Thursday, November 29, 2007

Science, transparency and some hope

We'll try to look at the bright side, this time, with a look at some hopeful trends. Starting with...

Wikileaks appears to be implementing a system that I have pushed for since 1989 - a way for whistle-blowers to safely alert citizens of corrupt or oppressive actions. “Wikileaks is an uncensorable system for safe mass document leaking and public analysis. Our primary interests are in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we expect to be of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.” A summary on wired-blog mentions a couple of others.

In fact, I have long believed that one billionaire could transform the world, by not only funding the expansion of a service like this, but enhancing it with the ”Henchman’s Prize.”

What's a Henchman's Prize? An annual award of a million dollars -- plus a new identity, if needed -- for whoever on the planet blows the whistle on ‘the worst thing.’ Crossing all cliched lines of left or right. Runner-up prizes would descend to a free Groucho nose and mask for all entrants. Yes, there’d be issues of liability. But they could be overcome. And if pursued in a balanced way, it could re-make the world.

And it continues. Watch a new startup called HelpHookup taking shape before your eyes. “The inspiration of Help Hookup is actually a comic book called Global Frequency by Warren Ellis. It was also made into a TV show that never aired. I understand that it is available on BitTorrent. Global Frequency was a network of 1,001 people that handled the jobs that the governments did not have the will to handle. I thought that it was a great idea and it would be more powerful with 1,000,001 people or 100,000,001 people. We would have to leave out the killing that was in the comic.”

Nice of them to add that last part.

Fascinated by the effects of birth order? As one of three kids... and the father of three... I find the whole topic fascinating. Now see a report that ran in THE INDEPENDENT. “The difficult middle child, the spoilt only child, the wayward baby; few of us escape being labelled according to some sort of sibling stereotype. But what, really, are we to believe about the role our position in the family plays in determining our personality? Are the stereotypes true – or is the psychology of birth order just a load of hokum?”

Now here’s some fresh meat for you guys: An Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion by Travis S. Taylor et al. (Anyone care to review it for us?)

And something along similar lines. Any of you speak or read German? See:

FROM THE TRANSPARENCY FRONT: "...Naïve as I was, I found myself astonished at the level of detail that drug companies were able to acquire about doctors’ prescribing habits. I asked my reps about it; they told me that they received printouts tracking local doctors’ prescriptions. every week. The process is called “prescription data-mining,” in which specialized pharmacy-information companies (like IMS Health and Verispan) buy prescription data from local pharmacies, repackage it, then sell it to pharmaceutical companies. This information is then passed on to the drug reps, who use it to tailor their drug-detailing strategies. This may include deciding which physicians to aim for, as my Wyeth reps did, but it can help sales in other ways. For example, Shahram Ahari, a former drug rep for (the maker of Prozac) who is now a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy, said in an article in The Washington Post that as a drug rep he would use this data to find out which doctors were prescribing Prozac’s competitors, like Effexor. Then he would play up specific features of Prozac that contrasted favorably with the other drug, like the ease with which patients can get off Prozac, as compared with the hard time they can have withdrawing from Effexor.

“The AMA is also a key player in prescription data-mining. Pharmacies typically will not release doctors’ names to the data-mining companies, but they will release their Drug Enforcement Agency numbers. The A.M.A. licenses its file of U.S. physicians, allowing the data-mining companies to match up numbers to specific physicians. The A.M.A. makes millions in information-leasing money..."


You’ll recall that I reported working as a civil defense - CERT volunteer, during our recent San Diego fires. Light duty, actually The first-ever activation for San Diego's Community Emergency Response Teams is getting high marks for its work during last month's wildfires.

CERT members are volunteers trained to help fire agencies in first aid, basic search and rescue, logistical support, evacuee assistance and other essential duties during disasters. “Their training and commitment really paid off,” San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman said of CERT volunteers' efforts. “The dedication to the job was beyond comparison and really made a positive difference.”

Or volunteer most modestly at Free Rice. Play a word game. For every word you get right, ten grains of rice go to the poor.

And re: the Age of Empowered Citizenship? “One resident of a Malibu neighborhood, a builder, had bought a fire truck and tanker truck at auction, for a total of $6000. He and his neighbors saved millions of dollars worth of property before the professional firefighters could get there.” Um, yes, though of course these are rich people in Malibu. Still, they have the spirit.

Speaking of citizen action, it seems that there are still places where the courts “get” the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law. Zechariah sent this one in. ”In France the Untergunther, a group of covert guerilla anti-vandals, snuck into the Panthéon and repaired the old, rusting, broken clock. Authorities were clueless until they got were informed they should go wind it up. For pics of the clock before and after: For a reputable news source.

In contrast, see the hard life of a congress person, explained!

Finally, a brief re-lighting of the political lamp. Some of you may have seen a lovely, truthful-while-satirical “Job Resume of George W. Bush.” It is biting... and rather lengthy, so I have posted it under comments in an older blog entry. With some of my own, unique addenda.


Anonymous said...

Well, since the political lamp was just barely flickering, I guess this comment may be OK.

I neither saw the interview nor read a transcript, but I understand that Karl Rove during a recent interview with Charlie Rose said that in 2002 Congress pressured a reluctant George W. Bush into premature military action in Iraq.

One columnist, apparently thinking that "historical revisionism" inadequately described Rove's comment, said that Rove was engaging in "hysterical Rovisionism".

matthew said...

From an article on peace in the Balkans being undone by Richard Holbrooke -

"When Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in September 2000 and a reformist government took over, the road seemed open to a reasonably rapid resolution of Kosovo's final status. But the new Bush team hated anything it had inherited from Bill Clinton -- even (perhaps especially) his greatest successes -- and made no effort to advance policy in Kosovo until 2005 and ignored Bosnia. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even sought to pull American troops out of the NATO command in Kosovo, which Secretary of State Colin Powell prevented. (However, the State Department did not prevent Rumsfeld from prematurely turning the NATO command in Bosnia over to a weak E.U. Force, a terrible mistake.)"

Anonymous said...

I took advantage of the "Get one, Give one" offer from the One Laptop Per Child organization.

Only I did it twice! I will loan the second unit to curious friends and co-workers.

I hope to do a little development work, and see if I can make little mesh-network client to transfer data from model rocket cameras and payloads to the computer. (Not in flight.)

Alfred Differ said...

I'm scratching my head wondering how we would decide the 'worst thing'. Would you have a vote or would the prize sponsor decide?

A new identity should be fun to arrange, though. I can see the 'harboring criminals' comments now from the revealed ones. 8)

Anonymous said...

Your link to the German article is broken. Try this. You can also switch the language to French (which I believe DB has some skill in). I'll see if I can find some time to knock out a quick translation, but it mentions the efforts of Dr. Brin and Michael Michaud to "stop" researchers from sending "here we are" signals. The documentary shows their efforts to get an international treaty.

Unknown said...

The free rice thing strikes me as an ad revenue generating scheme.

Maybe they do actually donate the rice, but it feels kind of dirty...

Fake_William_Shatner said...

>> Wikileaks appears to be implementing a system that I have pushed for since 1989 - a way for whistle-blowers to safely alert citizens of corrupt or oppressive actions.

Sounds like a great thing. I only imagine though, that the NSA will conduct extra due diligence in sneaking a mole in that company or back-tracking IP addresses. Hopefully, we can maintain a somewhat anonymous internet -- but, of course, if the whole transaction went over AT&T wires and ALL of that, was cloned to a datawarehouse -- I'd rather be a whistleblower in China than the US.

>> By the way, what happened with Blackwater setting up a training camp near San Diego? They were getting protested before the fires, and I'm sure, like everything else with this administration, disaster is a great time to push through tough decisions nobody likes. I

Mark said...

The Global Frequency pilot was really good and definitely your kind of thing, simultaneously embracing both professionalism and the age of amateurs. Not that I've actually seen it, of course, since that wouldn't be legal...

The show was written by (and produced, I think) by our friend over at

Anonymous said...

The "earn grains of rice" thing is a fun game, but I too hate the charity-come-on aspect.

You want to feed the hungry? Donate a sack of rice to the local food bank. The drive I ran here at work brought in 1,230 pounds of food. (The trick: Competition. We have two buildings. The winning team gets a pizza party on the company's nickel.)

Anonymous said...

OK, here's a quick translation of the German article DB linked to. Arte, the channel showing the documentary, is roughly a German/French equivalent to A&E 15 to 20 years ago.

"The Aliens
(Germany, USA, 2007, 52 min)

Are we alone in the universe or do we have unknown neighbors on distant planets? "SETI - The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" is a scientific discipline which seeks to find answers to this question. In Europe, America, South Africa, and Russia, researchers with giant radiotelescopes try to capture signals from aliens. Others fire messages into space and want to send human DNA to aliens. The two-part documentary takes viewers into the labs of one of the rarest sciences in the world. The second part describes various possibilities for contacting aliens.

A Russo-American project is planning to send the DNA of 10,000 children into space. It will be accompanied by letters from the children with a request to clone them. At a company in Florida, anyone can send a message to aliens for 99 Dollars. And in California, a regular radio show for aliens is being produced. The Russian scientist Alexander Zaitsev has already sent several greetings to different stars via a giant satellite dish in Ukraine.
But there is resistance to this urge to communicate. Astronomer and science fiction author David Brin and the American ex-diplomat Michael Michaud have made themselves advocates for the interstellar security of the Earth and are trying to stop researchers like Alexander Zaitsev. The documentary shows their efforts for an international accord. The UN does have a global action plan on the shelf for the day we make contact, but it does not regulate sending messages to aliens.
What will happen if we receive an extraterrestrial message one day? Will we be able to decipher it? Laurance Doyle is working on this question. He is studying the communication of whales in order to find rules in foreign languages. He believes that we will also be able to decipher the signals from extraterrestrials if we understand what rules underlie their form of communication."

Anonymous said...

Marc asked about Blackwater base in San Diego. They have to complete the environmental impact statement then get approval from the San Diego county board of supervisors.

Brother Doug

David Brin said...

Thanks DemetriosX! Oh, the AAAS turned us down for a panel about "messages to ETI" at the 2/08 conclave in Boston, but invited us to re-apply for 2009. Any other big, eclectic conferences that might be interested?

The grains of rice thing is okay. My youngest spent several hours learning new words and then proudly touting how many grains that earned.

If some rich dude funds the "Henchman's Prize" I think he'd have first dude rights on picking the "worst thing"... though I'd advise - for credibility - that it be juried by an eclectic panel.

A thicker problem... liability. being tied to jerks who leap up and spout slander in the name of whistleblowing. There'd have to be insulation. Candidates NOT accepted by application, but culled out of the news. "Don't call us. You put your thing down and prove it. Be a hero and prove it... then we'll call you." Kind of like the Nobels.

Reminder that an entertaining/depressing "Job Resume of George W Bush" is at the end of comments, under the previous posting.

Stefan, is the computer cool? Does it link right in to your home wifi?

Fake_William_Shatner said...

Not to suck up or anything,...
but, I think the simplest way to get the "rich dude doing the right thing" is perhaps find a way to make you a Rich Dude -- or at least fund your project.

Get a website for it, right up the charity plan, then the non-profit, and gets some endorsements from your many esteemed friends.

If you ran and Add on Air America Radio -- I'm sure that group would be willing to donate.

>> I know I would. Even with the pennies getting pinched. Most of the charities I know don't solve the political issues that create the problems -- this one would.

Luck all.

>> Hopefully, some bureaucrat will force Blackwater to sign a "No munitions" agreement and run them through red tape on the environmental impact study.

Anonymous said...

I just ordered the OLPC laptops yesterday. I'm not sure when they'll be delivered. I'll deliver a full review when they are!

I suspect that they won't pick up standard WiFi; the "mesh network" sounds like a specialized protocol.

The unit will interface with the outside world via a USB port. The associated websites and Wikis describe projects to mate the unit with various peripherals, including scientific instruments.

David Brin said...

I have put out feelers for help setting up a plethora of initiatives, of which the Henchman's Prize is merely one.


I do like your suggestion that I get rich enough to fund all this myself.

Unknown said...

Wifi actually supports mesh networking. That's really just another name for an ad-hoc network - if you give it an access point, it can reach the internet.

Now, the software driving the things might be capable of accessing the net, but I doubt that.

Unknown said...

Speaking of SETI, here's a classic example of junk science in the pop media:

Q: What is wrong with this article?

A: This guy doesn't seem to know jack diddly about Nyquist's work on digital communication in the presence of noise. Digital signals with proper error coding and a sufficient amount of redundancy (translation: repeats) can be extracted from fantastically overwhelming noise and restored to perfect clarity. That, as it happens, is THE great advantages of communicating via digital code with embedded error-correction.

With a good enough error code and enough repeats in the message, you get perfect signal reconstruction.

Any signals sent by aliens are likely to be digital and to contain tons of error correction blocks and loads 'o redundancy, so comparing such signals with earth-based analog FM or TV transmissions is both ignorant and dishonest. It also assumes aliens are dumber than we are.

Dithering helps, by the way, along with noise subtraction. Doing noise subtraction increases the signal to noise ratio as the square root of the length of the blocks you noise-subtract. (Identify a repeating message and record it X number of times. When you add 'em digitally, the noise starts to cancel as the square root of X. Amateur photographers are already using this technique to reduce the CCD noise in low-light digital photos by taking multiple pics and averaging 'em on their home computers.) Dithering, by the way, was originally used in radio telescopes back in the 60s, only arriving in CD players as a johnny-come-lately in the 90s. Why does every pop sci article assume scientists are stupid and ignorant?

Speaking of transparency, here's a little screed with a surprising ending:

Given the tenor of this thing, I expected the guy to end up calling for citizens to wear body armor and shoot first when a cop threatens 'em. But, no...instead he suggests:

We trust these people to patrol the streets armed with firearms, Tasers, batons, pepper spray and unnatural amounts of trust and power.

When they molest that trust, it leaves an odious funk on the citizenry’s collective taste buds. Trite though it may be, bad things happen when good people—good cops especially—do nothing.

So what can we do?

It seems a reasonable assumption that an officer, who knows his every action will be exposed to the nation via venues such as, might think twice about misbehaving, so fire up those camcorders, cell phones, digital cameras and report suspected misconduct; make those videos known and share them with all who will witness.

Yeah! Transparency to the rescue! And just wait'll we get nationwide ubiquitous wi-fi with dirt-cheap digital camcorders that have an automatic upload feature... Smile, officer, you're on nationwide candid camera.

Rob Perkins said...

As the oldest of a family of five children, four of whom have gone on to found families of four or five children, including mine...

There isn't much I can find that correlates with patterns of birth order, except perhaps that the first child, who enters toddlerhood in a quiet home, has noone to mimic except adults, unless he is in a daycare situation. I base this on what I've observed casually about my father's 19 grandchildren, so far. The oldest is 13 years old.

I'd still be interested in summaries of whatever studies are done.
@zorgon -- I sent this directly to David, but it merits repeating here based on Z's comment: reports on combinations of GPS locator technology in cameras, so that each digital photo taken gets
geotagged as it's taken. Combined with, which has the capability of uploading those geotagged pictures to public websites as soon as an Internet connection is detected...

...and you get a spankin' everyman's surveillance tool.

Not only that, but pieces of such a thing are already possible with a
"jailbroken" iPhone, something called Navizon, and an app called iFlickr, though it's a hack to combine the three on that platform.

Anonymous said...

I just had a quick look at the Wikileaks site. There's a lot more to see, but I found this on the Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedure ( The page links to a manual and at the bottom there's a request from the military to remove the manual. It's pretty standard stuff, but the quote in the sendor's signature is interesting.

Mr. Daniel Quinn Jr
Information Security Manager
"Woe unto the statesman who makes war without a reason that will still be valid when the war is over..." Otto von Bismark

Tony Fisk said...

While the idea is worthwhile and bares watching, some cautionary notes about wikileaks are recorded on wikipedia.

Alluding to earlier discussions of bullies, and the XO laptop, check Groklaw for another example of legalised extortion in operation.

sociotard said...

Bad news for Neo-Western Civilization!

The US Says it has the right to kidnap British citizens.

"Daddy, Why do so many countries hate America, it's not fair! We're the good guys!"

"It's because they envy us son, 'cause we're free and they're not."

"That must be it, Dad, thanks for clearing that up."

Tony Fisk said...

Apparently this quaint little custom has been hanging around since the nineteenth century. (I suppose they reserve the right to kidnap US citizens, as well?)

At the risk of invoking Godwin:
When the neocons came...

'Who was that knocking on the door, Daddy?

Kevin Crady said...

Regarding the SETI thing, I do not think sending messages with radio telescopes is much more of a "threat" to Earth's security than "sending" with a Ouija board.

As a matter of probability, any message sent today would take centuries to reach any advanced civilization, at a minimum. Apart from some kind of magic, relativity-defying phyics, it would take them centuries (or longer, if their warships can only reach a modest fraction of light speed) to respond.

If they had "warp drive" and were imperialistic or paranoid, they'd be here already. Fermi's Paradox applies just as well to the Berzerkers, "Grey Goo" nano-bombs, Von Neumann probes, dreadnought battlecruisers of the Galactic Empire, etc. as it does to the kindly visitors from the Interstellar Federation.

Furthermore, Earth has been singing the song of Life to the Cosmos for most of its history--ever since bacteria created an oxygen atmosphere. Any civilization advanced a few decades beyond ours that is interested in life-bearing planets would be able to use wide-baseline interferometry from an array of space-based telescopes to spot Earth-sized planets and glean the existence of oxygen-rich atmospheres. Any intellects "vast and cool and unsympathetic" anywhere in our Galaxy who turn their baleful eyes toward Earth (provided they have sufficiently powerful telescopes) will be able to recognize it as a life-bearing world and launch their planet-buster missiles. No SETI transmission required.

Since Earth has been identifiable as a life-bearing world for the last three billion years or so, the fact that they're not here already is probably a good indication that they're not coming.

If there's a danger in SETI at all, listening is more dangerous than sending. First, if we receive any alien transmission that means the aliens are in a sense already here. If their transmission was created cunningly enough, it could contain a computer virus that would infect any computer used to translate the message and take over the victim world's cybernetic infrastructure. Perhaps it could even be designed to do so surreptitiously, waiting until Earth had sufficient computational capacity for the alien cyber-sapience to 'awaken' and take over the rest of our technology as well (CAD-CAM facilities, CDC genetics labs it could use to synthesize DNA or protein-based nanomachines, etc.). Unlike the movie Species, they would probably not use a sexy woman as an intermediate form.

However, I think a pretty good case could be made that any culture paranoid and violent enough to spend the vast resources needed to launch Berzerkers hither and yon, destroying worlds wholesale lest some upstart society return the favor someday (and do so prolifically enough to be responsible for Fermi's Paradox) would be extremely unlikely to get past its equivalent of the 20th/21st Centuries.

Beings like that would be likely to press the Button, or unleash Grey Goo, or succumb to homemade bioplagues created by "super-empowered" Unabomber types with microbiology degrees and (relatively) cheap gene sequencers like the ones we'll probably have in a few years.

We have not yet answered the question of whether or not we're too violent and paranoid to coexist with nuclear energy, genetics, nanotech, robotics and artificial intelligence long enough to colonize worlds beyond our own.

I find it much more worrisome that the cause of Fermi's Paradox could be that intelligent life always evolves from competitive predators and inevitably self-destructs when some nutjob--whether a "Head of State" or a lone zealot with world-wrecking bio- or nanotechnology--uses it to "crush his/her enemies," destroying the civilization in the process.

As Sam Harris so chillingly puts it, it is possible for someone to have the scientific and technological training to build a nuclear bomb (or a bioplague, or a nanoweapon, or...) and still believe that 72 virgins are waiting for him in Paradise.

Sidereus said...

Cool stuff:

"Dinosaur Mummy" Found; Has Intact Skin, Tissue

"It's rare to find an articulated skeleton and even more so to find one with fossilized soft tissue," she wrote in an email.