Saturday, September 18, 2010

Changing worlds... and how I helped change this one...

Folks near San Diego can hear me see me introduce a screening of DISTRICT 9 on September 22, at UCSD, with vignettes from ALIEN NATION and E.T. for comparison.

While I loved District 9, it wasn't for the usual reasons.  I found the encounter-of-civilizations aspect illogical in many ways, along with the science. There'd be humans crawling all over the ship, for example. Also, frankly, I find unrelenting and unmoderated guilt trips (e.g. “Avatar”) overbearing and unhelpful.  That is why I will be comparing D9 with the 1980s sci fi movie ALIEN NATION... of which D9 is an homage and variation-riff.

Sure, the situations are as different as they are similar. Take the settings - Southern California vs a clearly still apartheid South Africa - which correlate with two very different tales of contact and tension.  ALIEN NATION, depicts yet another immigrant community assimilating, with unusual difficulties, but amid general good intention... helped by the moderate humanoid attractiveness of the aliens.

 In D9 we see full tilt intolerance by humans, not at all palliated by the fact that the arrivals are so alien, unlovable (from a human perspective) and  reproducing with daunting rapidity.  It's a terrific variation!  Very thought provoking, especially since the D9 aliens are clearly made up of castes, with 99.99% of them portrayed as inherently dull or mentally deficient.  The uppermost caste, secretive and refusing to contact or negotiate or explain anything to human civilization, are as much at fault for the situation as the Afrikaans bigots!

There's a definite parallel with Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” in which the only truly villainous individual is the captain of E.T.’s own ship.

But the director of District 9 does not make any of this plain to the audience. It’s all there, but these facts are overwhelmed by the cartoonish apartheid aspects. And so it becomes a standard guilt trip, after all, with interesting details.

No, what I admire most about DISTRICT 9 is its wonderful portrayal of a solitary human -- not an admirable or genial or respect-worthy individual, in any way -- who embarks on a quest for personal survival that is both frenzied and overwhelmingly determined.  A determination that overwhelms all other loyalties or concerns. A fascinating character study and a deeply creepy look into the mirror for any thoughtful person.

NameThatVillainWho are the ''bad guys'? It's not always clear. See my video exploration of this topic: Name That Villain: Bad Guys and Aliens in Science Fiction Movies.


Way back in 1970, I was part of the organizing committee for the Clean Air Car Race, from MIT to Caltech (where I was an undergraduate).  The race - actually a point-scored road rally - had divisions for all-electric vehicles (including the first ever to cross the continent), propane and natural gas vehicles, one with a Lear Jet engine (leaving a trail of shattered toll booths and seared underpasses, from New England to California...

... plus the world’s first hybrid car, built by the University of Toronto, with almost all of the features now seen in hybrids, from regenerative braking to multi-cycle drive trains.  Lacking computers, the car needed a co-pilot who was busy all the time, plus a back seat filled with batteries.  But it worked, and set the stage for all future hybrids. (Quite an important outcome for the race, all by itself.)

But history can be strange. It turns out that the division that seemed the least interesting would actually change the world the most.  For, taking part in the rally, were several cars tuned to use only unleaded gasoline... at the time a relatively new fuel that was much maligned by entrenched corporate powers.  The Ethyl Corporation, clawing to prevent any removal of its poisonous product, contended that fuels without lead-based additives would ruin auto engines.  But then came the Clean Air Car Race, in which all of the cars using unleaded gas cruised smoothly into Pasadena...

...and in (relatively) short order Congress acted, getting the lead out.  Which just goes to teach  a valuable lesson. Progress does not always consist of giant leaps forward.  Sometimes the less romantic or seemingly less ambitious, of your efforts may turn out to be the one the makes the greatest long-term difference.  Incrementalism may not seem romantic or grandiose... but maybe that’s exactly why it works.

I’m proud to have participated in the CACR... thirty years ago, almost exactly.  It helped make the world a little better..

PS...see me in photo number two!

AND THE DESCENDANT OF CACR IS... Forty years later, here is the heir of the Clean Air Car Race... still changing the world through science, technology, pragmatism and goodwill, instead of the sick arrogance of dogma.

===  MORE SCIENCE! ===

Under the “I predicted this” department... with clear implications for The Transparent Society ... meet Looxcie.

A cool survey of nifty science tidbits.

Some concepts for VASIMR-powered  (ion propulsion) missions, using 200 megawatts of power, allow transit times from Earth to Mars in as little as 39 days, nearly five times faster than a conventionally-powered mission. Others are skeptical. 

100,000 houses damaged by New Zealand earthquake as repair bill tops £1.8bn. 

Hundreds of enterprising New Zealanders  have turned to Facebook to organize themselves into relief squads helping residents in the earthquake-hit city of Christchurch.

See a super-cool view of a bird flock in sanfran bay, shot from an airship by a guy I respect.
Suggestions for alternative music?

“On the cusp of curing ageing?” I really, really doubt it will prove to be this simple. 

 "We want to encourage filmmakers to produce and share their cinematic  visions of a present or future society shaped by synthetic biology. What is your view on a world living with synthetic life forms?"


1. A site that compares human heartbeats over a lifespan with animals, demonstrating some good news/bad news for humans.  The GOOD NEWS? we get roughly 2.5 billion heartbeats... roughly THREE TIMES as many as most mammals and even a lot more than our fellow primates.  The BAD NEWS?  We probably have already flicked all the readily available chemical switches to eke out this longer span.  To get more will require herculean measures, much more than simple caloric restriction (which seems to flick a few of those switches in short-lived species.)

2.  Scientists caught stealing from themselves…it’s all too easy to reuse text, particularly in the introduction & method sections, but journals have retracted papers with text repeated verbatim from previous works. Scientific publishers subscribe to software programs that scan databases, searching for duplication or plagiarism. I hope they don’t start checking my speeches; my wife says she’s heard it all before….

3. Ten accounts of shifts in the scientific paradigm of the day.

Panspermia4. A biological big bang? This paper by Gibson, Wickramasinghe and Schild suggests that life developed within a few million years after the big bang – in a cosmological primordial soup. Complex organic compounds are then spread through the universe by comets and meteors to otherwise sterile planets, like earth.  (Warning... these guys are not widely considered to be “all-there” on the grounded science-o-meter. I’ve had run-ins with the zealous Gibson, and Wickramasinghe - while certainly very smart and a colleague of the late great SF author Fred Hoyle - has mono theory-itis. Panspermia Fervor.)


Patterns in the data...  A Beijing suburb will soon begin testing a new futuristic bus that would be built on tall legs - allowing bus passengers to drive above the cars on the highway.

New software seems to predict which individuals on probation or parole are most likely to murder and to be murdered.

Later this month, the Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab will premiere Death and the Powers, an opera more than 10 years in the making. Featuring life-sized singing robots and a musical chandelier, the opera could redefine how technology can enhance live performance and help reestablish opera’s spirit of innovation.

Northwestern University researchers have discovered that broadband Internet prices have remained nearly stagnant since 2004, despite the explosive pace of adoption since then, from approximately 20 percent of U.S. households in 2004 to more than 65 percent today.

NASA is considering a revolutionary new horizontal rail launcher concept.  (Yeah, but if Marshall SFC is involved...)

Federal Communication Commission’s move to release “white spaces,” or unused television channels, later this month will unleash another boom of mobile innovation.

And finally this, offered by John Petersen.

"The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope." - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


Anonymous said...

Forty years since 1970 CACR, not thirty.

David Brin said...


Somewhere in there, I got a PhD...

Duncan Cairncross said...


Somehow they decided that a small IC engine produced less emissions than an electric motor

The only way that I can see that would be true is if you ignored the emissions involved in getting the petrol(gas) from the well to the pump (processing petrol uses a lot of electricity) and looked at a worse case coal fired power station

I think this detracts from the prize

Patricia Mathews said...

The light car is cute in an oval track sort of way, but I wouldn't care to drive it on I-40 through Tijeras Canyon with all those 18-wheelers all around me. Brrr.. a motorcycle would be in less danger!

gwern said...

> Under the “I predicted this” department... with clear implications for The Transparent Society ... meet Looxcie.

I have been waiting eagerly for a long time for a good lifelogging device.

Looxcie isn't it. I was very disappointed to go to and look at the stats.

It's $200. It records a max of 5 hours of video (with just 4 hours battery life!). Reviews say the video quality is poor (and there's little excuse for that, given that 16GB (!) of Flash runs ~$30: And it calls attention to itself, guaranteeing trouble or at least social stigma.

There are existing devices better than this.

kristina said...

Is there supposed to be a link for A Muse's Corner #2?

Ilithi Dragon said...

I'm pretty sure Anon above is a regular poster who deliberately excluded their name for that comment...

Ilithi Dragon said...

Re the non-hybrid car winning the X-Prize, I think it won because it's something that could realistically and practically be implemented in the very near/short-term, without sacrificing too much performance/reliability. Electric cars are a nice idea, and will be the future, but battery and charging technology, let alone the production capacity and cost, are not yet there to allow mass-produceable designs today. The car that won the X-Prize CAN be mass-produced with what we have today, without adding a lot of weight and cost from batteries. Plus the range and performance will be comparable to existing designs; battery tech still has its limitations, and even when it can match the range of existing cars, still has a long recharge time.

Tim H. said...

Crashworthiness standards should be able to sap most of the efficiency goodness from those designs, while the buyer might want such a trade-off, the apparatchiks will not wish to offer that choice.

David Brin said...

have a look at this passage.

Jonah Chapter 3-4

“And God saw by their actions that they had turned back from their evil way, and God relented of the evil which God had promised to wreak upon them, and did not do it.

But to Jonah this appeared to be a great evil, and he was angry. He prayed to Adonai and said, “Please, Adonai, were these not my words when I was on my own soil? This is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, long-suffering and abundant in covenantal love, and relenting in matters of punishment. So now, Adonai, please take my life from me, for dying is better for me than living.”

And Adonai said, “Is anger better for you?”


how is this one of the most powerful passages, in today's world?

David Brin said...

(Note: Jonah had feared this result, for the Jerusalemites had earlier repented, when Jonah warned them, and were also spared, thus Jonah becames a “false prophet”. Now the same thing happened in Nineveh.)

rewinn said...

"Jonah 4:4: "Doest thou well to be angry?""

Twitter/bumpersticker version, for the modern era.

Acacia H. said...

Well, it appears that latest Tea Party favorite O'Donnell has some broomsticks in her closet. Mind you, I of all people have nothing against witchcraft. However, I must admit some wry amusement that the Tea Party favorite, which has strong roots in far-right politics, fear-mongering, and significant conservative Christian leanings, has had their latest darling tossed out of the broom closet with revelations that she "dabbled" in Satanism. Not even Wicca, mind you, "Satanism" (which is the boogyman often used against pagans, despite the fact the FBI considers Satanists to be jokes and basically a cry for attention by neglected people).

So. I suspect O'Donnell's not getting elected. Those Tea Party members who are strong in their faith will likely be turned away from someone who "dabbled." Some may very well vote for the Democratic opposition, if that person happens to be a "good Christian." And considering how Palin was crowing about another victory for the Tea Party... I have to wonder if this is a wee bit of mud in her eye. Especially considering her OWN religiousness.

As John McCain learned in 2008, you have to be careful when you vette candidates for office. You never know what will sneak out of the woodwork (or various closets).


And here's an interesting article about the lack of attention to the Obama tax breaks. Everyone's crying out about the Bush tax cuts which primarily benefited the rich... but Obama's are due to run out too. And they are primarily directed at the Middle Class and poorer people. The writer of the article makes an interesting point on wondering why Democrats haven't been pulling out Obama's tax cuts...

I suspect they've been so busy looking at the polls and trying to avoid being tarred by association with Obama that they've forgotten the good things he did. Either that, or they realized that they're not going to get kickbacks from the poor and disenfranchised. So they'd rather the poor pay a lot more and lose benefits while the rich can relax and seize control of more and more of the nation's wealth.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Tony Fisk said...

Sounds like Fox is in damage control mode.

(ever since they cut NASA funding, it's been just hell maintaining the orbital mind control lasers...)

autabl: able to be auted

David Brin said...

Eeek! I wish I were as confident as you guys, that these people will self-destruct.

We seem to be entering Heinlein's The Crazy Years... just before Nehemia Scudder.

Tony Fisk said...

They're coming across as Australia's 'One Nation' party from a few years back.

Hanson also managed to tap a source of general resentment and xenophobia, Howard (by stepping back and exuding tacit approval) was able to use her as an 'Overton window' to make the political discourse more conservative. They imploded. Hanson ended up carrying the can for 'financial irregularities'. Last heard of emigrating to England, and not being allowed to restrict the sale of her house to 'non-muslims'

Mind you, the difference here is that One Nation struck out on its own, and thus could be struck down once it had served its purpose. The TP are a party within a party. As I said, the GOP power-brokers are just realising what they're dealing with and are trying to regain control by opening closets (She's a witch! She's a witch!).

rewinn said...

I have every confidence that the Aristocracy is willing to back even the craziest of candidates. Crazy people can be paid to vote for the causes the aristocracy really cares about, same as anyone else. The leading Tea Party candidates (those who are GOP candidates for Senate or Governor, plus Palin) don't seem to have a bad word against transnational corporations, so why would corporate persons CARE that they spout arrant nonsense?


The Nyhan-Reifler study suggests that factual refutations of political misinformation can perversely STRENGTHEN belief in the misinformation, possibly via a "counterargument" effect, which if proven (this is only *one* study) which make contemporary politics a lot more understandable.... The Power of Political Misinformation

Patricia Mathews said...

No, Dr. Brin, no! As a Heinlein fan since 1949, I must speak up. According to the Future History Chart, the Crazy Years were the mid-1960s, and peaked in 1966 (Uncle Bob having failed to tie in such peaks to Presidential elections, or maybe was simply splitting the difference - as you know, Bob - they peaked in 1968), and Nehemiah Scudder was 40-odd years down the road. HIS peak was in 2012. Which is the way it is actually working today.

But, yes. Heinlein saw the pattern clearly. Oh, and for kicks and giggles - read The Handmaid's Tale along with Revolt in 2100. A prequel written 40 years later, by a LitCritter who didn't even know it was a prequel -- or that it was even science fiction! (Denied vehemently that it was, in fact, because it was LitRaCHoor!)

Tony Fisk said...

The Jonah quotes got me thinking about possible comebacks (Hey! This is a contrarian area!) and I got to paraphrasing Gordon Gecko's infamous speech, replacing the the term 'greed is good' with a similarly alliterative 'anger is all'.

Reading that speech again, the phrasing is remarkably applicable to the Tea Party today. Even the acronym for 'Teldar Paper' (the company whose shareholders Gecko is winding up) is apt!

David Brin said...


But seriously. Jonah is an absolutely lethal weapon against the Book of Revelations.

(Here's that online comic - by the magnificent Patrick Farley) using the actual words of the Book of Revelations

Even if God did get real angry at Nero, and inspired John of Patmos to rant/predict that God would do all the incredibly weird things in the BoR...

...NOTHING about that foretelling prevents God from, afterward, simply CHANGING HIS MIND.

As he obviously did.

In fact, Jonah isn't the only place where it is made clear the God changes his mind. There are dozens of other places. But Jonah makes it explicit and utterly clear. And that one comparison... to insist that John of Patmos be viewed as a warner, like Jonah, who can be proved wrong by God's calming grace...

...rips down the entire edifice of wrath and schadenfreude that is that horrible book. And the horrible people who relish it so.

Tony Fisk said...

Ooh! He saw a rainbow!

Ilithi Dragon said...

A double rainbow?!

Rob Perkins said...

(Here's that online comic - by the magnificent Patrick Farley) using the actual words of the Book of Revelations

You mean "actual words of the 1611 English translation of the Revelation of John," of course, since the "actual words" were penned in a dead language which I'd be surprised any of us can read with alacrity.

The comic is callow and kind of stupid, because of its freedom from context, and its clear ignorance of ancient colloquialism, idiom, and other symbolic language.

Or was that Farley's point? I can't tell, except to suppose that he doesn't care for arrogant Christians, or something.

In any case, the furthest I'll go with you down this road is to agree that the book of Jonah in the OT is a clear refutation of the use of the Revelation of John for an indignation high. "Lethal weapon"? I dunno.

Unknown said...

I grew up fundamentalist - by influence of church and peers, not parents - and after deconverting I spent a lot of time scheming about how to achieve the demise of organized religion.

...only after cooling off and speaking to more people about their particular brand of religion, I'm not at all sure that fundamentalism is the driver of social conservatism. I think I may have confused cause and effect.

For one thing, many core fundamentalist stances are not Biblical. Abortion isn't prohibited in the Bible except by very creative interpretation*. Homosexuality is only prohibited between males; in the Old Testament, using the same language as the prohibition against shellfish, and in the New Testament, by the same author who says women shouldn't speak in church. I know a lot of Southern Baptist ladies who wouldn't be able to accept that one.

Anyway, point is, I'm not sure that Biblical references would convince anyone to be more liberal. After all, people currently ignore all of Jesus' "eye of the needle" talk.

My current theory is that American society is growing more conservative because it's geographically segregated. People like me live in the suburbs (because they're safe and have good public school systems,) go to work, come home, and repeat daily, and never have to speak to anyone of a different background.

I think it's no coincidence that conservatism is wrapped up with "family values", because people who don't have children often live in the cities where they meet all different types, and can't be convinced afterward that those types present a threat to our society.

* There are actually secular ethical arguments against abortion, but I never get to hear them used.

Tim H. said...

A change of subject, Paul Krugman had a good column today:

The subject being the angry rich. I'd say it would be fair to use ecological terminology, think of economic classes as points on a food chain, in our case, there doesn't seem to be enough herbivores (Working class) to adequately feed the middle class (Small predators, scavengers) and the wealthy (Lions) so the wealthy are preying more heavily on the middle class, as well as seeking tax cuts to partially compensate for the (repeatedly) decimated food chain.

gwern said...

> > Under the “I predicted this” department... with clear implications for The Transparent Society ... meet Looxcie.

To give an example of what I mean by Looxcie sucking, here's a device I just randomly ran into: uCorders

It's half the price. It's smaller. It's less noticeable. It does 2 hours more video. And has a few other advantages (like an expandable removable flash card).

Of course, it doesn't have gee-whiz Bluetooth and YouTube integration. But it's been out for more than a year.

So the Looxcie is far from the cutting-edge. Which is a pity.

gwern said...

Oh, and from the Wired article ( the Looxcie apparently is worse in both resolution *and* FPS.


Ilithi Dragon said...

Gwern: So, basically, you've got the cheaper, better-performing version, and the more expensive name-brand version that will carry popularity? Standard fare, isn't it?

Tim H. said...

On leaded gas, engines required an additional manufacturing step to cope with the absence of lead, hardening valve seats, which was already being done with heavy duty engines. That, and old cars needing more frequent valve jobs are the major automotive downside. On the positive side, exhaust systems last longer, spark plugs have gone from annual chore to nearly the car's lifetime. I don't miss leaded fuel, in cars. The transition in light aircraft may be a lot uglier, and air shows a lot duller if leaded avgas goes away.

LarryHart said...

A very good article on "Common Dreams" that explores a theme I've been trying to go into for a few weeks now--what kind of capitalism allows for earning a living when labor is no longer necessary to the owners of capital.

He approaches is in a different direction, but I think he makes some very good observations.

The bolded portion below is my own emphasis.

In "Buddhist Economics" Schumacher explains why mass joblessness is inevitable as long as Work is viewed as Labor, because both employers and employees, each for their own reasons, are constantly seeking to reduce or eliminate it.

"The modern economist," he writes, ‘ has been brought up to consider ‘labour' or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility'; to work is to make a sacrifice of one's leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.

"Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that "reduces the work load" is a good thing.

gwern said...

Ilithi: I think usually the disparity isn't this marked.

(And actually, reviewing the specs, the uCorder is nice enough that I think the next generation might be worth it for me to buy.)

Tacitus2 said...

Here's an interesting tale:


Isaac Asimov's musings on the National Anthem have been kicking around for a while...I ran across them on Jerry Pournelle's site. But it appears that the version generally seen on the internet is truncated, and edited in such a way as to make Ike seem a closet Jingoist. The above version restores much of the nuance from a guy who was, lets face it, smarter than any of us posting here.

No politics when the lamp is not lit, but I should point out that this comes from a right leaning site that was nevertheless able to appreciate the patriotism of an agnostic internationalist!


David Brin said...

Rob, if it seems I fulminated over the top, please try to understand that ANY interpretation of the BoR has me and all of those I love suffering in horrible agony, then pitching into eternal torment, all for things that seem terribly unfair, without due process or chance for appeal. If any of the stuff described therein is literal, it is also quite crazy.

I am fine with some folks trying to wrest symbolic and metaphorical lessons from the BoR... but I have seen many such attempts and they never seem to work.

Stuart, homosexuality is also forbidden in the Bible much less frequently and in far more vague terms than say, circumcision or dietary laws. Those who would enforce the one without the other are hypocrites. Certainly Jesus was circumcised and never touched pork. But he seemed very mild on that other matter.

Tacitus, that Asimov - Star Spangled link was terrific!

David Brin said...

Here are links to let you folks either participate or listen to Jay Ackroyd interview me in his webcast... plus avataring on Second Life... This Wednesday at 6pm Pacific time:

The event announcement is here:

The SLURL (Second Life URL) is

The blogtalkradio simulcast is here:

The podcast will be archived at iTunes: as well as blogtalkradio (same link)

The program's soon to be replaced home page is redirected from

And he is interviewing Markos tonight!

Robert said...

Dr. Brin,

I think you're correct that lengthening telomeres will not be the magic bullet to prevent aging, but it certainly makes for great science fiction.

About 10 or 15 years ago I picked up an sf paperback from the library because there was a blurb from you recommending the book and the author. The book dealt with a world in which longevity had become the norm and played through some of the implications.

The most interesting thing about the book, though, was that the back story involved a massive artificial global wealth bubble followed by a deliberately engineered crash that the elites used to buy up the world's assets just before new longevity/nanotech was perfected. The result was a neo-feudal+leisure society, but the masses had no political power and even owning the smallest piece of land was beyond the reach of all but a ruling corporate elite.

Any chance you remember the name of the book that you recommended. I think the author may have been a fellow San Diegan, maybe even a biology professor at UCSD.


David Brin said...

Wish I recalled, Robert!

Onward to next posting....

Dave X said...

Relevant to this posting: speaks of using looxcie and other hardware for accountability:

"The dizzying advancements in personal technology during the last decade have slipped a powerful government accountability tool into our pockets."