionalization was a great trend - the great trend - spanning the entire 20th Century. It should be honored. It gave us everything...

...and it is fast running out of steam, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone smart enough to read a demographics chart. There must be a supplementary trend, in order to keep up our rates of increasing skill and competence in the face of rising challenges.

I suggest that the theme of the 21st Century will (or ought to) be a burgeoning Age of Amateurs.

But more on that elsewhere. To the point.

While participating in the recent Strong Angel disaster preparedness drill in San Diego, I realized that I was urging expansion of neighborhood-level citizen preparedness - rebuilding some of the old distributed “civil defense” capability - yet I was not involved myself!

(Well, except in Boy Scouts, with two sons who I am always urging to “be prepared!”)

All right, then. Upon realizing this, I promptly signed up for training with my local CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), which is a relatively new nationwide program helping local fire departments organize local volunteers - giving folks a few meager supplies and a few dozen hours of training - so that they can organize their neighbors and do a few useful things in an emergency, till first responders can get around to their area.

We also may have duties in other kinds of crises, e.g. taking low-skill/low-risk jobs like manning checkpoints, thus freeing deputies to do other things.

Supplied with a green vest and hard hat and backpack (all labeled CERT), I’m supposed to try to keep things going in my neighborhood for as much as 72 hours, amid such chaotic situations as earthquakes or fires or terror attacks. We were taught simple search & rescue techniques, emergency triage and first aid, crisis psychology and a little hazmat...

...phew! A real case of “the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know!” It really increases your respect for the professionals... and shows how far we have to go before distributed competence can actually make a difference in the kinds of crises that WILL strike our communities, in coming years.

Hence the moral of this story. CERT is only a few years old and it has a huge task ahead, rebuilding a smidgen of the distributed citizen capability that our ancestors (members of the local militia and/or posse and/or Civil Defense) took for granted. Some locales, like Los Angeles and most of Florida, have very well-organized and advanced CERT teams. Others - like my area - are just getting started.

In any event, I wanted to let you all know what’s going on, so that some of you might look into it, yourselves. CERT (and related programs like TIPS) contribute to a great big puzzle... how to keep complex modern society working and robust enough to thrive in an era of rapidly accelerating change. The more we make use of citizen-based solutions, the less we will have to rely upon either an overstretched professional corps or a nanny state. The latter is a brittle approach.

It is resilience and robustness that we should be aiming for.


Back to prediction:

I do hope someday to post that large article about prediction. And possibly make a strong case that registries should get high priority.

Fads like “Delphi” and betting ought to be augmented by something very basic and comprehensive.... an array of public and private “prediction registries” that would help us to find out who tends to be right a lot -- at least in their public pronouncements. This may sound weird. But once we have such things, people will look back and consider us weird for not having them, or not making this a top priority!

Of course there are a few - ad hoc - efforts already underway. Here is one I’ve mentioned before, tracking modern events/trends that were first mentioned in science fiction. (Some of you are encouraged to (ahem) update that site with any “Brin hits” they may have missed!)

More specifically (as a few of you know very well ;-) there are two wikis that specifically talk about predictive hits found in my novel EARTH.

(And to all yanks -- Happy Thanksgiving.)


David Brin said...


My series of SUGGESTIONS FOR THE NEW CONGRESS are now gathered into a single, coherent article that you folks can refer people to:

Please feel free to write in with comments, fixes and suggestions. I hope at least a few of these win-win-win proposals resonate somewhere and do some good.


Woozle said...

And of course there's the commentable wiki version here:

- Summary with links to separate page for each issue
- Full text, also with links

...although I haven't yet transcribed parts 2 and 3 (but don't feel you have to wait for me).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps CERT is a better outlet of militias' energies rather than huddling over guns and worrying about if the U.S. Government is becoming a tyranny that will turn its all-seeing-eye on them next. ;) Personally I think that groups of survivalists and many of these individual militias would do well to offer their services and have training of that sort.

Then again, they may already do that; I've only a bare-bones concept on militias in this day and age. ;)

Rob H.

Rob Perkins said...

Borrowing a little from the last thread and carrying it forward.

David wrote: "Wow! Cool concepts.

Though it remains ideal to keep the number of lines of code as small as possible."

Why? Honestly, that kind of shibboleth is worth discarding.What would be the point, in an era like today, where you get up to 4 GB of RAM address space, 32 registers, three levels of cache, and screaming-fast (and non-blocking!) nearline storage (memory mapped files, forex) for your program?

Consider an analytical problem I'm working on. In my problem, I can optimize the iterative solution code for speed, but the program will have more than three times as many lines in it, and be clearer to people than if I try and optimize for space.

Consider, too, that the tightest little programs are generally also recursive programs, a concept no beginner should have to deal with up front. But there, in almost every case, you've made a vast tradeoff of a little code segment space for an awful lot of stack segment space, and you've also surrendered speed, sometimes orders of magnitude of it.

It is not ideal to express programs in a compact space, because there is now space to express the programs clearly, (even if it's vital to *play* in a memory-constrained environment and *try* to develop tight code-segment programs *simply so you know what you're doing before moving on*.)

The premiums are no longer focused down on RAM and disk resources. These days, you watch out for inter- and intra-process race conditions, OS blocking issues, and latent data-transfer blocking issues, such as waiting for a network reply or a block of data from a hard disk. Or for a recursive algorithm to hit its exception condition and start returning results.

Now, I may be fully off-base. Were we talking about learning how to write an algorithm? Fine, make it tight, but not so tight that a student can't make out the algorithm; it must be human-understandable, and for best results it might be nice to combine algorithm learning with a bit of boolean algebra, if possible.

Victoria said...

I agree with Dr. Brin that code should be kept as brief as possible. Firstly, that encourages more thought in programming. For basic tasks, especially recursive ones, it is easy to write out a verbose program. It takes thought to write a compact one. It may not be practical in most cases, but it is certainly good training for beginning ones.

Many people have tracked Nostradamus's predictions, but this is simply because he was publicized well. Not that Dr. Brin isn't famous worldwide (particularly after that convention in Japan!), but he hasn't had the benefit of 400 years of people with an agenda.

I also think that community preparedness is important. I just happened to have concentrated upon CPR and First Aid, with a smattering of lots of other things... personally, I think more people should get First Responder training. It's not for everyone, but it's also very useful.

A Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

Anonymous said...

Rob's right about current priorities. His list sounds like the things that our developers bitch about every day.

OTOH, our product deals with real-time video streaming, so we have to worry about efficiency too!

* * *

Possibly useful analogy:

BASIC is the crayons and play-doh of computer languages.

Few artists use play-doh or crayons for serious sculpting or illustration work. You could argue that play-doh and crayons induce poor skills and habits that would have to be overcome before an artist can be taken seriously. But you'd sound awfully silly, especially if you came to the conclusion that play-doh and crayons should be banned from elementary school art classes, because they're a danger to the next generation of working artists.

But becoming a professional artist is not the point of play-doh and crayons. They are easy to use, accessible tools for sculpting and illustration. They give all kids a chance to try out the basics of these skills.

The relatively few kids who go on to become artists -- amateur or professional -- will not be held back by their crayon and play-doh experiences, because they have the talent and drive to adapt to new media.

Similarly, budding computer scientists will not be somehow tainted or held back by having used "GOTO" or line numbers for a year or two when they were in school. One of the signs of a good programmer is a adaptive and playful attitude toward language and grammer.

A typical programmer will learn a lot of programming languages, and switch back and forth as needed. Perl for web scripts; Java for graphic interfaces. 'c' for heavy-duty code.

Rob Perkins said...

Naw. You get those sorts of issues in every interactive application, especially web and database applications. It's particularly important in my work, where I put front-end interfaces on long-running FORTRAN programs.

BASIC is the crayons and play-doh of computer languages.

Sure. Why not?

One thing which occurs to me is that a student, perhaps as early in time as my grandchildrens' time in schools, will not have a textbook.

Instead, he'll have some version of what we now call a website, and if there is any hope in the world at all for us, authors of those educational websites will embed interactive elements like a BASIC interpreter right into the curriculum, in the way that some are doing now online to explain physics concepts.

David Brin said...

Rob, the purpose ofmy endeavor in this area is to offer publishers and teachers and students the easiest possible way to publish, assign and perform simple exercises that will allow millions (99% of whom will never program again) to at least have a taste with minimum trauma.

Hence the number of lines of code is one of many factors. Simplicity of entry and use... plus the way that BASIC lines intuitively are similar to the algorithms they execute, are among the reasons that I like QuiteBASIC for this purpose, despite the fact that the language is obsolete for modern uses.

Ubiquity is one desired trait. The other is ease of use.

Famed Internet Law scholar Lawrence Lessig touts The Transparent Society at:

I just saw the Da Vinci Code. Ron Howard strives mightlily and sometimes brilliantly to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse... but please. Oy.

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, I posted this article yesterday afternoon - UK Officers Wear Brin's Tru-Vu Lenses. Happy Turkey Day!


Blake Stacey said...

Funniest and most informative thing I've read about The Da Vinci Code — "The Dan Brown Code" by Geoffrey K. Pullum.

David Brin said...

Dang... well it almost tempts me to open the book and have a look! ... uh... not! I doubt I would even assign a ditto.

Often in tales like this one, my own alarm bells go off when I hear that twinned forces of dark and light are posed against each other, while civilization as a whole bleats cluelessly, like sheep. Are we to believe that this ZOROASTRIAN view of the universe is something we can swallow?

None of the intelligence services, or illuminati-rich, or Zurichgnomes know a thing about this thing that's been going on for centuries? Is there any POINT to this "royal blood line" OTHER than repudiating the divinity of Jesus?

In fact, it does nothing of the kind. It only refutes the celibate-male fixation, which may have been one of Paul's sickest trips and diametrically opposite to the beliefs of a Judean rabbi at the time. I can see Brown's point right there... but... what would he have us do with this news, even if it were even remotely plausible?


Other matters:
Ten Scholars were asked by The Atlantic Magazine to rank the “100 Most Influential Americans.” A thought provoking little exercise that seems to be only slightly influenced by the magazine’s inherent anti-modernity fetishism. The purpose is to stimulate discussion, hence my own good natured quibble would be to add a factor that the scholars left out - “how likely is it that someone else would have filled the same slot in public life, if he (or she weren’t there?”

By that standard I would:
- lift Ben Franklin to third (and possibly first) place
- drop John D Rockefeller from #11 to fortieth place
- raise George Marshall from 63rd to #10 (maybe higher).
- switch Ronald Reagan with Lyndon Johnson
- switch Emerson with Lewis & Clark

Ah well.


Oh, here's a
Fun snippet from the PPI:

Ten of the Western Hemisphere's 35 Nations are Monarchies

Between 1910 and 1979, 25 royal families lost their thrones; only two, those of Cambodia and Spain, have returned. But after a 70-year storm, the 21st-century monarchies look in good shape. Kings and queens (plus the occasional Grand Duke and Prince-Bishop) now rule 44 independent countries, the highest number since 1972. And though a few absolute monarchies, notably those of Tonga and Nepal, appear shaky, all the modern constitutional monarchies seem stable and popular.

The number of monarchies has grown mainly because 10 newly independent British colonies have chosen 'Commonwealth Realm' rather than republic status. Thus, though independent, they are also constitutional monarchies loyal to Queen Elizabeth II. Ten of the group (Canada, Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, and St. Lucia) are in the western hemisphere, meaning the Americas -- once almost solidly small-"R" republican -- have more monarchies and the U.S. more monarchist neighbors than at any time since Columbus.

The Western hemisphere now trails Europe's 12-kingdom count by only two. The Middle East has eight monarchies, all absolute or semi-constitutional; Asia has seven; Africa has two, and the Pacific islands have two indigenous hereditary monarchies and five Commonwealth Realms. By population, the 21st-century monarchs rule about half a billion people.

And... like... who cares?

Well, if the feudalists do take over, Marx tells us that kings will be friends of the people. Perhaps as in my short story THE FOURTH VOCATION OF GEORGE GUSTAF?

Anonymous said...

Somewhat apropos DB's last nugget:

The currently-in-theaters movie "The Queen" is quite well done, with dandy acting and a great story that contrasts the behind-the-scenes reactions to the death of Princess Di of Blair's family (and administration) and that of the royal family.

(That's a hideously ill-contructed sentence, but I'm too beat to recompose it!)

Woozle said...

I don't know if this is obvious or not, but I thought I should point out that massbile's posting above is spam (the telltale signs being vague comments and irrelevant links; the links are the reason for the posting). I've flagged massbile's blog for objectionable content, as there doesn't seem to be a way to flag a user for making objectionable postings in other blogs.