Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A historic victory for the manic side.

Okay, phew.  So it is done. Journalists call the Health Care Bill "epochal and transforming"... even though it merely (and gradually) tweaks what remains by far the most capitalistic and least "socialist" system in the industrial world.  Despite armageddon rhetoric, watch how quickly (I give it 4 years) Republicans will come to accept this status quo as motherhood and apple pie, as untouchable and sacred as Medicare and Social Security.

Just look at how they now view "don't ask don't tell."  A dozen years ago, the standard Republican cant pictured DADT as purely Satanic, a plot to destroy the US military.  Now, it is the established thing, to be defended, like all sacred traditions. Never let it be said that conservatives are inflexible.

This flexibility is displayed by their current ire toward a Health Care Bill that is, in fact,  basically the same as one that the same Republican's proposed as an alternative to the Clinton health care plan in 1993.

Pause and go over this carefully, because it may be your best ammo yet, with that Fox-addict uncle of yours. (Other than pointing out that Saudi/Arab interests own as much as 20% of Fox; that's a good one, too. See below.)

Here's a core fact and towering irony: the general outlines of Obama's plan were originally worked out at the conservative Heritage Foundation and proposed under sponsorship of GOP Senator Chafee and the entire GOP leadership in 1993. In other words, the Democrats just passed the Republican health care reform plan -- without a single Republican vote. See more details on Russ Daggett's blog -- (one of the best political blogs anywhere!) 

Moreover, if there are particular planks in the bill that your uncle detests (heck there are some I don't like), remind him that that is what "negotiation" is for, and the dems were fall-down eager to trade for republican votes.  If there are particular points he finds odious, they are there because the GOP did nothing to eliminate them, even though they could have.


Which brings up my first -- among several -- "contrarian" observation about the recent Health Care Imbroglio. This was never about socialism/capitalism... or indeed, any superficial "left-right" issue at all. 

Lest we forget -- George W. Bush and the GOP Congress passed Medicare Part D, an expansion of federal entitlement largesse that was easily as large as Obama's. Though with one crucial difference. The Democrats' new Health Insurance Bill was designed to add nothing to the federal deficit. In fact, it is revenue neutral and even promises some black ink.  The Republicans' Medicare B entitlement, in contrast, passed without a scintilla of provision for how to fund it. It simply said "bill our grandkids."

Of course, it is ironic how often facts run blatantly and diametrically opposite to common wisdom.  Take the absolute truth that Republicans talk a lot about being tough on illegal immigration... while their presidents always savagely cut border enforcement. (Reagan and both Bushes did it.) In contrast, Democratic presidents talk about immigrant rights and take care of immigrant kids... but they also double the active manpower of the Border Patrol. (Clinton did it and so has Obama.) It's an easily demonstrable fact that creates mind-blowing cognitive dissonance in dogmatists; try it some time!  Then have fun figuring out why the parties act this way!

The list of counter-intuitive facts goes on and on.  For example, all US Army brigades were "combat ready" under Clinton and none were under Bush. Or take the fact that  democrats inarguably "do" capitalism far better than republicans. The statistics -- on economic health, GDP growth, small business startups, market competition, budget balancing, de-regulation and dozens of other solid metrics -- make this abundantly clear; even though doctrinal delusion makes us ignore it.

So don't swallow the "left-right" hallucination. This is not about collectivism vs propertarianism. The "left-right" axis is hallucinatory.

No, at one level, our two political parties differ far more as a matter of personality psychology.  We Americans appear to be a bipolar people. We have what used to be called "manic depressive" disease.  Of course, in this model, clearly, democrats represent the manic side -- always frenetically eager to be doing something -- and republicans blatantly manifest the depressive side.  Hence we can see why:

1) Starting when they took over Congress in 1995, amid promises of diligent reform, the Republican members of Congress have proved to be the laziest clade of legislators in US history. While pouring forth invective against big government, abortion and what-not, they actually submitted fewer bills, held fewer hearings or votes, heard less testimony and met fewer hours than any other Congress in a hundred years.  While serving up lip-service to the social conservative ground troops, they actually only roused themselves to concerted action when it came to one issue... arranging tax cuts for the rich.  

That they did diligently, in good times and bad, during peace and war. Even going so far as to try hard to "privatize" Social Security... thrusting a hundred million new purchasers into the stock market at its peak. Purchasers who would have lost trillions buying from then-owners at top prices. But, aside from this one priority, for the most part, the GOP lawmakers just sat around and grumbled and cussed and did nothing, even when they held all of the levers of power, every branch of government, and had clearly stated goals.

2) Since World War II, Democrats have done more DE-regulating of government control over economic sectors than Republicans... with the sole exception of the financial industry, where it was the GOP who insisted that most supervision be removed, with clear results. Sound counter-intuitive?  Aren't liberals inherently Regulators and government-loving meddlers?  But again, facts inconveniently defy stereotypes. It was the Dems who eliminated the powerful Interstate Commerce Commission, the Civil Aeronautics Board and many other "captured" regulatory agencies that had kept regulated prices high and stymied competition.  Not the lefty thing to do.  But certainly the manic, busy thing.

(Again: note which industry the GOP deregulated. and how thoroughly their deregulation served their real masters. Meanwhile, their ground troops got nothing.)

I'll stop here.  Except to make a few minor followup points.  Just please take away the basic ironiy here.  That the real, underlying issues often aren't what we're told they are.

==  Devastating Followup ===

Who wants culture war?  Who promotes it, as the best way to divide and weaken America?

“Saudi billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal held meetings this week with  Chairman and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch to discuss investments, including "future potential alliance with News Corp., the statement said about a deal that would see News Corp. Talal, expanding his ownership, plans to buy 10% of the existing shares in the company (The parent company of Fox) could be completed this month.”

Actually, it goes both ways.  Rupert Murdoch is buying 10% of Prince Talal’s media group... and Talal is not the only Saudi or rich Arab owning big chunks of Fox.  By some estimates, the total owned by Middle Eastern interests may be as high as 20+%

Is it possible to ponder a hypothesis?  That the messages that seem aimed at tearing America apart are deliberately spread by interests who want exactly that? 

Okay, is it time yet for the Fox News Boycott ?

see a piece by David Brooks in the New York Times talks about  recent terorism matters in terms that I have been raising since before 9/11... "citizen empowerment and resilience."

Alas, as I point out elsewhere, this should be a matter of prioritization and resource allocation.  1% of the the homeland security budget should be applied to the only thing that worked on 9/11.  The only thing that worked against the shoe bomber or Abdulmutallab.  The thing that wasn't allowed to work during Katrina.I'm in no position to push for it.  It doesn't feather institutional nests.  It just happens to be the one thing that could help us to survive, if and when something awful happens.  Alas.

Finally, also see: Where your money goes 2010.

 .... No ... at the last minute I must add this.  Apparently the Hutaree "McVeigh Radicals" planned to go on a cop-killing spree in April, coinciding both with the dates ofthe Oklahoma City bombings and Hitler's Birthday -- a commonlly targeted date in Aryan Nations circles.  It also happens to have been chosen as the date of the coming, big Tea Party rally.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Sensible - if Radical - Solution for Greece


If you haven't been following this, it's pretty important. The "Club Med" countries of Europe -- Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy -- seem to have gone on a spending binge, since joining the Euro-zone (using the Euro as currency) and now Greece, especially, is asking to be bailed out - big time - by the richest nations, especially Germany.  This seems unlikely.  But the alternative, draconian budget cuts, could stir major social unrest, as well as a national depression.

You know me, I always look for the most obvious thing that is going un-mentioned.  In the case of Greece, I am wondering why nobody mentions the blatant extent to which Greeks are notorious tax scofflaws.  Tax compliance rates in Greece are known to be dismal.  Isn't this an important side of any budget crisis?

I am wondering if Greece might be helped by a dose of radical transparency. 

See my more extensive article: Solving World Debt Through Radical Economic Transparency.

Tax evasion is mediated by corruption, which thrives in shadows.  Were the Greek economy radically opened to light, laws would be enforced, simply because citizens would spot their neighbors' evasions -- (yes I am talking radical transparency! So?) -- and therefore that side of the ledger should dramatically improve.

This approach has an added advantage.  Radical transparency could be achieved with some simple changes in law, unleashing citizens and media to do the rest.  If combined with an amnesty for those who report and pay-up on past evasions, this approach could offer the poor and middle class something to counterbalance their own sacrifices in setting things right.

 This sort of thing could be a big piece in helping the "Club Med" countries transform their balance books and take up a new position of leadership in an era of change.


Citizen news network with credibility ratings. (EARTH predictive hit?

Mars Express buzzes Phobos, one of the Red Planet's two tiny moons.

Creatures found under 600 ft of Antarctic ice suggest possible life under Jovian moon surfaces.

Your next cool board game?

Researchers Turn Mosquitoes Into Flying Vaccinators.

Stop the Ug99 Fungus Before Its Spores Bring Starvation

Well, it certainly is reciprocal accountability....

Wow re lunar ice.

A site that answers questions or computations.

Efficient, low-cost water treatment (membrane .02 microns) may be useful in third world countries.

Five stellar ways to explore space using social media

Women and Posthumanity: The future looks large and sexy. The media is driving females to manipulate their bodies to increasingly unnatural idealized images. We've lost touch with what natural bodies look like; we have no acceptance of natural aging.


I'll offer my own, typically off-angle, view of the Health Care Bill and its implications for America's ongoing civil war, soon.  Till then, I just want to jot down a quick thought on another matter -- the current European economic crisis, precipitated by near bankruptcy of the nation of Greece.

Now, some announcements

1) I've continued my series of ten-minute intellectual "YouTube Feasts." First concluding my series about spaceflight withPart V: The  Grand-scale reasons to explore space.

And then with the first part of a series about transparency, privacy and freedom. The Transparent Society: Part 1: the coming era of cameras everywhere. 

 2) The George Marshall Foundation has honored me by prominently posting my 1999 essay touting George Marshall as the "Man of the 20th Century."

Spread the word and enjoy!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On Denialism, Altruism, Breaking filibusters and... space!

Denialism includes “denial of progress.”

One of the most insidious poisons going around, spread not only by the mad right but also by the lazier and more self-indulgent portions of the left, has been the notion that progress has failed.

Even when wagging their fingers at us, in hope that we’ll become better people, Hollywood films like Avatar emphasize guilt and despair as motivators to become better people. Say what?  Exactly how is that supposed to work? Instead of ... well, how about pride in what we’ve accomplished and encouragement that we can do more? Directors like James Cameron are sincere. They mean well.  They really do want to propel us forward. They genuinely hope their guilt trips will make us better people... while showing in their films a belief that the goal is impossible to achieve!  Which makes it all the more tragic that their messages kill the very ambitions they aim to stoke.  The ambition to accomplish great things.

Progress-happensIn fact, civilization is not vile and useless.  Progress happens.  It has never been happening faster.  See just this one short summary for a partial list of reasons to feel restored faith in our can-do spirit.  Of course, the list was compiled by some folks at Cato, who give all the credit to globalization and none to intelligent planning.  But the facts still are what they are.

Lesson number one in human motivation, Jim.  Guilt trips aren’t as effective as pep talks that positively reward and praise people for the great stuff they have already done, encouraging them to strive harder to move forward even faster.  Go back to school.  Re-take psych 1.

=== On Altruism ===

What benefit does altruism serve?

Altruism-patrhologyI provided two papers in the psychological research volume Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan and David Sloan Wilson. Published by Oxford University Press.

This volume takes on a once verboten topic -- can surficially beneficent or altruistic behavior sometimes be motivated by more unsavory drives like aggression, egotism or even rapacious self-interest?  Can it even hurt the one who is being helped?

My chapters are: "Self-Addiction and Self-Righteousness" and "A Contrarian Perspective on Altruism: The Dangers of First Contact". Those interested will have to wait at least half a year for Oxford to publish the volume.  But  make note, now.  It will be worth the wait.  (It also proves I am still doing science... albeit in the form of continuing guerilla raids outside my formal PhD!)

Not that I disagree... but the study was done by a liberal atheist. ;-) In fact, the lurid headline disguises an interestingly more complex article about whether higher general intelligence is associated with “evolutionarily novel” traits -- or much more recent adaptations -- like nocturnal activity (dependent upon artificial light), complex discourse.

The author argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel.  So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.  This jibes closely to my “horizons” model that saitiation trades off against the radius of inclusion, how widely you feel your sense of kinship extends, in space, time, and kind.  The satiation tradeoff only works if a person has both certain personality traits (including satiability) and enoigh empathy-imagination.

==A  Trick to Defeat the Filibuster==

FILIBUSTERI've mentioned before that the New York Times ran an especially cogent article -- Mr. Smith Rewrites the Constitution, by Thomas Geoghegan -- about the absurd filibuster, its unjustified constitutional context, and possible ways around it.  It’s one of the most enlightening legal articles I've read.  I like especially Gohegan’s recommendation that Vice President Joe Biden simply rule from the bench that his own constitutional powers have been abridged.

On further consideration, in fact, the “Biden Option” could be even simpler than Gohegan suggests.  Instead of the vice president using his presiding powers to rule against the cloture process, he can arrange for circumstances that simply bypass cloture, on a constitutional quirk. Here’s how. Simply coordinate enough Democratic Senators in order to arrange for a perfect match of the predictable, lockstep GOP nay vote.  Say the result is a 41-41 tie, at which point Biden says:

 "The vote for cloture being a tie, the US Constitution takes precedence over any mere Senate procedural rule. I shall now cast the tie-breaking vote. I vote 'Yes' for cloture. The motion carries, and debate on this bill shall close 30 hours hence."  BANG!

The great thing about this approach is that it leaves Republicans with no wriggle room at all. Their sole option is to evade the tie, by changing some Republican votes from nay to yea! But the Democrats have far more inherent flexibility.  Up to twenty extra Democratic senators may lurk in the cloakroom, ready to descend and vote either way -- to restore the tie or else using those GOP "yeas" to help add up toward a regular 60-vote cloture.

Sure it will be decried as trickery.  So?

==Hollywood and Our Notion of Progress==

PeopleGeorgeLUcasI was also interviewed for the new documentary “The People vs. George Lucas.”  I have no idea - yet - whether they used their footage of me appropriately.  I attempted to be circumspect and speak well of Lucas -- where he deserved it. For example, I loved the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” and adored “The Empire Strikes Back.”  So my disappointment in the films that followed came honestly... leading to my participation as editor and “prosecutor” in the book STAR WARS ON TRIAL. (by far the best and most fun way to explore these issues!)

Those guys at the SETI Institute sure have chutzpah!  They plan to turn their first SETIcon August 13-15 at the Hyatt Regency, Santa Clara. “The Search for Life in the Universe in Science Fact and Science Fiction!” Thus perpetuating the myth that they love science fiction.... only don’t mention any possibility that the universe might -- just might -- be different, even slightly, than their standard model.  Watch how quickly any alternate scenario is dismissed as “crazy science fiction stuff.”  Anybody planning to attend? Oh, don’t get me wrong, it should be fun and interesting in its own right.  The topic has fascinated my, all my life and I am glad the are pursuing the worthy search... (as opposed to some of their other, cultlike activities.)  But if anyone is interested in some questions to raise....

==Podcasting Outer Space==

I've been recording and posting some brief (for me) monologues on YouTube, starting with

Space Exploration Part 1 - Planning our next steps in beyond Earth  ... followed by

Space Exploration Part 2 - Mining the sky: Are there economic incentives out there?    ... and then

Space Exploration Part 3: The Big Picture, Where is the excitement? And what about warp drive? Finally, and just posted, there is

Space Exploration Part 4: Ambitious technologies for space: Space tethers, solar sails and space elevators.

More space-related postings will go up soon, plus some fun rants about SETI, andon the (crazy) notion of "cycles" of falling civilizations.

Nature interviews David Brin on scientists writing fiction.

=== On the Brain, Health Care and more! ===

The worlds first commercial brain-machine interface.

See Mike Treder, of the Institute on Ethics in Technology, write about basics of health care.

Another for the predictions registry... e-readers like the Amazon Kindle.  Now see this from EARTH (1989)   “That's enough for now. More than enough. Go feed your pets. Get some exercise. I slipped some readings into your plaque. Go over them by next time. And don't be late.”   Hm?  Anybody know an earlier hit on this?

I wish I could find where I also predicted this! That nerves are only the flashiest active elements in the brain.  The so-called “support” cells may be just as important, multiplying vastly the number of “active” elements and making the human brain that much harder to emulate! 

And finally, some some political items I had lying around...

===  Miscellanea ==

The fundies have made it blatant and open: ”Science fiction is intimately associated with Darwinian evolution. Sagan and Asimov, for example, were prominent evolutionary scientists. Sci-fi arose in the late 19th and early 20th century as a product of an evolutionary worldview that denies the Almighty Creator. In fact, evolution IS the pre-eminent science fiction. Beware!”

See an interesting, if myopic, discussion of why economists failed to see the bubble crisis coming.  And sure, none of them mention crackpot theories like my “Betrayal of the Smarter Sons.”  I can’t blame them.  That one was pretty bizarre, even if it contained some possible validity.

The honest truth is that I suspect other reasons.  Oligarchy is an especially pernicious human trend that's rooted in our genes and also in capitalism's very roots.  Marx was right that it is the ultimate, recurring threat. He was wrong to say that there aren't solutions that can keep capitalism vibrant, competitive and creative, for generations at a stretch.  But those solutions tend to be "captured" by smart proto-oligarchs, much in the way that parasitic viruses and bacteria adapt to attack hosts in new ways.

Right now our immune system cannot adapt to oligarchy-driven distortions because our immune system (politics) has been suppressed by "culture war."  Throw in some deliberate sabotage by certain hostile foreign elements and you have a theory that is more than adequate... if far too dramatic for anyone but a science fiction author to concoct or credit.

Too bad, since economic and political thinkers used to ponder a bigger picture.  Krugman and Galbraith are peering at individual trees.  They do not see the forest.

-- Is the Iraq War over? ---

enough for now....

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Space Exploration, Methane Blurps and Podcast Rants

 A couple of hurried announcement-notes, then a quick-drafted thought on methane blurps and cycles of history:

1) With the help of a techie-camerawoman (for whom I feel considerable fondness), I've begun recording and posting some brief (for me) monologues on YouTube.

SpaceExplorePart1Space Exploration Part 1: Planning our next steps in Space  

...followed by...

Space Exploration Part 2 - Mining the sky: Are there economic incentives for exploring space? Can space exploration pay for itself? More space-related postings will go up soon, as well as another on the notion of "cycles" of falling civilization.

2) See a thought provoking snippet from the Globalist: "In the 1980s and 1990s, workers from China, India and the former Soviet bloc contributed 1.47 billion new workers to the global labor pool — effectively doubling the size of the world's now-connected workforce, bringing little capital with them. Even Marx knew that the capital/labor ratio is critical. The more capital each worker has, the higher their productivity and pay. A decline in the global capital/labor ratio shifts the balance of power as more workers compete for working with scarce capital."

This ratio of scarcity explains some of the strong position of capital today and even (perhaps) the present hard push toward revived oligarchy, restoring the normal human governance model, recently displaced by the Enlightenment.  That push may be all the more intense because new capital is forming at a furious rate, especially in Asia. Hence the ratio should correct itself within a couple of decades, especially as population levels off.  The would-be restorers of that ancient pattern may feel they only have a little time.


For years I've prophesied that the biggest shoe in the climate mess had yet to drop... the potential (and possibly sudden) release of vast stores of methane that had been sequestered, either in permafrost or in hydrate ices under polar arctic seas.

imagesJohn Barnes also wrote of this possibility in his fine novel MOTHER OF STORMS (1994). Now come signs it has begun."The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world's oceans," said Shakhova, a researcher at UAF's International Arctic Research Center. "Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap." Earlier periods of rapid climate change have been associated with sudden releases of methane from the seabed.

If this proves to be a true tipping point event, and if dire consequences ensue, it will require re-adjustments on all sides. On the right, it will mean eating crow and admitting they were wrong - something no conservative ever does without prying the words out of him, with a crowbar of facts.  It might also be time to hold the top leaders of the Denialist Cabal accountable in civil court, if their tactics involved deliberate obstruction of informed palliation of harm, as in the Tobacco judgments.

But the left will have to adapt, as well. And one thing they must surrender is their monomania that Global Climate Change can only be dealt with at the demand side -- through conservation, energy efficiency, sustainable development and almost puritanical self-control.  Hey, I am in favor of much of that, as shown by my novel EARTH (1990)  But clearly, liberals may also have to suck it up and accept the need for measures that address global warming directly.  For example via a suite of methods called Geoengineering.

I know some workers in this field.  Many of the schemes are presently impractical -- e.g. giant sunshades to reduce light levels striking the Earth.  Others have potentially dangerous hysteresis effects or are inherently hard to control, like sending plumes of sunlight-scattering aerosols into the upper atmosphere.  Certainly, any prudent attempts at geoengineering should start with things that

1) have no overshoot potential
2) emulate natural processes
3) are easy to stop, cold
4) have side benefits.

Hands down, that means going back to experiments in ocean fertilization.  Earlier attempts, dumping iron dust into the sea, had mixed results and resulted in some worrisome acidification. My favorite alternative would be to create tide-driven bottom-stirrers... as depicted in EARTH -- that simply emulate the natural process by which ocean currents raise nutrients from the ocean floor in some regions, stimulating plankton to draw CO2 out of the air, and also turning sea-deserts into rich fisheries. This possible win-win seems worth a few more-than-tepid experiments.


Finally, I was cued onto a cogent and well-written "big perspective" by Mark Rosenfelder - of the kind that I am wont to spin off, now and then. It can be seen at the zompist site, and though written in 2000, it reads as if written yesterday. Rosenfelder addresses contemporary ironies, like "If liberalism won all its battles, why is it retreating?"

The general topic that he tries to cover is one that I call "What ever happened to the can-do, problem-solving spirit called modernism?"  Way back in 2005, I penned a 20 part series about this, exploring the question from many angles, then waited for some journalist to come and offer to expand it into a book (!)

Among many things I like about this essay -- Rosenfelder distinguishes (as I do) between Liberalism and The Left, two very different movements that are often allies toward particular goals, e.g. civil rights, but that are at-odds over their fundamental models of both human nature and how a better society might unleash human potential. Other topics... (no time to address them all)... he dallies with "two dimensional" political spectra... none of which are as good as my own (naturally ;-) But decide for yourself.

But at least he shares my contempt for the current, absurd (and French) "left-right" axis. His appraisal of the bestiary of American politics is interesting and insightful, though here I diverge in several ways.  For example, I think I have a better explanation for the right's abortion fixation. (The "Jesus Problem.")  His analysis of libertarianism, while hilariously on-target, misses some core points, like the way I challenge libertarians to tell me who was oppressing freedom in any decade, on any continent, across the last 4,000 years. Read Adam Smith, and then tell me how you'll prevent the recurrence of feudalism. All told, a fascinating romp by a fellow who truly qualifies as an open-minded, contrary-ornery wiseguy.

===Misc stuff! ===

Neil de Grasse Tyson on the space elevator.

Brilliant, if true.

What has happened to the Atlantic, though!  Formerly a cesspool of grumbling, anti-future maunderings, it now runs vigorous articles appraising the future, from Nicholas Carr’s dyspeptic but interesting ”Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” to this recent piece by my fellow hard-charging modernist, Jamais Cascio, “Get Smarter.”  Go look. 

Another prediction from EARTH (1992) -- Tidal power is taking off, in Europe. (Now a further prediction.  These “snakes” will also be designed to stir bottom mud and fertilize currents. )

Further articles about my opposition to METi - or “Message to ET.” One ran in the New York Times, another in the New Scientist.

See a wiki about a fun, mind-stretching concept by the renowned singularitarian John Smart.

World’s weirdest animals!  I knew of maybe half of these.  The rest?  Eewww!  Use em as aliens in a scifi pic. 

“A two-year-long interview with Slawek Wojtowicz” the Polish SF scholar.  Mostly for a Polish audience of readers.