Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Contempt for the Masses - a modern curse?

I want to riff upon some common drug-highs that most people partake-of.  One is the alluring condition of despising our pitiably stupid neighbors.  Another is the temptation to believe that history comes and goes in "cycles."

Are your neighbors all stupid?

This topic came up last time, flowing out of my observations about the recent movies, Surrogates.  And, while I have groused about the obvious - even blatant - overlaps with both my novel Kiln People and the widely distributed Leslie Dixon screenplay, that was not what bugged me moist about the Bruce Willis film.  Rather, it was the dismally uniform premise -- shared by far too many Hollywood productions -- that all new technologies are inherently evil and that they will automatically be horribly misused by nearly all human beings.

Look, any sensible person is of two minds about "the masses," recollecting Churchill's line that democracy is the worst form of government... except for every other that's been tried.  We have seen how flawed popular government can be.  I am mindful of what happened to Periclean Athens and to Republican Florence.

Indeed, when Ronald Reagan removed the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had erected on the White House - and got adulation for calling upon his followers to "think only of this morning!"  - I knew that we'd be in for a generation of spendthrift foolishness. Thirty years of delays in doing much about energy independence coincided with virtual abandonment of ambition in science or space, while we spent ourselves into deep debt, based upon a Supply-Side theory that made no sense, even before it was disproved. The left did chime in, with idiocies of its own.  And then came a high-treason madness called Culture War...

Oh, no question that our neighbors have given us plenty of reason to suspect them of -- ahem, at best -- shortsighted and parochial thinking.

But note that this reaction spans all boundaries of politics, whether or not the facts support your particular prejudice.  Surface rationalizations differ, from left to right, but we all suckle the same, deeply smug fantasies from popular culture.  The underlying inclination is too common to ignore, flowing from movies into real life.

If the shared theme that drives most Hollywood plots is Suspicion of Authority (SOA), then the most common background assumption is that the majority of people around the hero (and hence, around you) are nincompoops.

Of course, that ninnie majority never, ever includes you.

See my article: Our Favorite Cliche: A World Filled with Idiots. 

Defending the masses

Of course, I am human.  Indeed, this very screed reflects a meta-irony... that I feel contempt for the masses, because they give in to this blandished hypnotic trip  so easily!

And yet, since contempt for the masses is the most common reflex, I am forced, out of sheer contrariness, to stand up for the other side. The "people" after all, have repeatedly been polled as much more willing to invest in new energy
than our aristocracy ever was.

Moreover, there are plenty of counter-examples that suggest the opposite.  For example, recall the era of the "Clinton Surplus?" Members of Congress salivated over spending it all on favored programs. Others promoted giant tax cuts, especially for the wealthy classes. Amid all of this, only two groups spoke up for using the surplus instead to retire the national debt. Those two groups were economists and ... the general public.

 It was the middle class "populace" who wanted to pay off the debt before getting a tax cut!  Their forward-looking citizenship was far greater than the "gimme!" attitude of most of the aristocracy.

TYTLERCALUMNYThis runs diametrically opposite to the cynics' favorite quotation, variously attributed to "Tytler" or to Alex Tyler --

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years.

These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to
complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage."

As it happens, this spurious "quotation" has also been repeatedly proved to be utter and complete drivel. It has taken an unprecedented propaganda campaign to drive wedges into and between components of the middle class, in America.  And even so, it is still the bourgeoisie that not only puts up most of the taxes but also relentlessly proves to be the caste the least interested in "largesse" and the most willing to pay for the civilization that they live in.

... next time... Contemptuous Memes Part II: Cycles of History"

--Read more about the Tytler Calumny

finally some news...

51OXHNpuNeL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_ Looking for something to help you through the long commute?  Or to listen-to while basking under the sunlamp?  Recorded Books has just issued the full book-on-tape version of BRIGHTNESS REEF read by George K Wilson.  This will soon be followed by INFINITY'S SHORE and HEAVEN'S REACH.

H+ asked David Brin, Ben Goertzel, J. Storrs Hall, Vernor Vinge, and others: "Is a Terminator-like scenario possible? And if so, how likely is it?" 

See a Planetary Report on the discovery of a likely "skylight" opening in a volcanic lava tube on the moon.  It suggests that such lava tubes currently exist and offer large subterranean spaces for possible human use as shelters, in future colonization.

"Albedo Yachts" and Marine Clouds: A Cure for Climate Change? A proposal to create 1500 robot ships that use wind power to inject micron sized droplets into the atmosphere.  Sounds better than most forms of geoengineering because it ivolves no toxins and can simply be stopped at any time.  But I wonder, might these wind powered vessels be combined with wind powered STIRRING of shallow sea bottoms (as depicted in my novel Earth?  This stirring would fertilize desert ocean areas the way nature does it, instead of through the proposed method of dumping powdered iron (which has unintended consequences like acidification.)  In contrast mud-stirring has no conceivable way to do harm because it replicates nature's own method.

Two Victoria University professors who specialize in sustainable living, say pet owners should swap cats and dogs for creatures they can eat, such as chickens or rabbits, in their disturbingly titled new book Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living. The couple has assessed the carbon emissions created by popular pets, taking into account the ingredients of pet food and the land needed to create them.  "If you have a German shepherd or similar-sized dog, for example, its impact every year is exactly the same as driving a large car around," Brenda Vale said

Monday, October 19, 2009

Surrogates -- substituting for good story

Okay, time for a commentary that many of you have been waiting for -- my thoughts about the recent Bruce Willis movie, Surrogates.

Surrogates2009MP I've been (as you might expect) getting a lot of mail about it, so let's start with some facts.  The film is based upon a comic book by Robert Venditti that appeared some years after my novel KILN PEOPLE

Also worth noting, for purposes of a timeline, is the screenplay for KILN PEOPLE that was created by the great scriptor Leslie Dixon (Overboard, Mrs.Doubtfire, Pay it Forward). It circulated some years ago at Paramount Studios and far beyond, so clearly a priority sequence was well-known, by those interested in the basic idea.

But are the stories really similar?  Let's see

A detective sends a technologically-made duplicate of himself into a world where everybody makes copies in order to deal with the world risk-free.  The detective's duplicate seeks the inventor of this technology, who has become dangerously estranged from the company that he founded and who plots its downfall.
Along the way, there occurs a rare case of actual murder.  Meanwhile, in one of the zones where only real humans are allowed, fanatics rail that all this copying-addiction undermines the human soul... an so on....

250px-Surrogates_new_coverCheck, check check...  Ah, well, they say that Hollywood only steals if they respect you.  Sigh.

All of that might be expected to stir fumes at the back of my neck.  But I went to see the movie with an open mind, willing to give it a chance, in hopes it would at least turn out to be a great, rip-snorting sci fi adventure that (for a change) has a little originality, as well as some brains and heart. Is that really too much to ask?

At first sight, one of the similarities between KILN PEOPLE and Surrogates is something that I approve-of at a philosophical level... both stories give the "new thing" to the People -- to everybody -- and follow how this changes society.

Few sci fi films do that.  Generally, the "new thing" is hoarded in secret or monopolized by the mighty, giving you a simple - if dumb - hero vs oppressive authority plot.  Okay, so let's give Surrogates two points for breaking from that cliche.  Well, that cliche.

 Of course, whenever the People do adopt something new, wholesale, that generally leads to another hackneyed theme.  But, hold that thought.

Alas, to save money, Jonathan Mostow, the director of Surrogates chose to eliminate all futuristic aspects.  Hence, we have mind projection and puppet automatons... and everything else is left exactly as today.  Hey, I understand budget concerns.  But there are lots of cool things -- directly related to copying -- that would have cost next-to-nothing to portray...

...or, at least, he might have entertainingly (as I do) show some of the range of things that people would use copies for!  How about gladiatorial matches in souped-up bodies!  Hyper-X-sports in which no one comes back "alive"! Historical battle re-enactments, with real bullets! Expeditions to other planets, where the surrogate travels cheaply, without life-support, then wakens and lets an astronaut -- or paying customers -- take that "first step for mankind." 

Kiln PeopleThe possibilities are endless, as I show in KILN PEOPLE.  But, as we'll see, this movie is not about people using self-duplication to expand the realm of the possible.

(We did catch a glimpse of some military applications.  But even that was stunningly unimaginative.  What, no soldiers manifesting as cheetahs or ogres or dragons?  Two legs are soooo slow.)

As for the vast range of ways that regular folks would use their surrogates... other than for playing at being sexy... or the opposite sex...?  Nah.  All people use this technological breakthrough  for is to look good

Seriously, that's pretty much it. Looking good.  Period.  In fact, that self-indulgent sin propels the entire personal side of the plot.  Um... snore.

(My wife suggested an alternative that might have driven everybody to keep their human bodies indoors.  What if the air had become toxic?  One also wonders what would happen to human reproduction rates in a world where all sex is via machinery....  But, as we'll see, any probing of the details would interfere in the main purpose of Surrogates -- which is to preach a very black and white, Crichtonian morality play.)

Look, there were moments in the film that seemed marginally clever.  Some cool effects.  Even a crackle or two of snappy dialogue. Go see it, sure.

 And yet, in this, just about the only adventure/scifi film in years to NOT be based upon the sequel of a comicbook sequel, we still see both director and studio choosing to go with the knee-jerk, go-to lesson of every tiresomely cliched Hollywood flick...

... always boiling down to Michael Crichton's preachy but classic message -- "there are things mankind should never do." Pushing the ultimately poisonous line that we should always fear and loathe technology. 

That is the core message nowadays, no?  Change is always, always, always, always bad.  A lesson preached by privileged, comfortable, tech-empowered elites who have benefited fantastically from change.  Women and men who would likely screech in agony if they had to live the way any of their ancestors did, during any of the 20,000 generations of previous human existence.

Think about it. Do these Hollywood studio folks -- most of them devout Democrats -- ever wonder why our civilization is turning anti-science and giving itself over to superstition?  They wring their hands over a rising age of culture war and lost-confidence, while they are churning out relentless propaganda preaching the same tedious message -- that progress is hopeless and technology only menacing. And that the default moral and wise choice should always be Just Say No To Change.

Even worse, nearly every product they put out proclaims that the People are always stupid.

Some democrats.

Alas, in fact, that final, noxious  cliche seems to be the utter heart and core of Surrogates. The tired-old lesson that you cannot trust the masses with a burnt match, let alone the Next Thing.
In this film, absolutely everybody -- except for a few abstemious fanatics -- falls for the addictive trap of copying insatiably, neglecting their real bodies and real lives, transferring their sense of self entirely into machine versions and neglecting the flesh upon which life depends.

Oh, sure, some people would do that, in much the same way that some now abuse alcohol.  And dealing with the fallout from this minority's stupidity might make an interesting plot.  But here's the key point. All  known addictions d not ensnare the majority -- folks who resist temptation use good judgment, exercise moderation, and manage to lead balanced, wholesome lives, despite being offered a New Thing.

But in the world of Surrogates, it is all or nothing. There are only teetotaling prude-fanatics or several billion rolling drunks.  Absolutely everybody who uses the New Thing stupidly abuses it, and so must be saved from temptation by an act of overwhelmingly self-righteous and simplistic prudity.

Here is where, fundamentally and morally, this film breaks with me and my own, earlier, take on the question: "what if we could all make copies of ourselves?"  In fact, both the film Surrogates and graphic novel seem bent on directly refuting and rejecting the premise of KILN PEOPLE... that human civilization sometimes picks up new tools, overcomes some mistakes and faces interesting problems, learns to deal with them, and moves on. 

Given Hollywood's slavish devotion to cliche -- and to portraying their fellow citizens as mindless sheep -- is it any wonder the producers chose Venditti's approach over mine?  (And let there be no mistake; Leslie Dixon is important and powerful enough in Hollywood that her KILN PEOPLE script was read by some of the people in the decision chain, who chose the cliched approach, instead of one that might head in bold directions.)

But soft, let's step back and finish on a charitable note.  For, to reiterate, at least Surrogates is one of the only non-sequel films that's come out in a long time, based upon something that most viewers haven't seen before.  Everyone involved deserves some credit for that, despite the malignant deeper message.

(And, of course, its box office fizzle will teach the wrong lesson; don't ever try to be original, ever again!)

As for the "steal" aspects... ah well, it's not the first time, and it won't be the last time that I'll write missives like this one. It's a town where everybody can shout the word "coincidence" before they can say "Mama."

Anyway, what can I do?  Just hope that people will spread internet buzz and say "Hey!  Go to Kiln People for the original concept, done a whole lot better, by the original author."  And, maybe, quality will endure a bit better than cliches.

Good stuff does have one advantage over bad.  It stands up better, with time.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jiu Jitsu in Afghanistan

All right, here's the deal. I 'm paid to point things out that others haven't noticed. Not all the under-examined concepts that fizz out of my contrary-cracked mind prove right or even sane!  But I am pretty good at showing that this or that twist should at least be put on the table, and dismissed properly. And so, I'm going to toss something out there.  It is far from the most preposterous alternative I've come up with.  In fact, this idea should work! Even though it hasn't a prayer of being tried.

Let the Taliban take over Kandahar and parts of Pashtunistan.

 Yes, it sounds terrible.  Defeatist.  Humiliating.  Sending exactly the wrong message to our Pakistani quasi-allies and giving the jihadists reason to cheer...

Or would it?  Think.  When did we do our very best against the Taliban?

During the initial post-9/11 intervention, when they had something to lose.  Something that could easily be taken from them.  Guerillas are at their best sneaking around in barely more than the clothes on their backs, sniping in target-rich environments.  They know that they are absolutely terrible at holding onto discrete, well-defined territory, let alone governing it. Not against a coalition of modern powers.

Now combine this with the following news article from McClatchy (10/16/09):  The U.S. military can send only about 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in the next three months without putting excessive strains on the Army and Marine Corps , but the top Afghanistan commander has said he needs more than twice that number to have the best chance of success, military and administration officials told McClatchy. 

Put aside for now the near-treason of a previous administration that left our military in such a state. (When Bill Clinton left office after a fantastically successful Balkans Intervention, every single US brigade was rated "fully combat ready."  When Bush left office, NONE were rated even close to fully combat ready.)  

The significant point here is that we simply haven't the resources to simply "police-down" a wild-ass insurgency in every valley of Afghanistan, also known as "the place that empires go, to die."

So let's try a little thought experiment.  Suppose we talked Karzai into "ordering" US and NATO forces out of some well-defined area called Pashtunistan.  The Pashtuns are the principal tribe causing trouble in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A high fraction are fanatically conservative, the ones who want their women wrapped up in burkhas and who banned both music and kite-flying.  Suppose Karzai said "I've struck a deal -- limited autonomy for the Taliban in this region, if they'll agree to pull out everywhere else."

 Of course the Taliban will agree... and of course they'll intend, first chance, to stab Karzai in the back and resume their campaign.  That's given. Only think:

 1)  During the two month transition, you'll see transfers of population.  Fanatics hurrying to Kandahar and moderates moving out.  Especially any woman with any sense of pride or self-preservation.  Drawing fanatics away from the rest of Afghanistan and Pakistan and concentrating them in a place that finds itself almost without women?  Um... what's not to like?

 2) The new Pashtunistan will happen to have boundaries that allied forces can seal, at least somewhat.  It is arguable that less heroin will escape that way, than currently does, through today's widely-cast net.  In any event, trade will be at the mercy of the surrounders, not the surrounded.  Moreover, as part of the deal, the radicals will have to first turn over strong points and passes to the Pakistani Army.

3) This turns the civil war into a tribal one.  It should cause support for the government to rise everywhere outside Pashtunistan, as  Uzbeks and Tajiks and others remember what life was like, before 2002.  Especially as Kandahar devolves back into incompetent rule, poverty and sheer nastiness.  

(Let the Taliban cry out for donations and help from radicalists in Al Qaeda and the Arab world.  Let those funds flow.  It won't be enough.  Nothing can be enough.  Those sources will dry up.)

 4)  War will resume.  It is inevitable.  Jihadists cannot grasp satiability.  They'll start attacking, again.  And, when they do, we can simply take it all away from them again, in a matter of days, fighting on our terms, not theirs, to be greeted as liberators, even by the Pashtuns of Kandahar.  Oh, in trying to defend fixed positions, Taliban troops will be at their most vulnerable.

 Sure, it's a bit cynical, manipulative and callous... almost like the way the British behaved, during their imperial era.  The fig leaf of Karzai ordering this would be essential.   But really, when all is said, where are the failure modes?  For example, suppose the new Pashtunistan government surprised us by showing competence, skill and restraint, separating from Afghanistan and joining the community of nations.  Even if they are hostile to us, tell me how that would be worse than the present situation?  In fact, the more they have to lose, the more likely they will fear a repeat of 2002.

Oh, and then there's this.  A Taliban entity, sitting once more on the border of Iran?  Let the mullahs sweat that out.

All right, this doesn't fit into tidy left-right boxes.  Anyway, I despise that metaphor.  We need to be idealists, but pragmatic ones who are capable of jiu jitsu, when it seems called for.  And, when it comes to Afghanistan, jiu jitsu is always called for.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cool Science Reminders We're Living in The Great Renaissance

I’ll be posting my long-delayed appraisal of the movie Surrogates, shortly.  But meanwhile, here’s a raft of links and other cool items that remind us that -- despite efforts to turn civilization toward know-nothing foolishness, we still live in an era of enlightenment and wonders.

Shawn Otto -- one of the driving forces behind the Science Debate 2008 endeavor to lift the national and worldwide awareness of science as a driver of public policy, addresses the 2009 Nobel Conference: Democracy in the Age of Science.

What should we fear? See a marvelous series of cartoon satires from Dresdan Codak of “Caveman dire-warning Science Fiction” -- especially if there had been a paleolithic Michael Crichton.

==Worldwide Networking==

The Worldwide Lexicon is a Firefox translator that makes browsing foreign language sites transparent and automatic. Just open a page, and if it is in a foreign language it will translate it, first using human edited translations submitted by other users, then via machine translation (obviously not as good, but usually sufficient to understand what is going on). The process is similar to Wikipedia in many respects, except focused on translation, and sharing interesting websites. You can fetch a beta version at  Terrific stuff.

Actually, I am writing (both in my novel & nonfiction) about how this era may represent - metaphorically -- the end of the “dispersal from the Tower of Babel."  Think about how that applies!  Oh, but it is a metaphor with resonance that goes MUCH farther -- one of many bits of scripture that can be used as potent weapons for enlightenment, in the culture wars.

Researchers from Australia and Singapore are developing a wireless ad-hoc mesh networking technology that uses mobile handsets to share and carry information including high quality video. The mesh network will make use of Bluetooth or Wifi and could be used at a large sporting event, conference, or even a crowded city centre during an emergency, to swap information between handsets - even if the mobile phone network was offline.

 Of course, this relates to one thing I have been ranting about forever -- the near-criminal lack of a back-up capability for all our cell phones to be able to pass texts, peer-to-peer (P2P) in the event of a Katrina-type (or worse) crisis.  Those who know how it could be done, and who have refused, for dismally silly rationalized reasons, should expect to be sued, for everything they have, the next time such a crisis strikes.  They’ve been warned.

Meanwhile, am I good or what?  ”A new internet game is about to be launched which allows 'super snooper' players to plug into the nation's CCTV cameras and report on members of the public committing crimes. The 'Internet Eyes' service involves players scouring thousands of CCTV cameras installed in shops, businesses and town centres across Britain looking for law-breakers. Players who help catch the most criminals each month will win cash prizes up to £1,000.”

 ==On the Rise and Fall of Great Books==

A fun rumination on the rise and fall of the Great Books....”For all their shortcomings, the Great Books—along with many other varieties of middlebrow culture—reflected a time when the liberal arts commanded more respect. They were thought to have practical value as a remedy for parochialism, bigotry, social isolation, fanaticism, and political and economic exploitation. The Great Books had a narrower conception of "greatness" than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly
intellectual.”  --

DB adds: The Great Books arose out of the fertile, if weird minds of Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, who together thoroughly transformed the University of Chicago into one of America’s strangest and most intellectually fertile higher institutions of learning.  The Great Books concept was modeled somewhat after the “Seven Liberal Arts” program that Martianus Minneus Felix Capella devised, to arrest intellectual decline during the fall of the Roman Empire.

I am proud to own a copy of the Great Books set... and have mostly found it useful to point-to, while telling my kids ABOUT the big minds of the past... most of whose actual words, insights and passages have almost no direct usefulness in the modern age.  But knowing a lot about such people, and the context of their thinking, is vital.  And some of them are absolutely essential to read in the original, even today.  Karl Marx, Adam Smith, the Federalist Papers, Freud’s Original Introductory Lectures (and little else from Freud), these a person must at least try to understand in depth, in order to grasp the issues of our day.

See my posting: Scholarship vs. Science

==Picking up the Tools==

andromedra-galaxySee a wondrous UV portrait of the Andromeda galaxy -- a mosaic of images from the SWIFT telescope.

And now a weird sidestep of “dark energy.” An accelerating wave of expansion following the Big Bang could push what later became matter out across the universe, spreading galaxies farther apart the more distant they got from the wave’s center. If this did happen, it would account for the fact that supernovae were dim—they were in fact shoved far away at the very beginning of the universe. But this would’ve been an isolated event, not a constant accelerating force. Their explanation of the 1998 observations does away with the need for dark energy. The theory is attractive because it describes the effect astronomers observed using only general relativity. It also provides a mechanism for a scenario that’s been discussed in cosmology for some time, the “bubble of underdensity”—the idea that the Earth might be in an area with a low mass density compared to the rest of the universe, which would account for the distance of the supernovae. .... This model would require Earth to be at the center of the universe. In other words, it would violate the Copernican principle, which states that the Earth does not have a special, favored place and that the universe is essentially homogeneous.

Is your city prepared for a home-made nuke? (Somebody gist this article for the rest of us?)

For those who always wanted to see through wallsThe way radio signals vary in a wireless network can reveal the movement of people behind closed doors. Variance-based radio tomographic imaging processes the signals to reveal signs of movement. They've even tested the idea with a 34-node wireless network using the IEEE 802.15.4 wireless protocol. Signal strength at any point in a network is the sum of all the paths the radio waves can take to get to the receiver. Any change in the volume of space through which the signals pass, for example caused by the movement of a person, makes the signal strength vary. So by "interrogating" this volume of space with many signals, picked up by multiple receivers, it is possible to build up a picture of the movement within it.

Champions of free will, take heart. A landmark 1980s experiment that purported to show free will doesn't exist is being challenged. In 1983, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet asked volunteers wearing scalp electrodes to flex a finger or wrist. When they did, the movements were preceded

Nerve cells will grow and generate synapses with an artificial component, in this case, plastic beads coated with a substance that encourages adhesion and attracts the nerve cells, McGill University researchers have found. This approach bypasses the need to force nerve cells to artificially grow long distances... interestingly, the article doesn’t even mention paraplegics. The government of England plans to put 20,000 more problem families under 24-hour CCTV supervision in their own homes to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on
time and eat proper food.

A 10- to 20-megawatt plasma rocket could propel  missions to Mars in just 39 days, whereas conventional rockets would take six months or more.

3GS is the first iPhone with an internal compass - Augmented Reality (AR) apps use your phone's GPS to know where you are and the compass to know which direction you're looking at. Then these two apps can tell you what you're looking at that's written up in Wikipedia and/or Cyclopedia -- the beginnings of augmented reality that I first depicted in EARTH.

Increasing the activity of beta brain waves can make people move in slow motion.

By disabling a gene involved in an important biochemical signaling pathway involving a protein called target of rapamycin (TOR), scientists have discovered a way to mimic the anti-aging benefits of caloric restriction, allowing mice to live longer and healthier lives.  nu?  I still hold to my wager.  We’ll find that humans already throw most of these switches.  For us, it won't be that easy.

By connecting electrodes and radio antennas to the nervous systems of beetles, University of California, Berkeley engineers were able to make them take off, dive and turn on command. Funded by DARPA, the project's goal is to create fully remote-controlled insects able to perform tasks such as looking for survivors after a disaster.

Sidewiki, a new Google Toolbar for Firefox and Internet Explorer, allows users to publicly annotate any page on the web, and could become a universal commenting system. Google could use sentiment analysis to see users' reactions to a page and then influence search

Speaking of Augmented reality -- with Mobilizy's just-released Augmented Reality Mark-up Language (ARML), programmers can more easily create location-based content for AR applications -- the equivalent of HTML for the Web.

Scientists Make Paralyzed Rats Walk Again After Spinal-cord Injury.

DrakeEquationA mathematical equation that counts habitats suitable for alien life could complement the Drake equation, which estimates the probability of finding intelligent alien beings elsewhere in the galaxy. That equation, developed in 1960 by U.S. astronomer Frank Drake, estimates the probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere in our galaxy by considering the number of stars with planets that could support life.  The new equation, under development by planetary scientists at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England, aims to develop a single index for habitability based on the presence of energy, solvents such as water, raw materials like carbon and whether or not there are benign environmental conditions.  Ah... but... Astrobiologist and physicist Paul Davies, of the University of Arizona in Tuscon, said it was a "pointless exercise" as the equation refers only to life as we know it.  I tend to agree with Paul.

The “State of the World” report makes for powerful reading.

Stirling Energy Systems (SES), based in Phoenix, has decreased the complexity and cost of its technology for converting the heat in sunlight into electricity, allowing for high-volume production. It will begin building very large solar-thermal power plants using its equipment as soon as next year.

Is The Atlantic finally emerging from its love affair with troglodytic postmodernist reactionary anti-futurism?  Perhaps, if they are publishing Jamais Cascio: Get Smarter:  “Pandemics. Global warming. Food shortages. No more fossil fuels. What are humans to do? The same thing the species has done before: evolve to meet the challenge. But this time we don’t have to rely on natural evolution to make us smart enough to survive. We can do it ourselves, right now, by harnessing technology and pharmacology to boost our intelligence. Is Google actually making us smarter?

3D Holograms that can be touched with bare hands have been developed by researchers from the University of Tokyo. Called the Airborne Ultrasound Tactile Display, the hologram projector uses an ultrasound phenomenon called acoustic radiation pressure to create a pressure sensation on a user's hands, which are tracked with two Nintendo Wiimotes.

Technion-Israel Institute of Technology researchers have created a prototype micro robot that can crawl through the human body. It is only a millimeter in diameter and 14 millimeters long, so it can get into the body's smallest areas. It is powered by either actuation through magnetic force located outside the body, or through an on-board battery.

New terahertz-detecting technology could make "intimate" body-search-at-a-distance cameras as cheap and easy as conventional video shots.

Open-innovation models succeed only when carefully designed for a particular task and when the incentives are tailored to attract the most effective collaborators, say collective-intelligence analysts.

Okay, there's lots more.  But let me part with this.  Anyone who thinks that all this scientific discovery doesn't have profound theological implications, akin to any conceivable meaning of the word "revelation"; has to have a hole in his head.  We are picking up His tools... whether He exists or not, that is impressive stuff.  Any Father worthy of respect would be proud for us.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A rant about stupidity... and the coming civil war...

An article on Salon asks "Why Can't We Have Smarter Right Wingers?"

It's been my own stark plaint for a decade -- and not from any lefty reflex. Rather, as one who openly avows some libertarian and classic "conservative" views, sprinkled in a mostly-progressive goulash.

Shouldn't there be clear-headed voices, articulating the attractiveness of balanced budgets, national readiness, genuinely competitive free enterprise, and caution in international entanglements?  Isn't it good to have someone in the room demanding: "Prove that something really is broken, before using the the blunt instrument of the state to fix it"?  

I've long felt that the best minds of the right had useful things to contribute to a national conversation -- even if their overall habit of resistance to change proved wrongheaded, more often than right.  At least, some of them had the beneficial knack of targeting and criticizing the worst liberal mistakes, and often forcing needful re-drafting.

That is, some did, way back in when decent republicans and democrats shared one aim -- to negotiate better solutions for the republic.

=Does The New Right Even Have an Agenda Anymore?=

Alas, today's Republican Establishment seems not only incapable but uninterested in negotiation or deliberation. It isn't just the dogmatism, or lockstep partisanship, or Koolaid fantasies spun -up by the Murdoch-Limbaugh hate machine.  Heck, even though "culture war" is verifiably the worst direct treason against the United States of America since Fort Sumter, that isn't what boggles most.

It's the stupidity.  The vast and nearly uniform dumbitudinousness of ignoring what has happened to conservatism, a transformation of nearly all of the salient traits of Barry Goldwater from:

* prudence to recklessness

* accountability to secrecy
* fiscal discretion to spendthrift profligacy
* consistency to hypocrisy
* civility to nastiness
* international restraint to recklessness
* efficiency to no-tomorrow wastrelness
* personal rectitude to flagrant licentiousness
* cleanliness to filthy habits
* logic to unreason

...and more, reversing:

* from respect for science to incantatory voodoo

* from an almost pedantic love of history to near total ignorance of the past
* from individual-based deliberation to lockstep party-line voting
* from belief in federalism and states' rights to excusing monolithic presidential power
* from negotiated problem-solving to strawman-based politics
* from a bookish love of statistics to justification by anecdote
* from country-first patriotism to the flagwaving kind that can instantly turn into rants about secession, the killing of civil servants and praying for the president to fail, even if that means the country going down with him.

This is not about classic left-vs-right anymore. (As if that metaphor ever held cogent meaning.) Not when every measure of national health that conservatives ought to care about -- from budget balancing to small business startups, to military readiness, to States' Rights, to the economy, to individual liberty, to control over immigration at our borders -- does vastly and demonstrably better under democrats.  With nearly 100% perfection.

(Fact avoidance is even worse when you encompass ALL of history.  Ask today's conservatives which force destroyed more freedom and nearly every competitive market, across 5,000 years.  Which foe of liberty and enterprise did Adam Smith despise?  Hint: it wasn't "socialism" or "government bureaucrats.") 

No. Given their lack of any other tangible accomplishments across the last fifteen years, one must to conclude that the core agenda of Rush Limbaugh, Rupert Murdoch and their petroprince backers really is quite simple.

culturewarbattlegroundTo find out just how far they can push "culture war" toward a repeat of 1861.

=Is the Agenda Civil War?=

Does that sound florid and paranoid?  Well, I do try to be entertaining! 

Anyway, bear with me a bit, because the parallels are eerie.  Not only on the geographical electoral map, but in the way that vast swathes of the South would only see or hear just one point of view (in uniformly pro-slavery newspapers, back in 1861, or via talk radio today), or propounded from every white pulpit -- an incessant drumbeat of regional, ethnic and partisan hatred.  With predictable results: the demolition of national discourse, along with the murder of census workers and the bubbling froth of a new wave of Timothy McVeighs.

Obviously, this is blatantly the agenda of Murdoch and Limbaugh and their foreign backers, since they do not even offer their own measures or agenda for deliberative negotiation with the party and president chosen by the American majority. They never even try to assert that any tangible improvements in national health occurred during their long tenure in power. Indeed, can you name any effective accomplishment -- consistently pursued and unambiguously achieved -- other than to push America toward Civil War?

Why they have been doing this is open to speculation. I have my theories.  You may have yours. 

But even without knowing their true motives, one can look ahead to outcomes.  And so, I have to ask these fellows one question --

Let's say that you succeed.  Suppose, driven by your potent and effective propaganda, America's "red" population rises up and Culture War finally goes all out... do you actually think that subsequent events will be to your liking?

=The  Mistake Made by All Our Enemies=

Step back for a minute and note an important piece of psychohistory -- that every generation of Americans faced adversaries who called us "decadent cowards and pleasure-seeking sybarites (wimps), devoid of any of the virtues of manhood."

TYTLERCALUMNYElsewhere, I mark out this pattern, showing how every hostile nation, leader or meme had to invest in this story, for a simple reason.  Because Americans were clearly happier, richer, smarter, more successful and far more free than anyone else.  Hence, either those darned Yanks must know a better way of living (unthinkable!)... or else they must have traded something for all those surface satisfactions. 

 Something precious.  Like their cojones.  Or their souls.  A devil's bargain.  And hence -- (our adversaries told themselves) -- those pathetic American will fold up, like pansies, as soon as you give them a good push.

 It is the one uniform trait shown by every* vicious, obstinate and troglodytic enemy of the American Experiment.  A wish fantasy that convinced Hitler and Stalin and the others that urbanized, comfortable New Yorkers and Californians and all the rest cannot possibly have any guts, not like real men.  A delusion shared by the King George, the plantation-owners, the Nazis, Soviets and so on, down to Saddam and Osama bin Laden.  A delusion that our ancestors disproved time and again, decisively -- though not without a lot of pain.

But let's get back to my question for Murdoch and Limbaugh and their puppetmasters.  All right, so you are pushing us toward another 1861, betting that we'll tear ourselves to shreds, and that the "red" portion will dominate whatever's left standing. 

But do you even remember what happened in 1862?  In 1863 and 1864 and 1865? 

(A side bet?  Ask any of the flag-waving jingo-patriots you know, "Have you ever fantasized about riding with Nathan Bedford Forrest?"  (Name's unfamiliar? Wiki him and read it all.)  My experience, asking that question? A shockingly high percentage of the loudest "patriots" have daydreamed about riding with that brilliant traitor, cutting down their fellow citizens -- both blue and black -- with a whoop and a holler, while screaming damnation at the United States of America.  Some patriots.)

=Have They Really Thought It Out?=

RedFamilies-BlueFamiliesBut all right, Rush and Rupert and Sean and Glenn and Tafik.  Go ahead.  Push hard enough to finally wake up the real United States -- the "Blue America" that seems all mushy because it always tries reason first. The citified sophisticates who have, for generations, sent vast net-flows of their taxes toward the red counties that then bit that generous hand with rants about the "decadent cities..." even though those cities have proved to be more moral, by far.  (Compare rates of divorce, domestic violence, teen sex, STDs and yes, even abortion!) 

Even though those cities are the front lines in the modern war on terror.  Even though it was city folk who proved their courage and resilience, standing up for their country on 9/11.

Remember what finally happened almost a century and a half ago, Rush.  Pushed too far, and as a last resort, those "decadent" Americans rose up.  They donned that color blue and wore it proudly to defend the Union -- and the dream -- with their very lives.

(And this isn't just regionalist bigotry, speaking.  In every state of the Confederacy -- except South Carolina -- regiments of volunteers  marched off to wear blue and fight for the country they had given sacred oaths to defend, showing even more courage than boys from Indiana or Maine.  Ultimately, it wasn't North vs South)

 So, Sean and Glenn.  Do you have any solid reason to believe things will go differently, this time? That we, the heirs of Fremont and Hancock, are made of lesser stuff?  Really?  You think so? 

Well, you seem determined to find out.  So keep pushing. The Union will awaken.  It always has.  We always will.

=Is it Useless To Say Any Of This?=

Folks, the truth is, these guys really haven't thought it out. 

JEFFERSONRIFLEIt's never occurred to them, for example, to ponder the reason why liberals aren't even tepidly trying to pass Gun Control laws, anymore. Because, after eight years of power-grabbing, centralization and abuse by the Bushite Cabal, they came to realize that they might need protection and militia recourse, someday, after all.  Especially at a time when their red neighbors are packing away bullets so fast that the factories have to work overtime, while screeching about using violence against their own freely-elected government. 

No, Hannity & co haven't thought that out, so wedded are they to the Decadence Assumption.  The smugly satisfying but ultimately fatuous notion that wimpy cowardice is all you can expect from anyone with a post-graduate degree.  (Tell it to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  Tell it to George Marshall.)

=Why Do All Fools Think They Are Wise?=

And so we have circled back to where we started -- the sad decline of American conservatism into cartoonish idiocy.  The puppeteers may be rich.  They may be talented provocateurs and con artists... but talent does not equate to brains.  Not when the GOP has driven off almost everybody in America who actually knows stuff, including nearly all the scientists, the skilled innovators, and most of the U.S. Officer Corps.

Alas. This is no longer even about "conservatism" anymore.  Barry Goldwater lived long enough to denounce what he saw happening to his beloved movement, and things have plummeted even father, since that great man died.

Nowadays, bottom-to-top -- and especially at the very top -- it is all about stupidity.


* Oh. There was one exception to the rule that all our foes have committed the Decadence Assumption.  Ho Chi Minh never underestimated America.  His avowed hero was George Washington and he remained in awe of the U.S., all his life.  He remains the only enemy leader who ever defeated us at war, and then only because our hubris (not decadence) got the better of us.