Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Best and Worst of Capitalism…and Vice-Presidential Choices

Two features: The first briefly spotlights the “most-candid US companies” and the least. (Guess which are doing better!). And finally, some thoughts about the vice-presidential possibilities. Lots to cover.

==Feature #1: The Best and Worst of Capitalism==

The insipid/stupid (and French) so-called “left-right political axis” has blighted our thinking far too long. It has let today’s chief destroyers of free-enterprise claim to be its defenders! Meanwhile, liberals let them get away with this, forgetting that Adam Smith was a chief founder of liberalism -- and today he would be an angry-radical democrat.

Now, to illustrate this point, let’s ponder a very informative snippet from Mark Anderson of the Strategic News Service, a leading tech-enterprise pundit: “We all like to think that the CEOs of public companies are being candid and forthright. After all, the whole point of Sarbanes-Oxley was to jail them if they aren’t, eh? What right does some overpaid self-dealer have to take MY money and then lie about where it’s going --- OK, I’ll calm down.

“The annual Rittenhouse Rankings on CEO candor shows that things are far from getting better. The study looked at 100 Fortune 500 companies, and concluded that business leaders are increasingly not able to give honest accountings of company operations. “The survey, which evaluates candor in annual shareholder letters, shows that confusing and misleading statements, or ‘dangerous fog,’ increased 66 percent in the survey up from 39 percent five years ago. According to Rittenhouse, here are the worst and best U.S. performers:”

1. Humana
2. ServiceMaster
3. Boeing
4. Estee Lauder
5. News Corp.
6. Student Loan
7. Coca Cola
8. Dow Jones
9. ExxonMobil
10. Merrill Lynch


1. Eaton 
2. Entergy 
3. Wells Fargo 
4. Novartis 
5. Target 
6. Toyota 
7. Williams Companies 
8. Sherwin-Williams 
9. Charles Schwab 
10. Loews

Mark continues: “Dow Jones has always been bad, and is now getting worse, with the purchase by Rupert Murdoch of the Wall Street Journal while he’s busy keeping the No. 5 spot down as well. Let’s reflect: two of the top 10 least-honest companies were two of the top five media companies, and are now both owned by the worse of the two. Hmmm.

“The good-news companies that stand out are Wells Fargo, Target, Toyota, and Schwab. No surprise, they’re all doing well today. Wells Fargo has survived the crunch and, holy smokes, is still making mortgage loans; Target continues to eat Wal-Mart’s lunch; Toyota is doing the same to U.S. carmakers; and Schwab continues its successful comeback, launched by the founder, who seems to stand for – honesty and integrity – in the eyes of its customers....... Hey Rupert, it’s never too late to change --- You could even start using real news, instead of continuing the Goebbels-like, government-fawning propaganda machine you’ve created.”

Wow. Who ever said that believers in real free enterprise can’t notice the crimes against enterprise being committed by Adam Smith’s hated “cronies of the king”?

I just returned from Mark Anderson’s annual Future in Review (FiRe) conference. See the FiRe site  about this lively gathering and come back in a couple of months, to see this year’s “Architechs Challenge” in which I dared a bunch of CTOs to solve an important tech problem in just 48 hours!

Return also to see also the keynote by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who is VERY optimistic about the potential impact of conservation technologies and especially cellulosic biofuels and solar thermal. Oh, and an interview of SF author Bruce Sterling - conducted by my friend, brilliant tech artist and Jesus lookalike Sheldon Brown. (Oh and have a glimpse at the production model Tesla Roadster!)

== Before our second feature: a few comments ==

For a long but worthy and smartly written view of 40 years of American political history. “ Goldwater was to Reagan as McGovern is to Obama.”See: The Fall of Conservatism: Have the Republicans Run out of Ideas? by: George Packer, in The New Yorker.

All right I guess I should comment (belatedly) on Spitzer & Paterson and all that, dang! I guess I can no longer claim that the goppers far outnumber dems, in the area of sex scandals. Still, never to let their lead go challenged for long, here’s a fine defender of family values. Rep. Vito Fossella (N.Y.); the father of three from Staten Island yesterday announced that he has a fourth, a 3-year-old love child with a woman from Virginia . That admission was prompted by his drunken-driving arrest in Virginia... Neither is Boehner likely to be helped by a Senate ethics committee decision yesterday exonerating Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) over his use of the "D.C. Madam's" call girls. The Senate cleared him because the prostitution occurred when he was in the House -- and the House can't punish him because he left for the Senate. The madam, meanwhile, killed herself by hanging last week. (That is the story, at least.)

== Feature #2: Choosing a Vice President ==

Regarding the looming question of the vice presidency, who will Senator Obama select? There’s talk about opting for Senator Clinton. And millions of us praying “no, please!” Give her and Bill 1,000 patroage slots! A Supreme Court appointment, anything. We need her campaigning in liberal strongholds in October, firing up her supporters... not saying provocative things on Fox and firing up the other side. The difference is day vs night.

A gesture to her wing of the democratic melange would be Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, who backed BHO early and who managed to win re election by a landslide in a normally Republican prairie state. She is articulate, persuasive, ad - tho she’s not an HRC supporter herself - would also serve as an excellent offering to those Hillary supporters who have proved themselves to be, well, rather ferociously single-issue. (An aside. Can you believe that feminists would actually utter the self demeaning and brittle phrase: “This may be my one chance to see a woman elected president!” Have any of them seen the new generation of karate-chopping young women out there? A generation that they helped to create? What a horrifically dour and sexist thing to say!)

Sebelius is impressive, but she cannot be first choice. I doubt she can drag the prairie states into Obama’s column. And I doubt BHO needs to choose a woman to appease HRC supporters. (Eventually, Hillary will realize, she must kiss and make up, or die politically.) Moreover, it does the dems no good to be seen as fetishistically diversity-obsessed. They need to reassure the ostriches. And to utterly neutralize McCain’s (illusory) toughness/security advantage. For that, we need somebody who embodies and radiates “solidity.”

The blogger known as “jester” offered this, some time ago: “(Virginia Senator Jim) Webb would almost certainly deliver Virginia. That alone would virtually cinch the election. Moreover, any other year.'Nam vet, Marine, Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, son in Iraq, Southern Senator, author of "Born Fighting -How the Scots-Irish Shaped America" and descended from a family which has served in every American war, married to a Vietnamese-American and speaks Vietnamese, lettered in Boxing at Annapolis, all around Man’s Man, life-long hunter, healthy, handsome but not pretty, smart but not egg-heady, great speaker, feet planted solidly on the ground.”

Added details? Silver star, two bronze stars, two purple hearts, and the Navy Cross. (Let’s just see them try to swiftboat this guys!) From 77-81 he worked pro-bono as a Veterans lawyer. He won an Emmy for his PBS documentary on Marines in Beirut. He opposed the war from the start. He drafted the amendment to the declaration on Iran which stated that the President still had to come back for congressional authority if he wished to attack.

Want to read Webb’s prescient article, back in 2002, criticizing the neocons rush into an Iraq War? Here’s an excerpt: ”America's best military leaders know that they are accountable to history not only for how they fight wars, but also for how they prevent them. The greatest military victory of our time -- bringing an expansionist Soviet Union in from the cold while averting a nuclear holocaust -- was accomplished not by an invasion but through decades of intense maneuvering and continuous operations. With respect to the situation in Iraq , they are conscious of two realities that seem to have been lost in the narrow debate about Saddam Hussein himself. The first reality is that wars often have unintended consequences -- ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days. The second is that a long-term occupation of Iraq would beyond doubt require an adjustment of force levels elsewhere, and could eventually diminish American influence in other parts of the world.“

It just doesn't get any better. The question is, has Clinton managed to stir up the Ire of enough women who haven't burned their NOW cards yet to make a female VP mandatory?”

On the Republican side... There is much to consider. Just last night I watched a documentary about Harry Truman, and was reminded that the VP choice is a very serious one. Not only in terms of helping electability... or vs. the chance that the President might pass away... but also because the last two VPs were actually very significant players on the national stage. Indeed, Al Gore will historically be credited (along with Bill Clinton) for dramatically re-inventing the office into one that is no longer the butt of jokes. As “assistant president” Gore was very busy and accomplished. And Dick Cheney took this trend farther, indeed, being sometimes called the true power behind the throne.

So who might McCain choose? Well, there is much talk of Mitt Romney (shudder) and Huckabee. But I think McCain will be smart enough not to go to the crazy right for his veep choice. He must know that will make him seem more useful to certain powerful men in past-tense, than present. I hope he has the savvy not to give them that temptation. Though, on the other hand, if he chooses a mainstreamer, he risks a rebellion on the right.

One thought, though; is it possible that this senior citizen needs, well, adult supervision? Take this horrendously nasty joke McCain made at a 1998 Republican Senate fundraiser. "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?" he asked. "Because her father is Janet Reno." In citing this malignant moment on the Huffington Post, Paul Loeb goes on to point out: Sure, McCain apologized after a flurry of media coverage, but talk of that sort is cheap. It's like his using the excuse that he'd had a long day, after snapping at his own wife at a 1992 campaign event: "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you c*nt." That was his public response to her teasing him about his thinning hair. But the Chelsea "joke" was from a prepared text, not accidental. It's a window into McCain's cruel side.

All told, this is going to be a year when these VP choices add significant drama and import to an already dramatic year.

(For comparison, go to the NPR site and skim through the feature “This weekend in 1968.” Dang! Forty years have passed. The year that left us all quivering in exhaustion. I sure hope we are not headed back into such interesting times.)

== Quotation Fest: ==

One of the nicest things about being big is the luxury of thinking little. - Marshall McLuhan

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves. - William Pitt

Oppression, like darkness, does not come upon us suddenly. It creeps upon us step by step virtually unnoticed until suddenly we recognize that twilight has passed and it is nighttime and we are not free. - William O. Douglas

"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" - Joseph Welch

"Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know." Montaigne

"A strong conviction that somthing must be done is the parent of many bad measures." -Daniel Webster

"The poor have occasionally objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all." - Chesterton

A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood of ideas in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people. - John F. Kennedy

Pat Buchanan (paraphrasing the social critic Eric Hoffer): "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."
(Speak for yourself, Pat! If the shoe fits….)

==Transparency and News==

And finally, a transparency-related item and a reminder...

* Learn about last week’s panel at Computers, Freedom and Privacy” commemorating the 10th anniversary of my book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?  Quite an honor -- as it’s one of the few public policy books from the 20th Century that is not only still in print but sparking lively discussion, as the issues grow more pressing every day.

* As for the 2008 presidential campaign, well, the lady has yet to sing what we want to hear. Still, looking ahead, I again urge that folks already start taking responsibility for a few “decent republicans” who aren’t trogs, aristos or racists. Sincere conservatives in denial over what’s happened to their movement. Expect stubbornness! Even willingness to follow Fox-generated rationalizations over a lemming-cliff. Still, if you can pull just one “ostrich” out of its hole, you’ll be part of a revolution. And I’ve supplied ammo!

Only, remember, don’t get into a party-line fight! What works is to show that the GOP has betrayed decent conservative values worse than democrats ever could!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Corn, Ethanol, Farms, Food and the Logic of the Granary

First, a recommended podcast for that wavering ostrich of yours. George Kenney interviews Frank Schaeffer, whose memoir, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back, tells of a journey from helping found the evangelical right, to enthusiastic support for Barack Obama. One perspective that I also urge - recognizing the profound commitment made by our military men and women vs. the way they've been despicably betrayed by the Bushite Cabal. Ironically, Schaeffer sees deep parallels between the Obama-led youth movement and the best instincts of those who sign up to serve.

Speaking of ostriches, let's look past the struggles for the Democratic nomination at the big picture, rehearsing what we’ll say in the General. Care for another look at my own two sets of suggestions? First, a few neglected policy planks that the Dems have missed so far (some of them sure winners), and second a fully-fleshed-out list of arguments to split that honest-but-reluctant conservative uncle of yours away from a movement that has thoroughly betrayed him, couched in terms a conservative might understand.

And now... our feature:

Corn, Ethanol, Farms, Food and the Logic of the Granary

In the flux of rapid change, new alliances and alignments are being made, as we speak. Some conservative pastors are reversing themselves and speaking out for "creation-tending" and action on climate change. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are reversing their opposition toward nuclear power, which does not emit greenhouse any gas.

Will wonders never cease? Indeed, if Barack Obama and the democrats show any agility at all (as in Mississippi, where they ran a socially conservative but still reasonable Democratic candidate to represent a deeply socially conservative district, and won) then more of these negotiated re-alignments will take place. Indeed, one can hope these are signs of a shift from the dogmatic intransigence that benighted the first decade (the Nasty Oughts) of a dour Twenty-First Century. Indeed, we may be finally shaking off a bad case of Future Shock that swept America, along with that fearsome "2" in the millennium column. We are, after all, a civilization that was founded on pragmatic negotiation and scientific progress, embracing good ideas, even when they come from another "side."

The History and Common Sense of Farm Subsidies... and What Happened

Let me try to zero in on one area where logic and pragmatism has been in stark, short supply. The whole question of farm subsidies, and how they have lately spurred a giant biofuels industry -- one that could be set up in a way that makes sense... but for the simplemindedness of both sides. A remarkable lack of insight has been displayed, both by supporters and by those opposed to biofuels... leaving in place a scam, instead of a process that could have worked well.

First a little history. Remember Joseph? He of the technicolor coat, who wandered into Egypt and interpreted a Pharaoh's dream? Seven fat cows, followed by seven skinny ones, forecast a time of bumper harvests, and then a time of devastating famine. That is, unless sufficient stocks were bought and stored away. Which, forewarned, the Pharaoh did, ultimately thanking Joseph for saving the nation.

Historians can now verify that the Egyptian state used to do this sort of thing, quite often, in a routine and simple way. Whenever crops grew abundant and grain prices were low, the government bought and stored grain, both assisting farmers and creating a stockpiled reserve. When supplies were thin and prices ran high, the caches were opened and stores sold, softening price swings, letting both farmers and consumers have a little predictability in life. Any resulting profit to the government helped to maintain to recoup the large investment in constructing granaries

A simple system. Everyone benefited. Farmers weren't bankrupted by too-good harvest years. The people weren't starved and taken advantage of in lean times. Taxpayers got their money's worth. The state's useful role paid for itself.

Now, there were a few special circumstances that helped Pharoanic Egypt master this trick. The dry climate allowed storage of grain for extended periods, for example. Also, there are a few things that simpleminded kingdoms do really well, such as repeating the same working pattern, over and over. Pivotally, those ancient farmers did not have a massively powerful voting bloc, able to sway government policy and alter the arrangement in shortsighted ways. A failure mode of later, more sophisticated nations.

Take the US Great Depression, a time when urban populations went hungry, while farmers poured excess milk into sewers, because the price was too low to be worth shipping. Under the New Deal, various methods were tried, for helping rural populations hard beset by market ructions... as well as dust bowls, foreclosures, bank failures, disease and bad land mismanagement. Some of the solutions -- e.g. roads, schools, electrification, subsidized post, phone and internet -- seem proper tasks for government, even from a conservative perspective. (Now, at least.)

Notably, urban taxpayers never demanded payback for a cent of all that infrastructural support -- a tradition that continues today, as a river of tax dollars continues to flow from Blue to Red. Nor should they. (Nor should rural folk brag about how "independent" they are.)

How did Farm Policy Leave Common Sense Behind?

Infrastructure is an easy decision, but how to damp the swings in market price? Of course, the most direct approach for achieving rural assistance, and the one that involves the most market-meddling, has been direct farm subsidy payments and price supports. And, way back in the 1930s, stage one looked pretty darn traditional. The government often simply bought up extra food and gave it to poor people, elsewhere. Some of the grain and milk got turned into storable items, like flour and cheese, to act as a national reserve for a few years, before getting recycled through food stamps and school lunch programs. And, yes, the government bought grains when they were cheap and sold them later, when the price was high. All very logical. Almost Egyptian.

Only progress follows progress. With all that education and infrastructure and investment, farmers got a whole lot better at their business. There came a time when US agriculturalists could not be stopped from producing too much! Domestically, at least, there was no longer a "famine" side of the cycle, for the government to dump its stockpiles into. And sure, the government tried making this a win-win by sending massive amounts overseas, as foreign aid. But, while some of this was genuinely life-saving, we now know that a result was -- just as often -- to undermine local agricultural systems and destroy a developing nation's ability to feed itself.

So the idea arose to simply pay farmers not to produce on some of their land. On occasion this has been done, in some countries, by purchasing some of the farmland outright, leaving it fallow or converting it to other uses, even parks. Farmers benefit from higher prices or collateral value for their land. Farmers also get higher prices for their crops, since less land is in production. And the taxpayers get something in return for this help. They get that land. It can be banked, just like that Egyptian grain. Only much better preserved and with ecological benefits, too,

But then, we are a nation where political power was deliberately titled toward rural states. And as one might expect, there came pressure for change. It began to occur to clever people that sometimes governments can be arm-twisted into giving, without getting anything in return. (After all, look at the dams and highways and schools.) So, polemical tricks were used. For the government to buy land and surplus produce was "socialistic." On the other hand, simply paying farmers to keep their land, but not to grow anything on it, well, that somehow made sense and was not at all socialist.

This is an old, old argument, and I am neither qualified, nor interested in getting down to the actual fight over farm supports, per se. Or the way giant agribusinesses now collect the lion's share of subsidies that were designed to preserve family farms. Or the way opponents of socialism nevertheless have managed to rationalize demanding that the taxpayers' government never get anything direct and tangible, in return. (Socializing and externalizing costs while privatizing profits.)

But note how the second half of the cycle is now almost completely missing. When the government stabilized low prices by buying something tangible (grain or land) it acquired a tangible reserve that it could then use in emergencies or sell when prices were high. But, today, there are no large federal stocks of food pouring forth to ease the skyrocketing supermarket prices, nor stocks of reserved land being offered to young, suburban couples to try their hand, as new farming pioneers, Nor are the direct-payment subsidies being cut back, now that floods of profit are pouring into agribusiness. It is no longer cycle balancing. It is an entitlement.

Indeed, one sees some very "non-egyptian" things going on... like a US government hurrying to fill the National Strategic Petroleum Reserve with high priced oil. The same government that (does anybody at all recall?) sold out of the reserve, years ago, when prices were low.


Good question. First, some more historical perspective, provided by economic analyst John Mauldin:

North America has experienced great weather for the last 18 consecutive years, which, combined with other improvements in agriculture, has resulted in abundant crops. According to Donald Coxe, chief strategist of Harris Investment Management , you have to go back 800 years to find a period of such favorable weather for so long a time. Yet food stocks in corn, wheat, rice, etc. are dangerously low. We are just one bad weather season from a potential worldwide food disaster. And Dennis Gartman has been pointing out almost daily how far behind US farmers are in getting their corn crops planted, due to bad weather:

“… the corn crop really is behind schedule. Corn is not like wheat. Wheat can survive drought; it can survive cold; wheat, as we were taught by our mentor, Mr. Melvin Ford, many years ago, is a weed. It is an amazing, resilient plant. But corn is temperamental; it needs rain when it needs rain; it needs dry conditions when it needs dry conditions. It needs to not be hit by early season frost, or it will suffer, and it needs a rather archly set number of days to grow. Each day lost at the front end of the planting/growing season puts pressure upon the corn plant to finish its job before the autumn frosts, and puts increased soybean acreage and decreased corn acreage before us. Meanwhile, ranchers are reducing their herds, as they cannot afford to feed them due to high grain prices.The same thing is happening with chickens. This means sometime this fall supplies of meat of all types are going to be reduced. Maybe someone will point out that using corn to produce ethanol has the unwanted and unintended consequence of driving up food prices all over the world.

As usual, economic wisdom from one of the best analysts in our generation. So, then, let's bring in ethanol.

In recent years, a heavy and generous federal subsidy has created a vast corn-to-ethanol industry whose effects are causing a lot of public debate. Environmentalists claim that it takes _more than a gallon of imported oil to actually create a gallon of ethanol fuel. The greenhouse gas benefits are negligible and possibly negative. According to Mauldin, the price and energy balance would be much better if we imported Brazillian sugar cane, which seems made for ethanol production. But farmers in Idaho apparently have a veto over anything sensible like that.
Of course, never mind the blatant silliness of pouring food into our gas tanks, while poor people around the world riot over skyrocketing prices and we, here, feel a sharp pinch in the store.
Here we see democracy at its almost-worst. (Wherein hypocritical conservatives who keep citing the infamous "largesse" diss upon the common citizen, are actually by far the worst offenders. Just Google "democracy largesse" to scan this calumny.)

The entrenched special interests are vast, so don't expect them to enter into negotiations to find a logical way out of this mess. Indignant rationalizations abound, and everybody seems convinced that their own version of government-suckling is not socialism. It is patriotism.

The Right Way to Apply Hard Liquor...

But now I plan to surprise you.
I will speak up not only for government price intervention to help farmers, but also for subsidized biofuel alcohol!

Though not as it is being done today.

Perhaps it is time to take a look back at the Egyptians of old, and go back to the root of the problem, so to speak. Farmers (especially giant agribusinesses) do not deserve automatic subsidies as some kind of birthright. On the other hand, the ancients were onto something and we are all better off if farmers are cushioned from wild market swings and get the kind of predictability that can let them invest in what is, after all, a business vital to us all.

Back when the New Dealers and Great Society folks tried to balance the cycles by buying cheap-excess bumper crops and storing for lean days, they ran into a problem. A vast, continental nation can only store up so much grain and cheese. In part, the move to simple cash grants came out of despair over how to do the job effectively, the Egyptian way.

But here is where alcohol comes in! Because alcohol can be stored. In fact, it can be stocked away beautifully.

What was done pathetically under Lyndon Johnson... turning excess farm production into mountains of wasted cheese... can now be done logically and efficiently.... if we make biofuel ethanol a seasonal or occasional way to absorb and store, and later use, excess grain surges.

Let the subsidy go away. It insane and the money could be far better used making up for fifteen years of deliberately sabotaged research into energy independence.

Instead, let the taxpayers buy corn when its price is low, convert it into storable form, and sell the alcohol when the price seems right.

We need to stop thinking of ethanol as an alternative to imported oil. That's just silly and a crutch for those diverting us from real solutions for energy independence. Nevertheless, ethanol can be viewed as a wonderful way to store the produce of America's fertile fields, in a form that will be easily convertible, at some future date, into fuel, or money... and thus even back into food.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Announcements, Articles and Stranger Eyes

The Image category submissions for the “Uplift UniverseComputer Graphics Society contest are closing on Monday 12th May, so gather up all your little green men and submit them to the contest before the end of this weekend! There is over US$100,000 in prizes being dished out, so get involved before it all gets zapped with a laser. (Those doing movie trailers have a month longer.)

throughstrangereyesTHROUGH STRANGER EYES -- a collection of my book reviews, introductions and essays on popular culture -- will soon be released in the Western Hemisphere by Nimble Books and in the Eastern Hemisphere by Altair (Australia). Included will be those infamous articles such as  J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age and
Star Wars: Mythology and Ingratitude, as well as sober reflections on Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail, and Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows ...

...plus scientific ponderings on Feynman and Gott, appraisals of Brunner, Resnick, Zelazny, Verne, and Orwell... all the way to fun riffs on the Matrix and Buffy! Watch for news here!

------ Speaking of... um... genius. Nathan Myhrvold and his Intellectual Ventures innovation superorganism are subjects of an in-depth New Yorker profile. And yes, I can testify that the tales about Nathan are scarcely exaggerated. Some people really do make better use of both dollars and neurons than others. (My eldest son is especially anxious to see the famed Myhrvold collection of analog and mechanical calculating machines, though I told him he must invent something first, in order to make up for spilling wine across Nathan’s table cloth, when he was a one-year old.)

------- A way to contribute to disaster relief in Myanmar. Mike Treder has researched what he thinks may be the best avenue... the Burmese monks' cyclone relief efforts.

------- And just when I get exhausted, arguing with dreamy SETI fetishists over whether sapient life in the universe must automatically be altruistic... and I am tired of being the bad guy, the grouch, pointing out that “it ain’t necessarily so”... along http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifcomes something that reminds me that I really am the guy who wrote about dolphins and chimps in space. I really HOPE there’s altruism in nature. And Stefan just shared this heartening example.

------- Some fascinating introductory video on “computer forensics” by fellow nanotech policy theorist Steve Burgess.

And a cute satire of an online discussion forum of time travelers.


dowereallywantimmortalityTwo studies provide new insights on exceptional longevity. In a study of risk factors that may be part of the 75% of human life span variation not attributable to genetics, Brigham & Women's Hospital researchers estimated that a 70-year-old man who did not smoke and had normal blood pressure and weight, no diabetes and exercised two to four...

See  my essay: Do We Really Want Immortality?

A neckband that translates thought into speech by picking up nerve signals to the vocal cords has been used to make a "voiceless" phone call. (Um, hey, a little cred here?)

Peking University researchers have found five biochemical pathways that may be at the core of the process of addiction. Dr Wei and her colleagues wanted to answer three questions. First, what are the genes and biochemical pathways in addiction? Second, does addiction to different substances involve the same core biochemical mechanisms? Third, does anything in those mechanisms explain why addiction is so hard to shake off? Fascinating article. But still, no one will ask: does this hijack parts of the natural behavior reinforcement process?...

Disney Revives 'House of the Future.'

Converting corn to ethanol in Iowa not only leads to clearing more of the Amazonian rainforest, researchers report, but also would do little to slow global warming. It may often make it worse & exacerbate hunger.

Word of a 40 percent increase in the efficiency of a common thermoelectric material, making possible solar panels and car exhaust pipes that use waste heat for electrical power.

A study group identified 25 potential future threats to the environment in the UK, which they say researchers should focus on. In addition to well-publicised risks such as toxic nanomaterials, the acidification of the ocean and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the list includes some more outlandish possibilities. These include: • Biomimetic robots that could become new invasive species. • Experiments involving climate engineering, for instance and • Increased demand for the biomass needed to make biofuel. • Disruption to marine ecosystems caused by offshore power generation. Experiments to control invasive species using genetically engineered viruses.


Re setting standards based upon Microsoft Word... that is like letting Yogi Bera write a textbook on grammar or appointing Harpo Marx to the Supreme Court... not exactly immoral or criminal, but absolutely crazy. I still write using a 1996 version of Word Perfect for the Macintosh... a product that is now totally unsupported and that has gone unrevised for a decade! Why? Because the logical pattern of its commands, its formatting, its toolkit and the far smaller number of outrageously dumb steps made it seem designed by and for humans, not denizens of Planet Regrespa.

Seriously, Word is big and complex and follows a kind of logic. Every time I curse and scratch my head over some vastly complicated, multi-step weirdness that the whole world now takes for granted, because it became the “standard,” I eventually have an epiphany moment when I say “Oh! I see what they’re doing!”

Only then I add... “But... why???” Seriously. I have long suspected that MEN IN BLACK had it right. There are clusters of aliens on Earth, mostly in America, pretty decent folk, paying their taxes, fitting in. Some are inimical, like those pod beings who have taken over NASA Marshall Space-Nonflight Center, doing everything in their power, for thirty years, to keep us out of space...

And others, like a giant hive in Redmond Washington, just want to make money monopolizing our software. They don’t even mean us harm! But their logic is not our logic.


A cute comparison of ten differences between writers and mathematicians.

Want to take part in a survey about sci fi movie cliches? I mean tropes? I mean used-a-lot old stories?

Another brilliant Jared Diamond article, this time about the roots of the human impulse for revenge.

See a fairly long audio interview with me, in which Stephen Euin Cobb asks about what I liked... and hated... about my recent, top-rated, event on Second Life!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Signs of Life Still in the Enlightenment

Time for another scan across news and links that show a society still in motion... reminding us that we can keep the Great Experiment going, whether or not the politicians step in to save us...

Still, let's start with a glimpse of what the other side has in mind for us.

Stefan Jones saw the “comedian” Ben Stein, whose humor-schtick is to act as tediously dull as possible, promoting his sick new “documentary” Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. From the interview on Trinity Broadcasting:

Stein: When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.

Crouch: That’s right.

Stein: …Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.

Crouch: Good word, good word.

To which I gotta respond -- monstrous. Monstrous.

Here’s Stefan’s reaction:

“That's . . . disgusting. And f@#$ing lie. Does Stein believe that humanity never indulged in massacres and murder before The Origin of Species was published? Or that religion was never used to justify pogroms, extermination of native peoples, forced conversion, and slavery? I am ashamed to live in a country where the media treats this jerk (among others) as a trusted commentator.”

Oh, I don’t go that far. After all, Stein earned his fame and cred, fair and square, as the guy who droned the word “Bueller” over and over again, while gape-mouth teenagers drooled in boredom. Still, if we cannot return this nation to a path where such people -- and media -- are seen as marginalized loons, then we really are in big trouble.

Dig it, I lost as many relatives to those gas chanbers as Stein did, only:

(1) I didn’t turn my back on my people, as he has,

(2) Percapita, it was the scientists of Germany who fought Hitler hardest and then left, rather than serve him. Certainly at a higher ratio than churchmen! Goebbels railed against physics, modern astronomy, genetics and (yes) evolution as “Jewish and decadent sciences.” Especially against evolution.

(3) Hitler was waging war foremost against the Western Enlightenment (as well as Jews and communists). Though he despised Christianity in principle, he was fine with co-opting it and incorporating it in propaganda. There were christian chaplains serving the SS at every hellish camp. But you’d find NO exemplars of the “priests” of the Enlightenment -- questioning scientists, questioning lawyers and writers, questioning citizens -- except inside the wire.

I could go on with about fifty more reasons that Stein and his promoters are personifications of everything that caused Auschwitz. But suffice it to say that we owe him a debt of gratitude. The pretense is over. He has said it openly. Till, now, the fundies have been claiming that they respect science but only want it opened up a bit. Now the real party line has been drawn. It is the fundies against science. Not fighting for openness in classrooms. Not seeking equal time. But hating the very thing that made our Great Experiment possible. Sons and daughter of Ben Franklin, stand up.


As you know, I have long been involved in the debates over extraterrestrial intelligence. I am helping to organize what I hope will be the first eclectic international conference to discuss the merits (or faults) of METI or “message to ETI” -- which you can read about here. For almost thirty years, I’ve been trying to lay out the range of possible explanations for what I coined “The Great Silence” -- the quandary of why the cosmos appears to not only have no other (blatant) voices nearby, but shows no (as-yet blatant) sings of ever having been crisscrossed by advanced civilizations.

Now, “Mr. Existential Catastrophe, Oxford’s Nick Bostrum, has weighed in with a vastly entertaining - if worrisome - view that any discovery of past or present life on Mars or Europa would have to be viewed as very bad new. Read Nick Bostrom's  “Where are they? Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing“ in MIT's Technology Review.

Alas, nobody seems interested in looking at this problem from a truly comprehensive approach. If you’d like to see the one time it was tries, see my article: “The Great Silence: The Controversy Concerning Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life.” Still, Bostrum’s popularized article lays down the challenge that we face -- to grow up past our present dangers and get mature enough to be worthy to be the helpers of others, out there. In fact, my new novel is about these "existential threats.


Tru-Vu goggles anyone?

Finally saw last year’s sci fi film Sunshine. Terrible title and the film had many flaws. But I recommend it as refreshingly different, totally non-Hollywood and non-formulaic in its style and story-arc.

Inside The World's First Billion-Dollar Home. And these people actually expect to keep this place? History is never read by those who need most to understand it.

Here's a real cute web site for science/math lovers

Attention all uplifters... A Harvard researcher discusses humaniqueness,” the factors that make human cognition special. Recently, scientists have found that some animals think in ways that were once considered unique to humans: For example, some animals have episodic memory, or non-linguistic mathematical ability, or the capacity to navigate using landmarks. However, despite these apparent similarities, a cognitive gulf remains between humans and animals. Hauser presents four distinguishing ingredients of human cognition, and shows how these capacities make human thought unique: the ability to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding; to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation; to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input; and to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input. (I’ll bet exceptions will be found, as were, for every other criterion.)

The Secret China-U.S. Hacking War.

Autism may be linked to a diminished sense of self. Watching brain activity during a quid-pro-quo game, scientists found that high-functioning autistics tended to treat the “other” player the way most people do, when playing vs a computer. (So, are we creating a world that is more suitable to them?)

Meanwhile, as expected (you saw it here) there has arisen an autistic rights movement, demanding that the condition not be considered a deficiency at all, but simply another part of human diversity.

Retina implant receives signals, energy wirelessly.

DARPA wants to develop Vulture... a robot plane that could stay aloft for up to 5 years...


This popular, much viraled video seems too good to be true. It cannot be a complete hoax (see the number of other YouTubed views of the same creature, available right next to this one.) Oh, of course the creature was carefully trained, as part of a money-making scheme. And yet, there can be no doubt that it knows what it is doing, and ratchets up our respect, by doing it. And now fans are demanding that I "uplift" elephants. I have! in a recent story...

...and finally...


Sociotard contributed: “Did you see PETA's new prize for test tube meat? One Million to anybody who can make chicken tissue grow without inconveniencing a chicken.” Great stuff! Note that science fiction novels were talking about tissue cultured meat 50 or 60 years ago. Pohl, Kornbluth etc. If it results in far greater food efficiency, I can think of few innovations that would go farther to improve the world. (Beef too!)

Note, also, that this reflects the new mood of liberalism... a turn toward pragmatic problem solving that includes a renewed willingness to negotiate over nuclear power. (Anyone out there willing to sift around and get us some links on that?) If liberalism does fiercely take up a can do, pro-technology, problem-solving ethos, it will complete the trouncing of troglodytic neoconservatism and truly win America’s Civil War Part III.

Nancy Pelosi? Are you listening? Restore Congress’s scientific advisory commissions!

No single act would better show that you are part of this new wave.