Friday, April 29, 2011

Science, Predictions and Possibilities

Every tenth posting or so, I take care of a pile of small/cool items. Here's one you are sure to like: Scientific American interviews me in their Too Hard For Science? series. "David Brin on - Raising Animals to Human Levels of Intelligence. If we cannot find aliens in the stars, we might create new "alien" intelligences on Earth. But it won't be easy, technically, politically or ethically.

Spread the word: all of my Uplift books now available on Kindle! as well as Nook and Sony Reader.

I confess to having a few visual fetishes. One of them is bridges...I love bridges. Even "ugly" utilitarian ones have a kind of beauty, so long as they express the compelling elegance of physical equations and our ever improving materials. But some inspire and even leave one awestruck. Perhaps that is why bridges are among the things that human beings always create with panache and (almost) always with skill. (The other being weapons; we seem to be best at both connecting and separating from each other.) See some of the latest bridge concepts: Imagining bridges of the future.

Meanwhile.... We're catching up to (or bypassing) the future -- in sci fi movie timelines. Clockwork Orange was set in 1995, my post-apocalyptic novel The Postman in 2013, Soylent Green in 2022. Below that chart, a Trilogy Meter -- rating 1st, 2nd & 3rd movies in famed SF series. I mostly agree in every case! He captures "2nd movie syndrome." He's too kind to Jedi, Trek3 (blech), Alien3 (beyond evil), & Khan was great! But generally right.

=== Predictions Registry Time? ===

earthPredictive hit in my novel EARTH p. 164 "How about fighting the greenhouse effect by sending up dust to block sunlight like those volcanoes made the chill snap of '09." About this snippet-quotation, a fan writes: "Oh sure, new planets, the web, secrecy radicalism, your dead-on technology, but HOW did you know in '89 that '09 volcano dust'd do a cold snap in 2010?!"

Aw, that's nuthin' See p.206 of The Transparent Society! Far creepier! (More below.)

Oh, and now this: ”Researchers at the University of Arizona, analyzed grains that the Stardust probe scooped up from Comet Wild 2's coma on a close flyby in 2004, sending the samples to Earth in a capsule two years later. After studying the comet dust using electron microscopy and X-ray analysis, the researchers found minerals that formed in the presence of liquid water.” Suggesting the comet’s nucleus underwent a period with liquid in its interior... as suggested in my novel HEART OF THE COMET. (Based on my doctoral thesis.) Melted in the early cloud by decaying Aluminum26. Trillions of such test tubes might have made... life?

Another Predictions Registry Item:In 2010 I said we'll be sorry someday for investing too much in so-called Just In Time production and inventory methods. Now the entire world economy is suffering because events in Japan have rocked delicate "efficient" supply chains. See: “Disasters show flaws in just-in-time production, 'Earliest impact will be felt with high-cost, low-weight products'.

Now add the fact that hundreds of thousands in the afflicted area had charged cell phones they could not use, when they needed them most, because of the lack of P2P text passing capability. (Some probably died because of it, trapped in buildings with their phones in their hands.) Another area I have been railing about since before 9/11, grabbing lapels in Washington, Silicon Valley, with the most trivial fix that would make our civilization far more resilient and robust. Alas.

And don't get me started about the need to re-start Yucca Mountain.

(Come see a wiki that has been set up by some meticulous fans, attempting to track my own near-future forecasts, ranking a success-failure rate, especially when it comes to my near-future novel EARTH (1989): new helpers are welcome to join in updating the site and keeping me honest!)

=== Perceptions! ===

Great commercial. Actually, it's a mini movie!

And the survey says: 44% of Americans perceive natural disasters as signs of Biblical end times -- acts of a vengeful God. (Or karma?) Worrisome! Though I take such surveys with salt. (In fact, many people can "think several impossible contradictions before breakfast.) Ask one way and they'll say the Earth is billions of years old. Ask another and they will speak up for how dinosaurs JUST missed getting on the ark. Still moronic, but don't dismiss your neighbors as SIMPLISTICALLY simpleminded.

the-other-end-2011--- Heh. Revenge - in a literary contrivance - can be way fun. My colleague John Shirley goes overboard. Still, a cute concept in his novel, The Other End. “Veteran horror writer Shirley (Cellars) swaps gory for glory in this inventive if politically heavy-handed left-wing answer to Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's evangelical Left Behind series. Child slavers, genocidal soldiers and corrupt statesmen have fourth-dimensional visions and abandon their wicked ways in the first part of the novel... but once the good guys ascend to a better place, most of the people left behind are Republicans, Scientologists, oil company CEOs and anyone "fundamentalist, hard-line, inflexible." By dispensing justice along party lines, Shirley limits his audience to a choir that won't mind 300 pages of very pretty preaching.”

Heh! Ever see the movie Dark Star, when the astronaut tries using phenomenology and Plato's cave to talk a bomb out of detonating? Now see this from xkcd.

While we're at it. Is humanity evolving into a superorganism? Australian scientist, environmentalist, author, and climate change activist Tim Flannery, in Here on Earth, argues that we are living in a immensely cooperative world, rather than in a survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog world. Alas, no mention of my own theme in EARTH.

=== Contacting Aliens (our kids and those other kinds) ===

Powerful electromagnets, it turns out, can do remarkable things to the brain -- in this case, prevent a volunteer from reciting "Humpty Dumpty." The carefully directed magnets temporarily disrupt the brain's speech centers; the volunteer can still sing the rhyme using different areas of the brain, but simply can't overcome a series of stammers when trying to merely recite it.

Who am I to argue with this study? Teens who spend more time reading were less likely to be depressed than those immersed in music, television or video games. (What…Spending hours staring at a screen shooting people doesn’t make you happy?) And what’s more upbeat than Science Fiction? Just don’t give them Sylvia Plath or Virginia Wolf...

Some of you will have heard of the "Bible Code" claiming that one can find all sorts of predictions about today's events encoded in the Bible. A skip code is a code where one starts at a particular letter (for the Bible, in Hebrew), and then skip ahead a specific number of characters to read the next letter in the secret message, and then keep skipping ahead by the same number of characters. Critics, however, applied the same technique to modern novels and found very similar "hidden messages". So, basically, in a rich enough body of text, you can find anything you want encoded there. For example, this link shows "predictions" of the assassination of various world leaders within the text of Moby Dick.

OpenLetterAlienLurkersRead more about this at a site by this guy I know, wherein he goes on to hilariously show how his own “alien message” - written in the early nineties as a game, now has a cult following of people who not only call it a real alien message(!) but call him a hoaxter for claiming credit!

All of which is reminiscent of my own “message to aliens” - psychoanalyzing them for a dozen possible excuses for refusing to make contact. It gets pretty recursive when I suggest they sign into the Internet and discuss their issues, using their real names... since most people will just think they are humans pretending to be aliens! (Oh it goes round n’ round.... ooog.

== A Better Trend in Hollywood? ===

Why suddenly FOUR cool sci fi movies that intelligently mess with our heads rather than screaming at us with aliens or repeated remakes of dopey cliches? Four in just a year, and all successful!

=== SCIENCE! ===

Ultra modern super-toilet.

A DARPA study found that attaching a 9volt battery to your brain enhances your gaming ability. Passing a 2mAmp buzz through the skull doubles one's gaming reflexes. (No, touching the 9v battery to your tongue won't help...)

“Three parent” in vitro embryos? Scientists seek to implant embryos with material from three genetic parents -- tiny bit seems to help prevent genetic defects. Of course it is still a long way from inserting a better mitochondria "battery" to actually replacing damaged chromosomes... and then to patching then reviving Neanderthal DNA....

That'll do for now. Next time I give in to those who have been urging "David stop being so reticent and shy and tell us what you think about society and politics!"

At last.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Obstinate Humans Find It Hard To Believe Science

Not even those of us who are scientifically trained actually do objective science consistently well. Like all other humans, we are predisposed, with biased, emotionally prejudiced human minds, to first see what we want or expect to see - a dilemma first illustrated by Plato as the "Allegory of the Cave." In one of the few things that Plato got right, he showed how each of us allows our subjective will to overlay and mask anything inconvenient about the objective world.*

Now Chris Mooney (author of the Republican War on Science) explains how this age-old human flaw is being analyzed in scientific detail, by researchers who reveal it to be dismayingly intractable. It seems that obstinacy is as deeply rooted as love or sex! See Moooney's article: The Science of Why We don't Believe Science:

Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

Of course, there's hope, or we would never have climbed so far. In the last few centuries w discovered a general way around this dilemma. It is through the enlightenment process that underlies almost everything successful about our civilization - not only science but also free markets, justice and democracy. The one tool that has ever allowed humans to penetrate the veil of their own talented delusions. (See my review of Chris Mooney's Book on my website.)

It is called Reciprocal Accountability -- or criticism, the only known antidote to error.

We may not be able to spot our own mistakes and delusions, but others will gladly point them out for us! Moreover, this favor is one that your FOES will happily do for you! (How nice of them.) And, in return, you will eagerly return the favor. 

In our enlightenment - and especially in science - this process is tuned to maximize truth-output and minimize blood-on-the-floor. But it requires some maturity. Some willingness to let the process play out. Willingness to negotiate. Calmness and even humor.

It doesn't work amid rage or "culture war." Which is precisely why culture war is being pushed on us. By those who want the enlightenment to fail.

Which brings us back to Mooney's cogent and detailed article, which explains the problem of "narrowcasting" to specifically biased audience groups, who get to wallow in endless reinforcement of their pre-existing views, avoiding the discomfort of cognitive dissonance from things like evidence...

... a problem - exacerbated by the internet age - that I predicted in my 1989 novel EARTH - describing a near future in which people shift their attention only to those sources that confirm and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. (A forecast I would rather not have seen come true.)


* How ironic then, that the Platonists ( including his successors at "logic-incantation," like Hegel, Marx and Rand) have excelled even the priests at weaving subjective spells to mask the real world. Oh we are good at this. Delusion truly is the greatest human talent! Indeed, all you sci fi fans... what talent of YOURS am I paid to cater-to? Hm? ;-)

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Darwinian explanation for the Fermi Paradox?

In an April 4 paper in arXiv, Adrian Kent of the University of Cambridge and Perimeter Institute suggested two alternate reasons why we haven’t heard from extraterrestrials:

•“Intelligent species might reasonably worry about the possible dangers of self-advertisement and hence incline towards discretion” — the “Undetectability Conjecture,” suggested by Beatriz Gato-Rivera.

•Strengthening that argument: “Evolutionary selection, acting on a cosmic scale, tends to extinguish species which conspicuously advertise themselves and their habitats.”

Referring to this new article, the good folks at added:

"In SHOUTING AT THE COSMOS … Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory, astrophysicist and science-fiction author Dr. David Brin advises that “people who care about [transmissions from Earth] — preferring a wide-ranging discussion before a few individuals start screaming into space on our behalf — are going to have to do some yelling of their own.” He explores this issue further in A CONTRARIAN PERSPECTIVE ON ALTRUISM: THE DANGERS OF FIRST CONTACT and other thought-provoking articles."

Thanks Kurzweil folks!

Alas, I have been wrassling with the Fermi Paradox since before it was called that!  Back in 1985 I named this mystery "The Great Silence" in what is still the only full review article ever published on the subject.*

There I cataloged almost a hundred explanations that people have offered for the silence and the impression that we have - so far - of being alone in the cosmos. Alas, most folks tend to choose one particular answer, over all the others, for reasons having a lot more to do with individual psychology than either logic or evidence!

 If you look at the good old Drake Equation (it needs to be expanded by a couple of factors), then it's clear that some factor must be lower-than-expected, in order to make the emptiness that we seem to see around us. But which factor?

Funny thing.  Those who *want* the cosmos to be empty of competition (so we can fill it with our descendants) tend to choose factors on the left side of the Drake Equation - e.g. those having to do with the number of potential life-bearing worlds, or the likelihood of biogenesis, or of intelligence or industrial civilization.

Those who are eager for contact - like the SETI folks - tend to choose factors on the right side to blame for the apparent absence of neighbors. Factors that let them say "that just means things are a little sparse; but give us time. Those signals will show up any minute!"

The saddest thing that I've noticed? Once a person picks a favorite explanation, he or she tends to cling to it, vociferously sure that all other theories are utter nonsense.  I've seen this happen to some of the smartest guys I know. Such certainty... in a realm that has been called "the only scientific field without any known subject matter."

Almost nobody seems willing to admit "We just don't know; there's too little data. A dozen of the best explanations may be true, maybe even several at once. So let's act accordingly."

ShoutingCosmosAs for the theory recently published? The so-called "Darwinian Explanation" amounts to "they're all cowards out there, because some predatory types may be mean. So everybody's hiding." Well, well. It is an old, old, old hypothesis. It's been around a boringly long time, though sadly it seems that the authors think they invented it.

Heck that explanation could be true. Indeed, because it might be true, I am part of a growing movement trying for a moratorium on idiotic "message-to-ET" shouting, at least till we learn a bit more and have had a chance to discuss these matters, openly, like adults.  Still, that doesn't make the idea original.

(Or even especially likely. The notion of a universe filled with cowards... who stay cowardly FOREVER, no matter how advanced they become... seems no only unimaginative and temporally myopic, but deeply dismal, as well.)

Someday, I hope, some people will enter this field interested in exploring the full scope of ideas, the way grownup scientists do in almost any other field, actually reading the literature and comparing past arguments and progress before blabbing "I just figured it out!"

Perhaps it will happen one day, when curiosity and professionalism outweigh impulsive egotism.  Heck, maybe then we'll be worthy and ready for contact.

--See more articles on SETI: Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence


* My "Great Silence" paper about the mysterious Fermi Paradox, the strange lack of signs, in the heavens, of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Quarterly Journal of  Royal Astronomical Society, fall1983, v.24, pp283-309  (Downloadable at my website
or at )


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Our Worst Frailty - An Electro Magnetic "Hit"

The Electric Infrastructure Security (EIS) Council agitates for better infrastructure protection against electromagnetic threats. EMPACT America is a bipartisan, non-profit NGO for citizens concerned about protecting the American people from a nuclear or natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP) catastrophe.

This is serious and sobering stuff. The EMP-vulnerability of our electric grid, our machines, transportation systems, tools and homes, is probably the most glaring, "acute-impact" threat on our horizon.

To be clear, we face other dangers of a chronic nature, for example the need to develop sustainable energy to escape dependence upon foreign oil-masters and to possibly save the planet. Educating a smarter generation and rescuing our decaying infrastructure also matter a great deal, over the longer time scale. But acute-imapct threats fall into another category. They are events that could possibly knock us flat in a single day, or instant. Those of us with memories of the Cold War know how it feels to be constantly aware of a Damoclean Sword, hanging overhead..

By that standard, an EMP calamity ranks higher than anything else visible on the horizon - unlike the trumped-up panic and distraction that were foisted upon us over "terrorism."* (We could have suffered a 9/11 hit every month for the last ten years and still maintained a vibrant, healthy civilization. Our parents suffered worse in WWII. It was one long scam.)

There are two possible ways that we might be hit by an EMP pulse strong enough to cripple a continent.

1) Natural cycles can apparently lead to the sort of solar flares that did little to disturb our ancestors - other that creating scary-gorgeous aurorae - but that could devastate an electricity-dependent civilization. For example, the "Carrington Event" of 1859 and another large solar storm in 1921 show that such things happen fairly frequently, and we've been lucky, so far.

Even lesser events can wreak havoc. According to a report in IEEE Spectrum: "In March 1989, such a geomagnetic disturbance took down the entire Hydro-Qu├ębec power grid, leaving six million customers in the Canadian province without electricity for 9 hours, and also knocked out power stations in the Northeastern United States. That disturbance occurred at one peak of an 11-year solar cycle,"

A Congressional EMP Commission report recently estimated that a once-in-a-hundred- years solar flare could cause $1-2 trillion worth of damage, if the electric grid went down for weeks. Worse, if most truck transport failed, millions of Americans might simply starve.

2) A devastating electromagnetic pulse can also be man-made. Already, more than half a dozen nuclear-armed nations have missile capabilities that - now or soon - would tempt them to try knocking out Pax Americana with a single blow. Just one warhead, detonated high over North America, could cause untold amounts of EMP chaos. Weighing the scenarios, this is a no-brainer. Sending such a missile to take out one US city would be a nasty hit, but it would leave us almost intact and ready for vengeance. But knocking us back to the stone age? Far more tempting, whether it is realistic or not.

With the number of nuclear armed states rising, is that a temptation we really want to be left on the table?

At recent congressional hearings on the matter, several agency heads agreed with the assessment that "it is now a matter of if, but of when." According to Lifeboat Foundation member Paul Werbos: "One official said, after looking at the report, that $1-2 trillion was a ridiculously low estimate of the risk. 'Yes, we
have three months food stockpiled, but with electricity out for more than three days, it will all go bad. And how long can we live without water?"

"So there was serious talk of the end of civilization (their words) and of more than half the US population dying (and likewise other nations), and so on. Franks, a staunch conservative from the oil business, basically said "hey folks, this is no CO2 thing, this is real..."

Werbos continues: "And so stakeholders will take strong and vigorous action. In the face of 2012, there will be stakeholder' s meetings. And maybe some education campaigns. And a few more spare transformers. But will anyone install the relatively simple isolators to protect transformers? Will the planning include anyone who knows what a transformer IS? And all of the usual complex ways of doing nothing useful all come into play, in all the usual myriad of ways. It will be interesting to see whether a few meager bits of light can help.... maybe..."

Now, in full disclosure, let me say that I haven't really pored through the thousands of pages of material, and there is certainly a lot I still have to learn about this topic, as it has evolved since I last studied it.

But I have been talking about this general danger for 30 years, urging that a very small annual investment - perhaps as little as fifty million dollars a year, plus some arm-twisting with industry - could equip our grid and our vital tools to bear the brunt of such an event.

The best time to act on this was decades ago. The second best time is now.


*Other than a contractor greed-fest and wasting a trillion dollars on draining, debilitating "nation-building" land wars of attrition in Asia.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Why are Science Fiction and Fantasy so often grouped together? Obviously, because they share readership and so are well placed together in book stores. And... heck... some of us write both! Still, there are very real differences.

Look, fantasy is the mother genre -- e.g. Gilgamesh, the Illad, Odyssey and most religions. Science Fiction is the brash offshoot. All literature has deep roots in fantasy, which in turn emerges from the font of our dreams.

Having said that, what is my definition of the separation? I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability: 

"Do you believe it is possible for children to learn from the mistakes of their parents?" 

For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas -- NOTHING EVER CHANGES!

== Nothing Ever Changes == 

No, the root element is right there in that word "change." Science fiction borrows many elements from the mother genre - fantasy -- elements of boldness and the fantastic that date back to Homer and Gilgamesh. But sci fi then rebels against all literary foundations by embracing change.  Even when it warns against BAD change it is relishing, exulting, expanding upon what Einstein called the "gedankenexperiment" or thought experiment: What if?

When SciFi goes "whatif" it takes the sacred word seriously.

Fantasy has its attractions. Something about feudalism resonates, deep inside us. We fantacize about being the king or wizard. It's in our genes. We are all descended from the harems of the guys who succeeded at that goal. The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated... the social order stays the same.

It may be the natural genre... but should we be proud of that?

== The Possibility of Change ==

Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change.

Not that children always choose to learn from their parent's mistakes! When they don't, when they are obstinately stupid and miss opportunities, you can get a sci fi tragedy... far more horrible than anything "tragic" in Aristotle's Poetics. Aristotle says tragedy is Oedipus writhing futilely against fate. A sci fi tragedy portrays people suffering, same as in older tragedies... but with this crucial difference -- things did not have to be this way. It wasn't "fate." We - or the characters - could've done better. There was, at some point, a chance to change our own destiny.

One type of tragedy makes you weep - hey, Oedipus is powerful stuff. But for millennia the deep moral lesson - the thing taught in all "campbellian myths" - is that resistance is futile. The overall situation, the rule of fate, remains the same.

The other type of tragedy - the new kind - is a cautionary tale that may change your decisions. It may alter destiny.

You can see why the absurd old farts who inhabit most lit departments hate science fiction. SF considers it possible that the eternal "verities" and relentless stupidities praised by Henry James might someday be obsolete! If we make kids who are better than us (our goal, duh?) then their Startrekkian heirs will still have problems. 

Why insist that our descendants have to fret over the same ones? Can't they assume the solutions we find, take them for granted, and move on to new, interesting issues of their own?

Isn't that what we did? 

==The Rulers of Destiny==

The implicit assumption in most fantasy is that the form of governance that ruled most human societies since the discovery of grain must always govern us. Oh, kingly rulers my topple and shift, but the abiding assumptions and social castes generally do not. 

Aragorn may be a better king than Sauron would have been. Hurray. Fine. But he's still a freaking king. And the palantir on his desk that lets him see faraway places and converse with viceroys across the realm is still reserved for the super elite. No way are we going to see mass-produced palantirs appearing on every peasant's tabletop from Rohan to the Shire. (The way our civilization plopped such a miracle on YOUR tabletop.) It never even occurs to Aragorn or Gandalf to give the poor the godlike powers they themselves get to wield... let alone provide them with libraries, running water, printing presses or the germ theory of disease. Only little Peregrin Took seems to get a glimmer of an idea in that direction. The only character who briefly ponders possibilities, and he's soon bullied out of it.

Of course, magical thinking solely the province of non-technological minds.  In many ways, the nerdy-techno "singularity" is - at root - just a modern manifestation of magical-transcendentalism.  Indeed, our 21st Century America is awash in mystics!  The technological illiterates among them either wallow in the Book of Revelations or lefty-Gaian nostalgism or else solipsistic AynRandianism,  Those who are tech-empowered shift their transcendentalism to what's been called the "rapture of the nerds."  Same stuff though, when you dig deep to the level of personality, and thousands of years old.

The trend toward feudal-romantic fantasy may seem harmless. But dreaming wistfully about kings and lords and secretive, domineering wizards is simply betrayal. Pure and simple. Those bastards were the enemy for 6,000 years. Some kings and wizards were less bad than others. But they were all "dark lords." We are the heirs of the greatest heroes who ever lived. Pericles, Franklin, Faraday, Lincoln, Einstein. Any one of whom was worth every elf and dragon and fairy ever imagined.

==Alternate authors==

And when an author like Tim Powers resists these assumptions, in books such as The Drawing of the Dark, he is writing science fiction, whether or not there are pirates, or wizards or demons.

This is why, despite her dragons and bards and medieval craft in her Dragons of Pern universeAnne McCaffrey proclaimed loudly that "I am a science fiction writer!"  

Because her characters know that change is coming.  Some resist, many are eager to bring it on as fast as they can.  And the future on Pern will have both dragons and flush toilets.  Songs and tapestries and universities and hyperdrive ships. 

Terry Pratchett writes science fiction because his Discworld Universe (borne through space by a mythical turtle) has something called progress.  People are waking, rising up. 

On the other hand, George Martin's depressing Game of Thrones saga has very little magic in it, but it consigns the peasants to endless, endless, endless misery and feudal oppression, with absolutely no hope of progress. It is part of the longer/older tradition stretching back to Homer. It is fantasy. 

==Looking forward==

Science fiction contemplates the possibility of successfully defying fate, creating a better future through our own efforts.

Change is the principal feature of our age, and literature should explore how people deal with it. 

The best science fiction does that, head on.

==See also: 

My essay:  Science Fiction and its Heresies

and Speculations on Science Fiction

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

An Open Letter to The Ivory Coast's New President Alassane Ouattara

To Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara
-- on the eve of victory in your nation's recent civil war.

Dear President-Elect Ouatarra,

I offer that salutation in light of statements by the United Nations and other international agencies, who vouch that you were the victor in Ivory Coast's recent election, an outcome that former history professor-turned-politician, Laurent Gbagbo had refused to accept, terminating his 10-year rule. Along with all the world, I hope and pray that the violence in your country will end soon and that you will usher in an era of reform, peace, integrity and respect for democratic principles.

But others are talking about all of those things. So I want to focus on something else. Something much less airy and far more immediate. The end-game, as you close in on Laurent Gbagbo, who is at this moment (according to news reports) holed-up in the basement of his palace, trying to negotiate a way out.

Now, some are urging you to refuse negotiations, in order to make the dictator stand trial. Others hope that a way out for Gbagbo will bring peace and help build trust with his followers in a nation deeply riven by tribal suspicions.

The Unspoken Chips on the Table

Whichever path you choose, let me suggest an extremely hard-nosed factor. It is common knowledge that almost every powerful man of Gbagbo's ilk - on every continent - has engaged in graft for many years, siphoning away value that should have been spent on the people. But the damage extends beyond simple rip-off corruption. Instead of being invested in productive capacity in your nation, venal officials nearly always shunt most of their ill-gotten gains overseas, squirrelling their loot away for safety (and interest) in Swiss and other secret accounts. This compounds the evil done by corrupt leaders, leaving their nations capital-poor.

I am not telling you anything new, of course. In negotiations with Gbagbo, I am sure these accounts have been -- shall we say -- topics of conversation. The most natural human thing for someone in your position to do would be to demand some fraction of these accounts as a "fee" for allowing Gbagbo to escape -- so he can live in comfort on the rest of his loot. Let's be frank; that is how it was traditionally done.

May I offer an alternative, though?

By all means, demand the keys to several accounts, as a measure of good faith. Pretend to take the bribe. Verify the funds and transfer them...

...only then... announce to your nation and the world what you have done!

State the accounts and amounts openly. Tell Gbagbo's supporters that this is proof he never deserved their loyalty, in the first place. And go on to say that you are setting an example for a new age.

The advantages of doing this will be immense. You will undermine the tribal resentment of Gbagbo's followers. By refusing a blatant chance for graft, you will build trust and goodwill, at home and abroad. You will become a Mandella-like figure, overnight!

And you will then be in a position to say to Gbagbo -- "No, we will not let you go. There was no deal. This was never your money, in the first place! Surrender for trial and hand over the rest of what you stole!"

Helping to Transform the Planet

In fact, if you really want to shake things up... why not become a hero of the entire developing world by demanding that all the nations that are secret banking havens come forward at once, offering back ALL of the money stolen from Ivory Coast, across the last 50 years. And declaring that they will be answerable - double - for anything they hold back. As well as for anything deposited in secret by Ivorians in the future, ever again.

Oh, I know this will be hard. Many of those surrounding you already have their eyes on this luscious prize. Gbago will offer some pretty hefty bribe-incentives. But I can even suggest a way around that problem!

For example, you might place HALF of the recovered money in a "Corruption Remedy Fund" that will provide big bonuses to those public officials who spent the next 5 years living as open-book paragons of honest public service. (A pattern that should apply to their entire extended family.) Bonuses so big that they will care very deeply about winning them.

Who could complain about that? If the prizes are carefully administered by respected international and African figures, under transparent rules that truly put your officials under a relentless spotlight... then this money will be well-spent. No one will complain much. Especially if - during that five year wait - all the money is invested where it belongs. Back in the Ivory Coast.

Mr. President-Elect Ouattara, please understand. I know and everybody knows what temptations await you. Humanity is emerging from many thousands of years in which certain "corrupt" aspects of leadership were considered normal. But the future will honor and exalt those who help to lead their nations -- and lead us all -- out of that dark era. You have an opportunity to be one of those exalted ones -- though it will be hard to do.

The Decision is Yours

I don't know you. I have no idea whether you are already determined to be a transforming figure, or already far-gone down the traditional, dismal path. Or - perhaps - teetering somewhere in between. Time will tell, I suppose. I admit, the odds aren't good.

But I hope -- we all can hope -- that you will turn out to be one of those men about whom history looks back, with pride. One who is savvy enough to play hard and well... but far-seeing enough to understand the real prize.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Predicting the Future... a Touchy Business

We authors of “speculative” fiction like to say we don’t predict the future.  We peer ahead and find possibilities... plausibilities... to then write up as conjectures.  As exercises to help stretch and practice the reader’s pre-frontal lobes. Sure, we sometimes build a good record of “hits.”
But that’s not the core point.

As I often tell clients in government and business, the key thing is to find the ways that your forecasts have been consistently wrong... and to figure out why.  After all, the best definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.

This came very much to mind as the frenzied news of recent weeks reminded me of 1968 - a year so eventful that we all reached its end in a state of utter exhaustion. Amid all the news of war and quakes and natural and man-made disaster, several authors have pointed at one of the oldest and nastiest cliches, expounded by smug pundits and cynics and hollywood directors for ages. Predictions are made about every disaster -- that once the lid of a tightly policed civilization is knocked off for a second, humans will become beasts.

3793616506_fb5b3e088aIn fact, the opposite is far more generally the case. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. A point that is made especially well by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Rebecca Solnit, in her book A PARADISE MADE IN HELL.

In fact, I have been saying this for decades, expressing an ongoing theme about the 21st Century’s struggle to empower citizens, after the 20th Century's relentless trend toward the "professionalization of everything."  One overlooked aspect of the 9/11 tragedy was that citizens themselves were most effective in our civilization's defense, reacting with resiliency and initiative while armed with new technologies:

Now a large project is taking shape to improve forecasting. It involves thousands of volunteers and the wisdom of crowds. It’s officially known as the Forecasting World Events Project and is sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Activity (IARPA). The idea is to raise five large competing teams of people of diverse backgrounds who will be asked to make predictions on fields that range from politics and global security to business and economics, public health, social and cultural change and science and technology. The project is expected to run for four years and stems from the recognition that expert forecasts are very often wrong.

Now, mind you, I approve of this general idea and endeavor.  Still, one looks back across earlier “crowd-sourced wisdom” efforts, like the “delphi” polls of the 1960s, and it’s clear that we are still stumbling around.  My own general take on the topic of prediction takes a very broad view, spanning centuries. (For a less abstract, preening approach, see a wiki that has been set up by some meticulous fans, attempting to track my own near future forecasts.)


A new series in Scientific American asks science luminaries to "describe a hard problem that may be impossible - or almost impossible - to investigate." The initial essay deals with printing human organs. Some time later, my own contribution will be about (you guessed it) uplifting higher animals to sapience.

But heck, as long as were on the subject, though, here’s another “almost impossible problem" that I ruminated about. The most cosmic -- even meta-cosmic -- question that we can grapple with is: "Are we currently living in a simulation?

 It is the biggest simply because everything we consider to be "the universe" - and even its possible participation in some larger "context" of multiple cosmos - might be contrived and presented to us in an ersatz experience.

Of course, this is an old quandary, going back to Plato's allegory of the cave or the Chinese tale of the Emperor and the butterfly.  In our case, the "dream" or "illusion" may be something tangible - a super extrapolation of our own technology. Are we being just as naive and clueless now?

Several suggestions have been made, regarding experiments or observations that might reveal whether the larger context of our universe is a simulation. One of these is already known... the discrete division of nature into "quanta" that cannot be further divided. Also, the tendency of quantum mechanics to deal in probabilities, without having to calculate position and momentum to infinite precision.

These two traits of our universe are spectacularly convenient, if it happens to be a simulation.  They limit the amount of computing power required in order to drive our simulated world forward.  A fact that one might deem very creepy. (As if quantum mechanics weren't creepy enough!)

Would it be dangerous to explore this hypothesis further? Consider that it may displease the owners of the simulation, to have their subjects aware that they are in an experiment, and possibly biasing their decisions because of that, or even interfering!  Perhaps even thereupon speaking up and demanding rights?

StonesSignificanceNuevoI explored all of this in an award-winning short story: "Stones of Significance."

Um, in fact, I have just been told that I had better stop talking about this.  The owner has his finger on the REBOOT button....

(Till then... keep making conjectures!)


Did some of you have trouble ordering e-book copies of The Transparent Society overseas? It now looks as if folks in the UK can order it on Kindle, so I think it’s been released throughout the world.  Would some of you folks in Asia/Australia/Europe please check and report back?  Thanks.

My friend and collaborator Jeff Carlson ( has republished the best of his award-winning short fiction on Kindle and Nook in 99 cent mini-collections including "The Frozen Sky," an alien encounter set beneath the ice of Jupiter's sixth moon, Europa.  You can find cover art, blurbs, free excerpts. Try out this bright talent!

University exchange programs with aliens! (April fool.)

At once looking a bit silly -- and showing some pizzazz - the trailer for the Captain America movie has been released. First, I always prefer it when the hero rises from brave everyman status (as in Spiderman or Cat. America) or through cleverness with tech (Batman/Ironman) than from mutants or magic or by some alien invading the Earth as a baby.  Which is why I root for ol' Cap'n over THOR! With both movies coming soon, remember the title of my Hugo-nominated story "Thor Meets Captain America!"  (And see how much better I dealt with both characters in the expanded graphic novel -- THE LIFE EATERS.


*This is actually pretty big news. * See an excellent and dispassionate survey of the most recent re-appraisal of rates of average climate warming (without examining the cause.) You’ll get a better picture of the players in the controversy and  how (gradually) science is starting to eliminate the skeptics’ concerns.

Interesting, slightly-creepy technical discussions of implanted RFID tags letting the researcher enter his house/car and control his environment with waves of the hand. The beginnings of Harry Potter style incantation! Plus discussion of security/hacking dilemmas. Loved the “Faraday-Cage pants!”

Also a panel discussion on “Uberveillance.”

Analyzing percentages of deaths by kilowatt hour. Nuclear far down the list. Even after Fukushima. We need to learn, improve, innovate and not lose our heads. 

See a fantastically effective chart portraying the various thresholds and doses and known effects from exposure to ionizing radiation.  Sets a lot of things (including Anne Coulter's loony notion of immunizing hormesis of low doses being "good for you") in perspective. (One small observation. Don’t go into a profession requiring you to fly from Ny to LA every week!)


Eyes on the Solar System" is a 3-D environment full of real NASA mission data. Explore the cosmos from your computer. Hop on an asteroid. Fly with NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft. See the entire solar system moving in real time. It's up to you. You control space and time!

Alert to all you hard sci fi writers. To Search for Intelligent ETs -- Signs of Mining Asteroid Belts may be visible from Earth. Any technologically advanced civilization will require resources, which may become depleted on their home planet. Large scale mining may be detectable by analyzing the thermal and chemical signatures from dust debris  -- though such signs may be hard to distinguish from collisions and natural erosion. (I used to do research in this field. Knew it all along! ;-)

Electric wands could allow future firefighters to extinguish flames with a wave of the hand, recent experiments suggest.

After a 6 year journey, 15 loops around the sun and three flybys of Mercury, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft entered the orbit of Mercury -- the first probe to orbit the planet. Its mission: to photograph and map Mercury’s surface composition, study its atmosphere & exosphere, its magnetic field and interaction with solar wind. I want to see those polar craters! MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry and Ranging. It’s the second spacecraft sent to Mercury - -the first being Marine 10 in 1975. Why polar craters? It’s where there just might be water!

And now this... Solar Probe: First mission to sun scheduled for 2018. I was named in the proposal... because of my novel SUNDIVER!

The hexagon on Saturn’s north pole... solved! (?)


Facebook has declared that all posts by members on their walls are public property. And the Library of Congress is recording all Tweets. The U.S. has a patchwork of laws, some applying to banking, some to medical records. Even those laws won’t prevent those in the know from knowing everything about you. If you don’t want something made public, don’t put it online. I've been writing about this since before the Web.

There are solutions, but they'll take innovation, compromise... and agility.

Friday, April 01, 2011


President Obama has declared that access to the world of information, via the Internet, should be considered a basic human right. This is, of course, something you’d expect me to agree with. In The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom? I made a case for such openness based on multiple levels:

1- It is morally and ethically imperative.

2- It is the best way to achieve justice.

3- Our basic societal “organs”- including fair markets, democracy, science and even art function better when all players can make decisions based upon full knowledge.

4- It creates a situation in which Enlightenment Civilization will ultimately “win.”

Now, we’re being a bit redundant here, since desiderata 1,2&3 are only positive things from the viewpoint of people who are members of an Enlightenment Civilization. These traits are not orthogonal. Even the way some of you reacted to point number four -- by frowning over my chosen words, my notion of one civilization “winning” against its competitors -- even that reaction is itself a trait of having been raised in the Enlightenment’s modern liberal societies.

Few cultures ever saw moral fault in hoping for their own success, at the expense of others. Survival was a zero-sum game, until the Enlightenment discovered positive sum virtues.

The ultimate irony is that, in order for positive-sum thinking to prevail in the future world of our children - and for diversity to reign in peace - the overall worldview of enlightenment values (values that appreciate diversity) will have to “win” in the most general sense. Freedom - and especially the freedom to know and to speak that is embodied in the internet - must prevail... and those forces that restrict freedom must fail.

This is why the world’s despotic regimes reacted so negatively to President Obama’s assertion of a right to internet access. They know that:

a) open information flows, especially a secular trend toward more transparency worldwide, will be inherently lethal to their mode of rule, and

b) increases in light flowing over fully engaged enlightenment nations and their institutions only makes them stronger. Sure, some doses of light can be inconvenient to individual leaders, parties or clades. But the overall societies only get healthier.

Let’s deal with each of these assertions.

== Transparency as an Openly Aggressive Weapon Against Despots ===

We begin by quoting liberally from a recent article in WIRED: U.S. Has Secret Tools to Force Internet on Dictators.

”When Hosni Mubarak shut down Egypt’s internet and cellphone communications, it seemed that all U.S. officials could do was ask him politely to change his mind. But the American military does have a second set of options, if it ever wants to force connectivity on a country against its ruler’s wishes. There’s just one wrinkle. “It could be considered an act of war,” says John Arquilla, a leading military futurist and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

“The U.S. military has no shortage of devices — many of them classified — that could restore connectivity to a restive populace cut off from the outside world by its rulers. It’s an attractive option for policymakers who want an option for future Egypts, between doing nothing and sending in the Marines. And it might give teeth to the Obama administration’s demand that foreign governments consider internet access an inviolable human right.

“Consider the Commando Solo, the Air Force airborne broadcasting center. A revamped cargo plane, the Commando Solo beams out psychological operations in AM and FM for radio, and UHF and VHF for TV. Arquilla doesn’t want to go into detail how the classified plane could get a denied internet up and running again, but if it flies over a bandwidth-denied area, suddenly your Wi-Fi bars will go back up to full strength. That leads to another possibility: “Just give people Thuraya satellite phones,” says John Pike of The cheapish phones hunt down signals from space hardware.”

I’ve been talking about this concept with John Arquilla and his colleagues for many years. Back in 2001 - at the CIA and several defense agencies - I described more than a dozen methods to cheaply spread key elements of an international civil society into closed or despotic nations, in ways almost-guaranteed to create win-win situations and to corner tyrants, at little risk to ourselves. I cannot claim that the tools listed above originated with those speeches. (I get contradictory reports about that, and in the end it doesn’t matter.) Still, I am glad there’s been movement in the right direction.

There are many other measures, not listed in the WIRED piece, that can be effective across a wide range of circumstances. At one extreme - that of open but not-yet-violent hostility -- calls for particular and peculiar aggressiveness. During the run-up to the latest Iraq war, at the same meeting where I proposed most of the measures listed in the WIRED article, I also suggested the ultimate in people-empowering and tyrant-disempowering technologies...

...developing and then dropping into such a nation several million “volksradios” that would provide Iraqis with an entirely separate system of packet-switched conversation, outside the dictator’s control. Also, incidentally, such a system would provide our intelligence services with vast amounts of information on the ground.

(This is related to my civil defense proposal to make western countries more robust, but simply enabling our cell phones to pass text messages on a peer-to-peer basis. To read about much simpler-cruder methods, have a look here.)

Of course, over the long run, we’d rather not let it come to that. Dropping in several million gifts to a nation’s citizens may not be an act of war - I defy anyone to make that case. But it certainly is a pugnacious violation of sovereignty. So is the freezing of a regime’s foreign assets.

From the Washington Post: How the U.S. Treasury Department froze Libyan assets. They expected $100 million, but found over $30 billion -- mostly all in one bank. To put this in perspective: In 2009, Libya had a gross domestic product of $62 billion.

Say what? Thirty billion dollars? If this cash pile is matched by similar revelations re Egypt and Tunisia and other toppled despotisms, can you doubt that economic transparency will become a truly radical cause during the twenty-teens. Perhaps even as much as I predicted back in 1989, in my novel EARTH?

Only, in this case, we’re talking about a “radicalism of reasonableness.” A militancy of moderation. A fervent and dynamic worldwide call for governments and corporations and oligarchs and rulers and economies and everybody simply to play fair. Compete fair. To rule fairly, the way Adam Smith and F. Hayek and nearly all cogent economists of left and right agree we must, if society is to be healthy at all.

A radicalism that Louis Brandeis spoke of when he prescribed the one thing that keeps a society healthy. “Light is the best disinfectant.”

== The Other Assertion: Light Only Makes us Stronger ===

I’ve long-delayed my “WikiLeaks Analysis.” Events are still surging along. But one aspect that Julian Assange surely never expected - when he spilled a quarter of a million State Department cables upon the world - was the degree to which this leak helped Hillary Clinton and her colleagues, at the exact moment when they needed maximum credibility in the developing world, and especially among Arab youth. The overall positive impression given by those cables -- of skilled American professionals who despised the despots they had to deal with -- overwhelmed all the tiny embarrassments that Assange expected to send heads rolling, in Foggy Bottom.

The crux effect of this openness (one that I predicted at that 2001 speech, and since then) was to so enhance American influence at a vital moment, that I expect the Secretary of State - if she had a chance - would give Julian Assange a great big hug.

This doesn’t prove assertion #b. But it is highly indicative. Indeed, there is only one thing that prevents our skilled professionals, diplomats and political leaders from doing the obvious. From eagerly embracing a broad, general secular trend toward a world with few secrets as the surest way to accomplish their goal -- a “win” for the overall civilization that employs them.

Alas, that one thing is a biggie: human nature.

== An Idea To Further Us Along That Road ==

I would have let this rumination end there. But a fan of The Transparent Society sent in this piece of news and I really must share it.

India’s chief economic adviser Kaushik Basu argues that to reduce bribery we should make the paying of bribes (not the demanding!) legal.

Let’s have a little context here. There are two types of bribery. First comes the kind where the briber and the bribed are in collusion to perpetrate an illegal act. This problem exists worldwide and Basu’s proposal will do nothing about it. In the west, its occurrences are isolated, but extremely severe. Sophisticated schemes of collusion between politicians, corrupt bureaucrats and oligarchs can result in multi billion dollar theft from investors and taxpayers -- and some contend that the last decade has been an especially busy time for such raids. But that’s not the topic here.

Rather, the issue is something that seems rare in the West, but that's endemic across the developing world. It is the sad fact that regular people often have to pay gifts to public officials, just to get them to do their jobs. To issue a business permit, for example, or a rental agreement, or driver’s license. So, here's the idea:

“Under current law… the bribe giver and the bribe taker become partners in crime. It is in their joint interest to keep this fact hidden from the authorities and to be fugitives from the law, because, if caught, both expect to be punished. Under the kind of revised law that I am proposing here, once a bribe is given and the bribe giver collects whatever she is trying to acquire by giving the money, the interests of the bribe taker and bribe giver become completely orthogonal to each other. If caught, the bribe giver will go scott free and will be able to collect his bribe money back. The bribe taker, on the other hand, loses the booty of bribe and faces a hefty punishment.

“Hence, in the post-bribe situation it is in the interest of the bribe giver to have the bribe taker caught….Since the bribe taker knows this, he will be much less inclined to take the bribe in the first place. This establishes that there will be a drop in the incidence of bribery.

“Basu notes that he intends this to apply to bribes where the person paying the bribe is receiving only what they are entitled to receive, e.g. when you have to bribe to get a business license that you are entitled to or to get your rice rations or get an income tax refund."

This is a bit of brilliance, on a scale with Hernando de Soto’s scheme that has worked so well, in Peru, vesting property rights in poor farmers so that they can then use capitalist processes for their own benefit. Moreover -- need I add -- it is a pure and magnificent example of the cleansing, healthy power of transparency.

== Final Note ==

blackmailNow, in closing, let me give you your your assignment till next time. Consider. If we find a solution to bribery, what about its vastly worse twin... BLACKMAIL?

Read this. Ponder it. Spread the word and make every public official... every person who ever THINKS about seeking public office... think about it in depth.

It may be too late. Then again, perhaps it isn't.