Saturday, December 29, 2007

Good/bad media... BrinRelevance... and the ten-year anniversary of a disappointment

While most of this has little political relevance, it is filled with the kind of cool stuff that we OUGHT to be discussing... and WILL discuss much more, once civilization resumes its belief in the future.

First, some "Brin-related media" news.

My novel Earth has been nominated for the Stephen T. Colbert Award for the Literary Excellence. You are cordially invited to join the Stephen T. Colbert Award for the Literary Excellence Facebook Group and participate in this magnificently wise and forward-looking endeavor.

Watch your favorite Brin put down his pundit thing on the History Channel (again) on January 21, in a docu-future bit called Life After People... a fun look at what could happen to our cities... and animals... if humanity suddenly disappeared. Just in time for Wil Smith to rock ‘em in the third remake of I AM LEGEND (this time actually keeping to the original story title; but do also look at Charleton Heston’s old OMEGA MAN.) Anyway, feel free to let A&E/History know how much you approve of their choice of talking heads... and that they oughta bring back The Architechs.

Can’t help it. Some of you saw my ARCHITECHS show - the pilot about firefighting technology. But the History Channel never ran our other pilot on brainstorming and designing a practical and vastly improved replacement for the Humvee. Alas, since the Army is growing extremely disenchanted with the alternative that was chosen instead, a truly absurd Frankenstein monster called MRAP. Our design was so so so so so much better.

While we’re at it, are any of you out there interested in a wild ride through an idea-fest, ranging from the Fermi Paradox to existence tests for God, see my speech at the recent conference held at the Salk Institute -- “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.” There were many other fine presentations on topics ranging from “The end of literary postmodernism” (about time!) to “the myth of pervasive Islamo-terrorism” (a stunning refutation of the entire basis of the so called war on terror.) Alas, a recurring theme at the conference was atheism, in its recent and ironically militant incarnation, featuring some very rich invective from Daniel Dennett, among others. Counter productive proof that incantatory self-righteousness addiction is not limited to deity-believers. Check it out.

Anyway, I thought I knew my “filmography” pretty well. Lots of TV and scripts... but only the Postman was produced, right? Only... what’s this other film that I’m credited as having “produced”? Um, it’s not that I have anything against Val Kilmer... but.

A final ego-and film-related note (phew!) I just dropped into my CD player - after a long hiatus - the soundtrack album from Costner’s movie of The Postman. James Newton Howard’s original score is a stirring and very dramatic symphonic work of art. Followed by a lagniappe of songs by John Coiman and Jono Manson. Give it a listen.

(Have a look at what the CDs are going for! The dawn of a cult following?)

Of course this makes the movie itself all that much more an alas-almost thing, since it was also visually stunning - small surprise since Costner is one of the finest cinematographers around. Many individual scenes were terrific, adrenaline or emotion-rich, and the version of the tale written by Brian Helgeland and reified by KC had a big, big heart. (A vast improvement over the original, truly vile and evil script by Erik Roth.) So, with many senses fed, what went wrong? I mean other than Costner’s confident announcement that “We have nothing to worry about. Our only competition is Jim Cameron’s silly remake of a flick about a sinking boat.”

No. What killed the flick was a few flaws in plotting, in storytelling logic... plus some howler-boner scenes... all of which could have been fixed, if he had simply talked to anybody. The way he talked to folks when making “Dances With Wolves.” The way any decent craftsman does, even after he has chatchkies on the mantelpiece Alas...

... and it suddenly occurs to me why this topic came up! Ah, the subconscious is amazing.

It is exactly ten years since the movie came out. Oh, but one needs a thick skin.

Anyway, try the music-score. Makes a good use of that iTunes gift card.


Just took the family to see THE GOLDEN COMPASS. In some other era, I would have enjoyed the special effects... while saving for later my inevitable grumbles about cliched talking animals and witches and foretold “chosen ones.” But, as a sign of our times, I instead found myself stirred by a few elements that weren’t tired old fantasy cliches. The previews in the theater showed us THREE upcoming fantasy flicks, each more staggeringly derivative than the last. Two of them about magical books whose characters come to life. Eek! Hence I was drawn to the fact that at least some modernist notions like academic freedom and scholarly curiosity and the importance of pragmatic skill. Still... an illogicality festival.

Want more depression? See Sir Ridley Scott grouse that Sci-fi films are as dead as Westerns.

Oh, we’re still influential on some levels. See a fun New Scientist article about How sci-fi influences today's gadgets. An article rich in ponderable links.

Still, if the signs are valid (e.g. the surge in feudal fantasy), then we may be in big, big trouble, fellow future-lovers and fellow lovers of freedom.


Any of you out there good at a little quick, online research? I need an estimate of the approximate market size - both gross and net - for the following industries:

* Social networking sites

* Virtual/ avatar worlds

* Business "meetingware"

* Networked online games

==OTHER STUFF... some of it way cool==

I think I vaguely recall seeing this vision of "the future" when it was new. Pre Jetsons! Love the punch cards... and no mention of computers. Silly? Perhaps. And yet, not as awful or misguided as our cynical impulse would lead us to judge. Indeed, we could use some of this sense of boundless possibilities, right now.

This one is actually pretty eerily predictive (thanks Dave McCabe):

More from the transparency front. An article that aggressively touts look-back sousveillance, empowering the public to watch the watchers. In Popular Mechanics, no less.

In the long debate over whether it is wealth or democracy that undermine violence, there’s this just sent in -- ”In an analysis of State Department data on terrorism, Princeton University economist Alan B. Krueger discovered that ‘countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which have spawned relatively many terrorists, are economically well off yet lacking in civil liberties. Poor countries with a tradition of protecting civil liberties are unlikely to spawn suicide terrorists. Evidently, the freedom to assemble and protest peacefully without interference from the government goes a long way to providing an alternative to terrorism.’”

Oh, I have so much more stored up. But I want to take this chance to wish you all... fellow progress-oriented modernists, fellow citizens, fello humans and earthlings... and all you others who might just happen to be lurking in on all this... a happy new year, filled with ever-rising confidence, tolerance, patience, honest ambition... and love.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Relevance of an Old Nemesis - as Even Older Ones Return

Over on the Lifeboat Foundation discussion list, Ben Goertzel, a rising star in artificial intelligence theory, expressed skepticism that we could keep maintaining a "modern large-scale capitalist representative democracy cum welfare state cum corporate oligopoly" for much longer.

Something will have to give, under the weight of contradictions, Ben thought. Indeed, this complex civilization does seem to be under a lot of stress, right now.

You folks might find interest my reply:


Today’s “modern large-scale capitalist representative democracy cum welfare state cum corporate oligopoly” works largely because the systems envisioned by John Locke and Adam Smith have burgeoned fantastically, producing synergies in highly nonlinear ways that another prominent social philosopher -- Karl Marx -- never imagined. Ways that neither Marx nor the ruling castes of prior cultures even could imagine.

Through processes of competitive creativity and reciprocal accountability, the game long ago stopped being zero-sum (I can only win if you lose) and became prodigiously positive-sum. (We all win, though I'd still like to win a little more than you.) (See Robert Wright's excellent book "Non-Zero".)

Yes, if you read over the previous paragraph, I sound a lot like some of the boosters of FIBM or Faith In Blind Markets... among whom you'll find the very same neocons and conspiratorial kleptocrats who I accuse of ruining markets! Is that a contradiction?

Not at all. Just as soviet commissars recited egalitarian nostrums, while relentlessly quashing freedom in the USSR, many of our own right-wing lords mouth "pro-enterprise" lip service, while doing everything they can to cheat and foil competitive markets. To kill the golden goose that gave them everything.

nonzero1The problem is that our recent, synergistic system has always had to push uphill against a perilous slope of human nature. The Enlightenment is just a couple of centuries old. Feudalism/tribalism had uncountable millennia longer to work a selfish, predatory logic into our genes, our brains. We are all descended from insatiable men, who found countless excuses for cheating, expropriating the labor of others, or preserving their power against challenges from below. Not even the wisest of us can guarantee we'd be immune from temptation to abuse power, if we had it.

Some, like George Washington, have set a pretty good example. They recognize these backsliding trends in themselves, and collaborate in the establishment of institutions, designed to let accountability flow. Others perform lip-service, then go on to display every dismal trait that Karl Marx attributed to shortsighted bourgeois "exploiters."

Indeed, it seems that every generation must face this ongoing battle, between those who "get" what Washington and many others aimed for -- the positive-sum game -- and rationalizers who are driven by our primitive, zero-sum drives. A great deal is at stake, at a deeper level that mere laws and constitutions. Moreover, if the human behavior traits described by Karl Marx ever do come roaring back, to take hold in big ways, then so might some of the social scenarios that he described.


Do you, as an educated 21st Century man or woman, know very much about the controversy that transfixed western civilization for close to a century and a half? A furious argument, sparked by a couple of dense books, written by a strange little bearded man? Or do you shrug off Marx as an historical oddity? Perhaps a cousin of Groucho?

Were our ancestors - both those who followed Marx and those who opposed him - stupid to have found him interesting or to have fretted over the scenarios he foretold?

I often refer to Marx as the greatest of all science fiction authors, because -- while his long-range forecasts nearly all failed, and some of his premises (like the labor theory of value) were pure fantasy -- he nevertheless shed heaps of new light and focused the attention of millions upon many basics of both economics and human nature. As a story-spinner, Marx laid down some "if this goes on" thought-experiments that seemed vividly plausible to people of his time, and for a century afterwards. People who weren't stupid. People who were, in fact, far more intimate with the consequences of social stratification than we have been, in the latest, pampered generation.

As virtually the inventor of the term "capitalism," Marx ought to be studied (and criticized) by anyone who wants to understand our way of life.

What's been forgotten, since the fall of communism, is that the USSR's 'experiment' was never even remotely "Marxism." And, hence, we cannot simply watch "The Hunt For Red October" and then shrug off the entire set of mental and historical challenges. By my own estimate, he was only 50% a deluded loon -- a pretty good ratio, actually. (I cannot prove that I'm any better!) The other half was brilliant (ask any economist) and still a powerful caution. Moreover, anyone who claims to be a thinker about our civilization should be able to argue which half was which.

Marx's forecasts seem to have failed not because they were off-base in extrapolating the trends of 19th Century bourgeois capitalism. He extrapolated fine. But what he never imagined was that human beings might intelligently perceive, and act to alter those selfsame powerful trends! While living amid the Anglo Saxon Enlightenment, Marx never grasped its potential for self-criticism, reconfiguration and generating positive-sum alternatives.

A potential for changing or outgrowing patterns that he (Marx) considered locked, in stone.

Far from the image portrayed by simplistic FIBM cultists, we did not escape Marx's scenarios through laissez-faire indolence. In fact, his forecasts failed - ironically - because people read and studied Karl Marx.


The-Zero-Sum-Society-9780465085880This much is basic. We are all descended from rapacious, insatiable cheaters and (far worse) rationalizers. Every generation of aristocrats (by whatever surface definition you use, from soviet nomenklatura, theocrats, or royalty to top CEOs) will come up with marvelous excuses for why they should be allowed to go back to oligarchic rule-by-cabal and “guided allocation of resources” (GAR), instead of allowing open competition/cooperation to put their high status under threat. Indeed, those who most stridently tout faith in blind markets are often among the worst addicts of GAR.

In particular, it is the most natural thing in the world for capital owners and GAR-masters to behave in the way that Karl Marx modeled. His forecast path of an ever-narrowing oligarchy -- followed ultimately by revolution -- had solid historical grounding and seemed well on its way to playing out.

What prevented it from happening - and the phenomenon that would have boggled poor old KM - was for large numbers of western elites and commonfolk to weigh alternatives, to see these natural human failure modes, and to act intelligently against them. He certainly never envisioned a smart society that would extend bourgeois rights and social mobility to the underclasses. Nor that societies might set up institutions that would break entirely from his model, by keeping things open, dynamic, competitive, and reciprocally accountable, allowing the nonlinear fecundity of markets and science and democracy to do their positive-sum thing.

In his contempt for human reasoning ability (except for his own), Marx neglected to consider that smart men and women would actually read his books and decide to remodel society, so that his scenario would not happen. So that revolution, when it came, would be gradual, ongoing, moderate, lawful, and generally non-confiscatory, especially since the positive sum game lets the whole pie grow, while giving bigger slices to all.

In fact, I think the last ninety years may be partly modeled according to how societies responded to the Marxian meme. First, in 1917, came the outrageously stupid Soviet experiment, which simply replaced Czarist monsters with another clade of oppressors, that mouthed different sanctimonious slogans. Then the fascist response, which was a deadly counter-fever, fostered by even more-stupid European elites. Things were looking pretty bleak.


Only then this amazing thing that happened - especially in America - where a subset of wealthy people, like FDR, actually read Marx, saw the potential pathway into spirals of crude capital formation, monopolization, oppression and revolution... and decided to do something about it, by reforming the whole scenario away! By following Henry Ford's maxim and giving all classes a stake -- which also meant ceding them a genuine share of power. A profoundly difficult thing for human beings to do,

Those elites who called FDR a “traitor to his class” were fools. The smart ones knew that he saved their class, and enabled them to enjoy wealth in a society that would be vastly more successful, vibrant, fun, fair, stable, safe and fantastically more interesting.

I believe we can now see the recent attempted putsch by a neocon-kleptocrat aristocratic cabal in broad but simple and on-target context. We now have a generation of wealthy elites who (for the most part) have never read Marx! Who haven’t a clue how chillingly plausible his scenarios might be, if enlightenment systems did not provide an alternative to revolution. And who blithely assume that they are in no danger, whatsoever, of those scenarios ever playing out.

Shortsightedly free from any thought or worry about the thing that fretted other aristocracies -- revolution -- they feel no compunction or deterrence from trying to do the old/boring thing... giving in to the ancient habit... using influence and power to gather MORE influence and power at the expense of regular people, all with the aim of diminishing the threat of competition from below. And all without extrapolating where it all might lead, if insatiability should run its course.

What we would call “cheating,” they rationalize as preserving and enhancing a natural social order. Rule by those best suited for the high calling of rulership. Those born to it. Or Platonic philosopher kings. Or believers in the right set of incantations.


Whatever the rationalizations, it boils down to the same old pyramid that failed the test of governance in nearly 100% of previous civilizations, always and invariably stifling creativity while guiding societies to delusion and ruin. Of course, it also means a return to zero-sum logic, zero-sum economics, zero-sum leadership thinking, a quashing of nonlinear synergies... the death of the Enlightenment.

Mind you! I am describing only a fraction of today’s aristocracy of wealth or corporate power. I know half a dozen billionaires, personally, and I’d wager none of them are in on this klepto-raid thing! They are all lively, energetic, modernistic, competitive and fizzing with enthusiasm for a progressive, dynamic civilization. A civilization that’s (after all) been very good to them.

They may not have read Marx (in this generation, who has?) But self-made guys like Bezos and Musk and Page etc share the basic values of an Enlightenment. One in which some child from a poor family may out-compete overprivileged children of the rich, by delivering better goods, innovations or services. And if that means their own privileged kids will also have to work hard and innovate? That's fine by them! Terrific.

When the chips come down, these better billionaires may wind up on our side, weighing the balance and perceiving that their enlightened, long range self-interest lies with us. With the positive-sum society. Just the way FDR and his smart-elite friends did, in the 1930s... while the dumber half of the aristocracy muttered and fumed.

We can hope that the better-rich will make this choice, when the time comes. But till then, the goodguy (or, at least with-it) billionaires are distracted, busy doing cool things, while the more old-fashioned kind -- our would-be lords -- are clustering together in tight circles, obeying 4,000 years of ingrained instinct, whispering and pulling strings, appointing each other to directorships, awarding unearned golden parachutes, conniving for sweetheart deals, and meddling in national policy...

...doing the same boring thing that human beings will always do -- what you and I would be tempted to do -- whenever you mix un-curbed ego with unaccountable privilege, plus a deficit of brains.

==See more on The Economy: Past, Present and Future

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Your Little Holiday Assignment: Convert an Ostrich

As folks prepare for coming days of joyful and (full-bellied) reunion with family members from across the continent, another tradition looms -- old-fashioned encounters between loving relatives who happen to despise each others’ political views.

Yes, many families wisely ban talking politics during holidays... or at the dinner table. By all means, keep peace in the clan.

Yet, there’s another side to all this. The election of 2008 is crucial. It must not be a squeaker - which only guarantees more “culture war.” Only a landslide will do. And, for that to happen, we need millions of basically decent “ostrich” conservatives.

We need them to wake up and get mad at the crooks who’ve hijacked their party. Decent conservatives like that sweet uncle of yours, who stays glued to Fox, desperately keeping head-in sand to ignore what’s happened to the GOP. To America.

The holidays are your chance to say to that uncle or aunt:

”This country that we both love is in trouble. If I’m right, then a lot more trouble than you realize. For America’s sake... and out of respect for me... would you come with me on a long walk? Away from the house? (We’ll drop all political talk, after we get back.)

“There are some facts I want to show you. About how our nation has been betrayed.”

What can you say, to convince an ostrich who is in frantic denial? Well, for starters, not all “nice conservatives” are ostriches. Many will cling fanatically to party and cult loyalties, countering with catechisms from Rush Limbaugh. But others might be roused. And if you rouse just one, to get angry at the gang of thieves who hijacked the GOP, then he or she may spread that anger to others.

ostrichpapersIt seems worth a try. Firmly, though also with tact and love. Difficult, but still...
For more on this, see my “The Ostrich Papers: How it will take ALL Decent Americans to Restore Decency to America”

And if you decide to proceed, here’s a whole tsunami of challenges you might print out to confront him or her with.

And a smaller-capsule “A Cheat Sheet for Ostrich Hunters.”
(A suggestion. These are more effective read aloud! Asking an ostrich to read such a list inevitably lets them skim and dismiss.) Make him or her see that the list is composed entirely of conservative issues! Thus, by their very own standards, decent conservatives should help rid us of these awful people. And the, rebuild their movement into one they can again be proud of.

Here is the super-condensed version.

Which president would be the logical choice for a patriotic and logical "decent conservative?"

* One balanced budgets...
...and the other bankrupted us.

* One enhanced government efficiency (according to neutral auditing companies) by increasing competitive bidding for contracts...
...while the other gave $300+ billions in no-bid contracts directly to friends, while losing more than ten billions in raw cash, then appointed known crooks to be the inspectors and auditors.

* One oversaw the nation’s greatest boom in small business creation...
...and the other a surge of monopolies, while small businesses floundered.

* One cut government secrecy way down, even while being investigated...
...while the other sent secrecy rocketing to levels never seen even in the Cold War.

* One worked with governors to enhance experimentation at the state level...
...and the other asserted federal authority more than any other president in history, bringing states’ rights to a new low.

* One helped all society to prosper spectacularly...
...and the other helped only aristocrats.

Which president would be a "strong" commander in chief, in the eyes of any "decent conservative"?

* One earned respect from the U.S. Officer Corps...
...and the other one betrayed the military at every turn, driving officers to flee the service at a rate never before seen.

* One maintained military readiness, including thirty fully ready combat brigades...
...and the other stripped us bare, exhausting our brave troops and leaving us with at most two ready brigades.

* One handled his war with fierce, surgical precision and blazing speed, costing no American lives and transforming an entire continent for the better, while boosting our popularity and alliances...
...and the other president drove away nearly all of our allies, made us more hated than ever, left our states defenseless, and devastated our state of readiness, while accomplishing almost nothing at all.

* One doubles the Border Patrol ...
...and the other shatters it.

Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a core hero of conservatism for thirty years. So --

* Which president does Greenspan praise as the smartest, most openminded, most focused on long term economic health and best for the economy?
...vs the next one, who scores the “very worst” on every count, including basic honesty?

Which president was the "sleaze" subjected to a $2 billion witch hunt?

* The one who left office without a single administration appointee indicted for official duties? (Not one. Not even one.) ...
...or the next president, who (despite bullying the FBI) loses comrades to jail or ignominy almost every week.

Oh, I give up. There is no way to summarize in such a small space. Because ostriches will squirm and struggle to keep their heads in the sand. Brevity is no virtue when isolated points can be deflected with glib Fox-sophomorisms.

No, it must be relentless and overwhelming, like an intervention with an alcoholic.

The only way to do this is to go to those pages I cite above and go through the whole thing (or at least this page) with your chosen victim... er, I mean ostrich.

Over and over again, aloud, until the hypnotic neocon spell shatters and the slumbering ones -- our beloved cousins and neighbors and fellow citizens -- finally wake up.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and God bless -- America, civilization, us all.

====    ====    ====

PS...Some others are also on this trail! For example, William Frey, M.D. has a website titled Repentant Republicans. Here's one of his first essays, reprinted at Consortium News.
And another.

David Brin
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Thursday, December 20, 2007

This blog "blacklisted"... for demanding we respect the professionals...

One of our beleaguered senior federal professionals - who happens to be a fan - wrote in: "One of my employees tried to check out your blog on his government computer. Red flags went off declaring your site ‘contains inappropriate material.’"

Who... me?

I admit there’s an occasional "dang" or "golly". And, amid word tsunamis from many commenters, the rare #!$*#! That sort of thing makes a tiny fraction of "Contrary Brin," compared to masses of cutting-edge-interesting stuff about astronomy, high-technology, SETI, political theory, popular culture and ruminations about human destiny.

Anyway, I know the reason orders came down, banning government employees from access to any of this.

Mea culpa... I have called upon the professionals of the civil service, the intelligence services, the many agencies of law and accountability, the scientific community and the U.S. military officer corps, to remember their oaths -- to protect the people from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

That’s it, really. My “inappropriate” sin. Pointing out that our professionals - both in and out of government - have been the top victims of the neoconservative putsch. I have praised the skilled men and women who dedicate their lives to public service, and made it clear - in bold but meticulously legal terms - that they do not have to put up with being bullied by incompetent, dogmatic hacks, who have oppressed them in a concerted campaign of intimidation, ever since the Bush Administration began.

All right, I did more than that. I also called upon Democrats - and decent conservatives who remember true patriotism - to make this a centerpiece issue, not only because it is just and right, but because no other accusation (backed by proof) could damage the current GOP ruling cabal more than this one.


EmpoweringCitizensIS IT IRONIC for the fellow who coined the term “Age of Amateurs” -- suggesting that educated and assertive citizens will play a bigger role in the 21st Century -- to also be so up-front and aggressive in demanding respect for the professionals? I see no contradiction. We are in this civilization together. And when the pros aren’t harassed by fanatics and thieves from above, they may gain enough calm and perspective to realize how badly they need help from the rest of us. From the great mass of citizens, during the decades ahead.

We can start this process, if citizens stand up and help! If we step up to defend the people who we’ve hired to defend us.



All right, the case has been made - and proved - and proved again and again - that the professionals of the U.S. civil, law, intelligence, science and military communities are the Bushites’ number one target. So, what’s the upshot? Am I asking the professionals to rebel? To break the law? To commit mutiny?

That is what Bill O’Reilly said about me, some months ago, claiming that I was fomenting insurrection and treason! But close examination shows that no such words or meanings were ever written or uttered by me. Not ever. In fact, I accept that the position of our civil servants, professionals and -- especially -- military officers is difficult and not without ambiguities. Their response to neocon bullying will call for great care. Indeed, there are many ways that the present political leadership of the US Executive Branch must continue to be treated with deference, as if it were still legitimate. To do otherwise might do far more harm than good.

Certainly, I am in no place to prescribe the manner by which these professionals choose to resist an infamous kleptocrat-putsch, though one method comes to mind -- for the pros simply to do their jobs, in strict accordance to law. And for them to remember that the protections of law, that were erected by great leaders, from Teddy Roosevelt onward, are still on the books.

In fact, there are signs that this process is underway, and has been for some time. Take the growing independence of Defense Secretary Gates -- already called the “adult” in an administration that seems very much like Lord of the Flies. Or the crucial appointment of Admiral Mike Mullen to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. (Any time you see the Navy ascendant, feel a surge of joy. They are the service least despoilt by this decade’s American fever dream.) Or, see a citation I’ll offer below, where it seems that our law agencies are finally starting to gather the goods on corrupt, inept and simply ruinous “inspectors general,” who were appointed to many agencies, strictly for the purpose of allowing or abetting graft.


Can the professionals wake up, stand up, and do their jobs? And will it matter?

otherculturewarI have an unconventional theory, that runs counter to the fervent hope that so many millions are placing at the feet of Democratic political candidates. Yes, that wing of our counter-attack to restore civilization is important. Even libertarians and decent conservatives now realize, they must make temporary alliance with liberals, in order to help save America.

And yet, I believe that a rising by our professionals - along strictly legal lines - could, all by itself, be what really turns the tide. If only these skilled men and women do what they are paid to do. What they swore to do.

Of course, these two paths - political and professional - intersect. Because any Democrat (Clinton, Obama, Chris Dodd oreven a yellow dog) who enters the White House, in January 2009, will do one crucial thing. He or she will fire 5,000 Bushite political appointees and take their boot heels off of the pros’ necks. He or she will then replace the petty hacks, to a large extent, by promoting from within the services. (While rooting out the neocon shills who “burrow in” by transferring to the Civil Service.) And that one action -- just enforcing the laws we already have -- may restore America.

Can you see, now, why the political satraps have put my blog and website on an "improper" list, banished from access by government computers? From access by members of the civil service and officer corps?

Again, since very little happens on my websites that is notably rude or markedly offensive -- mostly intellectual ruminations about civilization and science and society -- there can be no other explanation. And, I’ll take it as a compliment. A badge of honor --suggesting that I am (in my small way) fighting with some effectiveness for my country and my civilization.



Want an example of why I’ve been blacklisted?
OfficerCorpsPurgeNobody spoke up publicly, about the Bush Administration’s devastation of the U.S. Officer Corps, before I did. Now, at long last, some in the media are catching on. But will anybody have the brains and courage to make this the scandal that it ought to be? Something to rouse every decent “ostrich” conservative in America?

For the latest, see: “Why the best and brightest young officers are leaving the armed services.” And “The Bush administration is pushing to take control of the promotions of military lawyers.”

Read and realize. Saving the US Army should be a top Democratic campaign issue. It would slice the Rove Big Tent wide open and tear their unholy coalition to shreds.

Quoting from the first of these: ”Since the conflict began, around 40 percent of the Army and Marine Corps' large-scale equipment has been used, worn out, or destroyed. Last year, the Army had to grant waivers to nearly one in five recruits because they had criminal records. There are no more combat-ready brigades left on standby should a new conflict flare.”

That, by the way, makes me a cockeyed pollyanna! Because I actually gave today’s Army the benefit of the doubt and counted two brigades in Korea as ready for national-level land war. But even so, even leaning over backward to be fair, I can only point out a stark comparison. Supposedly “wimpy” Bill Clinton managed to utterly transform the continent of Europe, achieving all Balkan War objectives in quicktime, while losing zero US lives and leaving our state of readiness intact. When Clinton left office, we had thirty brigades, ready for almost anything. George W. Bush inherited a force that he could then use - instantly - to topple the entire Taliban regime and then slice through Saddam’s elite armored forces... a feat entirely beyond the ability of the army now, in the state that he has put it.

But this article concentrates on an even deeper problem, attrition of the bright young officers on whom the future depends. ”In the last four years, the exodus of junior officers from the Army has accelerated. In 2003, around 8 percent of junior officers with between four and nine years of experience left for other careers. Last year, the attrition rate leapt to 13 percent. "A five percent change could potentially be a serious problem," said James Hosek, an expert in military retention at the RAND Corporation.” Above all, the losses seem to be top-heavy, among the most gifted and promising.

What is not discussed in the article -- as it was ignored during the US Attorney firings scandal -- is the ghost at the banquet. The question nobody asks. The mirror image question.

What about those left behind?

Regarding the US Attorneys, the picture is simple and chilling. Nine US Attorneys were sacked for being insufficiently political and pliant. But that means more than eighty had been deemed “satisfactory” by an administration dedicated to utter political bias and dogmatism as a basic job requirement. An aspect to this scandal that (to my knowledge) not a single pundit or journalist has raised.

ostrichpapersRegarding those young officers who remain in the military, the situation is far less simple. Most are probably dedicated Marshallian citizen soldiers, holding on out of patriotism, duty and tenacity. But, we all know there is an element that has been funneled into the Officer Corps by more than a hundred radical-reactionary Congressmen, and by an administration bent on promoting for reasons other than competence. An element with standards and loyalties that would have made Washington or Marshall shiver. Just watch “Seven Days In May” to grasp what I mean.

Read the article. More important, make your favorite “decent conservative” ostriches read it!



First the inimitable Arianna Huffington (my second-favorite Ariana). Dang but the Republicans made a mistake when their lemming veer into neofascism drove her out of their party! Read this commentary on how the Huckabelievers are getting the secretive lords of the GOP in a sweat. And make sure it is read by your favorite ostriches

Then see: "How America Lost the War on Drugs” from Rolling Stone. Funny how the hypocrites have let this slip off their radar screen.

Also the QuestionAuthority Project, which has completed a timeline of violations of civil and constitutional rights that have occurred during the Bush Administration.

Enough for now. Go hence. Convert another ostrich over the holidays. Reach out to a civil servant or military person. Forge alliances across party lines. This has got to be a rout.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Earth's "foreign policy"

Here is a remise of one of my many distracting side ventures...

For those of you who haven't been following... the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has taken a strange veer, of late. So here's another informative little rant about the kind of topic that calls for a far more intelligent and far-seeing leadership class -- if we are to deal with a bewildering array of 21st Century quandaries.


ShoutingCosmosFor you neos in this topic, you might want to start elsewhere then come back here. My own expose on this topic (ignore the lurid illustrations), can be found at:

One person who has expressed views on this is Britain's own prominent astronomer David Whitehouse.


Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute recently posted a short essay, once again laying down what should be called the “Standard SETI position” on the likelihood of interstellar travel... and hence any conceivable physical danger that might arise from first contact with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent Civilizations (ETICs). I invite you all to have a look, hear him out, then come back here.

Essentially, Shostak seeks to dismiss the notion that interstellar contact can occur in any way that might prove dangerous to either side of such an encounter. This need has grown more pressing, as some members of the SETI community, in Russia and Argentina and Canada, for example, have sought to expand the process, from its traditional mode of passive listening or “searching” for ETI to a far more assertive program of actively transmitting Yoohoo Calls into the cosmos, multiplying Earth’s radio detectability signature by many orders of magnitude in “METI” or “Message to ETI”. Also called “Active SETI.”

Those who have been pushing this new approach (once dismissed as unwise, even by SETI pioneers Frank Drake and Carl Sagan) have been doing so without ever consulting the wider scientific community, or even their own governments, seeking to create a fait accompli that might suddenly and irrevocably alter human destiny, based upon a series of unproved assumptions.

bSYTjSYU_qj9n9iTPdN66jl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVaiQDB_Rd1H6kmuBWtceBJWhat assumptions? Elsewhere, one finds a pervasive and almost religious belief that advanced alien civilizations must automatically and by-definition be peaceful/altruistic. Even though true altruism, in nature, appears to be about as rare as hens’ teeth. (Under Stalinist Lysenkoism, this notion of universal altruism was also tied to an expectation that all advanced life forms would be socialist! A dogmatic element that no longer seems to be part of the standard catechism.)

But Shostak and the Silicon Valley based SETI Institute -- managers of the new Paul Allen radio telescope listening array -- do not appeal to this fundamental underpinning of METI. In this essay, he instead begs the other one. The article of faith that interstellar travel is virtually impossible. And, therefore, there is virtually no chance at all, of deleterious consequences from drawing attention to ourselves

(For the sake of argument, we’ll put aside the large variety of conceivable danger modes -- however far-fetched -- that might arise from purely remote contact, involving no physical interaction at all. Even if we accepted the no travel premise, there are things to worry about. But another time. For broader discussion see:

For now, let us stay focused on Shostak’s essay contending that interstellar physical contact between cultures has to be negligible. He goes farther, by using polemical tricks to plant a further assumption -- that any conceivable physical harm from contact must come from a cliched strawman -- invasion and conquest by a cohesive and aggressive galactic empire.

Let’s take these one at a time.


CrystalSpheresNewestLet's put aside fanciful ones, like my "Crystal Spheres." The list of known impediments is pretty tough.

1. Interstellar Travel - and hence physical contact - can’t happen.

There is a vast literature on this. The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society has been the principal locale for much of it, across the last thirty years. If you live near a university library that has it... or if they've digitized... the topic is fascinating! And, without a doubt, the prospect is a daunting challenge, at best. Essentially, there are three demons blocking us from the stars, and Seth only mentions one of them.

1a) The vast distances involved. In some ways, this one is actually the simplest to overcome. I’ll get back to it.

The other two are:

1b) The Rocket Equation - which shows that you must carry fuel to accelerate the mass of more fuel, just to carry enough fuel to accelerate your cargo, an especially burdensome fact when you figure you need to carry fuel to decelerate, as well. It’s non-linear and really harsh. But --

I once saw the late Barney Oliver (a fierce partisan of the Standard SETI Model) try to use the Rocket Equation to "prove" that interstellar flight - even with perfect antimatter engines - would be prohibitively costly, effectively bankrupting even a wealthy home civilization that tried to send such an expedition. He did this at a conference in Brighton, England in 1987. Oliver started by assuming that the vehicle must carry all the fuel needed to accelerate away from home, then decelerate to its destination... then to accelerate and decelerate home again.

Robert Forward, in the audience, stood up, incensed at this example of put-up, tendentious reasoning, pointing out the obvious. That the fuel for the return trip would be made at the destination site and not have to be carried there. And, since all that return trip fuel didn’t have to be transported on the FIRST leg, that leg would need a couple of orders of magnitude less fuel to start with. With just a little common sense, the rocket equation then appears much friendlier.

As it does if you ponder a myriad alternatives like "star-wisp" self-replicators that could mass very little, require little fuel, yet make copies of themselves -- or anything else -- upon reaching their destination. Such things could easily have pervaded the galaxy, by now. At least with tiny observers.

The important point here is not only that a wealthy, solar-system-wide civilization could easily afford such expeditions, but an even more important lesson -- that intellectual tendentiousness can make liars of any of us. Because of inherent human self-deception, reciprocal criticism is key! And you’ll only get that in an eclectic and open discussion, not a closed-access circle jerk among like-minded True Believers.

Davies+-+The+Eerie+Silencec) The relativistic mass effect -- where the faster you go - in effect - the more you weigh and the harder it is to accelerate faster-still. This last problem only becomes important if you get past 50% of c. Above 0.9 c it really hurts. (Alas, that is the realm where you start to benefit from time dilation.) The crux? We are behooved to try and see if travel at below half of light speed can do the job.

Those are the three classic “demons of relativistic starflight.” Though, striving for honesty, I’d have to add a fourth.

d) Radiation shielding. It is possible that travelling at high speeds through interstellar space is really tough on you and your ship, if you hit anything at all, along the way, even cosmic gas. You may need a bulky arrangement of mass in front of you, to absorb the punishment or turn particles into harmless scatter. That will be a burden, all right... though our back-of-the-envelope calculations don’t seem impossible.

Note, all of this assumes we don’t get hyperdrive or other sci fi marvels. For reasons seen below, I have to doubt such is possible, since it would worsen, not solve, the Fermi Paradox. (And this from the sci fi author who included DOZENS of such drives in the Uplift Universe! Hey. What I find plausible is one thing. Imagination and fun are another matter. ;-)

Working through it all, here are some basic responses:

1) The distances involved are (strangely) the part that worries me the least! They are only daunting if you figure you have to stay awake -- or alive -- in transit. Or if you ever want to come home again. Assuming you can go frozen, or as downloadable code stored by a loyal contstructor probe, or if you go AS a self-replicating probe, or any of a dozen variations, and you aren't in a hurry, then distance is not the worst part... long as you can feed the rocket equation enough to coast at 10% to 50% of c.

Yes! Those possible methods of ignoring time and distance are in no way yet proved. But the sheer number of them suggest that travel should not be dismissed. (Note, even if humans cannot hibernate or code-replicate, it seems incredible to say that some other species out there wouldn’t be able to.)

2) The rocket equation is a bitch. But if you only accelerate and then decelerate once, an antimatter-fueled vessel should be able to leave the solar system, coast at quarter of c, and arrive at another star without bankrupting the home economy. Wish I had the papers at hand for you. Look up Robert Forward. Or the first half of Barney Oliver's paper, not the egregious second half. (Alas, both have passed away.)

Indeed, though, light sails are the thing! Especially if the home system can be counted on to beam laser or microwave impulses at you for a long time. Then you totally evade the cruel Rocket Equation. (Jim and Greg Benford are actually experts on this.) Yes, without this push, the time scales are slow. But either way, you can get there. And those that do it, and make copies, and do it again, will inherit the galaxy. (Note, by that time they may have lost all interest in planets! So it may even have happened. Except we haven't seen the lasers. Is this getting complicated enough?)

Note that long ago, at a conference I attended in Los Alamos, Jones and Finney calculated that a 10% c ship speed, combined with colonization and needing three generations to send more ships, would still let an assertively expanding race fill the galaxy in just 60 million years. If it were done by Von Neumann probes, who can set right to work making more probes out of asteroidal material, then the figure is three million years. Just three million, with a ship speed of 0.1 c.

(See “Lungfish” at:

No, this is not a classic "empire". No coordinated fleets bearing down on this or that enemy world! (The absurd strawman erected by Seth Shostak, in order to “prove” his point.)

Imagine a diffusion that’s much more like rabbits, spreading through Australia. Ask the farmers down there if they are enjoying that First Contact. Ask the wallabies.


Frankly, I find all four impediments to interstellar travel to be daunting, with a possibility that one or all of them might -- despite current calculations -- finally turn out to be prohibitive.

But so far, there is nothing to convincingly force us to pre-conclude they are prohibitive. Moreover, to do so, without exposing the subject to eclectic enquiry, is simply the height of dishonesty.

No, the thing that makes me start to doubt Interstellar Travel is not derived from any of Seth's arguments, but rather the current condition of the solar system, with our asteroids apparently never touched, and the Earth, with only one episode of sudden life change etched into the rocks. (The eukariotic boom), across the vast two billion year epoch when our planet was “prime real estate.”

The Earth has been a photographic plate, a SETI instrument. And it seems to have detected nothing. Nor have the asteroids been extensively exploited by some voracious wave of self-replication or industry. That certainly puts a real burden on the travel-is-possible guys. Oh, it can be overcome in any number of ways. But it is a worse burden than any of the nonsense Seth Shostak keeps raising. (He is welcome to switch to this track, instead. It is far more logical.)


setisearchDo I think that METI will bring down some horrid devastation upon us? Not really. At least I think the odds are low.

But I do think it is time for us to start applying good habits to low-probability events that might have devastating outcomes. There are a great many of these, apparently, in the pipeline. Smart guys like Bill Joy and Michael Crichton and Jared Diamond are already out there, calling for renunciation and paternalistic control, in order to evade these catastrophes.

In fact, I share the renunciators’ worries... while disliking their proposed methodology. Given that paternalism has seldom worked, or delivered wisdom, in the human past. Like most of my fellow catastrophe specialists, at the Lifeboat Foundation, I prefer enlightenment processes of discovery, debate, reciprocal criticism and deliberation/negotiation. (The one process that Michael Crichton never portrays as even possible, let alone happening, in any of his plot scenarios.)

Which is why I find Seth SHostak's unwillingness to discuss any of this collegially, in open fora, deeply disturbing. It has riled up the contrarian in me. (And others.) Even if I accept that the odds of harm from First Contact are low, I want to see this thrashed in the open. And so do a growing number of dissenters.


singularityWhat do I REALLY believe? Of all the Fermi theories I've catalogued, the one I like best is (naturally) my own. It is based on the one clear trait of our planet that violates the Copernican mediocrity principle... the fact that Earth skates the very inner edge of the sun's continuously habitable zone or chz.

(If Mars had been much larger, say Earth size, it would likely have had vast oceans, kept in Gaia-balance by a dense CO2 atmosphere.)

Because of this anomalous trait, Earth is probably very unusual for a life world. The need to bleed off almost all of its incoming solar heat has necessitated an almost negligible greenhouse effect, with only trace amounts of C02. Hence making us especially fragile to the slightest manmade increase.

Does this translate into an abnormally rich Oxygen content and perhaps more land surface than most life-worlds? Unclear. But if one result were an Earth with exceptionally large continents and energetic air, then the implied galactic situation would be amazing! There might be intelligence elsewhere, but vigorous, fire-using land creatures would be rare.

Hence most ETICS could be sea beings, perhaps smart, even great artists and philosophers... but inherently unable to build starships or radio telescopes. Isolated on their ocean worlds, they all could be waiting for someone like us to bring the first starships. To give them the gift of contact. And then to learn from their minds.

And, here’s the crux: it would pretty much have to be done physically. In person. A sudden switch from one steady state -- isolation -- to a new equilibrium of chatter and trade. What a terrifically optimistic explanation for the Great Silence.

That is, optimistic compared to most of the others. It still depends on one thing. Us, getting our act together.

I like this theory for another reason. It offers, by far, the nicest potential destiny for our descendants. We'll be the postmen, the envoys, the ship captains, the explorers... the cops. With plenty of others to befriend, but nobody to push us around.

It also offers a way for the galaxy to seem so empty, without actually being so.

Oh, if only...

See more articles on SETI: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Accelerating Science... While there's still an Enlightenment...

Well, I cannot let despair over civilization's plummet into a dark age keep me all gloomy. The Enlightenment is still kicking... and I prove it, now and then, by posting barrages of really cool stuff!

Starting with...

Who Speaks for the Earth?

SETI-METIFirst - that article in SEED -- Who Speaks for Earth, by David Grinspoon -- is now available online. A good piece of science reporting about the SETI/METI controversy. Or whether a very small number of people should make huge, irreversible decisions on behalf of all humankind. (Anyone have a link to the Wall Street Journal followup?)

See a cool lecture by my friend, futurist and media/alternate-reality pundit Jamais Cascio, about VR.

Here’s a YouTube item that’s a must, a deeply-moving ballet of two amputees. Amazing.

The nonprofit Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) -- of which I am a founding member -- released a series of scenarios depicting various versions of a near-future world into which transformative manufacturing concepts may emerge. Across eight separate storylines, an international team of policy, technology, and economic specialists organized by CRN imagined in detail a range of plausible, challenging events -- from pandemics to climate crises to international conflicts -- to see how they might affect the development of advanced nanotechnology over the next 15 years.

Future in Review

See one of the best predictive news services in the world -- and host of the annual “Future in Review” or FiRe Conference.

Stefan Jones suggests this funny one... though it hurts too. I’ve spent ten years trying to get anyone at all to notice huge, gaping gaps in our dismal online experience. Hey, I don’t need to be rich as Sergey. I just want to see this stuff happen!

wrong-democracyAlong related lines, see DemocracyLab which appears to aim at improving the level of discourse and debate within an Enlightenment civilization that desperately needs better tools. My own take on this is a bit heavy. But it shows the Web is NOT living up to its potential as a helper in problem solving discourse.

Is this true? That the side of your car that your gas filler cap is on is indicated by the “facing” of the little gas pump symbol on your dashboard?

I’d also be interested in reactions to the Presidential Climate Action Project of the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs headed up by former senator Gary Hart and industrialist Ray Anderson. The Potomac Institute calls it “ the finest systems approach to climate change that we have seen. The principles are highly adaptable to corporations and countries other than the U.S.” Thoughts welcome.

See a speech on this topic, by my friend, acclaimed author, unleashed thinker, neurobiologist and climate pundit, William Calvin, delivered at the Chinese Great Hall of the People.

Accelerating Evolution?

ChidrenPrometheusFor those of you who missed it, here’s a link to the study indicating that human evolution has sped up, perhaps even a thousand-fold, during the last 10,000 years of civilization. See also Chris Wills’s CHILDREN OF PROMETHEUS: The Accelerating Pace of Human Evolution. Though nobody mentions one driver that I feel must have been huge. Beer. It provided a highly storable liquid bread, enabling people to bridge famines. When populations rose, water became polluted, so beer became necessary. It affected behavior, often in ways that culled out those with little self control. Resulting (I bet) in populations an average less intemperate or prone to addiction or rage. Though, we are still lamentably addiction prone. As in my rant about indignation junkies. Speaking of which...

Want a reminder that the Left can be loony, too? Here’s a cheery stocking-stuffer:

Better Never To Have Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence by David Benatar

UnknownMost people believe that they were either benefited or at least not harmed by being brought into existence. Thus, if they ever do reflect on whether they should bring others into existence—-rather than having children without even thinking about whether they should—-they presume that they do them no harm. Better Never to Have Been challenges these assumptions. David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm... The author shows that there are a number of well-documented features of human psychology that explain why people systematically overestimate the quality of their lives and why they are thus resistant to the suggestion that they were seriously harmed by being brought into existence. 

The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view—-that it is always wrong to have children—-and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a 'pro-death' view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.

Comments a National Review fellow “The author is a professor at the University of Cape Town. That's on the Cape of Good Hope, though evidently not in this case.”

To be fair, hasn’t the greatest question always been “To be, or not to be”? Ah, but if those who CAN be persuaded by these arguments then act upon them, won’t the chief result be the evolution of a species that laughs itself silly at these ideas? Talk about selection... (Actually, this stuff figures in my next novel!)

Looking to the Future

Over the past four years, in partnership with Google, the Bodleian and a number of other great libraries have gradually been transferring their holdings into digital, searchable form. By next year, the Bodleian will have put half a million books online. According to one estimate, Google is digitizing books at the rate of ten million a year, and it is not alone. Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon are all taking part in what amounts to a digital-literary gold-rush.

Scientists at the University of Oxford have built a device to beam waves of ultrasound into the body, generating bubbles at the site of a tumor. When these bubbles "pop", they release energy as heat - killing rogue cells.

"My forecast is that around 2050, the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots," said artificial intelligence researcher David Levy at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands.

The company Hyperion Power Generation was formed last month to develop the nuclear fission reactor at Los Alamos National Laboratory and take it into the private sector. The portable nuclear reactor is the size of a hot tub. If all goes according to plan, Hyperion could have a factory in New Mexico by late 2012, and begin producing 4,000 of these reactors. It’s self contained, involves no moving parts and, therefore, doesn’t require a human operator.

For the majority of Americans who do not travel abroad, the only visible effect so far of the dollar’s steep fall has been higher fuel prices at the pump. The Chinese imports that fill the big-box stores still cost the same, because the Chinese yuan is still pegged to the American dollar. But that may be about to change, along with many other things. Three of the world’s biggest oil exporters, Iran, Venezuela and Russia, are demanding payment in euros rather than dollars. Recently a Chinese central bank vice director, Xu Jian, gave voice to the suspicion of many others, saying that the dollar was “losing its status as the world currency.”

AMERICA has told Britain that it can “kidnap” British citizens if they are wanted for crimes in the United States. A senior lawyer for the American government has told the Court of Appeal in London that kidnapping foreign citizens is permissible under American law because the US Supreme Court has sanctioned it. The American government has for the first time made it clear in a British court that the law applies to anyone, British or otherwise, suspected of a crime by Washington.

Something is stirring deep below the legendary hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone, the first and most famous national park in America -- and home to a huge volcanic caldron. Parts of the park have been rising the past three years at a rate never before observed by scientists. They believe that magma -- molten rock -- is filling pores in the Earth's crust and causing a large swath of Yellowstone to rise like a pie in the oven.

Note: If the Yellowstone hot spot ever does blow... or the one under Mammoth Lakes... then every other news items becomes insignificant.

See some alarming statistics about American reading habits. Do have a (depressing) glance. (Do NOT use this as an excuse for contempt for the masses! It is a sickness of the left, as well as the right.)

Final bit. Apparently the titanically talented and pioneering web artist/cartoonist Patrick Farley, has lost his Electric Sheep web site e I mourn.