Saturday, February 23, 2008

Science & Civilization March On!

One of my principal themes is the importance of remembering what we are fighting for. It isn't only justice, liberty and accountability -- although those would be sufficient... and they have been horrendously betrayed. There is also the other side of the Enlightenment... the wondrous things that we do, that only a free and open civilization can do.

Despite the War on Science and the War against Professionalism -- and the deliberate fomenting of struggle between professionals and amateurs -- it is still possible to see a civilization forging ahead in countless directions!

Read on for a list of fascinating items from the frontlines of science and technology...

First a brief puff. I’m told that the wonderful old Dreamcast game - Ecco the Dolphin -- has been re-issued as a downloadable for the Nintendo Wii. It happens I wrote that game! Or... at least, I wrote the storyline and scenario and introduction. I admit that the other stuff -- like graphics and game-play -- are also terrific. Under-rated as all get-out. (Somebody report back here if it still has the same, lengthy/lyrical introduction?)

The WorldChanging site has an offering by Alex Steffen appraising the harm done by our sprawling suburban lifestyle, and tabulating the argument for higher urban density, in cities where people simply don’t need cars, or anywhere near as much concrete. (Hint... don't raise this with your favorite "ostrich." Attacking suburbia is not a win-win issue, yet.)

On a related topic, I introduce and moderate the theme of a video - and conference - discussing Jonas Salk’s notion of the “Good Ancestor Principle”... the question of whether our descendants will judge us to have been wise... or profligate and destructive of their chances for a decent life and world.

From the same idea-generating program (run by my friend Tom Munnecke) see a fascinating “apology” by Mark Friesse to Tim Berners-Lee for having rejected TBL’s original paper on the potential of a URL-based Web.

More affordable solar energy? Energy from fusion? Reverse-engineer the brain? Those three are among the 14 "grand challenges" for the 21st century announced today by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

The NAE's web site has descriptions of all 14 challenges leaving it to the public to vote on which should be given top priority. Rather than focus on predictions or gee-whiz gadgets, the NAE said the goal was to identify what needs to be done to help people and the planet thrive. (Thanks Bandit)


All of us -- all of you -- ought to watch this brief talk by Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion), showing an extremely persuasive and well research model for the wellsprings of both liberalism and conservatism. To know and understand is to better grasp when how and who to compete with. I’ve cited him before. This is backed up by quite a lot of research and he seems to accomplish something quite rare -- he makes sense of the American culture wars and shows how all of us may need to give a little. Budge a little.

There is also much that Haidt misses! For example, I think Haidt underestimates the way older, solidarity-loyalty conformity-purity imperatives still influence liberals, and especially leftists (an important distinction!) Possibly because his research questions are biased toward older rather than newer forms of group identification. (If he'd asked questions about purity in terms of food rather than sex, the conservatives would have been impure, the liberals obsessed with purity! Likewise, liberals... and especially leftists... have their own “in-groups” and authority figures. Indeed, his oversimplifications abound and miss, I believe, a profound separation in personality between (on the one hand) indignation-junkies of the far right and left, and (on the other hand) the more frontal-lobe-driven variety of liberals and conservatives.

Recall Hillary Clinton’s book “It Takes a Village” (to raise a child)? That seems to be a “lattice world” statement and the right wing response “No, it takes parents!” was resoundingly atomistic.

Above all, what Haidt is missing is the perspective offered by looking at how liberals and conservatives differ over the matter of “horzions.” Horizons of danger, inclusion, opportunity and so on. I believe that it is just as likely that you can separate liberals and conservatives according to how they feel about the process of horizon expansion, with liberals pledging fealty to that general process -- often at the expense of older group loyalties (like the nation) -- while conservatives reacting with deep suspicion toward horizon expansion and fetishistic inclusion while touting reflexive loyalty to older in-groups.

Nevertheless, Haidt provides five extremely useful metaphors that help us grasp just how different the liberal enlightenment mentality is. Moreover, he is right that educated and thoughtful people in our civilization bear a responsibility to try harder, much harder, to understand the underpinnings of their own beliefs... and even their opponents. If we don’t try, then who will?


Had enough about Star Wars? Or want more? Here’s an essay by the brilliant Athena Andreadis, that she wrote before ever hearing of my book Star Wars on Trial. While she noticed many of the same things I did, her fresh perspectives -- and hilariously-scholarly sentences -- are wonderful and make terrific reading.

John Kao believes the United States has an innovation crisis, and he’s calling on today’s corps of young technology professionals to sound the alarm. Citing technology pioneer Vannevar Bush’s assertion more than 60 years ago that “A nation that loses its science and technology will lose control of its destiny,” John Kao said the United States is in peril of becoming a technology laggard.


...and an interesting... possiblyrelevant(?)... news item...

DVD in firefighter's coat blocks bullet: A South Carolina man is thankful for a DVD that ended up taking a bullet for him. Colleton County Fire and Rescue Director Barry McRoy says he was leaving a Waffle House restaurant in Walterboro on Saturday morning when two men ran in fighting over a gun. Police say a bullet hit one of the struggling men, shattered a window and then hit McRoy. The bullet hit a DVD McRoy was carrying in his pocket. He suffered a bruise but didn't realize he had been shot. As he told a police officer what happened he noticed a bullet hole in his jacket, the shattered DVD case and a piece of the bullet. The DVD was nicked. It was a gift from an employee who had recorded a TV show about fire extinguishers.

Um... any chance that it was my “Architechs” episode about future firefighting tools? Any conceivable way to find out?

...and now a tech-news tsunami...

The demonstration site for the Implicit Association Test. (Someone try it & report!)

A space station astronaut does peculiar things with balls of floating water: (Thanks Stefan.)

A fascinating science blog entry about how rats use their whiskers to build accurate maps of their surroundings. A way-fun blog in-general!

When scientists found out that chimps had better memories than students, there were unkind comments about the caliber of the human competition they faced. But now an ape has gone one better, trouncing British memory champion Ben Pridmore. Ayumu, a seven-year-old male brought up in captivity in Japan, did three times as well as Mr Pridmore at a computer game which involved remembering the position of numbers on a screen. And that's no mean feat - the 30-year-old accountant is capable of memorizing the order of a shuffled pack of cards in under 30 seconds. The reason this is fascinating is that humans specialize in having a vast RANGE of abilities. The best human mimics can mimic other animal sounds better than any animal mimic, for example. For an average chimp to chomp a human champ into a memory chump, well... it indicates something deep and systematic.

In the race to perfect "regenerative medicine," stem cell therapy for animals is ahead of treatment for humans because it is not so strictly regulated. It's not experimental -- it's here.

Medicine’s dream of growing new human hearts and other organs to repair or replace damaged ones received a significant boost when University of Minnesota researchers reported success in creating a beating rat heart in a laboratory. But the researchers cautioned that the dream, if it is ever realized, is still at least 10 years away. The researchers removed all the cells from a dead rat heart, leaving the valves and outer structure as scaffolding for new heart cells injected from newborn rats. Within two weeks, the cells formed a new beating heart that conducted electrical impulses and pumped a small amount of blood.

Oy! Under the category of notions that attract dopes every generation... Bruce Bueno de Mesquita claims that mathematics can tell you the future. In fact, the professor says that a computer model he built and has perfected over the last 25 years can predict the outcome of virtually any international conflict, provided the basic input is accurate. What’s more, his predictions are alarmingly specific. His fans include at least one current presidential hopeful, a gaggle of Fortune 500 companies, the CIA, and the Department of Defense.

During an experiment originally intended to suppress the obese man's appetite, electrodes were pushed into the man's brain and stimulated with an electric current. Instead of losing appetite, the patient instead had an intense experience of déjà vu. He recalled, in intricate detail, a scene from 30 years earlier. More tests showed his ability to learn was dramatically improved.

The world's rush to embrace biofuels is causing a spike in the price of corn and other crops and could worsen water shortages and force poor communities off their land, according to a U.N. official.

But a biofuel startup in Illinois can make ethanol from just about anything organic for less than $1 per gallon, and it wouldn't interfere with food supplies...

...and bacteria into fuel uses 65% less energy than making ethanol.

The Toshiba Micro Nuclear Reactor mentioned in a previous posting does not exits! Apparently a hoax.

Just to show that all the liars out there aren't those we entrusted with power. There are scoundrels everywhere. And the only "disinfectant" - as Louis Brandeis said - is plenty of light.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why The Candidates Should "Stipulate"

Stipulate-electionIt's been said that a politician gets to be perfectly honest just once in a long career -- at its end. Refreshing candor sometimes pours after an old pol has faced the last campaign. No more fund raisers or need to flatter voters. One final chance, before the cameras, to tell the truth.

Frankly, though, we don't have time for that sort of thing today. Indeed, so many politicians hurry through the revolving door, into fat directorships and lobbying firms, that even this source of candor is becoming all-too rare.

Hence, I would like to offer here a suggestion that I've made every presidential election since well before the turn of the century. An unusual idea... perhaps one you'll call mad. And yet, an idea that could empower BOTH the Democratic and Republican nominees to do the nation a tremendous service before the campaign and the election even finish!

Yes, it calls for maturity, common sense and genuine patriotism... all in apparent short supply. Still, do hear me out.

As I've said, only a few officials spill their hearts when they retire, but when they do it can be colorful.

Take the day in 1991 when both Republican Senator Warren Rudman and Democrat Paul Tsongas withdrew from public life. They made headlines by jointly suggesting that everybody was at fault for the country's condition at the time, from then-President Bush to the then democrat controlled Congress, all the way to the American people. The pair castigated politicians of all parties for not telling citizens that burgeoning budget deficits threatened our economic well-being. Responsible economists agreed. A few even credit Rudman and Tsongas for spurring reforms that helped lead to the Clinton era surpluses.

A more recent example of post retirement candor came with ex Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's revelations about the second Bush Administration. It resulted in a fire storm of attacks from his own party. O'Neill's explanation for this candor? That he was "old and rich" and unafraid to speak his mind.

However one feels about those specific examples, we can all agree that they are rare. One of the chief flaws of our electoral system is that real candor is punished. Both sides may rail against each other, but they'll never aim bad news at us. Even if both nominees believe in their hearts that the public needs to face some hard truth, neither will dare be first to say it, lest the other side take advantage.

Think about it. Throughout the coming election we will learn how the candidates disagree on a myriad issues. We will also hear platitudes, as each tells voters what they want to hear. Logically, there must be a third category -- areas where these well-informed professionals agree with each other, but are afraid to speak out.

Alas, we will never hear whatever topics or beliefs occupy that logical box -- no matter how full or empty it may be -- because neither of them will dare speak first.

Now consider this. There is no political cost to telling voters what you really believe... if your opponent has agreed, in advance, to say the same thing.

Now at first, this statement sounds absurdly simpleminded.

After all, the metaphor for an election is a race. "Give 'em hell" combat, with no holds barred.

==The Third Option: Arguing Like Adults==

But wait. What's wrong with the idea of two leaders finding a patch of consensus amid a sea of discord? We cheer when this occurs among heads of state, overcoming differences between nations in order to sign a treaty that finds common ground. Then why not between candidates?

The process is called stipulation... as when the attorneys representing opposite sides in a trial agree to agree about a set of points. By stipulating these points, they help move the trial forward, focusing on areas where they disagree.

What does stipulation have to do with politics?

And, given the exceptional intensity of partisanship, in recent American political life, is it utterly dumb to even dream of mature behavior popping up, like a flower in the desert?

Bear with me for a little while, in a “what-if” thought experiment. Imagine, along with me, this weird, but possible scenario.

DisputationArenasArrowCoverSuppose, amidst the 2008 campaign, Republican candidate John McCain and his Democratic opponent were to suspend their mutual attacks just long enough to get together and meet for an afternoon. First, they and their staffs would cover issues such as scheduling debates, and how to prevent spirals of mudslinging. The people would applaud any agreement on fair campaigning principles. Heck, just seeing them talk to each other like adults might be refreshing. Think how the image might affect the rancorous mood we see in politics today, independent of policy disagreements.

So far, so good.

Only then suppose the two nominees do something unprecedented. They go for a walk, alone. Unpressured by cameras and media flacks, they talk. During this quiet moment before the rough and tumble resumes, they seek just a few points of consensus.

Don’t dismiss this too readily! For all of his faults, McCain has done this sort of thing before. So have Senators Clinton and Obama. In fact, the only ones to object would be those at the extremes, i both parties. Those wanting nothing but take-no-prisoners political war. Of the sort that has come near ruining our country. So, let’s ponder this fantasy a bit longer.

Oh, neither candidate will change the other's mind concerning major divisions. But what about issues where they do agree? Here we have two knowledgeable public persons, presumably concerned about America's future. Surely there would be some areas of overlap? Things that both of them feel we, as a nation, should do.

Now imagine that this overlap this results in a joint statement. Though reiterating a myriad points of disagreement, they go on to make public, simultaneously, their shared belief that America should, for its own good, pass law "X", or repeal restriction "Y". Further, they agree that neither will attack the other for taking this stand.

No longer pandered to, a lot of folks might say -- "Gosh, if both of them agree that the country needs this strong medicine, let's give it some thought."

This would not free candidates completely from the stifling effects of mass-politics. But it could let them display something we've seen rarely... leadership. Even statesmanship. Setting aside self-interest in favor of hard truth, telling the people what they need to hear, whether they like it or not.

==Is This Wish Impossible and Unprecedented?==

Well, actually, it has happened before, during the Presidential campaign of 1940. When Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, he approached the Republican candidate, Wendell Wilkie, to negotiate just such a stipulated agreement in the area of foreign policy.

Britain badly needed escort vessels for the North Atlantic and the U.S. had over-age destroyers to spare. But Roosevelt feared political repercussions during a campaign in which he was already under attack for breaking neutrality. Wilkie agreed to FDR's request, and declared that lend-lease would be his policy too, if he were elected.

Everyone benefited -- Wilkie rose in stature. FDR got his policy implemented, and the world was better off because political advantage was briefly put aside for the common good. On other issues, Roosevelt and Wilkie battled as fiercely as ever. Yet, that historical act of stipulation shines as in memory.

How might today's politics differ if two adults -- each the standard bearer of a major party -- agreed to let it be known how, in a few ways, they agree? Might they take on some of our most politically impossible subjects? Perhaps a cow as sacred as the Social Security retirement age, a compromise on gun control, some campaign finance reform, or perhaps shifting strategy in the endless, brain-dead War on Drugs?

That would still leave plenty for us to fight over, don’t worry! But note, there are millions of Americans who deeply yearn for a more mature approach to politics. If a candidate offered this, and the other refused... well, there might be benefits there, as well.

Is this quixotic proposal too much to ask of today's opportunistic brand of politician? Perhaps. Indeed, I have little hope that it has a chance of happening during the 2008 election cycle, while partisanship towers foremost in the minds of the partisan attack dogs who have turned America into a silly place for more than a decade, overshadowing any national good.

Still, our politics can evolve. Only during the most recent generation has the tradition of Presidential debates became so entrenched that no front-runner can now duck them. Ancient hurdles of age, race, and gender are falling.

==So why not barriers against candor?==

Might the Candidates' Post-Convention Summit become traditional, like doldrums in July and mudslinging in October? Someday, the whole nation may look forward to the occasion, once every four years, with a sort of delicious, nervous anticipation -- awaiting the one day when two eminent politicians will say not what is politically wise, but what is simply wise.

David Brin
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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Preparing for the Worst

to-do-congressElsewhere, I've had the temerity to offer some proposals for how the Democratic Congress might help get America back on track, even despite Republican obstructionism and presidential vetoes.

Now I'd like to present two more that are urgently related to this present primary season.

First: Democrats (especially Barack Obama) should start laying down rhetorical points in case of a terror attack or other major disaster, between now and November.

Second: There are five distinct reasons why the "Florida and Michigan problem" can only be solved by calling fresh caucuses. Indeed, this imbroglio can be turned from a lemon into fantastically beneficial lemonade.

--------Suggestion #1 Preparing for the worst----

What are the odds that America will suffer some kind of major attack or catastrophe, during the run-up to our national elections in November?

Yes, it sounds paranoid. But bear with me. Whether or not you have a penchant for conspiracy theories, a basic fact is that it would take something huge -- perhaps devastating -- to pull the Republicans' hash out of this fire they have made. So, why not take out a little bit of insurance, by preparing the mental landscape just a little?

One doesn't have to envision this as part of a plot. After all, our present leaders have been screeching this very possibility in our ears, declaring "emergency!" (largely as an excuse to cancel normal contracting rules) for most of a decade. Shall we not take them at their word and at least prepare, just a little?

It is vital for a mental and spiritual bulwark be established, to ensure that any such tragedy will not benefit those who brought America into this mess. Just a few basic talking points could provide that bulwark. Especially if someone like Barack Obama were to go on record that:

1) Urban America knows it is in the cross-hairs, and that "it is not a matter of if, but when" we will take another big hit. At one level, we are all citizens first. We are firm in our resolve to stand by each other. To not let our nation or its values be changed.

2) In any event, we can be assured that the next victims will respond with the same resilience that was shown by citizens of New York, Washington, Boston and Pennsylvania, back on September 11, 2001, a day when empowered citizenship made all the difference.

3) The scandalous decline in U.S. readiness must be reversed. Bill Clinton left George W. Bush 30 fully ready brigades, we now have none. Not even one. The list goes on and on. It will be a campaign issue! But establishing the point early will make any summertime attack our issue, not theirs. See my article: America's Declining State of Readiness.

4) Even leaving out such specifics, some general, rhetorical riffs about "fear vs resilience" would give people across the nation a resonant feeling, that any sudden emergency will be yet another a reason to choose change, not a cause to cling to bad leadership.

It isn't too early to be saying these things, or to be erecting thoughts of firmness in the minds of our fellow citizens. Indeed, if these notions are erected, it may help to prevent such a dire event from happening, at all.

If you get my drift.

------ Suggestion #2 The importance of being caucused -----

I am really hoping that the Democrats will decide to hold fresh caucuses, in Michigan and Florida. It is by-far a better solution than either disenfranchising those states at the convention, or else seating disputed delegations.

1) Spur-of-the-moment caucuses would be laborious, but not terribly onerous to hold. Especially in a year when volunteers can be had simply by opening a door.

2) All bitterness or fairness issues, leftover from the earlier disbarring of Florida and Michigan results, would vanish. People in those states should be thrilled to be given a last-minute chance to be the most important deciders in a close race.

3) Anyway, most democrats and independents simply did not vote, in those earlier events. Hundreds of thousands were told their votes wouldn't count. In Michigan, only one major and one minor candidate were on the ballot. Seating a delegation so-selected would simply be a travesty. (As one of you said: "Senator Clinton will almost certainly STILL win Florida. It's loaded with her strongest Demographics. That's fine. But let's have a fair process.")

4) Who could turn down the chance to throw a vast "Democratic Party Festival" in two states that will be vital in November? In fact, two that were pivotal the last two presidential elections?

What a fantastic opportunity! Just by throwing these caucuses... and letting independents come too... Democrats could create unbeatable buzz and momentum, causing many crossover voters to identify with the general movement... and incidentally benefiting candidates for state and local offices, across both states.

Indeed, the caucuses needn't cost very much. This year? Simply ask the people of Florida and Michigan for donations to pay for it! Ask. You shall receive.

5) However much energy Hillary and Barack pour into organizing in those two states, both of the resulting volunteer pools would be available to serve as ground troops, when they are needed in November.

These advantages are simply overwhelming.

In contrast, the fact that Obama does better at caucuses may tempt Hillary to try to seat the earlier-selected, highly questionable delegations. This will be divisive and bitterly resented. Especially since there is an alternative, one that has a general correlation with fairness.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Civilization forges on... and remains under threat

Surveillance is a two way street..

surveillance-two-wayWatching the Watchers: Why Surveillance Is a Two-Way Street: If governments and businesses can keep an eye on us in public spaces, we ought to be able to look back.

Meanwhile, the FBI is gearing up to create a massive computer database of people's physical characteristics, all part of an effort the bureau says to better identify criminals and terrorists.

What on Earth makes the civil libertarians think they can stop this trend, by trying to outlaw or regulate it? Are they really that stupid, to think that you can order back the tide? In ten years, not one of them has ever been able to cite a single example, from history, when top elites allowed themselves to be blinded. Fortunately, there is another approach... if anybody will listen...

The answer is sousveillance: We need to be able to look back. See my take on surveillance and sousveillance: Collected articles on Transparency.

Speaking of surveillance... "Aliens spying on us from another star system might be able to discern continents and oceans on our planet, using technology barely more advanced than our own."

Currently, the largest conventional wind turbines in the world produce only five megawatts of power. However, one large maglev wind turbine could generate one gigawatt of clean power, enough to supply energy to 750,000 homes. It would also increase generation capacity by 20% over conventional wind turbines and decrease operational costs by 50%. If that isn’t enough, the maglev wind turbines will be operational for about 500 years!

Speaking of which, Britain is to launch a huge expansion of offshore wind-power with plans for thousands of turbines in the North Sea, Irish Sea and around the coast of Scotland. The scheme could see turbines so large that they would reach 850ft into the sky.

An exceptional article about bizarre and tragic events at the edges of artificial intelligence research. (I knew one of these guys.) "Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?"

On the political front

Some of the most influential leaders of the space community are quietly working to offer the next U.S. president an alternative to President Bush's "vision for space exploration" -- one that would delete a lunar base and move instead toward manned missions to asteroids, starting in about 2025, along with a renewed emphasis on Earth environmental spacecraft. Dang, is sanity popping out all over?

The latest in a long series of fascinating articles by sexual-anthropologist David Buss has just come out: “Women Want It All: Good Genes, Economic Investment, Parenting Proclivities, and Emotional Commitment," in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

Bill Gates and ex-Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi have donated a combined $30 million to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will feature the largest digital camera ever constructed. Scientists say it will provide a "color movie" of the universe. The donation will go partly to the construction of LSST's three giant mirrors, which will enable it to survey more of the sky faster than any other telescope. With its three-billion pixel camera, the telescope will produce 30 terabytes of images that will be immediately available to the public online. (Comet and asteroid hunt from your home!) The LSST requires huge amounts of data processing. Project leaders estimate it will generate 1.2 gigabytes per second, which is orders of magnitude more data than the most data-intense astronomical application available today.

And a brief political remise...

Tell your favorite ostriches they won’t be alone! Barack + GOP = ‘Obamacans’ -Some prominent Republicans have caught Obama fever.

A fascinating article about John McCain in The American Conservative raises a number of points. Yes, the article does a good job of laying out many less-than-well-balanced aspects of the mercurial Arizona Senator and some disturbing inconsistencies. All important stuff and we can hope it will come out, and make a difference, come November.

And yet, what is the Agenda of TAC? They have managed to gloss over vastly far worse madnesses before this, more towering hypocricies and camel-loads of lies, perpetrated by monsters they happen to like. One should be aware that they are probably gunning for McCain not because of the crazy items mentioned, but because of his other half. The half that is NOT mad, or hypocritical. The part that is an honest American, willing to look past Culture War and negotiate with moderate Americans of all stripes. Talk about irony. Talk about hypocrisy.

An alert...

Veering to to a journal at the opposite end of the spectrum, but revealing matters just-as-worrisome -- have a look at InfraGard -- the FBI’s program to develop a quasi-secret network of private businesses that are shielded from normal transparency by trade secrets laws, to assist in guarding national infrastructure... and to get oligarchic privilieges, in return. Yes, the Progressive is lefty and biased. But the facts, alone, are utterly chilling.

It makes you wonder:

1) Are distractions like this the reason why the professionals of the FBI have let us down? Running around frantically obsessing on an amorphous “terrorist” foe that virtually doesn’t exist.... and to the extent that it does, is controlled by friends of the administration and is being pumped up, around the world by administration actions? Where are the smart professionals who should be following REAL leads... e.g. between domestic power brokers and genuinely hostile foreign powers? Doing insipid BS like this?

2) Just how much of this can the next president dismantle? Constituencies and agendas and terrible momentum have already built. Things like InfraGard cannot be dismantled without accusations of tearing down our defense.

These is a way to neutralize the threat WHILE keeping the aspects of these things that actually do some good. It is called transparency. KEEP all these new, paranoid endeavors. But strip them bare. Make clear that there is no need for levels of secrecy far higher than we had when the enemy was a powerful and insidious Soviet KGB! The very nature of the “terror threat” is one that is best countered with light. Secrecy is pointless, meaningless, counter productive, stupid.

Ah, but secrecy and paranoia are the objectives of this entire exercise. They are the goals, not the means.

And Finally...

The latest issue of Baen’s UNIVERSE MAGAZINE is out, containing two big items from yours truly -- Part Five of my comedic serial “The Ancient Ones”... plus a fast-paced, action novella “The Smartest Mob.” The latter is an excerpt from my novel in progress, another lavish, near-future exploration, like EARTH. This one is the best portrayal of rapid, tech-empowered citizen action that you’ll see, this side of Vernor Vinge! Subscribe to the top online magazine ever!

Now click to the coolest bit of urban theater. Will somebody please tell the organizers that it is an almost perfect rendition of a scene from my short story "Coexistence"  (in my collection River of Time).

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Russ Daggatt Appraises Super Tuesday

I'm mostly posting weekends, nowadays. But this appraisal by Russ Daggatt is too good not to re-post here for you all to chew on. (Why are so few pundits or news guys this good?):

Here is a quick summary of the Democratic primary battle as of this morning:

In the primaries/caucuses before yesterday, Obama had secured 70 delegates vs. Clinton 's 57. But Hillary had 193 "superdelegates" pledged vs. 106 for Obama. So despite Obama having "won" more delegates, Clinton was leading 250 to 176.

[Note on "superdelegates": The 2008 Democratic National Convention, where the Democratic presidential ticket is formally agreed upon, has 796 superdelegates (although the number is not final until March 1, 2008). Those superdelegates include all Democratic members of the United States Congress, Democratic governors, various additional elected officials, as well as members of the Democratic National Committee. But, note, even “pledged” superdelegates are not locked in and can always change their minds.]

Here is how the states sorted out last night. Obama won 13 states and Hillary won 8 (with New Mexico still too close to call -- about 100 votes separates the two candidates without counting something like 16,000 provisional ballots). Here are the states won by each.

North Dakota

New Jersey
New York

But, apart from bragging rights, it is the delegates that matter. And that’s where it gets complicated

The delegate count from last night is not final, and everyone seems to have a different count. Last time I checked: Obama's camp claims he got 847 to 834 for Clinton . NBC was projecting a range of 840 - 849 for Obama and 829 - 838 for Clinton . I don’t know of anyone (not even the Clinton camp) who is claiming she will have gotten more delegates from yesterday’s voting.

In addition, I've seen reports this morning showing the current superdelegate count at: 201 for Clinton vs.110 for Obama.

So that puts the total delegate count to date at ... who knows. Obama is almost certainly ahead in delegates awarded from the primaries and caucuses to date (a fact that seems to be little remarked upon in the media). Clinton probably has an overall lead of between 50 and 100 delegates if you count the superdelegates who have said they will support her. Despite Clinton ’s lead in the delegate count, I would say, on balance, it is advantage Obama right now. But it is close enough where an almost infinite number random events could swing it either way.

There was so much momentum for Obama going into yesterday’s races that Clinton seems to have won this morning’s “spin” battle just by holding on to a few key states like New York , New Jersey and California . But that overlooks the fact that Clinton had huge, double-digit leads nationally and in almost all key states only a couple of weeks ago. Given that, Obama’s performance was nothing short of stunning. However, as with New Hampshire, his momentum in the last few days created such high expectations that Clinton ended up beating expectations despite a performance (coming out of Super Tuesday with fewer delegates than Obama) that would have been considered disastrous only a couple of weeks earlier. Election night results didn’t reflect Obama’s win in the delegate count, which didn’t lend itself as well as the state “wins” to projections and early tallies. (And the lazy media has trouble getting beyond the state-by-state vote tallies.) Alas, “spin” does matter.

Obama also has more money than Clinton (having raised $32 million in January – at least twice as much as Clinton – more on that below). And at least for the rest of February, the schedule seems to favor Obama. Here’s a partial list of what’s next up:

February 9
Louisiana (primary)
Washington State (caucus)
Nebraska (caucus)

February 10
Maine (caucus)

February 12
DC (primary)
Maryland (primary)
Virginia (primary)

February 19
Wisconsin (primary)

March 4
(all primaries)
Rhode Island

April 22
Pennsylvania (primary)

State polls have been all over the place this season. Even right up to the day of the vote, a lot of the polling has been way off. So I won’t try to handicap any of these state races. (Except to say, I think Obama will do well for the rest of February, but Ohio and Pennsylvania probably favor Clinton because of their heavy blue-collar and unionized vote.) In any event, given the Democrats proportional awarding of delegates, it is unlikely that either Obama or Clinton will open up a lead in the delegate count that is greater than the 796 superdelegates (or even the 500 or so “un-pledged” superdelegates). If I had to bet, I would put the odds on Obama “winning” more delegates than Clinton between now and the convention. And a lot of the superdelegates will probably follow the lead of voters in their respective states. Still, if it comes down to the superdelegates deciding this thing, that is the kind of insider game that I would expect the Clintons to play well.

Another wild card is the Florida and Michigan delegations. As you probably know, the DNC penalized those states for not playing by the rules and moving their primaries up before Super Tuesday. The penalty is supposed to be that their delegates won’t get seated at the convention. The candidates were supposed to avoid campaigning in those states, but Hillary managed to become the only candidate on the ballot in Michigan and also took the most delegates in Florida . (Ironically, those states would have ended up having more influence had they scheduled their primaries after Super Tuesday.) The Clintons apparently believe rules are for suckas, and they are already insisting that those delegations be seated. 185 delegates are at stake, and Clinton leads 2-to-1. Expect very heavy pressure from the Clinton camp and the state parties in those states. It will get ugly.

Imagine the outrage among Democratic voters if Obama goes in to the convention with a non-trivial, but non-decisive delegate lead only have to have the insiders tip the thing to Hillary? (That fact makes me think it is unlikely that the superdelegates will go against the primary results.) But we all know, for the Clintons it is all about them. If they have to destroy the party to win, there is no question what they will do. (While president, Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” – positioning himself between the Republicans and his own party – tended to undermine the Democratic party even while serving him well. Similarly, had he resigned after the Lewinsky affair, Gore would have had clear sailing and an easy go of it in 2000. But, of course, he didn’t.)

Finally, money may become a big factor from here on out. It is being reported today that Clinton has already loaned her campaign $5 million in January and intends to lend it more. As I mentioned before, Obama outraised her in January by at least a 2-to-1 margin. And he tends to have a larger number of smaller donors whose donations are only for the primary race. Clinton , on the other hand, has depended more on a smaller number of donors more of whom have maxed out for both the primaries and the general election. With her inevitability bubble having been burst, the special interests may keep their checkbooks in their briefcases until there is more clarity in the race. In other words, Obama has the momentum, the enthusiasm and the money. The Clintons , on the other hand, have the wiles and a powerful establishment machine. Should be tight.

There is no drama on the Republican side. Being essentially authoritarian, Republicans like to follow a strong leader and their primary system is designed to produce one ASAP. With delegates awarded on a winner-take-all basis, McCain has clear sailing ahead. The only (remote) hope for Romney or the Huckster was that the other one would fall out and the crazy base would rally behind the remaining one. Fortunately for McCain, they both still have a pulse.

It is entirely possible that the Democrats won’t coalesce around a candidate until the Democratic Convention in Denver on August 25 – 28. Is that good or bad? I have no idea. With all the drama on the Democratic side, it might be hard for McCain to get much attention. But it gives the Republicans more time to heal their wounds, organize and build a war chest for the general election. But Republicans also won’t know who to smear – if they use the Hillary menace to unite their party (and that is the probably the only thing that can right now) it may just have the effect of helping Obama get the nomination.

Should be interesting.


More from me under comments, below. (For example, I think the dems will be sorted out BEFORE the convention, maybe well before. But I find the GOP race more interesting, despite McCain's obvious momentum.)

==See more: Politics for the 21st Century

David Brin
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Monday, February 04, 2008

Election recommendations, anyone?

For once, big states like California will have a say, it seems, in choosing the GOP and Democratic Party nominees. I don't like all this early packing of primaries while there's still snow across the northern tier. But at least there is some drama. And a sense, this Tuesday, that going to the polls will matter.

I've made clear that (with some small/nagging reservations) I support Mr. Obama for the Democratic nomination and (with much greater reservations) Mr. Paul for the Republican. Might I add another reason to the long list that I've offered before?

I've just returned from Europe where, I must tell you, the prevailing attitude is not only disappointment with America, but also a certain amount of shadenfreude, or secret pleasure, over how far into silliness we seem to have fallen. The spectacle of two "royal families" reigning over the American political parties for almost thirty years is viewed as proof that we have become absurd, lacking any confidence in our ability to draw new leaders from the general population. An age-old trap that we used to accuse the Europeans of!

It is, frankly, part of the same sickness that prompts the directors of major corporations to hire CEOs only from the same, tedious list of unimaginative, uninspired and terminally greedy golf-buddies. An utter repudiation of the ideal that markets and democracy will find talent from a great and vast pool, amid a brash and brilliant populace.

I won't pretend that there aren't aspects of Mr. Obama I'd have preferred to see tested and proved for a while, first. I pray that he is what he seems. But still, what he seems is worth a gamble. Because, what he seems to be is the best of what America stands for. He seems confident, honest, eventempered, and willing to pragmatically negotiate, free of fixed dogmas, helping us to work out, among ourselves, answers to a myriad problems.

This trait -- appealing to us to argue fairly with each other... and even perhaps to enjoy it, the way Americans have in the past -- is what I like best. And even though Hillary Clinton officially stands for the same thing, you know that it simply won't happen under her.

Yes, both of them would appoint dedicated public servants, instead of dogmatic henchmen, to posts supervising the skilled men and women of the civil service, officer corps etc, releasing the Bushite choke-chains and finally allowing those professionals to get back to doing the jobs we pay them for. (The fundamental purpose of government -- one requiring no further legislation -- and one that I am almost alone bringing to center-stage.)

If they did nothing else, that would be worth fighting for. Still, we should want more than that. Much more.

I am not interested in winning a battle or two in Culture War. I want to end it! And there is a glimmer of possibility that Mr. Obama could accomplish that. If we help him make this a blowout.

And for those who are registered Republicans? Well, he may be crazy, but at least a vote for Ron Paul would help him get a speech at the convention -- a speech where he'd fire up the libertarian wing and propel them toward confronting the dark cabal that's tried to turn America into a Banana Republic. (If someone were to whisper in his ear, "damp down the psycho-ward stuff and stick to the things folks like about you!" That'd be cool, too.)

Yes, If I weighed their political souls on a balance scale, Mr. McCain is more tolerable than either Mr. Romney or Mr. Huckabee. In debates with the Democratic nominee, he would cede several points, about torture and pork spending and global warming, and that would force a sudden, dramatic -- apparently miraculous! -- shift in the official conservative center of gravity. Indeed, conservatism is so agile, so protean, amoebic and ever-amnesiaic, that the McCain-influenced version would suddenly claim it had been against Guantanamo and for Kyoto, all along!

(Watch! Just like they NEVER opposed Martin Luther King. And "don't-ask-don't-tell" was THEIR idea, all along.)

Certainly the Los Angeles Times agrees with me. In their first presidential endorsement since 1972, they chose Obama (enthusiastically) and McCain (with deep reservations). I'm glad the smart and courageous Times of my youth is back. Still, McCain is SO weird and troglodytic in other ways... including accepting the psychotic notion that the War In Iraq has anything to do with enhancing US security...

...that he still has to be classified as a genuine, bona fide horror story. Fifty times better than Bush still leaves one a long, long way inside the borders of monster-land.

Can I say anything positive about Romney? (Talk about protean!) Or Huckabee? (At least we'd have it out with Nehemia Scuddder NOW, instead of waiting till 2012.)

No. If you must turn reflexively to the right... vote for Paul

Oh, the Washington Post carried an opinion piece by my fellow science fiction author, Michael Chabon, outlining his answer to dour democrats who come up with excuses not to support Obama. Good stuff.


The first Armageddon Buffet of 2008 -- second in importance to 2012! -- is now online. Always a lovely festival of cantankerosity. Special watch kept on that countdown to wars, famine, pestilence and all that.

And in similar spirit, do have a look (and viral) this one that makes you laugh & cry at the same time. (Thanks Zechariah.)


An article by the nearly-always wise Bruce Schneier: What Our Top Spy Doesn't Get: Security and Privacy Aren't Opposites. “The debate isn't security versus privacy. It's liberty versus control.”

How the rats are jumping ship! Daniel Pipes (of all people!) declares Bush's policies have failed utterly. Well, well, the fantastically delusional Pipes at least manages to criticize Bush, though surely enough from a very right-wing position. Though, at this point, less from a “seen the light” perspective than from an effort to retain a scintilla of relevance

Still, go to the article anyway, to see one photo that sure gives support to the simple, parsimonious explanation to all of our troubles. The “Manchurian Candidate” hypothesis, distilled in a single image. Viral this photo! And the one out there showing Bush bowing his head -- bowing! -- before a foreign king whose every move is against the American enlightenment.

Friday, February 01, 2008

News From Science 'n Stuff

Next year it will be 25 years after "1984" - is there anything planned to celebrate it? The Science Fiction world managed 2007-07-07 to celebrate Heinlein's 100th.

CrystalSpheresNewestCheck out the the StarShipSofa site, where they have some really terrific podcasts of classic science fiction stories. They made an earnest effort to recite “The Crystal Spheres” -- though it’s a very hard story to do in audio, filled with combined-words that most readers need to eye scan a few times in order to grasp or put in context. Something most can do unconsciously, but cannot do in audio. That understood, this narrator does a fine job with this Hugo-winning story (also available on Kindle and Nook).

Wow! A robot in Kyoto, Japan, mimics a monkey walking on a treadmill (background) in North Carolina last week. Neuroscientist Miguel A. L. Nicolelis at Duke University says it is the first time that brain signals have been used to make a robot walk. Name him Waldo!

Chemical Robots (ChemBots): soft, flexible, mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions; reconstitute size, shape, and functionality after traversal; carry meaningful payloads; and perform tasks.

For those of you who have seen Cloverfield (also called the “Blair Godzilla Project”) try this appraisal of how smart and well prepared (CERT-trained?) people might have handled the same situation. (Thanks Stefan.)

Design guru Don Norman offers the following interesting tidbit: “Two thousand years ago, Socrates argued that the book would destroy people’s ability to reason. He believed in dialogue, in conversation and debate. But with a book, there is no debate: the written word cannot talk back. Today, the book is such a symbol of learning and knowledge that we laugh at his argument. But take it seriously for a moment. Despite Socrates’ claims, writing does instruct because we do not need to debate it with the author. Instead, we debate and discuss with one another, in the classroom, with discussion groups, and – if it is an important enough work – through all the media at our disposal: printed newspapers and magazines, radio and television, Internet websites and discussion boards. Nonetheless, his point is valid: a technology that gives no opportunity for discussion, explanation, or debate is a poor technology.”


Lacking time/energy to sift these in with my regular link-missives -- and certainly lacking time to hot-link -- I'll just paste in these cool items and let Ray tell you about em. More from the singularity front. That is, if we can maintain a forward-looking civilization.

The Times' 70 best ideas of 2007 include Wireless Energy, Wave Energy, Crowdware, Wikiscanning, and The Best Way to Deflect an Asteroid....

CyberLover's automated chats is good enough that victims have a tough time distinguishing the "bot" from a real potential love interests.

University of Vienna researchers have trained dogs to distinguish photographs that depicted dogs from those that did not.

From the firing of a type of neuron, researchers can tell what a person is actually seeing.

Researchers at Cornell are attempting to use the same energy that drives sperm to power nanoscale robots.

UCLA researchers report that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals clear differences in the areas of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty. Their results suggest that the differences among these cognitive states may one day be distinguished reliably.

The US Air Force Research Lab is developing an electric motor-powered micro air vehicle that can "harvest" energy when needed by attaching itself to a power line, even temporarily changing its shape to look more like innocuous piece of trash hanging from the cable. Much of the "morphing" technology to perform this has already been developed.

Nanosolar has begun selling its solar panels made with a new manufacturing process that "prints" photovoltaic material on aluminum backing, which the company says will
reduce the manufacturing cost of the basic photovoltaic module by more
than 80 percent to less than $1 per watt.

Organisms invented in 2007 include insulin-producing lettuce, yeast with poison-sensing rat genes, cancer-fighting Clostridium bacteria, artful fluorescent tadpoles and butanol-producing E. coli....

A new Microsoft patent describes a system that monitors certain behaviors tied to frustration (such as elevated heart rate or taking an abnormally long time to complete a task), then triggers a routine that asks other users for help. (Um... right...)

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico have found a way of using sunlight to recycle carbon dioxide and produce fuels like methanol or gasoline. (Randy Montoya/Sandia) The Sunlight to Petrol, or S2P, project essentially reverses the combustion process, recovering the building blocks of hydrocarbons.

The partnership between Intel and the One Laptop Per Child educational computing group has dissolved in a conflict between Intel's $350 Classmate PC and One Laptop's $200 XO.

Well well. Pixel Qi, a company spun off from the One Laptop Per Child project, aims to create a $75 laptop. Technology advances planned by Pixel Qi include a sunlight-readable display system optimized for low-power operation.

A UCLA study shows that the central nervous system can reorganize itself after spinal cord damage and follow new pathways to restore the cellular communication required for walking.

Brighter LED Lights Could Replace Household Light Bulbs Within Three Years.

Metaplace wants to enable its users to build virtual worlds that could exist anywhere on the Web. With Metaplace, designers can build worlds using a markup language, style sheets, modules, and a scripting language. Every world acts like a Web server, and every object in a world has a URL. Raph Koster, president of Metaplace, based in San Diego, and former creative lead for the influential game Ultima Online, believes that the Metaverse should look decidedly different.

Merck researchers report that the cannabinoid receptor blocking drug taranabant helped obese patients lose weight during a 12-week trial, even at low doses ranging from 0.5 to six milligrams. Taranabant is the second appetite suppressant and weight-loss drug that works by blocking cannabinoid receptors.... (aw, where's the fun in that?)

General Motors has partnered with Coskata, a company that claims it can make ethanol from wood chips, grass, and trash--including old tires--for a dollar a gallon, using a hybrid approach that involves thermochemical and biological processes.

A controversial new study from Imperial College London scientists says traces of vast cosmic strings have been found in the cosmic microwave background radiation. If confirmed to exist, cosmic strings could offer an unprecedented window into the extreme physics of the infant universe....

...more, when possible...