Sunday, October 07, 2007

Catching Up on Non-Political Marvels

Amid my extended polemic about the War Against Professionalism -- and the ongoing demolition of the U.S. the military -- I have allowed too many other fine things to accumulate. But it is important to keep reminding ourselves why this civilization is so worth saving. Giving examples, rather than a vague, amorphous totem word like “freedom.” Indeed, it gives the terrorists (both Al Qaeda and the neocons) too much of a victory if we let ourselves get to distracted or obsessed and neglect the Scientific Age for too long.

So here goes! (Note: for lack of time, I will simply leave the URLs in place. Inactive. Sorry, but if an article interests you enough, you know what to do.)

Take a civics literacy test:

The Library Thing site lets you catalog your books online and help rate them! Over nineteen million books on members' bookshelves.

Radio Tales of the Strange & Fantastic now offers a great collection of radio SF classics! “We bring you stories of the supernatural and the supernormaldramatizing the fantasies and the mysteries of the unknown.”

PERSPECTIVES! The Globalist always has interesting, brief perspectives, this time with short essays on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, on the beauty and waste of water (soon to be as precious as oil), Russian oligarchs, and two contrasting groups of freedom fighters -- lawyers in Pakistan and monks in Burma.

Followup: If liberalism needs to cure itself of any filthy vices (and it does, especially if it wants enough power to clean up after the neocon criminal gang), then number three on the priority list has got to be shrugging off a kneejerk-lefty addiction to “anti globalization” as a reflex mantra. “Anti-secretive/corporatist-plutocrat/monopolist-exploiters?” Okay. I can live with that. But global trade in goods, labor and ideas has uplifted more people than all the goody-rhetoric ever spilled. Local tyrants are almost always worse than global ones, and people in the developing world say so, relentlessly with their feet, their voices and their lives. Our job? to help them overcome BOTH kinds of bullies, through the very same method that worked (or used to work) over here. Something called Law.

(Andy other proposed items for a list of “filthy liberal vices”? Like the reflex to oppose nuclear power? Or to screech about “betraying the base”? Right now, ANY bad habit that might help get deep-red Republicans to overcome their plunging morale and vote, has to go at the top of the list.)


SUCCESSFUL PREDICTIONS KEEP ACCRUING! Anyone care to post this on Technolvelgy or my prediction Wikis?

( and )

Tackling a dilemma right out of a science fiction novel, the state Senate passed legislation Thursday that would bar employers from requiring workers to have identification devices implanted under their skin. State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) proposed the measure after at least one company began marketing radio frequency identification devices for use in humans. The devices, as small as a grain of rice, can be used by employers to identify workers. A scanner passing over a body part implanted with one can instantly identify the person.

Alas, they don’t name the novel! (Hint: it’s SUNDIVER.)

---And another hit!---

Ezra Ekman wrote: “However, your extraordinary literary skills were not the reason for my writing this message to you. Your talent for clairvoyance is. In The Uplift War, you envisioned the concept of a network of vegetation through which chemical messages could be sent. Ah, if only we lived on an alien world... but wait! It has recently been discovered that a certain species of clovers can do that very thing! And not merely in an inert fashion; they also do so as a method for warning their neighbors of an eminent enemy attack, such as from caterpillars or other predators:  

A creationist might argue that it makes perfect sense. An evolutionist could say that it was bound to happen eventually. In either case, you sir, are a genius of foresight.”

Again, would anyone be interested in posting these things?

While we’re at it with predictions, I finally remembered the title of the SF novel that came closest to predicting the cellphone-PDA-camera-personal-aide that we seem to be heading for.

The Joymaker is a fictional device invented by for the novel AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT, first published in 1965 by Frederik Pohl. It bears a remarkable resemblance to devices in common use in the years following the start of the 21st century. The remote-access computer transponder called the "joymaker" is your most valuable single possession in your new life. If you can imagine a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary, you will have sketched some of the functions provided by your joymaker.

 The Joymaker was conceived by Pohl in the 1960s after he saw one of the earliest computer systems. These allowed multiple users spread over a wide area, connected by good quality telephone or data lines, to simultaneously use one or more large (for the time) computers for a variety of purposes.

In its basic form, the Joymaker is a remote time-sharing terminal which uses radio communications instead of wire lines, and interacts with its user via voice rather than a keyboard and text output. It is small and light enough to be worn or carried, resembling in some cases a small . It can also dispense various medications, stimulants etc. from reservoirs within it.

----- Speaking of Predictivity (did I coin that word just now?) ----

bet2 give is a real-money prediction market where you grow your account with investments in smart predictions about the future, then give your winnings away to non-profit organizations of your choice. Topics cover sports, finance, politics, the war on terror, Iraq, and various current events in between.

Because participants cannot profit financially or materially from their successful bets - all the money won or lost eventually goes to non-profit organizations - bet2give is obviously not a "gambling" venue. (A problem that has stymied development of markets that open up prediction development to monetized incentives. States legitimately worried about creating incentives for betters to alter events deliberately, (r.g. sports games or political events) in order to win wagers.)

This allows people to treat their forecasts with the competitive zeal of a market, motivated by a desire to win. But without direct gred as a possible motive to cheat.

----More on the fight for transparency & robust citizenship! ---

Check out the smallest high-resolution, real time digital camcorder ever produced. The camera can record up to 33 hours of video at 15 frames per second via its internal pinhole camera. Hide it inside a pack of gum, and no one will never know you're secretly recording them.

Speaking of which, here from W. David Stephenson (The other “Mr. Defense Transparency”) are "21st-century disaster tips you WON'T hear from officials" on YouTube ( They concern creative use of the personal communication devices, from cameraphones to WiFi laptops, that we all carry daily, AND will use in a disaster, whether or not officials want us to.

One top suggestion -- using "Twitter"  instead of voice calls in an emergency to let family and friends know we're ok. During an emergency, most people automatically dial number after number to either let people know they're ok or to try to find loved ones who may be missing. You don't get through, because so many others are doing the same thing, AND the call volume crashes the cell networks. A lose-lose situation.

By contrast, if you sign up now for Twitter and get family and friends to do the same, all you need to do in a crisis is send a Twitter message (140 characters is the limit), and you'll get the message to them (text messages take almost no bandwidth, route around network disruptions).

Says David Stephenson: Searching for someone in a disaster? There’s a cool Red Cross Twitter tool: instead of the normal procedure of dialing on your cell (40404) and sending your message, once you dialed 40404, type follow safeandwell. You’ll get instructions on how to register with the Red Crosse unified Safe and Well database of missing and found people. I don’t know of another emergency communication system that’s as efficient and streamlined!

1) watch the video
2) sign up for Twitter
3) use your own Linkedin and personal networks to pass this message on. You’ll be demonstrating the power of social networks and playing an important role in removing a major obstacle to disaster communications.

Another great suggestion. Have a look at Stephenson’s brief video clips, then drop by to find out more about creating your own, ad hoc WiFi network that would operate completely off the internet! Crude, but workable (I hear) in an emergency, when the internet is down in your locale. Of course, this kind of capability should have been mandated for every single cell phone sold in the United States, allowing text messaging to take place peer-to-peer, even if the cell towers fail. (Funny thing is, the telcos could still bill for these messages! They don’t even have a commercial reason to oppose it.)

If any of you care to experiment with any of these techniques and report back, that’d be terrific.

----- And a mass of miscellanea!-----

 In May the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fourth report, warning that global warming would increase the number of extreme weather events and cause more natural disasters, which will hit the poor hardest. Hundreds have died and thousands have lost their livelihoods in floods since the start of the year in China, South Asia, Mozambique, Sudan and Uruguay, while the period from May to July was the wettest in England and Wales since records began in 1766. Two heat waves in southeastern Europe in June and July broke previous records, with temperatures in Bulgaria hitting 113 Fahrenheit on July 23.

An essential commodity has become scarcer and pricier in recent months. Traders are paying record prices for wheat on world markets, thanks in part to shortages caused by a mix of drought and flooding. As a result of the supply squeeze, global inventories of wheat — which makes up one-fifth of the world's food intake — are expected to fall to their lowest level in 26 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 Eating less meat could help slow global warming by reducing the number of livestock and thereby decreasing the amount of methane flatulence from the animals, according to an article in the medical journal, Lancet. Gases from animals destined for dinner plates account for nearly a quarter of all emissions worldwide.

 A second race for the moon would be under way, with a full roster of 21st-century global powers, including China and India, are competing. One reason for much of the interest appears to be plans to mine helium-3 - purportedly an ideal fuel for fusion reactors but almost unavailable on Earth - from the moon's surface.

Solar power has long been the Mercedes-Benz of the renewable energy industry: sleek, quiet, low-maintenance. Yet like a Mercedes, solar energy is universally adored but prohibitively expensive for most people. However a few dozen companies say advances in technology will let them halve the price of solar-panel installations in as little as three years. By 2014, solar-system prices will be competitive with conventional electricity when energy savings are figured in. And that's without government incentives.

Geothermal heating—using the warmth of the Earth's interior to heat water—is an old idea. Hydrothermal cooling is a novel approach that uses cold water from lakes and oceans to run air-conditioning systems. Toronto sits next to a very large supply of cold water, in the form of Lake Ontario and has been pioneering the idea that instead of using electricity to power air conditioning, a useful supply of cold can be directly extracted from the environment. The article does not discuss how the return of heated water is impacting the ecosystem of the lake.

At six miles up in the air, the jet-stream winds are stronger and blow more consistently than ground-level winds and carry up to a hundred times more energy. So just as oil companies are drilling deeper and in more remote locations in search of new reserves, pioneer wind-power engineers are looking higher in the sky for new sources of energy. To tap that energy, they are trying to invent a whole new technology for harvesting wind: electricity generators that fly.

In a patent application, an Austin-based startup called EEStor promised "technologies for replacement of electrochemical batteries," meaning a motorist could plug in a car for five minutes and drive 500 miles roundtrip between Dallas and Houston without gasoline. EEStor's secret ingredient is a material sandwiched between thousands of wafer-thin metal sheets, like a series of foil-and-paper gum wrappers stacked on top of each other. Charged particles stick to the metal sheets and move quickly across EEStor's proprietary material. The result is an ultracapacitor, a battery-like device that stores and releases energy quickly.

Pentagon planners have developed a list of up to 2,000 bombing targets in Iran, amid growing fears among serving officers that diplomatic efforts to slow Iran's nuclear weapons program are doomed to fail. Pentagon and CIA officers say they believe that the White House has begun a carefully calibrated program of escalation that could lead to a military showdown with Iran.

The deserts of the Rann of Kutch, which melt into the arid Banni grasslands in India hold many unexplained mysteries apart from the varied species of birds. Spread across 3,846 sq km, this grassland is witness to a strange light phenomenon on any dark night. The light, which is as bright as a mercury lamp changes its color to blue and sometimes red. It is like a moving ball of fire, which sometime stops or moves as fast as an arrow. Strangely, although this phenomenon has been observed for centuries, no one has been able to come up with a suitable explanation.

There is an explosion of interest in the study of Prediction Markets but until now any research has been published in a diverse range of periodicals and websites. For the first time the Journal of Prediction Markets provides focussed publication forum for scholarly research articles in this burgeoning field.

An orbiting spacecraft has found evidence of what look like seven caves on the slopes of a Martian volcano. The Mars Odyssey spacecraft has sent back images of very dark, nearly circular features that appear to be openings to underground spaces. (Weird looking! Almost artificial... cue Twilight Zone music!)

Finally... a few political previews.

I'd like to follow up on an earlier idea that might make very good ostrich ammo. Compiling an extensive list of direct challenges in the form of: "What would you have said if Bill Clinton had..."


"What would you have said if Bill Clinton had managed to "lose" a billion dollars in cash, by the side of an Iraqi road?"

"What would you have said if Bill Clinton had arranged for the US taxpayer to subsidize the creation of a private army that is answerable only to one of his closest political supporters?"

Of course, your typical ostrich has a genius-level ability to shrug off things done by Bush & co. But in fact, there is a tricky alternative approach to all this... a stunt that might get past ostrich callouses... simply by first parsing it all as a gotcha page. One that starts out by listing purported Clinton era crimes.

"Those sanctimonious liberals! We need to remind them that Bill Clinton "lost" a billion dollars of our money in cash by the side of a road in Bosnia!"

And then, once the ostriches are livid, do a flip and global word swap. "Clinton did none of these. But Bush did."

Well, it's an idea.


Anonymous said...

Good information.

A friend sent me this online petion to stop the Iran war.

Brother Doug

Anonymous said...

I have library-discard copy of "Age of the Pussyfoot." Time I reread it!

I recall that the lead character (a resurrected 20th century man), after he plows through his life savings, falls in with some rootless hobo types. To keep from being persecuted for having no visible means of support, they carve fake joymakers to carry around. The darn things are so common that being seen without one can get you roughed up!

Tony Fisk said...

Re: clover. Acacia trees do something similar; releasing chemicals when being munched to warn the neighbours to stock up on nasty tastes. For this reason, elephants habitually go upwind as they browse.

Clarke described mobile phone/computers/penknives in 'Imperial Earth' (albeit ten years after Pohl). He also points out, in '1984: Spring' that one of his favourite establishment targets, the PostMaster General of the nineteenth century (notorious for the comment: 'Britain doesn't need the telegraph, we have plenty of errand boys') came around and was predicting mobile phones at his retirement speech, in 1900.

"Dear ostrich, can you imagine Clinton initiating intimate body contact with a foreign head of state?"

Anonymous said...

Can you put out a link to information about the private army under a supporter?

David Brin said...

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of alter-globalization, which has gained considerable currency in France in place of anti-globalization.

Anonymous said...

The key is to explain to people that Globalization is the Fair Trade movement as much as it is the Unfair Trade policies the IMF rams down the throats of indebted Nations.

The world will continue to get flatter, no matter what we do. There is no question of fighting that, without literally fighting against civilization it's self.

The greatest thing about it is actually the power it gives to the middle-class (insanely wealthy) Western consumer.

We've never had the ability to be more informed about the provenance of our purchases, or to more directly impact the lives of people halfway around the world by how we do or do not spend our money.

If we demand the certified conflict free cell phone, and are willing to pony up five bucks every couple of years, we'll get it, and we'll save and/or improve the lives of a few hundred thousand Africans.

We can't prevent the oppression of billions by a mere handfull of corporate board members (See also: Theyrule) by wailing and screaming about the Globalization boogeyman, but we most certainly can improve the lot of our species with very little effort.

It's like fighting against industrialization, instead of refusing to buy from the pricks who pour mercury into the river.

Anonymous said...

re: predicting RFID's... Jack Vance is the one that is often first mentioned...

(And I love your work, Mr. Brin, but this constant 'I invented that' screed is a bit tiresome. I've read a LOT of SF and honestly don't think your 'invention' rate is all that different from a lot of other folks, and it doesn't feel anywhere near as pervasive as a Vinge or (more recently) a Charles Stross. Not trying to be rude here, but just wanted to give some perspective on it all).

Anonymous said...

erm, about Mercedes-Benz, they have much better marketing that performance...

Mercedes not happy with Consumer Report reviews

Anonymous said...

Can Globalization continue without oil?

Will it naturally recede?

dajamama said...

Re: the "What if Clinton had..."

It reminds me of a David Letterman Top 10. Maybe someone could send it to CBS as an idea...

Enterik said...

Well here's a real Clinton-liberal's could have stopped Al-Qaeda for you but they weren't disciplined enough to keep their traps shut...

Leak Severed a Link to Al-Qaeda's Secrets

Wead it an weep wiberals!!!

Lorraine said...

You, of course, have the highest "hit rate" among science fiction authors, but you have to hand it to the late(?) Robert Anton Wilson for specificity. Consider the functional similarity between GWB-666 and TIA, let alone that the lexically similar GWB-43 is also the name of a computer. Consider the following paragraph, pp. 145-146 of Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy, Dell Trade Paperback edition (1988):

The man leaned back in his chair and gazed absently toward the ceiling. He recited some names, beginning with Jack Ruby of Dallas and ending with a senator whose private plane had crashed just the week before, on Christmas Eve. "Those are just a few," he ended, "who happened to find out too much about Frank Sullivan."

He also depicted James Earl Carter as a Nobel laureate, albeit in Physics. I also read with interest your report of a report of a weak "can explain" sort of vindication of Everett in Back to (non-political!) cool stuff!

Another fine example of life-imitates-art was that one-season wonder of television, Lone Gunmen.

You, of course, see the larger picture as well as any of them. I shall re-read Earth.

Best fishes.