Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Looking Backward...and then Toward the Future

Before looking onward to the future, let's take a brief look back:

"In any case, the 21st century is undeniably the century (that) science fiction built -- if not in utter hands-on reality (though even that proposition is debatable, given the inspiration the genre has provided for influential scientists and geeks), then in the public imagination. Since the birth of genre SF in 1926, and for almost the next 75 years, simply to set a story in the third millennium AD was to signify extravagant extrapolation and a futuristic, far-off milieu when flying cars and food pills would reign -- or dystopia would prevail. The year 2010 is automatically one of yesterday's tomorrows." writes Paul Di Fillippo, in "Is Science Fiction Dying? on Salon.

How does Science Fiction go about portraying the future? I'm quoted in this BBC article: Futurology: The tricky art of knowing what will happen next...

"In more recent times, author David Brin, in the 1989 novel Earth and in his other works, predicted citizen reporters, personalised web interfaces, and the decline of privacy. "The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless," says Brin. "You then ask yourself: 'What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'"

How do we project ourselves into the future? No matter how hard futurists try, their visions never quite match up to reality. In H+ Magazine, Valkyrie Ice points out the Top Five Errors in Predicting the Future: 

1. Tunnel Vision: extrapolating future changes, by giving too much weight to one line of technological innovation

2. Ideological slanting: imprinting today's ethical or moralistic biases on the future

3. Linearism: imagining that technology advances in a linear fashion, rather than exponentially, or along several parallel tracks

4. Static Worldview: a failure to envision how technology will deeply alter society and culture

5. Unrealistic models of human nature: certainly what we view as 'average' will shift in the future

==Twittering Earth?==

twitter-earth-brinApparently, I predicted the phenomena of Twitter, back in my 1989 novel Earth:

“I am the sum of many parts...I am the product of so many notions, cascading and multiplying in so many accents and dialects. These are my subvocalizations I suppose-the twitterings of data and opinions on the Net are my subjective world.” 

(From p. 641 of the paperback version of Earth.)

And what does that get me….but a free Twitter account! (You can follow me as @DavidBrin But I'd settle for some back-dated founders' shares? ;-) It seems worth listing at my Predictive Hits site. has some interesting discussion of my new graphic novel TINKERERS and the topic of U.S. Industrial decline. (Now available on Amazon.) It was also reviewed by the LA Times.

In “A Whispering Neuron in the Nascent Mind of the World,” author Alex Washoe offers his commentary on my novel Earth (1989) and its relevance to modern society, “Brin paints a picture of a Net that has permeated every facet of life, and even more vividly he captures the taste of the ongoing, open-to-all, often chaotic and not always civil conversation about any and all topics that characterizes the Web today.  He foreshadows the rise of Bloggers and Internet watchdogs who make the keeping of secrets, either personal or political almost impossible…. Brin draws a powerful analogy between the multitude of voices on the web and the Babel of different "sevles" that make up our "individual" pysches.  The Net as the raucous pre-concious of an ermeging global mind?  This idea escapes the spurious dichotomy of rugged indvidualism and Borg like group think by recognizing the very real possiblity that the same evolutionary forces of competition and co-operation that operate in the natural world shape our brains and minds and societies as well.” (Someone recruit this fellow into our blogmunity.)

“It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by things other than power.” My quote cartoonized by Russell Higgs:

For those wanting a good read in the genre of “urban fantasy”… tales in which characters have to deal with both our world and another where things differ greatly… you might try BLUE, by my friend Lou Aronica.

heartofthecometNow here's an obscure connection to fame. Like me, Brian May - of the rock group Queen - was a physicist before being drawn away into the arts. When asked, in an interview, about his dissertation, May answered: “It's a study of dust… in the solar system. … My experiment was trying to figure out the motion of that dust. Where it's going, what it's doing, where it came from and what it means in terms of the creation of the solar system."

Huh.  My doctoral dissertation was about the source of much of that dust - comets. Whenever you see a nature program showing comet cores as spinning and covered with dark, dusty material, with a few water vapor fountain-jets spewing forth, well, that's my thesis, confirmed by half a dozen spacecraft since! I incorporated much of this into my novel, Heart of the Comet, co-written with Gregory Benford.


I know many of you have been patiently waiting for my extended essay about AVATAR.  If I take much longer, I won't have any chance of influencing James Cameron's sequel script.  Serves me right.

But to tide you over, here's a few more recent capsules.

Tron: Legacy was kinda lame. But I have a trick. Before seeing a film I adjust EXPECTATION DIALS. By zeroing LOGIC & SCIENCE I could adore THE FIFTH ELEMENT's gonzo-rollicking sense of utter joy. For each episode of LORD OF THE RINGS I numbed my hatred of smug feudalism and thus got to enjoy em. (See my essay on J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age) As for Tron -- it was murky, visually too dim and the 3D wasn't great. The story was a rehash.  Still, it offered enough fun to be worth the price. The combat scenes were pretty cool.

One moment stood out for me, when Flynn had to save the life of a program, he did it the RIGHT way!  In the old Tron movie, he repairs a program using "user power" by waving his arms and applying magical force of will.  I hated that. Wanted him to pick up chunks of the broken machine and see lines of code! And to say "Hey, I wrote this!"  Then grab and re-arrange lines till the program re-booted. THE MATRIX sort of implied this kind of relationship to the code.. then betrayed it relentlessly.

 In this new flick, Flynn uses knowledge and skill, doing surgery on the code deep in order save a friend ... a small victory for the prefrontal lobes, in a hollywood biz that is obsessed with gut feelings and worshipping the supreme power of emotional impulse over reason.  (I wonder if the writers of this version read my old essays, complaining....)


Ten predictions for News Media in 2011

Really Inspiring!

Meryl Comer and Chris Mooney make a strong (overwhelming, in fact) case that investments in science and R & D nearly always prove to be the best possible way to advance the economy, to stimulate job growth, advance public health and improve our balance of payments. There are no excuses for not making R&D a top priority.  Which means that the party that sabotaged science in the United States for so long has no conceivable rationalization or eexplanation, other than deliberately sabotaging their own country.

==And... Space News==

One way to reduce launch costs: manufacture parts in space. A new company, Made in Space, proposes launching 3-D printers into orbit and using them to manufacture parts for spacecraft (satellites or the space station) - which would then be assembled in zero gravity. This would reduce the need to bring spare (plastic) parts. Broken pieces would be recycled as 'feedstock' for rapid prototyping. (I did some preliminary work on this in the early eighties!)

Will we be able to grow crops on other planets to sustain human colonies? Scientists analyze soils on the Moon,Mars and Venus for potential agriculture.  Aeroonics is another possibility for soil less agriculture.

 Project Icarus is a Tau Zero Foundation (TZF) initiative in collaboration with The British Interplanetary Society (BIS). Daedalus was a BIS project in the late 1970's conducted over several years, to design an interstellar probe for a flyby mission to Barnards Star. Over three decades has now passed and it is an opportunity to revisit this unique design study.

Earlier this week my son and I stood in our backyard and observed the International Space Station crossing through the night sky  -- an inspiring sight. If you want to know when and where to look, check Heavens Above for your geographic position. It tabulates the location of the ISS, and satellites, as well as any visible comets.

==And... Science Fiction==

 The 100 best movie spaceships.

How does Serenity compare to a TIE Interceptor, or Babylon 5 Station to a Klingon Transport vessel?  Starship Dimensions, an online museum of vessels inspired by science fiction, puts it all to scale, contrasting dimensions of starships to real-life vessels. 

==And.... The Economy==

 James Fallows comments on “The Chinese Professor” Ad from Citizens Against Government Waste.

Hans Rosling's 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes - The Joy of Statistics… and the statistics of joy… Important perspective!

About the ever-widening income gap, Frank Rich writes, in a New York Times article: Who will stand up to the super-rich? : “As Winner-Take-All Politics documents, America has been busy building a bridge to the 19th century - that is, to a new Gilded Age. To dislodge the country from this stagnant rut will require all kinds of effort from Americans in and out of politics. That includes some patriotic selflessness from those at the very top who still might emulate Warren Buffett and the few others in the Forbes 400 who  that it's not in America's best interests to stack the tax and regulatory decks in their favor.”

Uncle Sam needs you to solve America's budget crisis: On this interactive site, you can choose which domestic and foreign programs to eliminate, and see how it affects the budget gap forecast for 2015 and 2030. You can choose to close tax loopholes, add a national sales tax, eliminate farm subsidies, cut military spending, or raise the Social Security age, and then share your plan online.

This really fascinating program (based at Northwestern U.) follows dollar bills and makes it possible to map connections among americans.  Interesting and easy to become a participant of "Follow George." 


The idea that we are entitled a life of happiness is a relatively new one.
Past generations were more likely to accept their lot in life - with happiness a function of birth, bestowed by the fates or the gods, the reward for a virtuous life - or even delayed til a glorious afterlife. We who are less patient, believe it is our due, and yet, in the bustle of modern life, few seem to attain it…See A History of Happiness.

And finally...
Here's hoping that the end of the Naughty Oughts (I named em in 1998) will bring a decline in grouchiness, a return of reasonableness and fizzy can-do, ambitious problem-solving!  And may you and yours have their best decade yet. (Though the worst of those that follow...)

Friday, December 24, 2010

As The Naughty Oughts end - where goest Media and the Internet?

I believe I was the first, back in 1999, to forecast that the first decade of the 21st Century - the "Naughty Oughts" - would feature plummeting confidence and a Y2K curse far worse than some niggling little computer glitch. Would this be what author Robert Heinlein called "The Crazy Years?" More important... will the next decade see more sanity, maturity, ambition and - above all - courage?

Many people have written asking me what "Mr. Transparency" thinks of the whole WikiLeaks affair. I've created a long, detailed analysis (querying magazines to publish it.)

Meanwhile, let's fill in the holiday doldrums with some interestingthoughts and snippets abou the future of media and the Internet.

= Gen-Xers, TRON, and "teen paradise." =

The new TRON movie reminds me of something - that GenXers had the best teen years.  Sure, us boomers had better music. And no one ever matched our self-righteous sanctimony! (e.g. today's ruinous "culture war" in which boasting rights go to the Left for being "less insane." What an honor.)

  But 80s kids had teen-hangout paradise! The video arcade. Every neighborhood's Las Vegas Casino. Noise, flash, excitement; all the teens were there. No generation had anything like it before or since. Pity.
(Or might the arcade revive? I know how to do it!)

= Whither Goest Media and The Internet? =

Netflix is gobbling internet bandwidth. During peak usage (8-10 pm), Netflix movie downloads took up 20% of America's broadband traffic. That's an amazing statistic, especially since it is due to usage by only 2% of Netflix subscribers. And demand is only going to grow, as more companies strive to compete. Netflix downloads already outpace Youtube and BitTorrent peer to peer sharing (which consumes 8% of bandwidth).

America's internet connection speed lags behind that of other countries. The U.S. ranks behind Romania; our rate is less than a third that of South Korea. Consumers must demand better -- or we'll be on the slow road to the future...

From the Wall Street Journal: “In the Grip of the New Monopolists” Tim Wu writes: “The Internet has long been held up as a model for what the free market is supposed to look like--competition in its purest form. So why does it look increasingly like a Monopoly board? Most of the major sectors today are controlled by one dominant company or an oligopoly. Google owns search; Facebook, social networking; eBay rules auctions; Apple dominates online content delivery; Amazon, retail; and so on.”   One must wonder... why did Rupert let the WSJ publish this article.

Internet hijackings are a continuing threat, either intentional or accidental. In April 15% of internet traffic was diverted through China -- when a Chinese internet provider updated its routing information. A similar incident occurred with Pakistan,

How is the government monitoring and using social media: View the PDF paper: U.S. Department of Homeland Security “Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative”

Wall Street Journal’series “What They Know” documents interrnet tracking technology by marketers on commonly visited sites. 

Obama will appoint watchdog for online privacy.

An interesting history of the linguistic background of  “Word Wide Web” and all its descendants.

Infomous, a visual way to navigate online. Hover over a word to visit original sources. Press X to remove content. 

I just realized, Marshal McLuhan died in 1980.  Jeepers! Just before the spread of Usenet and the recognizable early glimmers of Internet-based two-way media.  Was that irony, or what?

= More on (moron?) Media =

Has our global village exposed us to risk of systemic failure? In our ever-more complex, networked and interconnected world, the actions or failure of a few can have widespread consequences, potentially spiraling out of control. This mode is called systemic risk -- the downfall of an entire system, rather than a few individuals. Global integration has resulted in markets, trade, transportation and communication systems which are intricately interlinked -- this can, in theory, lead either to robustness or fragility. Some say that the financial crisis was the first sign of such widespread failure. The rapid transmission of a pandemic, or biological warfare loom as people live in densely populated areas and travel globally. "If past decades are any guide, new problems will be thrown at old and outdated institutions," writes Ian Golden.

The English language has doubled in size in the last century, adding 8,500 new words a year. 

Google estimates that they have scanned 10% of the books ever published. Now you too can mine this extensive database: Google has introduced the Books Ngram Viewer – which allows you to track the frequency of words & phrases in scanned literature through time. Try it out: The word apocalypse peaks about 1996; star wars peaks about 1990, then trails off.  A research team at Harvard is calling this field "culturomics," suggesting that this tool enables culture to be quantitatively decoded like a genome.

The Suicide of Print Journalism, by David Doody Has the internet killed print journalism? It's accepted wisdom that the consumer has simply chosen free news over paid subscriptions. An alternate viewpoint is that print newspapers had become relatively staid and unchanging. An appropriate parallel might be with American automobile companies -- who rolled out cosmetic design changes to great fanfare each year, with little true innovation -- until Japanese companies jumped into the competition, offering a fresh alternative. The internet has succeeded in offering a broad range of up-to-the-minute news tailored to individual interests. The question remains -- what are people willing to pay?

The Internet of  hype: Economist Magazine on the "Internet of Things" or the internet of everything.

Jason Silva in Big Think: Connecting all the dots. "Within our current social media architecture, we are all ‘agents of pattern-recognition’: by “posting”, “tweeting" or “liking” things, we end up working for one another, organizing the sea of data info meaningful streams and enriching our minds like never before."


The patent system is currently unable to keep up with the constant innovation of technology: “Though patents were created to encourage innovation…the patent system actually stifles it. In the fast-moving software market, where online applications are constantly changing, investors say software patents are often targets for lawsuits rather than protection from them.”

Space-time cloak could conceal events: new meta-materials with the ability to bend light around them could be used to hide things in space and time.

The new field of location analytics: businesses are buying GPS data from mobile phones in order to track consumers’ location and movements. How much time did a customer spend in a store; where did they go when they left; what path did they take to their next location? Companies previously relied upon surveys; now they will be better able to profile their customers to precisely market their product. This is the future.

Ray Kurzweil on technology: “Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential.” He continues to comment, "My cell phone's probably updating itself as we speak, but I'm walking around with 1,000-year-old software that was for a different era.”

Video clips of six Innovative Robot Hands -- ready to lend us a hand.

Concerns about cell phones and radiation

See a glimpse of the future (?) in the augmented reality “iLens” (I doubt this is a real Apple Inc promo.) In fact, old hat to Vernor Vinge and me.

... best of the season to all of you... and here's to a return to ambitious, mature, calm-but-assertive confidence, in a bold civilization that is worthy of the name...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Is Theology Compatible with Science, Progress and Sci-Fi?

Yes, that was David Brin's famous "Name The Beasts" riff, which I have given in numerous talks and speeches, but which was never posted online, till now.

What God Wants From Us?

In the spirit of the season, I've been getting mail asking that I offer something theological - even pastoral - for the end of the year.  (Indeed, to denote completion of a dismal decade that I first labeled the "naughty oughts.")
Perhaps theology seems a bit of a reach for an astrophysicist and science fiction author.  Or, perhaps, those professions uniquely qualify me? In any event, I'll oblige by posting two excerpts from my novels.

The first one is from EARTH (1989), a book that is getting a lot of attention today, for having predicted massive dumps of military and diplomatic secrets in the early 21st century, rattling governments powerless to keep up with amateur cunning and changing values.  (Sound familiar?)  But the excerpt that I chose for today is about a completely different matter. It portrays an argument between two theologians in the year 2038.

(Oh, note that EARTH (now in 20+ languages and a Hugo nominee) pre-dated the World Wide Web, yet was credited with predicting its blogs, tweets and hyperlinks... though my address may seem clunky compared to today's "dot" URLs. Well, you can't get everything right!)

I'll follow with this "theological" excerpt with another one, from my new novel in progress, entitled EXISTENCE.

========= begin excerpt from EARTH: p207-208 =========

 Query by T.M. --  “Monseigneur, according to the bible, what was the very first injunction laid by the Lord upon our first ancestor?”
Reply by Msgr. Bruhuni --  “By first ancestor I assume you mean Adam.  Do you refer to the charge to be fruitful and multiply?

T.M. --  “That's the first command mentioned, in Genesis 1.  But Genesis 1 is just a summary of the more detailed story in Genesis 2.  Anyway, to “multiply” can't have been first chronologically. That could only happen after Eve appeared, after sex was discovered through sin, and after mankind lost immortality of the flesh!

Msgr.B. -- “I see your point.  In that case, I'd say the command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. It was by breaking that injunction that Adam fell.”

T.M. --  “But that's still only a negative commandment... “don't do that.”   Wasn't there something else? Something Adam was asked actively to do?

NAME-THE-BEASTS-GENESIS    “Consider. Every heavenly intervention mentioned in the Bible, from Genesis onward, can be seen as a palliative measure, to help mend a fallen race of obdurate sinners.  But what of the original mission for which we were made?  Have we no clue what our purpose was to have been if we hadn't sinned at all? Why we were created in the first place?”

Msgr. B. -- “Our purpose was to glorify the Lord.”

T.M. -- “As a good Catholic, I agree.  But how was Adam to glorify?  By singing praises?  The Heavenly hosts were already doing that, and even a parrot can make unctuous noises.  No, the evidence is right there in Genesis. Adam was told to do something very specific, something before the fall, before Eve, before even being told not to eat the fruit!”

Msgr. B. -- “Let me scan and refresh my ... ah.  I think I see what you refer to. The paragraph in which the Lord has Adam name all the beasts. Is that it? But that's a minor thing. Nobody considers it important.”

 T.M. -- “Not important?  The very first request by the Creator of His creation?  The only request that has nothing to do with the repair work of mortality, or rescue from sin? Would such a thing have been mentioned so prominently if the Lord were merely idly curious?”

Msgr. B. -- “Please, I see others queued for questions. Your point is?”

T.M. -- “Only this -- our original purpose clearly was to glorify God by going forth, comprehending, and naming the Creator's works.  Therefore, aren't zoologists crawling through the jungle, struggling to name endangered species before they go extinct, doing holy labor?

    “Or take even those camera-bearing probes we have sent to other planets.... What is the first thing we do when awe-inspiring vistas of some faraway moon are transmitted back by our little robot envoys?  Why, we reverently  name the craters, valleys, and other strange beasts discovered out there.

    “So you see it's impossible for the End of Days to come, as your group predicts, til we succeed in our mission or utterly fail.  Either we'll complete the preservation and description of this Earth, and go forth to name everything else in God's Universe, or we'll prove ourselves unworthy by spoiling what we started with -- this, our first garden. Either way, the verdict's not in yet!”

Msgr. B. -- “I ... really don't know how to answer this.  Not in real time.  At minimum you've drawn an intriguing sophistry to delight your fellow Franciscans. And those neo-Gaian Jesuits, if they haven't thought of it already.

    “ Perhaps you'll allow me time to send out my own ferrets and contemplate?  I'll get back to you next week, same time, same access code.”_

========= end of excerpt from EARTH: p 207-208 =========

Next - and finally - let me post here an excerpt from EXISTENCE (in progress). In this scene, an astronaut contemplates the tsunami of mail and requests he has received, since becoming famous for discovering a verified alien artifact  in Earth orbit, bringing it home, and awakening the virtual emissaries or simulated beings residing inside.  While he and the object are in quarantine, he deals with fan mail and entreaties, including one of a theological nature.

======begin excerpt from EXISTENCE =======

Even putting aside unsolicited requests -- if Gerald pondered only those from groups he had joined -- the list was too long to cope with... that is, unless the aliens offered some fantastic new way he might copy himself. Now that would be useful interstellar tech!

For example, what should he do about the Church of Gaia: Jesus-Lover Branch? They wanted Gerald to offer an online sermon, for next Sunday’s prayoff against the CoG: Pure-Mother Branch. Some fresh new insights could help tip the current standings.

ExistenceHCThey especially wanted to know -- as the human being who had closest contact with the artifact entities -- did he feel that any of those alien species still knew a state of grace? Like Adam and Eve, before they bit the apple?

Or, if not -- if they had fallen, just like Man -- then did each of their homeworlds also receive an emissary of deliverance -- their own race-savior -- the way one had been sent to Earth? If some of them said yes, then how similar were their stories to the New Testaments?

Lastly, if the answer to all of these questions turned out to be no... then what did Gerald think about the notion -- spreading rapidly among some Christians -- that humanity must awaken to a new obligation? A burden and proud duty to go forth and spread the Word?

 In other words, now that we know they are out there -- so many trillions of souls who wallow in unenlightened darkness -- is it now our solemn mission to head out, delivering Good News to the stars?

Well, at least it was a more forward-looking dogma than his parents’ greedy fantasy -- fixating on some gruesome apocalypse from the Book of Revelations. Even as a boy, he could see that those unctuous, “loving” prayers for an impending end-time were kind of sick, incorporating a nasty shaedenfreude --. hand-rubbing relish -- as they savored what fiery armageddon would do to all those benighted folks out there who happened to recite the wrong incantations.

And yet, he found equally unappealing the righteous atheism of some classmates at Carnegie-Mellon, so contemptuous of anyone seeking “purpose” behind it all. In restive silence, Gerald had wondered, was there an interpretation of God and Jesus that might be compatible with the spectacular universe revealed by science? Not one a measly six thousand years old, of course, but congruent with a cosmos that had endured almost fourteen billion years, so far, and containing quadrillions of stars?

At least this new zealotry -- the notion of sending missionaries forth across the light-years -- had a positive spin. Even if those proposing it had little concept of the sheer scale involved, the fantastic impossibility of sampling more than a corner of one galaxy. At minimum, it was ambitious, imaginative, forward-looking, and pondered the potential of using technology for good.

Still, a public sermon? Gerald’s stomach churned.

He turned down the CoG-JeLoB folk politely, promising to ask the artifact entities about such matters, when the moment seemed opportune.

For all I know, this kind of thing is what they meant by “Join us.”

Perhaps it’s “enlist in our religion -- or roast in hell.”

It could even be, “adhere to our dogmas -- or face an interstellar crusade.”

I can’t wait to find out.

===  end excerpt from EXISTENCE=====

Here's hoping these passages inspire a smile or two, some new thoughts? And above all, one of the most sacred things that human beings can do -- polite, curiosity-driven argument!

Joy unto all.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Future of "Free" Media

Pay Per Use -- or Pay Per Content?

Will the current "everything is free" version of the Internet last? We've grown used to being able to hop about like gods, sampling almost everything out there, without having to pay a dime.  There are plenty of wise folks out there who predicted the collapse of this model, for a long time.  Sooner or later, they may prove to be right.

In a fascinating interview, Michael Whalen, award winning composer and new media observer, discusses the challenges facing those who create and delivering "content."  He correctly (I think) sees the monopolistic control model of content-delivering "pipes" collapsing into a vast lake, though this won't benefit the content owners, either.

Moreover, the makers of specific mobile hardware will matter less and less. Money will still be made by each year's best device maker, but it will remain a hardscrabble, highly competitive world. Device-making will not be a robust business model for steady and ongoing profit.

So far, so likely to be true. But what Whalen misses is the other shoe that must drop, and that is the inherent problem in re: advertising. We've grown used to viewing Adverts as the great monetizer, the prop that can convert raw numbers of "eyeball" attention-seconds into support for the vast lake of quasi-free content.  This model has worked far longer than I would have expected, supporting Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo and so many other content delivery systems one can barely count them all.

Almost alone, I have long viewed this as a bubble, of sorts, perhaps even of the tulip variety. This vast house of cards may prove very hard to support, especially once companies get used to highly targeted AdSense-style ads delivering the actual information consumers need, in order to buy the actual products they want.

Will online advertising collapse like an over-inflated bubble?  I haven't heard anybody else say this, but I think it might be the next shoe to drop.

And if it does, what will happen to all that free content people are so used-to?

As I see it, there are a few models out there. One is pay as you use... either through fee-entry sites like the NY Times or through content aggregators like iTunes and the varied App stores.  The aggregators are likely to expand.  Indeed, this is one reason why I am clinging to my AAPL stock, because they are well placed to be leaders in this role.

I am less-sanguine about individual pay-for-content, like the NYTimes is trying to set up. I part with most critics over why it won't work, though.  Most say that the public is used to free content and hates to pay. Wrong. People are willing to pay.

The Inconvenience of Paying

What they hate is the current inconvenience of paying.  Having to type in name/email and password, or credit card info, or even using PayPal to do their rapid click-surfs for interesting content.

"I'd pay a nickel for that, but don't slow me down!" That is the attitude I am hearing.

  The problem is that PayPal is very badly set up to handle the kind of micro-payments that would enable Salon and the NYTimes to charge the reasonable (say) one-cent per view that people would be willing to pay. Seriously, a venture capitalist who invested in the next kind of PayPal... one that gets the micropayments wagon rolling... could make a ton, once ten million people are signed aboard.  A fantastic business opportunity, but it would take a fellow with patience and deep pockets.

(In fact, I know a few tricks that would make it easier and bypass some of the problems.  Daring investor out there? ;-)

Another model is Rhapsody... clubs and subscription services that let you pay monthly and access content without ever thinking twice, after that.  If advertising collapses, you'll see such services abound.  People will have the click-grab feel of free content, in daily use, but pay willingly a fair monthly rate, as in Netflix. It would work and bypass much of the "Net Neutrality" problems.  (I wrote about both of these methods in The Transparent Society (1997).

Then there's the notion that advertising will be an ever-growing subsidy, forever. I could be wrong.

A fourth system of content generation and delivery is the one Whalen speaks of: " I think we're going back to the 19th century in terms of the "status" of artists. They'll be figureheads. Imagine: like Paris or Vienna of the 1900s, we'll have wealthy patrons and small clutches of people who support the art of "real" artists. In this environment, the work we will try to sell is simply a loss leader and an inducement for us to perform or create a "custom" song, TV show or film..."

Yes, obviously this is where we are heading, in a society that is re-aristocratizing at a rapid clip, abandoning the post-WWII shape of a diamond, with a dominant middle class, and resuming the traditional pyramid structure, with a few thousand oligarch families up-top.  It is how things worked in every other culture... and you and I will hate it.  Even if we get to be lords, you and I will hate it.  But it may be where we wind up.  And so, creators (like me) may need to start looking for patrons.

The good news? I know a dozen billionaires on a first name basis. The bad news? That fact has never done me a scintilla of economic good in the past. But it may in-future, if Whalen is right.

Sometimes Whalen gets silly: "I think everyone is waiting for a GOOG - AAPL face off.  It's not going to happen... AAPL can BUY GOOG."

Um... not.  Market cap is not everything.  I know Sergey.  Won't happen.  Heck, even if advertising collapses, that collapse won't touch Google.  In fact, frantic advertisers will run TO google.

But all that is quibbling.  A very interesting article.

= Misc add-ons! =

Another Smartypants Brin?: Cosmological Finiteness Properties of the Brin-Thompson-Higman Groups 2V and 3V

The Symphony of Science is a musical project headed by John Boswell, designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form. Here you can watch music videos, download songs, read lyrics and find links relating to the messages conveyed by the music.

British artist Darryl Cunningham offers an insightful cartoon take on Global Warming and Conspiracies. “It's one thing to be skeptical, but it's another thing entirely to believe in a conspiracy.”  It really is very stimulating... or so said hundreds(!) of commenters on my blogs, alone.

= Which Brings Up My Final Thought: about SOA... =

Suspicion-of-authorityI have long held that Americans are especially enthralled by the mythos of Suspicion of Authority.   And deep underneath their bickering, republicans and democrats share a mental reflex - suspicion of authority (SOA) - that goes back generations, differing mostly over which elite they see looming as a potential Big Brother. (While making excuses for the elites they prefer). Seldom discussed is their agreement on a common theme - that Big Brother would be a really bad idea.

I had nursed a hope that there would come a time when both major wings would realize that - though wrong in many ways - the other side has a point about the elite it worries about.  That we should be guarding each others' backs. Alas, instead we see a rising tide of irrationality and conspiracy theories.

 Conspiracy theories happen when SOA metastacizes, like cancer.  Either by infecting everybody with unreasonableness... or by becoming true.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Singularitarians & Secessionists - Techno-Tubes & Uplift

I really do like these mad, transcendentalist singularity guys -- who literally believe that the sky's the limit…

... that we are approaching a Technological Singularity: an approaching time when humanity may move, dramatically and decisively, to a higher state of awareness or being. Only, instead of achieving this transcendence through meditation, good works or nobility of spirit, the idea is that we may use an accelerating cycle of education, creativity and computer-mediated knowledge to achieve intelligent mastery over both the environment and our own primitive drives.

Read more in my online article: Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism about the Human Future.

Alas for their simple, Moore's Law extrapolations, which posit that we are on the verge of developing Artificial Intelligence which will soon exceed the capacity of the human brain -- recent neuroscience research shows that this task may be far more difficult than expected:

"The brain's overall complexity is almost beyond belief. One synapse, by itself, is more like a microprocessor -- with both memory-storage and information-processing elements - than a mere on/off switch. In fact, one synapse may  contain on the order of 1,000 molecular-scale switches. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth," according to Stanford University researcher Stephen Smith.

KurzweilSingularityCoverClearly, intracellular processing plays some role, as I forecast in 1989, in EARTH. Heck, even a factor of ten plays hob with those who think it will be trivial to duplicate and transcend the power of the human brain.

Oh, well.

==Synchronicity and Singularity==

How's this for synchronicity? Watch Charlie Kam on the singularity: "I am the very model of a singularitarian
I'm combination Transhuman, Immortalist, Extropian.
Aggressively I'm changing all my body's biochemistry, because my body's heritage is obsolete genetically…
I'll try to improve these patterns with optimal biology.
I'll expand my mental faculties by merging with technology….
I am the very model of a Singularitatian…"

While we're on the subject of Uplift, I am often asked why I don't depict uplifted octopi, or other cephalopoids, the intellectual giants of the invertebrate kingdom.  Well, I do depict a pretty smart 'ps in my next novel, EXISTENCE.  But they really are the aliens among us.  For example, take this:

Octopuses have large nervous systems, centered around relatively large brains. But more than half of their 500 million neurons are found in the arms themselves, Godfrey-Smith said. This raises the question of whether the arms have something like minds of their own. Though the question is controversial, there is some observational evidence indicating that it could be so, he said. When an octopus is in an unfamiliar tank with food in the middle, some arms seem to crowd into the corner seeking safety while others seem to pull the animal toward the food, Godfrey Smith explained, as if the creature is literally of two minds about the situation.”

Our last common ancestor reaches back to the dim depths of time, 500 million to 600 million years ago. That means octopus intelligence likely evolved entirely separately and could be very different from that of vertebrates.

===About our long-term survival

See a fascinating interview of Rebecca D. Costa regarding her new book: Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. Her appraisal of “super-memes” or mental habits that prevent us from perceiving or negotiating solutions to problems, is most enlightening.

Armageddon ScienceHow many ways could Earth be destroyed? In his book, Armageddon Science: the Science of Mass Destruction, Brian Clegg catalogs real and theoretical threats to our planet. The most likely in his view: nuclear weapons, cyberterrorism and natural disasters.

My home state: What is the future of California? California Dreams asks you to imagine the future: what will a day in your life look like in Futuristic California. Submit a video.

“Top Ten reasons to expect the next ten years to be more exciting than the last.” Michael Vassar touches upon issues such as DNA sequencing, regenerative medicine, ubiquitous sensing, cloud computing, augmented reality...and political re-organization.

Delivering food & freight by a series of tubes - sounds like vacuum tubes of drive-through bank tellers, but it would work via induction motors & intelligent software. This Futurama 'pipe' dream would cut carbon emissions and lessen our dependence on truck deliveries, which makes our cities fragile. Don't tell me this idea sucks.

= Secessionism is... "patriotic"? or hypocrisy

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - At South Carolina's Secession Gala, men in frock coats and militia uniforms and women in hoopskirts will sip mint juleps as a band called Unreconstructed plays "Dixie." In Georgia, they will re-enact the state's 1861 secession convention. And Alabama will hold a mock swearing-in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis…._

PAST-civil-war…who, just three years before that, gave a famous speech demanding that all soldiers and citizens hold to their vows to the United States, right or wrong, through thick or thin, as their paramount, sacred duty. Yet, soon, in a snit over their side losing an election - nothing more - the southern aristocracy hurled their neighbors into a hopeless conflagration that despoiled their region for generations. Why?

We are told by these modern secession-romantics that “it was never about slavery but state's rights.” So?  Name the crime that had been committed against their states' rights?  Demand that they cite one.

Even one.

Even the secession declarations do not cite any specific grievances, because there were none! There had been no time for even a single action to have been taken, by Congress, or abolitionists, or an Abraham Lincoln who was not even yet president. When you break a solemn oath - without having been harmed a scintilla… or once even having tried to negotiate with your countrymen… then you have no excuses.  You are simply a traitor.

Oh, by the way, actually read the Declaration of Secession.  It repeatedly and relentlessly and openly cites slavery as the core thing that they are fighting to defend. "Slave" is present 20 times.

I have said it before.  I will no longer let any good old boy, who fantasizes about going back in time and riding with Nathan Bedford Forest, preach to me about patriotism.

Meanwhile, Republican whip Eric Cantor has launched an attack on that most dastardly bastion of anti-american subversion...the National Science Foundation.  With the abandonment of patriotism and fiscal responsibility and 9/11 as rallying cries, it seems that the neocons are left with just two themes. Keep heaping largesse on the rich.  And hatred of smartypants

...and finally...

A Missouri deputy might think twice the next time he tries to arrest a person on bogus charges. The last time he did so, the arrest was caught on a hidden camera in the arrestee's sunglasses.”

The Photography Is Not A Crime site tracks these types of cases on a daily basis. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Longevity & Life Extension

I was interviewed about the likelihood that human lifespan can be extended indefinitely, any time soon. “When Will Life Expectancy Reach 200 Years? Aubrey de Grey and David Brin Disagree in Inteview”:

I do not expect this any time soon. There are way too many obstacles. First, there is no low-hanging fruit. Simple switches, like the ones that are flipped in many animals, by caloric restriction or celibacy, are there to give creatures a delayed chance at reproduction, if it cannot happen earlier. These switches have already been thrown in humans. All of them! Because we had genuine darwinistic reasons to evolve the longest possible lifespans. When the lore held by grandparents helped grandchildren to survive, we evolved a pattern where the tribe would always have a few grandparents around, who remembered stuff.

201817627023095301_lizWYYX1_cThat allegory is simple. Across the last 6,000 years, there have been countless religious monasteries and hermitages. Most practiced some form of ascetism, as a way to discipline their holiness. Many different dietary regimes ranged from merely frugal/spare all the way to near-starvation, and every variation in between. If any of these monks stumbled onto a path to capering around for 200 years, wouldn't we have noticed?

This is a topic I’ve covered in my article, Do We Really Want Immortality?   Funny thing about these immortalist fellows.  Their calculations always seem to portray it happening in time to save them!  But in fact, the news from science seems to keep getting worse for them, not better... e.g. in recent insights into the vastly complex inner computation abilities of human neurons.  It is a case where I’ll be pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong.  But I feel grownups should focus on the guaranteed right bet... investing in our posterity. 

To see how far back the fantasy goes, read about Gilgamesh and the Chinese First Emperor, who drank mercury in order to live forever... and died in his forties.  
Or read the creepily familiar reasonings of very similar fanatics in Huxley’s brilliant (if slow) After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, a book that you find out on the very last page was actually a sci fi novel, all along!

This quasi-debate provoked a firestorm of controversy over on my Facebook page. One of my responses: I appreciate the enthusiasm of those urging me to BELIEVE(!) that tech-delivered eternal life is just around the bend. Indeed, I am told that BELIEVING(!) is essential to get there and that NOT believing might prevent it from happening. One fellow wrote:

            "The power of your expectations is crucial. "

Um right. I get the same pitch from SETI zealots, who proclaim that detection of advanced alien civilizations will result in scientific leaps that may solve all our problems.
Now bear in mind that I am a scientist and sci fi author and I have explored concepts of both future and alien with far more eagerness, breadth and relentlessness that any hundred others you will ever meet. I want us funding ten times as much scientific research as now. I support SETI: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and have served on some of the commissions, and my name is on the first contact rolladexes. I know all the singularity guys and have listened to them for hours.
So why do I -- and Vernor Vinge, the coiner of the term "tech singularity" react with sighs and eye-rolls to all this fervent "hossanah" shouting over salvation from above or an imminent Day of Transcendence, when Death shalt be no more and ye true believers will all be rewarded...
 ...because we've heard it all before. The terminology may be different, but the PSYCHOLOGY is still the same as in every tent show revival meeting across 6,000 years. It's not just the substitution of anecdotes for actual capabilities. (Lots of stem cell papers, but not one regrown nervous system, yet.) Nor the coincidence that Salvation Day always calculates out to be just in time for YOU!
singularityNone of that offends me. Heckfire, I hope you guys turn out to be right. It might happen. I think simplistic notions are stymied by recent results showing how vastly complicated the internal processes of a neuron are -- that the intracellular automata interactions and computations going on in there are FAR more complex than just unrolling an charting the incredibly simple and easy human genome......but sure. Let's all hope. In fact, lots of stuff discovered along the way might be Earth-saving. Like cheap tissue culture meat. That'd be great
But no, I'll tell you what bugs me. It's the psychology. The incredibly self-centered, solipsistic, self-serving, "I-am Soooooo-darned-important!" narcissism of the fantasy is what bugs me. The hand-rubbing, chortling I-am-So-gonna-live-forever! zealotry that seems never to entail ANY of the virtues that we've long associated with adulthood.
Dig it, find me the extropian who understands how we stand on the shoulders of every generation of parents who tried to raise better kids than themselves, or who ever speaks about the beauty of that chain of pay-forward generosity, the most tragic-poetic tale ever told. Or the noble honor we'll all have, even if we die, if we can only be one of the most important of the pay-forward generations. ALL I hear is paeans to how grand it will be to receive the end result. Never anything about the OBLIGATION that falls upon us, from that great chain.
I see the quest for individual immortality as kinda cool, tempting... and fundamentally *irrelevant* to the Great Project that I have inherited -- that WE have inherited. To build and improve the Enlightenment Civilization of Ben Franklin and the others. To ensure we never slump back into darkness. To build something like Star Trek that deserves to move outward. To make kids who are better than us... much better that THEY will have ideas about what's wise and good and proper -- wisdom that's far beyond ours. (BTW, this is happening.) Building that posterity is a far greater challenge, yet one our ancestors were up to. It is a project that is far more noble, precedented and plausible than some grand leap to transcendent immortal supersmart godhood. It is the project that should have YOUR loyalty. And if we happen to get some of the goodies while doing all that, well then fine.
  === Would Extended Life Bring Cowardice? ===
In a related article, Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute (and my frequent nemesis on the issue of METI), speculates that living forever may be a bad idea: "Here's the problem in a nutshell: if we extend human lifetimes a lot -- to millennia, rather than centuries -- all the small risks you heedlessly take every day will have a devastating cumulative impact. Most jobs will become unattractive, because just about any occupation becomes, eventually, a deadly occupation. We'll automate nearly everything we can, and stay at home immersed in a virtual world."  

ShoutingCosmosSigh.  Seth is a smart fellow who often has interesting insights. Alas, he also keeps making broadly absurd declarations about what will automatically happen... Advanced aliens WILL do this&such!  They can only beam messages THIS way! If discussions about METI (sending messages to space) are opened up to a broad spectrum of sages and the public, the result will be a clamp of silence on Earth that will last... Forever!!!  Whatever just-so story enters his head -- that is the way the universe operates, without exception.
In this case, the counter-examples are blatant.  Rich, healthy, long-lived folk are the principal source of participants in extreme sports, in thrill seeking hobbies and attempts to break world records. Will dynamic immortals, plagued by ennui, really sit and twiddle their thumbs, just because Seth Shostak decides “logically” that they ought to?  Feh.
  === and Related Science Matters ===
A team from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow has developed a 'pioneering' lighting system that can kill hospital superbugs such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile. The technology decontaminates the air and exposes surfaces by bathing them in a narrow spectrum of visible-light wavelengths, known as HINS-light. It works by exciting molecules within the bacteria, which in turn produces 'highly reactive' chemical species that are lethal to it.  (Hey, didn’t I predict something like this in my novel EARTH?)

Forty years after federal laws criminalized the use of psychedelics for non-medical purposes in FDA-regulated psychological and drug research, the study of these drugs is picking up again, and their use in treating certain patients shows promise. Researchers are finding that the drugs may help improve functioning and lift the spirits of those with cancer and other terminal diseases, as well help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration have eased regulations and also given approval to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and New York University's Langone Medical Center to study the use of psilocybin to treat death anxiety among cancer patients.  

In the first comprehensive global survey of temperature trends in major lakes, NASA researchers determined Earth's largest lakes have warmed during the past 25 years in response to climate change.  ALSO… The past 12 months have been the warmest ever recorded by NASA. Until now, the hottest year on record has been 1998, when temperatures were pushed up by a strong El Nino - a warming event in the Pacific. This year saw a weaker El Nino, and that fizzled out to be replaced by a La Nina cooling event. So scientists might have expected this year's temperatures to be substantially lower than 1998 - but they are not. Within the bounds of statistical error, the two years are likely to be the same.
On April 8, the networking hardware that routes traffic on the Internet got new marching orders: Requests for data from 15% of Internet addresses-including,,, and U.S. government sites-were directed to go through China.
Recently NASA quietly moved its two long-grounded X-34 space planes from open storage at the space agency's Dryden center - located on Edwards Air Force Base in California - to a test pilot school in the Mojave Desert. At the desert facility, the mid-'90s-vintage, robotic X-34s would be inspected to determine if they were capable of flying again. Provided they're in flyable shape, it's far more likely the space agency will make the X-34s available to private industry. 

Monday, December 06, 2010

Conspiracies and Wishful Thinking

To what extent is the world filled with conniving villains and dastardly plots... and how much of it erupts from our fertile imaginations?  It may not surprise you much that I take both sides on this matter.

On the one hand, history is rife with schemers and secretive meddlers.  You don't need cryptic societies and Illuminati, just your run-of-the-mill feudal aristocracy that ruled almost every society that ever lifted itself to the level of agriculture.  The mythology of inherited lordship - assisted and promoted by priests and bards - was the great scam that got pulled off on every continent, in every age.

On the other hand, we often see conspiracies where they are not.  The psychological drivers are many and powerful. A need to explain one's own poverty and failure. The allure of enticing pattern recognition, even when the patterns aren't really there. And, above all, the warm feeling we get from being in the know. From being part of the elect group that can see what's going on!  While our foolish neighbors go about their business, bleating like ignorant sheep.

There are no richer, more voluptuous mental drug-highs than self-righteous indignation, resentment, and contempt for fools. 


In the latest issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, has an excellent article, “The Conspiracy Theory Detector", in which he categorizes the characteristics of conspiracy theories. I’ll summarize a few of his points:  

   1. -- The conspiracy only emerges by “connecting the dots,” linking events that are unrelated except through the allegation of conspiracists.
   2.--The agents behind such a conspiracy would “need nearly superhuman power to pull it off.”
   3.--The conspiracy presumes that a large number of people have maintained total secrecy, often for a substantial period of time.
   4. --The conspiracy involves a grand struggle for control of a nation or economy, or even world domination (the larger the issue, the more likely it's a conspiracy).
   5.--The conspiracy “ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.”
   6. –The theory assigns evil, sinister motives to events.
   7. --The theorist mixes facts and speculations, probable and improbable events, is consistently suspicious of all government agencies, and refuses to consider alternative explanations, typically rejecting any evidence that fails to confirm such theories. 

I must add that just because a notion has all these warning signs, that doesn't mean the conspiracy theory is wrong!  In fact, would not the conspiring geniuses fake some of these very traits, in order to discredit the idea and divert smart people away from it?

Still, Shermer's article offers some tools, for you to use as a free mind. 


Richard Feynman said that. And I'm the one who said that self-delusion is the greatest of all human talents. 

ConspiracyTheoriesSee my videos: Ten Super Secret Rules of Conspiracy Theories and Part 2 as well.

Indeed, recent science shows how good we all are at psychologically ignoring all evidence against our tightly clutched beliefs. Even when those beliefs are simply wrong. ”New research suggests that misinformed people rarely change their minds when presented with the facts — and often become even more attached to their beliefs. The finding raises questions about a key principle of a strong democracy: that a well-informed electorate is best.”
LogicalFallaciesWhile we’re on the subject, here is a systematic taxonomy of logical fallacies. No one should graduate high school without knowing these. Seriously, you are ignorant if you aren't at least glancingly familiar with them. 
(Hang on a month or so, and I will supply you with an even more important tool: the paraphrase challenge!  Impatient scholars can dive into it here.
Dang, how has the species even survived to get this far?  Obstinate, delusional... and desperately clinging to our delusions. 
If this sort of thing is common among intelligent species, across the galaxy, then ah, the Fermi Paradox is no paradox.


Controversies and public battles over science are nothing new, particularly when politics enters the fray. An article in New Scientist, “Einstein’s skeptics: Who were the relativity deniers?” begins, “When people don't like what science tells them, they resort to conspiracy theories, mud-slinging and plausible pseudoscience.” Einstein’s battles to defend relativity were reminiscent of today’s climate deniers and creationists. 

In 1920, five years after he published his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein wrote, "This world is a strange madhouse, Every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political affiliation." 

Einstein’s publication provoked opponents across Europe and the U.S. who set out to prove that relativity was wrong. Objections were raised not just in scholarly journals, but in letters, newspapers, pamphlets and public lectures.  Some groups promoted anti-semitic conspiracy theories; others raised theological arguments. Their tactics had much in common with those used by creationists and climate-change deniers today. The Academy of Nations, an international network of Einstein’s opponents, published polemics against relativity, which they believed symbolized the incomprehensibility of modern science, and its break from classical physics. The New York Times declared in 1919, that relativity was a theory that could be understood by “only twelve wise men.” 

Arguments continue to this day. The website Conservapedia lists 32 reasons why the relativity theory is wrong, and allows users to document counterexamples to relativity theory. 


See also: An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry and Social Psychology

Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness for Society's Benefit

Paranoia has many roots and levels