Thursday, September 24, 2009

Scientific Failures and Wonders

See a well-balanced and cogent article in SEED Magazine: "Who Speaks for the Earth?" by David Grinspoon about the “METI imbroglio”... or whether we should allow a few fervent believers shout into the cosmos on all our behalf, based upon a narrow range of highly dubious assumptions.  The fairminded essay cites yours truly, among others. 

I’m also briefly interviewed about SETI at the Science and Religion Today site.

For those of you teaching or taking courses on “contemporary issues”...  See - hot off the presses -

Chainging-minds-issuesChanging Minds: Arguments on Contemporary and Enduring Issues.  Jon Ford and Marjorie Ford eds., Penguin Academics Series (2009) My chapter is on the future of surveillance.

“Into God” - The Upcoming Closer To Truth Feature Film, by Robert Lawrence Kuhn - may be of great interest, featuring interviews with luminary minds.

See a nice blog interview on Science Fiction and Other ODDysseys with yours truly.

Here's a video of a discussion on the Singularity, with David Brin, Vernor Vinge, Ben Goertzel, Jamais Cascio, Frederick Turner and others...

Ahem. I had an imbroglio with a minor (and somewhat new-agey) science journal -- The “Journal of Cosmology” after they first commissioned from me, and then rejected (amid childish editorial rage), a peer review of an amateur scientist’s paper on panspermia. That is the hypothesis, most-famously put forward a century ago by Nobelist Svanta Arrhenius, suggesting that all life on Earth descends from seed/spores that crossed interstellar space to land in our planet’s early seas.  After some hours of work -- courteously decrypting, appraising and discussing this paper -- offering both compliments and refuting evidence -- I was stunned by the editor’s response of actinic, unreasoning fury, based upon grievances that were wholly hallucinatory, bearing no relation, whatsoever, to anything that I actually said in my review.

I’ll not waste any further space here in this unpleasantness, though my review: An "explanation" for Life's Origins that falls way short is posted on George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments site, because of George’s intense interest in life origins.


How cool is this?  You may recall that I wrote the storyline, scenario and opening sequence to the famous Dreamcast game (now on the Playstation 2!)... ECCO THE DOLPHIN II: DEFENDER OF THE FUTURE.  Now it turns out that someone (in Germany) has posted on YouTube not only the opening sequence, but also the interlude sections, telling additional bits of storyline, after the player achieves each major goal.  Sure, the ten year old animation now looks a little crude.  But it was state-of-the art in its time and is still quite beautiful.  And the voice-over by one of the greatest of all Doctor Who actors doesn't hurt. 

See an insightful interview with Pete Garrison, strategic thinker and fiend of SIGMA (The think tank of science fiction authors) in the new Indian SF Magazine,  KALKION. 

When America expires, we probably won't agree on the cause of death. For proof that autopsies of empires are inconclusive, consider the case of Alexander Demandt, the German historian who set out in the 1980s to collect . The final tally: 210, including attacks by nomads on horseback, blood poisoning, decline of Nordic character, homosexuality, outflow of gold, and vaingloriousness."  from How Is America Going To End?  Slate's "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" lets you map out the death of the United States, by Josh Levin.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit fluffy.  I get a bit more serious in my tabulation, in the forthcoming blockbuster novel, EXISTENCE.


Hey, I’ve had my differences with the “New Atheists” like Dennett and Hitchens and Dawkins, who just don’t seem to get how immature and stunningly ironic their wrathful pulpit-pounding makes them look.  Nevertheless, a calmer and less dogmatically self righteous version of their militant confrontationalism toward fundie fanatics seems wholly apropos.

origin of speciesNow dig this: ”On Thursday November 19, 2009, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort (the banana guy) will be distributing 50,000 copies of Charles Darwin's 'Origin of Species' at universities across America to students for free. BUT THERE'S A CATCH!! Each copy will have a 50 page intro about how evolution has never been proven and how Darwin helped inspire the Holocaust.”  The noive of doze guys!  The Nazis burned Darwin’s Origin of Species!  The fundies’ insane position, that secularism leads to reduced compassion and morality and thus to increased violence runs diametrically opposite to every fact about the last 4,000 years.  And especially the last fifty.  If you rightfully classify both Communism and Nazism as quasi-religious mystical cults, then Dawkins et. al. are perfectly within their rights to claim that many parts of organized religion have been major drivers of human agression and pain.  Certainly, as we’ve seen, Red America has nothing to say to Blue America about morality, or teaching children to lead decent, responsible and ethical lives, since they fall far behind blue states and our cities in every moral category that can be measured by statistics, from divorce to domestic violence to homicide to STDs and teen pregnancy.  A certain amount of militant rejection of such BS is called for.

On the other hand, the New Atheists are self-righteousness druggies without a lick of sense among them. They need to be reminded who brought them to the Enlightenment party! Franklin and Jefferson and Washington and Madison & co. turned civilization toward this wondrous, free and scientific civilization, and those fellows were nearly all either Freemasons or dogma-hating but hyper-tolerant deists.  The original Boy Scouts.

Whatever “opiate” it was that they were taking is precisely what we all need, right now.


I am a total sucker for bridges. Some even make me cry. Really.  Literally.  I think they rank up there, among the best things in the universe.  Now see one of the most beautiful bridges ever created.  The O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Bridge across the Colorado River 1,600 feet (490 m) downstream from the Hoover Dam. The entire project is expected to be completed by September 2010.

About $240 million.
Having something this beautiful to show aliens, so they’ll decide we are worth something, after all? 

Oh, this, too, is Cool!  A piece of an asteroid returned to the telescope that discovered it.

Prenatal exposure to environmental pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can adversely affect a child's intelligence quotient or IQ, according to new research.


A (somewhat) amusing satire of cheap sci fi novel plot cheats. 

This satire represents something that (in a very different form) ought to happen.

Flying with excess baggage is a drag, but hummingbirds have mastered efficient packing. The tiny hoverers have less DNA in their cells than any other previously studied birds, reptiles or mammals, researchers report. Among hummingbird species, however, genome size doesn’t vary along with body size, suggesting that birds’ DNA was pared down before the diversification of today’s hummers. Scientists have long noted the link between small genome size and high metabolic rates — a notion first put forth in 1970 by Polish scientist Henryk Szarski. Bats and birds have the smallest genomes of backboned creatures, and flightless birds tend to have bigger genomes than fliers.

Eliezer Yudkowsky is a research fellow at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.  He’s also been writing some terrific think-SF.  Highly recommended mind-food.  Especially the first one. (Though, to see one place where he might have got the main idea, go to my essay on altruism in the universe, A Contrarian Perspective on First Contact, an early version, posted some years ago.  Especially the part about intelligent bears, sacralizing infanticide... hm.;-)

Science-program producer Thomas Lucas has developed a new series of shows that breaks completely away from TV, into delivery via YouTube.  Have a look at Cosmic Journeys. 

Terrrific blog on, by “Geek Dad.”

Fascinating -- why winter-born babies seem to have statistically more likelihood to have problems.  Surprising reason.

Claims of magnetic monopoles have circulated for years.  Here’s the latest.

A Durban IT company pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country's biggest web firm, Telkom. Winston the pigeon took one hour and eight minutes to carry the data 60 miles - in the same time the ADSL had sent 4% of the data.

Very interesting article about memresistors.  Seriously.


More... anon....

Thursday, September 17, 2009

And now... loons of the left prove that it isn't a monopoly

All right then, you've been warned to expect some of my trademarked "contrariness," this time.  A tendency -- call it a compulsion -- to always turn and point in some unexpected direction, especially if I have been looking one way for too long.  It drives everything from my chosen profession to science to politics.

And yes, today I plan to take a break from decrypting the political madness of the far-right and instead point my j'accuse finger to the left.

But first, do not even begin to interpret what I am about to say as "both sides are equally crazy."  Anyone who read my previous missives can tell which direction I condemn most harshly, as the core of madness and outright treason in American life.  I've spoken at length about the rightwing cult that has taken over the conservative movement, sending poor Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave and betraying America by sending our great nation into debilitating "culture war."   It is still monstrous and unbelievable that Rupert Murdoch and his co-conspirators can get away with posing as populists, while pursuing oligarchic takeover of the country.  Without  any doubt, that is the direction from which civilization and the American Republic face their greatest danger.

Anyone who doubts the tenacity with which I've fought this fight should have a glance at any of the following extended (and, I'm told, influential) missives:

Nevertheless, I have also made clear my utter contempt for those who simply choose one of the major ideological cults and thereafter march in uncritical lockstep.  People who pronounce themselves proud individualists, but then turn their suspicion of authority reflexes in only one direction.

Yes, the right is presently far more noxious and dangerous, having allowed their entire movement to be taken over by monsters.  But Lefties who forget Stalin and Mao are intellectually as bankrupt as righties who ignore 4,000 years of oppression by kings and lords and preisthoods.

In fact, nearly all ideologues can be categorized together by a set of sharedpersonality traits that run deeper than their differences of surface policy.  Far-lefties and far-righties both partake, for example, in a near-universal propensity for dismissing civil society as futile.

Contempt for the masses is the common steam that rises from every pore, as they preen over things that they "know" that "the majority is too blind to see."

(Am I unaware of the irony of my having typed the previous three paragraphs?  Since a majority of my fellow citizens do seem to swallow the abysmal notion of "left-vs'right" - doesn't that make me a masses-contemptuous snob?  Har!  Hey, I am human too.  The difference is that I know this pitfall and have schooled myself to be wary of it.  And yes, that is snobbery, too.)

So, as promised, I am going to offer a little balance, this time.  To remind us that the left can be as crazy as the right (even while being less dangerous, during THIS decade) go have a look at a horrific piece of preening nonsense that keeps being sent to me by liberals, who think that it is the best thing since spray-on cheese. It's called Sheeple of Amerika.

Feh!  Gawd, this thing is a calumny, on so many levels that I am tempted to call it deliberate psychological warfare against the Enlightenment.  Perhaps one of Murdoch's put-up provocations, crafted precisely in order to undermine liberal credibility.

Look, no one can teach me a thing about rambunctious contrarianism and suspicion of authority.

But think.  What is the most pervasive and relentless "propaganda" campaign in the history of the world?

When asked this question, people name all sorts of messages that they perceive as responsible for turning the masses into contemptible sheep.  Lefties point to pervasive "buy this" consumerism.  Rightists screech over the other side's incessant demands for conformist political correctness.  What's never mentioned is the propaganda that actually worked... on them!  If you asked these guys for a week, a year, and even if their lives depended on it, they would never guess.

Surprise, surprise. We are self-flatterers and so we never attribute OUR favorite traits to propaganda that filled our very pores, from a young age.  But there's a pair of messages that inarguably and statistically outnumber both "buy this" and Tolerance Fetishism, combined.

 We all grew up suckling Suspicion of Authority (SOA) combined with "I'm a F4$#$@king individual and everybody else are lemmings!" 

You see these twin themes conveyed in nearly every film, most of which also portray civilization itself (and its institutions) as utterly hopeless.  Usually evil. With some central/awful authority being bravely opposed by one -- or a few -- stalwart individualist heroes who don't need no institutions to stand between them and justice!

Think about it.  List the themes in nearly every Hollywood product.  Name any messages that occur more often than this pair.  But people never notice the propaganda that made THEM the way they are.  Now add in the most alluring theme of all.  Yes, our old pal contempt for the masses.  Go ahead and TEST YOURSELF with my questionnaire.

So, will Brin ever get to the point? How does all of this apply to "Sheeple"?

Let's be frank.  THE message of this 'film' is not urging folks to wake up, or fomenting rebellion; it is contempt. Feeding the producers' sanctimonious sense that they are privileged and smarter and more insightful than their sheeplike neighbors, like gods above mere animals.  Self-flattery is the cheapest drug around.  Any addict can get all he wants, and these guys have it hard.

But it gets worse. For, you see, it's been shown that the surest way to get the masses under control is NOT to inculcate worshipful passivity, but rather to spread a dull, simmering state of generalized resentment, aimed in all directions and at each other.

What?  You've never studied Machiavelli?  Really? What do you think "culture war" is all about? The whole "populist" theme driving Red America to hate the cities and anyone with a graduate degree?

  The formula is simple. Inundate the prols with distractions that scatter their SOA in every direction.  And if some of those directions are "up" toward some corporations and meeting groups of the rich?  So what? So long as you shotgun a vast number of targets, you'll keep it scattered. Impotent. (Notice though, the Sheeple guys never mention Rupert Murdoch or the petroprinces who have been doing the most meddling of all.  Gee I wonder why.)

 And so, the ultimate irony.  This is exactly the sort of thing that the masters would want produced!

Do I seriously believe that "Sheeple" was generated at the AEI or Heritage or some other Murdochian pimphouse?  Naw. Funny thing is, they probably got it for free, or maybe with the gentlest prodding.  This shit is self-stirring.

Note that this film -- after purportedly demanding that people "wake up!" -- doesn't suggest any of the things that might ACTUALLY cause sheep to look up... such as actual, pragmatic links to learned and detailed analyses of world power, for example. Or self-organizing tools. Nor does it recommend the kind of "proxy power" organizations that can empower any individual to join with large numbers of others, in common cause to deal, effectively, with specific, targeted issues.

They can't offer such suggestions!  Because that would be to admit that the sheep can and do self-organize, effectively, and we must never admit that!  So, instead, "Sheeple" jumbles a huge goulash. Mixing genuinely worrisome trends, like rising income gaps, with vapid idiocies like 9/11 "loose change" conspiracies and UFO cults.  That's right, keep the paranoia spread evenly, guys.  It's what you're subsidized to do.

Oh, maybe a third of the slides do point to genuine problems that deserve attention, problem-solving appraisal, or even criminal prosecution.  So?  A two-second flicker and each issue joins the jumble of true, false, misleading and just plain stupid.
Is the greedy patenting of seed strains and eliminating self-fertility, so that farmers cannot re-seed their fields, evil?  Sure!  Is Genetic Modification of food crops automatically a crime against people and nature?  Bullshit!  That's pure luddite sanctimonious unscientific claptrap and the surest sign of dullard minds, while every single bite of food they eat was genetically modified by previous generations of farmers and breeders. Have these guys helped us to intelligently parse the good parts of a techno future from the bad?  Hah!

If you actually and really want to pragmatically fight evil, promote justice, save the world and advance the Enlightenment, there's a proved method.  One that bypasses all this contempt-for-the-masses malarkey and goes straight to problem solving -- combining the tiny influence of individuals into the momentum of millions.  Drop by the PROXY POWER site.

It will tell you how to do exactly that.

Oog, these guys got me exercised.  And sure, I expect to be derided as a tool of corporate interests, just for criticizing their lobotomized (or else corporate sponsored) uselessness.  But note that I never claimed that they weren't pointing to some genuine enemies of humanity and the world.  As I said, about a third of the slides were completely or partially right-on!

But they aren't helpful.  Not at any level.  As elistists, on a sanctimony drug-high, they are proof that the left contains crazies, too.*  They are part of the problem.  The REAL problem -- the insanity of culture war.

We won't defeat the Rush Limbaughs by acting just like them.  We'll defeat them by being the grownups.


* Reiterating the central point, yet again.  The liberal and conservative movements ARE fundamentally different, today.  Both contain some good ideas, deepdown.  Both contain some crazies.  The crucial distinction is that one of these movements keeps its lunatics marginalized. Its leaders perpetually try -- hit or miss -- to re-awaken the American genius for honorable negotiation and pragmatic problem-solving.

The other side may have some genuine ideas, lying dormant under the snows.  But all its potential good has been rendered useless, by giving itself over, body and soul, to its psychopathic wing.

Do not hate American Conservatism.  Pity it.  Pray for the fever to break and for our fellow citizens to rise out of delirium, to rejoin us at the dinner table conversation about human destiny. And defeat them with reason, until they do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Judo Politics: a way to get all kids insured

Intermission note: Before continuing to give my second part -- this time about some craziness on the left -- I want to say this about Health Care

It appears that President Obama may have to retreat from the "public option" in his effort to achieve some Health Care Reform, this year. It may surprise you to learn that I approve of this jiu jitsu move.

What, you think this is the only battle in this fight? The "only chance?" That kind of impatience ruined Hillary's over-reach in 93 and torpedoed her husband's presidency. Pragmatists prefer incrementalism.

I say, let the insurance companies crow over a "victory" that substantially changes the health insurance marketplace for the better, drives competition, but leaves out a government -run system to take up the slack where people cannot get policies by private means.

Why? Because a man as smart as Obama knows that a multi-step judo move works better than one big sumo charge. Once he has his market reforms in place, he can then do something simple, that would undercut the for-profits and really force them to the negotiating table.

Call for a followup bill that simply puts all american children under Medicare.

The reasoning is simple and implacable -- if old people deserve it, so do their equally vulnerable grandchildren.

Put it just that way, starkly and simply. A bill that could go on one page of paper. One that needs no extensive argument or amending. Vote now: Is this a good idea or not? Yea or nay. Most would not dare oppose it.

Remove forty million Americans, in a shot, from the rolls of the for-profits, and you'll get their attention, all right. Next, threaten to raise the cutoff age from 18 to 21... then 25... and watch how quickly they come to the negotiating table.

Ah, judo.


Yes, some of you have heard this idea, many times before. But its simplicity bears repeating.

Note: poor kids are already getting government health benefits under SCHIP -- though in a far more complex way. Hence, this change would not be a huge new expense. But it would simplify matters greatly.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Madness of the Right and Left: Part One

I've been busy trying to write my next novel.  But two items online spurred my ire.  And so, as "Contrary Brin," I will fairmindedly aim my hot scalpel toward both extremes of the silly, nonsensical "left-right political axis."  

Of course we know what the biggest difference is, between liberalism and conservatism, these days.  Both movements have their complete, gibbering monsters.  Alas, one of these large American movements is now utterly controlled by its fanatical/crazy wing, and I'll start by aiming a harsh screed in that direction.  The other movement is luckier; it is still run, overall, by its pragmatic problem solvers -- but that doesn't mean there aren't psychopaths on that side, too!  And so,  in a day or two, I'll set an example in contrary evenhandedness and shoot down some really horrid lefty flakes.

But first.....

A truly excellent appraisal is given by the meticulous political blogger Russ Daggatt, of how, just in the last week, even "moderates" in the Republican establishment seem to have toppled into bona fide, certifiable, non-compos craziness.  None of their "issues" has anything to do with old-fashioned "left-right" any longer, or defending markets or any"conservatism" that Barry Goldwater would even distantly recognize. 

Goldwater believed in discourse, in science, in negotiation, persuasion, accountability and adult behavior.  Now? With regret, I am willing to call off attempts to restart civilized discourse with "decent conservatives."  There don't appear to be any left.  Just a pack of these grumpy (and loony) old white men who make clear, by their scorched-Earth approach to politics, that they would rather see America fail than Obama succeed.

 Read Daggatt. Devastatingly,  he shows this via a dozen cogent points you may not have seen before.

On the other hand, I am also very unhappy with the playbook of the Democrats, who seem to think that they can reason their way out of Culture War.   That has been their neurotic delusion, for a very long time, and it has made them very bad at playing the game.

Look, when you have a relentless and implacable enemy alliance, the trick above all is to break up their coalition.  You start by analyzing it for unlikely bedfellows.  Blatantly, the right-wing  culture war army has three important components:

1) The string-pullers are made up of conniving  plutocrats, led by Rupert Murdoch.  The only overall winners from the Bush era.

2)  The priesthood of the movement -- the Rationalizers -- make up the so-called "libertarian" wing of Republicanism.  This segment has dwindled in the face of monumental GOP betrayal of everything that Adam Smith ever stood for -- no-bid crony contracting, arterial deficit spending, meddlesome-jingoistic imperialism, fiscal and financial blundering, stark power-grabs and violations of civil liberties have all left this segment quivering.

  Those who can count have noticed that EVERY Supply Side prediction failed and every metric of national health collapsed under GOP rule.  Those who can be swayed by facts are already moving on.  Leaving two subsets behind... those who are in utter denial, covering their ears and screaming "nah!!"... and those who are whores, in the pay of the New Lords.  No, there's little to be gained by trying any longer to reason with this layer.

3) Meanwhile the biggest clade -- those we see screeching at Town Meetings and Tea parties -- are largely  white, male, non-urban know-nothings. And they matter -- a lot.   They are as important to the New Lords as poor southern whites were, to plantation aristocrats, during the US Civil War --  ground troops who have to be stoked into a rage, in order to serve the lords' higher  interests.   Why else would Fox News push relentlessly the thinly buried message -- to hate half your fellow citizens?  Especially anyone with a post-graduate degree?

Do these ground troops ever actually GET anything, from their masters?  Across the GOP-led era, not a single agenda item promised to the fundamentalists, or nativists, or gun folk, or any other Deep Red group, was ever delivered.  No effective changes in abortion law, no reduction in illegal immigration, no improvement (in fact huge declines) in military readiness.  Drops in job security and net income.  Oh, it's futile to point any of this out.  Murdoch knows the buttons.   Democrats simply cede this swathe to him.  They just assume that, in their tens of millions, Red Populists are  inherently and irreversibly  in the right-wing camp...

...or are they?  Might there be a way to turn the boiling rage of group #3 toward group #1?  Veering the massive Red Populist movement against the plantation aristocracy?  Surely that is the possibility giving the New Lords night-time sweats. 

Impossible? Think about it.  Murdoch keeps tapping a central theme -- one that is deeply American -- Suspicion of Authority (SOA) -- pushed in every song,  legend and Hollywood film.  We differ mainly over WHICH group each of us perceives trying to become Big Brother.  Some dread corporations and aristocrats.  Others -- faceless government bureaucrats and snooty intellectuals.  Each of us tends to see only threats from the direction we chose to fixate-on.  (Hence, my decision, long ago, to practice omni-directional contrariness!)

 So far, Faux News has done a great job stirring Red America to actinic fury at government (even though the GOP ran it for so long) and at urbanites and anyone who actually knows anything.  He seems to have the Red Populists all sewn up.

 But remember, it wasn't so long ago that working whites fumed against greedy Mr. Potter types!  The key question is: What would it take to make that happen again?.

The answer is really simple.  A heap of great big scandals, that go farther than what we've seen, so far.  Scandals that rub the populists' noses in how thoroughly they have been used by a different powerful group of authoritarians.

This is why I am ticked off at Attorney General Holder, for going after (and alienating) the CIA at a time when Halliburton's betrayal of our troops would make a far juicier target.  The sole-source "emergency clause" no-bid contracts that cost our republic billions while stabbing the military in the back.  The tax cheats with their offshore secret accounts.  The parasites and monopolists, destroying mom & pop business, across the country.  The Wall Street vampires. How many more betrayals-up-top can Fox spin?  The answer? Keep them busy and let's find out?

The crux: Why has there been almost NO talk  of a Special Prosecutor for Recession-causing crimes?  Is Goldman-Sachs really that influential in the Obama White House?


Getting back to the overview: do mark my words, Culture War is the greatest overall treason committed against the republic since Secession.  Perpetrated in very much the same spirit, with similar goals and methods, while tapping an identical thread in the national psyche.  It is a deliberate, manipulative scheme to demolish America's enlightenment methods of deliberated problem solving. It has nothing whatsoever to do with safeguarding markets, capitalism or freedom. Indeed, those things can only survive by defeating it.

 This is the fight worth winning, but Democrats seem to be clueless about how to begin. SO it may be up to the rest of us. We should be focusing on how to separate the ground troops from their masters.  Divert populism and its ire back toward the enemies who ruined every other renaissance in human history. 

I am NOT talking about "class warfare" against the rich. (Though the Murdochians are complete fools, if they think their road will not eventually lead to tumbrels, rolling in the streets. Smart int he short-term, imbecilles in the long.) 

No, most of those who are merely wealthy earned it, fair and square.  So this is only glancingly about "the rich."

I am talking about those who want to resume the ancient art of feudalism. 

Find a way to waken Red America to that danger, and we may yet win back our brothers and sisters in fellow citizenship and common cause. In the only Revolution that ever changed humanity for the better.