Sunday, October 30, 2011

From Religion to Biology: Destiny & the Singularity

== Biology!  Biology is Destiny! ==

Family living conditions in childhood are associated with significant effects in DNA that persist well into middle age. Researchers found clear differences in gene methylation between those brought up in families with very high and very low standards of living. More than twice as many methylation differences were associated with the combined effects of  wealth, housing conditions and occupation of parents (that is, early upbringing) than were associated with the current socio-economic circumstances in adulthood.

Now let’s be careful.  This is not Lamarckianism (inheriting of acquired traits by the next generation). Though another science report seems to imply that result in methylization studies, as well! No, what this shows is that the effects of childhood conditions can last for life, beyond mere malnutrition stunting of the brain or general health or psychological damage caused by poverty.  Those latter effects should be enough to convince anybody that society should invest in the children of the poor, even if adults are consigned to libertarian perdition, for their foolish choices.

But the new result reinforces the lesson. I consider myself to be a style of libertarian. But anyone who rejects socialist intervention to help poverty-wracked children is not only evil but also now clearly shown to be batshit crazy. And wrong.

An MORE waw-biology! Fascinating.  You’ve heard of “jumping genes” or retro transposons - that shift from one chromosome to another?  It turns out these events actually take place surprisingly often. According to one recent estimate, they occur in many or most brain cells, perhaps several hundred times within each cell. Each neuron is likely subjected to a unique combination of insertions, leading to a genetic variability within populations of cells.The full significance of this "genomic plasticity" is still not clear, but the authors suggest that it could influence brain development and behavior. It may, for example, partly account for the differences in brain structure and behavior between identical twins, and could even affect thought processes by subtly influencing the changes in nerve cell connections that occur with experience.

“The full significance of this "genomic plasticity" is still not clear, but the authors suggest that it could influence brain development and behavior. It may, for example, partly account for the differences in brain structure and behavior between identical twins, and could even affect thought processes by subtly influencing the changes in nerve cell connections that occur with experience.”

==From Religion to the Singularity==

SoYouWantToMakeGodsI had loads of fun at the recent Singularity Summit 2011. I gave a talk to all those folks who think that technology will soon empower us to construct super-intelligent artificial intelligences, or perfect intelligence enhancing implants, or even cheat death. The title:  "So you want to make gods. Now why would that bother anybody?" in which I present some Singularity-tilted theology.

And while we are reaching across the Great Divide... Science and Religion Today interviewed me in a brief Q & A re: “Can altruism be addictive?” riffing off of the new volume Pathological Altruism, in which I have two articles.

For more on observation flaws built into human nature... see a fascinating story about "validity bias" where people routinely misjudge their own competence and procedures, even in the face of evidence. This especially applies to my longstanding call for neutral Predictions Registries. Read this and ponder how hard it is to be a mature person in this modern world.

KurzweilSingularityCoverAnd now, getting even more cosmic! All folks in or near the U.K. be sure and look into a unique symposium taking place at the British Interplanetary Society in London on 23rd November, dedicated to the philosophy of Olaf Stapledon. My peer and fellow “Killer B” - Stephen Baxter - will be delivering a very cogent paper.

== Interesting Developments ==

Ah, speaking of singularities. Ever get the feeling you were born too late to get the good stuff?

See 12 visions of the future of computing, biotechnology, energy, and more, from the editors of Technology Review comes TRSF, an 80-page anthology of original near-future science fiction stories.  A very worthy volume filled with unusual insights and optimism for the can-do spirit. (I’ll be in a future volume, but this one rocks!)

From sea-floor... Scientists have discovered a community of 4-inch amoebas living at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest known part of the world's oceans.

Is sub-sea mining (of metal-rich sulfide muds near old oceanic “smokers”) about to take off? How will it change things?

To space... A Rover’s Eye View: Watch this three minute time-lapse video of Opportunity’s thirteen mile trek across the desolate surface of Mars, from Victoria Crater to Endeavour Crater—a journey spanning three years.

The moon may be a harsh mistress, but Russian scientists say they want to establish a colony below the lunar surface. According to Russian space official Sergei Krikalyov, recently discovered volcanic tunnels could provide natural shelter for the first colonists.

== But At Least Art Thrives! ==

See this 2009 cartoon by Joel Pett that distills a point I'd been making for years. Everything we must do re Climate Change are things we ought to do anyway (TWODA). "Ruin the economy?" Who wants that! A strawman. Efficiency is next to godliness.  Use this argument. Pry open skulls... or we’ll get Nehemia Scudder!

Absolutely stunning Sapporo beer commercial is a fest for the eye.  Amazing.  Watch it in color! (Thanks Stefan.)

A cute little practical joke from the early days of computers.

A serious aside... A critical but neglected transparency law could be updated for the 21st century if a new congressional proposal succeeds. The  (S. 1732), introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) on Oct. 18, would update the Privacy Act of 1974 . The Privacy Act governs what actions federal agencies must take when collecting personal information on American citizens and how agencies use and share it.

Artist John Powers writes a fascinating riff, comparing Star Trek to the American dream... and weaving in a number of my own observations about the underlying design of the 200 year American Experiment.

== Brief Political Stuff ==

Read this. Our civil war is no longer left-vs-right. It is about bewildered American pragmatists and a "side" that's gone mad. "Mike Lofgren recently retired from a lengthy career as an esteemed Capitol Hill republican staffer a respected, knowledgeable figure. Read  Lofgren wrote for Truth Out, published yesterday with this headline: “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult.” How I miss Goldwater & Buckley!

Here's the source.

See a map of which states are the most/least violent.  Even the first impressions are devastating to the big fib of “civility” in Red America. Now take into account that New York and California and Illinois have an excuse... dense cities and lots of immigrants and urban poor and drugs... And even so score way above average. New England does best of all.  So much for the moral superiority of Limbaugh-land.

Ever seen the maps for teen sex, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, divorce, domestic violence, and transmission of STDs?  Same story.  The preachy folk who claim to have a better handle on morality are, well, on average far less moral.  And their man Bush managed to make every measure of national health and middle class economics plummet during his reign. By all means, let’s heed their advice!
Interesting changes in the degree that the international uber-rich can “helvetian-hide” their booty from the tax-men.

Here’s a quotation from one of the world’s top technology pundits, Mark Anderson:

“For me, there is no more poignant example of the Bush 9.11 era, and the need to get beyond it now. Like two slides, I picture, first: an army of soldiers surrounding bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora, and then being ordered by Team Bush to wait until the locals can get there and participate, at which point the enemy has escaped.

“I compare that slide to the story of this year: after a year in secret investigation and preparation, Team Obama finds a likely target compound in Pakistan, orders in Seal Team Six via stealth choppers, uses overwhelming force, and shoots to kill. DNA samples are taken to confirm ID, and the body is dumped ignominiously in the ocean, with no propaganda pics for the enemy, and no burial process or site to rally round.” What a difference.  And yet, which man is called a “wimp”?

A vastly detailed and deeply disturbing article in Bloomberg about the Koch brothers. Seriously, read at least the first ten paragraphs or so.

Sorry, but if we’re to prevent Nehemia Scudder... (Heinlein called 2012 his year!) .. we are all gonna have to get more active.  And some of you must wake up.

== Oh, If Only... ==

Finally, one prays something like this will happen. From The Onion: Nation Finally Breaks Down and Begs its Smart People to Just Fix Everything!

Alas, look at history.  At the obstinate delusional stupidity that ran every previous civilization and keeps threatening ours.  Shall we bet on this?  Sigh.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How to Define Science Fiction

The question has filled pages and books,  resonating across hotel bars and conferences for decades. What, exactly, is science fiction?  It matters for many reasons, not least because the genre encompasses just about everything that's not limited to the mundane here and now, or a primly defined past.

Up till the early 18th century, when Defoe, Richardson and Fielding fed a growing apetite for "realism" in fiction, nearly all literature contained elements of the fantastic. From tribal campfire-legends to Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to Dante and Swift. All through that long period, life and death were capricious on a daily basis, but society seemed  relatively changeless from one generation to the next - the same chiefdom or kingdom or noble families, the same traditions and stiff social order. Throughout that era, storytelling overflowed with surreal, earth-shaking events and the awe-inspiring antics of demigods.

Then a shift happened. Peoples' physical lives became more predictable. You and your kids had a chance of living out your natural spans... but civilization itself started quaking and twisting with change. Your daughter would likely survive childbirth. But her assumptions and behavior might turn shocking and your son's choice of profession - bewildering. Your neighbors might even begin questioning the king, or the gods! Not in fable but in real life.

Amid this shift, public tastes in literature moved away from bold what-if images of heroes challenging heaven, toward close-in obsessions with realistic characters who seemed almost-like-you, in settings only a little more dramatic or dangerous than the place where you lived.

Having made that observation - and pondered it for years - I'm still not sure what to make of it. Is there a total sum of instability that humans can bear, and a minimum they need?

Nonetheless, into this period of transformation, science fiction was "born."  The true child of Homer and Murusaki and Swift, yet denounced as a bastard from the start, by those who proclaimed (ignoring 6000 years) that literature should always be myopic, close, "realistic" and timidly omphaloskeptic.

The possibility of social, technological and human change could be admitted... even explored a little... but the consensus on a thousand university campuses was consistent and two-fold.

----    ------    ----

In "literature" proper explorations of how change impacts human beings should:

1 - deal with the immediate near-term, and

2 - treat change as a loathsome thing.

This obsession isn't as unfair or cowardly as it sounds. Yes, pre-1700s fiction incorporated fantastic imagery and other-worldly powers... and yes, science fiction carries on that tradition.  But the nostalgist professors are also right, in perceiving SF as an upstart!

Because all through most civilizations, the storytelling mythos was nearly always past-obsessed. Indeed, it is here that contemporary sci fi betrays its origins.

== The First of Sci Fi's Heresies ==

Plainly stated: science fiction retains the bold, reality-breaking element of ancient myth-telling, far better than any other genre. But it also rebels against venerable tradition, by portraying change as a protean fluid, sometimes malleable or even good! Violating a core tenet of Aristotle's Poetics, sci fi contemplates the possibility of successfully defying Fate.

Elsewhere I contrast two perspectives on the Time Flow of Wisdom. By far dominant in nearly all human societies has been a Look Back attitude... that the past contained at least one shining moment when society and people in general were better than today - a pinnacle of grace from which we fell, doomed to lament. You find this theme in everything from the Bible to Tolkien to Crichton - a dour reflex toward viewing change as synonymous with deterioration--The grouchiness of grampas who proclaim that everything - even folks - had been finer in the past.

Did you notice that the two authors I just mentioned have their books in the sci fi section of the store? All the tales on these shelves share that ancient, homeric willingness to be vivid and depart from the here and now. But there any resemblance to science fiction stops, because Tolkien, Crichton and their ilk cling to the Look Back view.

It's plain that a deep river of nostalgia flows through most fantasy novels and films, especially those that dwell lovingly on feudal tropes and images. Chosen Ones. Prophecies. Kingly lineages that deserve to inherit rulership, by right of blood alone.

Ponder that, a moment. Millions of contemporary citizens of a free and scientific civilization - heirs of Enlightenment revolutionaries - now yearn for elvish mystics and secretive mages who never publish or share knowledge, nor open schools, nor turn palantirs into internets, nor offer the flea-ridden peasants flush toilets, nor even teach the germ theory of disease.  Hierarchy and overall changelessness are somehow portrayed as romantically attractive. And always, there's that notion of better/wiser times, somewhere in the past.

==The Impudent, Upstart Path ==

Compare this attitude to the uppity Look Ahead zeitgeist. That humanity is on a rough and difficult upward path. That past utopias were fables. That any glowing, better age must lie ahead of us, to be achieved through skill and science, via mixtures of cooperation, competition and negotiation. Along with (one hopes) heaping improvements in overall wisdom.

The paramount example of this world-view would be - of course - Star Trek, though authors like Iain Banks carry the torch of long-term optimism very well.

Let there be no mistake - this is the giant fault line down the middle of science fiction's broadly varied and tolerantly diverse community of authors and readers. The notion that children might, possibly, sometimes, learn from the mistakes of their parents, avoid repeating them... then forge on to make new mistakes all their own, overcoming obstacles on their way to becoming better beings than ourselves.

It sounds like a fine desideratum. What every decent parent wants, right? Except for sourpusses.

Yet, I've found that whole notion of progress is so anathema, to such a vast range of people, that something deeply inherent in human nature must be involved. The widest cultural gap I've ever seen, about something absolutely fundamental, it explains why so many feel reflex hostility toward science fiction. Especially those who believe in "eternal verities."

Example: when I spoke about SF in China, nearly all the readers, publishers and press folk seemed deeply worried that any hint of optimism in literature might insult their ancestors, by implying generations can improve with time.

I replied in bewilderment - isn't that the point?

== Rejection of Optimism ==

Apparently not. Almost like an immunal rejection to the 1960s can-do spirit of Star Trek, wave after wave of stylish grouches swarmed over science fiction itself, claiming to have discovered dark cynicism as something fresh and original.  As critic Tom Shippey put it, in an excellent recent Wall Street Journal review:

"As science fiction approached the millennium, it began to trade the future for the past and real worlds for fantasy or virtual realities. We've had "cyberpunk," with "biopunk coming along a little uneasily behind... Other popular sci fi scenarios include alternate history ("looking backward," as if to wonder where things went wrong) and its nostalgic spin-off "steampunk" (fantasy with a history-of-science additive). The popularity of post-apocalyptic novels suggests that no convincing techno-future can be imagined."

Shippey's essay is insightful and important. I strongly recommend it... though I do quibble with that last point. Progress isn't impossible to imagine. It just takes hard work.

Any lazy author or director knows this trick; it's astonishingly easy to craft a a pulse-pounding plot and get your heroes in jeopardy - via either prose or film - if you start by assuming civilization is crappy.  That your fellow citizens are fools and all their hard-wrought institutions are run by morons. If accountability utterly fails and 911 calls are only answered by villains or Keystone Kops, and the Republic never does a single thing right... then you can sniff some coke and scribble almost any story-line. It writes itself! Bring on the special effects and heavy sighs over human doom.

No, I am not denouncing all works that express skepticism toward progress. Some do arise from stronger roots than mere cynical laziness. Among these are sincere and deeply-moving critiques of modern civilization's many faults. But here is where a delicious irony emerges. That criticism is the only known antidote to error. The best and most savagely on-target critiques are helpful in moving us forward through the minefield of progress.

After all, the core postulate of true SF is that children can sometimes learn from their parents mistakes... not that they will always do so!  This is why genuine sci fi tragedies like On The Beach and Soylent Green are so powerful.

"This does not have to happen," say Huxley and Orwell and Slonczewski and Tiptree, in their masterful self-preventing prophecies.  Be smarter, better people.  Be a better people.

==The Empire of Cynicism Strikes Back ==

Alas, other authors who are lionized, like Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin, use dystopia as a rationale for finger-wagging polemic and formulaic prescriptions, rather than gedankenexperiment. With their gifts, this limiting flaw is just tragic. Shippey is especially biting toward Ms. Atwood's sycophants, who claim her works are "realistic" and therefore "speculative" - not that childish science fiction junk.

Um, sorry - not quite. For one thing, Ms. Atwood's cartoon portrayals of science are tendentiously inaccurate to the point of libel. Like Crichton, her premise always depends on the absence of cleansing transparency, which would resolve nearly all of her complaints.  Moreover 70% of males in North America would have died fighting to prevent the scenario she portrays so chillingly in The Handmaid's Tale.  That book had many merits! But realistic plausibility was not a trait to brag about, distinguishing it from science fiction!

Shippey points to the attribute that really sets Ms. Atwood's sub-genre apart from the real thing. Like Nabakov, in his weird alternate reality tale Ada, Atwood crafts no plausible scenario for her world to come into being. She just doesn't think it important. And yes, that is a departure from mainstream sci fi.

Shippey is not alone in noticing the stunning swerve from ambition to finger wagging nostalgia and dour past-obsession. (Does one really need to be convinced, after watching Avatar?)  Science fiction scholar Judith Berman skewered one of the flagship sci fi publications - Isaac Asimov's Magazine and its longtime editor Gardner Dozois, for publishing, year after year, a nearly perfect stream of grouchy, anti-future manifestos. Tales about regret, navel-contemplation and disdain toward any semblance of optimism, with "no more than a handful of stories...that look forward to the future."

Jiminy, for how many decades can some people convince themselves that Star Trek is "the man" needing a good, hard shove?  Will there ever come a time when it becomes clear that Gene Roddenberry's can-do spirit was... is... and always will be the rare thing? The underdog? The only attitude - after 6000 years of dyspeptic nostalgia - that's not a cliche?

When leftist-darling Margaret Atwood joins the late, extreme-conservative author Michael Crichton in common cause - both of them slamming the arrogant hubris of science and progress - maybe it's time to sit up and ponder what it all means. Yes, one wing of the left-right axis appears to be more dangerously insane at this moment, than the other. But both wings are rife with dogmatic, oversimplifying grouches pushing renunciation -- the notion that scientific advancement was fine up till right now... but any further progress can bring nothing but bad news.

And what if everybody feels that way, not only on Earth but across the galaxy? Could renunciation explain the great silence out there? Race after sapient race choosing to hunker in feudal -- or pastoral or feminist or zen-like or whatever -- simplicity, cowering away from ambition or the stars?

"Perhaps we should leave well enough alone," Shippey quotes Atwood as saying, just before his final, brilliant rebuttal. (Do read it.)

I can do no better than Shippey at refuting this malignant meme, except to point out, yet again, that renunciation, nostalgia and suspicion of change were timeless themes across all of recorded history, pervading nearly every religious and mythic tale that comes down to us from that long epoch of relentless repression and pain.

There was a lot of great art in those myths!  I have spent countless hours with Odysseus and Dante and Rama and the Monkey King. We can learn important things, both by heeding the lessons that ancient stories try to teach... and sometimes by reaching diametrically opposite conclusions.

Because we are the rebels. We who think change might (possibly) bring good.

The nostalgists who doubt this are welcome to criticize! That searing light of rebuke is exactly how to move forward while avoiding the pitfall-penalties of hubris. Sometimes, authors like LeGuin and Atwood and Gibson and Russ and so many other stylish grouches offer on-target points! Potential failure modes to take into account, then evade as we forge ahead.

But let there be no mistake. They are the Old Empire. Quenchers and belittlers, maintaining the ancient, relentless tyranny of nostalgia. Ten thousand years from now, the ones who will be remembered will be those who encouraged.

Those who said, let's try.

==Also see: Speculations on Science Fiction

David Brin
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Monday, October 24, 2011

Political Idea Bomb #1: Rejigger the Immigration Debate

What can any sensible American citizen do about the present political climate? (Wait... not "climate." Let's use a less divisively fraught word. "Environment?"  Aw hell.)

Rebuilding an optimistic, pragmatic, problem-solving, scientific, brave and world-valuable United States will be hard. The skill I'm paid for is looking at things from quirky angles - perspectives that hardly fit our tiresome cliches. So here's the first of several "political idea-bombs."

== The Immigration "Debate" ==

I've mentioned this before. Everything you think you know about immigration is probably wrong. For example, U.S. immigration rates have fallen during the world economic decline. And - as many point out - the jobs that are "lost" to undocumented immigrants are almost never filled by American citizens, even when the work goes begging.

So where does all the anger come from? Consider that the "white" category became a minority group, for the first time ever, in U.S. census figures.  Sure, it's the largest minority, by far. Even so it is inflated by the fact that many Americans of Hispanic background check "white."  Hence, the image of a multi-colored United States has millions writhing in discomfort, even if it delights  liberal intelligencia.

One visceral root of culture war, then, is understandably psychological.

What is the biggest driver of this rapid change in the makeup of the U.S. citizenry? Listen to the rage, and you'd think that it was an invasion, a veritable tsunami of wetback illegals. But facts speak otherwise. The driver of demographic change in America, over the last generation or so, has been legal immigration.

When ethnic quotas on immigration were removed in 1965, the number of first- generation immigrants living in the United States quadrupled, rising from 9.6 million in 1970 to nearly 38 million in 2007.  In 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which resulted in an increase in legal immigration to the United States by 40%.

The United States admitted more legal immigrants in the most recent decade -- ten million legal immigrants settled in the U.S. Still, this represents an annual increase of only about 0.3% as the U.S. population grew from 249 million to 281 million. A lot of people. But remember  this isn't new. By comparison, the highest previous decade was the 1900s, when 8.8 million people arrived, increasing the total U.S. population by one percent every year. Specifically, "nearly 15% of Americans were foreign-born in 1910, while in 1999, only about 10% were foreign-born.

So why has the lion's share of attention gone to the smaller flow of undocumented aliens coming to the U.S., many of whom are only here temporarily? Well, part of it is a purely visceral matter of fairness and perception of equity. Take this, from The Public Agenda web site:

"In surveys, the public consistently makes a sharp distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. In general, the public looks more favorably on immigrants perceived as "playing by the rules." Illegal immigrants are viewed with much less sympathy. Half of those surveyed by Public Agenda say giving the government the power to detain legal immigrants indefinitely in the war on terrorism "goes too far," but six in 10 say illegal immigrants who are detained "don't deserve such protections because they are here illegally." What's more, six in 10 also say illegal immigrants should be deported immediately after being caught, without recourse to the courts. The distinction is strong enough that caution should be taken in reporting survey questions that do not distinguish between legal and illegal immigration or those that combine these elements."

Part of the fixation on illegal immigration, then, comes from the simple fact that it is disreputable and potentially embarrassing - even racist-sounding - to go after the larger flows of legal immigrants. Railing against illegals is more than sufficient.  In a movement whose goals are purely emotional, never practical, culture warriors spare nary a thought for the legal variety.

== A Pause for Perspective ==

Besides, the United States has so clearly benefited from immigration across the last 200 years that anyone who thinks otherwise must either be very ignorant or... well... a Native American. (Can't blame them, after all.)  Indeed, together with Canada and Australia, three countries account for nearly all of the legal migration around the world, a fact that (among other things) should give us a certain moral cushion, when outsiders complain about some of the mistakes made by Pax Americana. Study after study has shown that our vigor as a nation grew out of this tradition.

Indeed, there is a sci-fi kind of eugenical twist to all of this. Since we are all descended from people who came... albeit some of those ancestors arrived involuntarily... might that restless spirit underlie some of America's accomplishments? And its continuing potential for the future?

== Ironies Abound! ==
I'm not here to give a lengthy analysis of immigration law and its consequences.  I am no expert and don't claim to be. What gets my dander up, though, is the way that partisanship causes people to glom onto positions that often bear no relationship at all to facts.

For example, the notion that Republicans are harsh defenders of the border, while Democrats are wimpy pushovers.  In that case, how does one explain the fact that one of President Obama's very first acts in office was to boost the number of "boots" at the national boundaries and to demand a major rise in funding for the Border Patrol? This is no anomaly. Remember Operation Gatekeeper? It got a lot of play, back in 1993, when Bill Clinton virtually doubled the Border Patrol and began constructing new barriers along our then-porous borders?

In contrast, President George W. Bush, cut the BP in his first year. (Though, in fairness, Congress restored that funding in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, leading to a rise in staffing across the last ten years.)

These facts provoke cognitive dissonance, because they don't fit our preconceptions of left-versus-right.  But there really are logical reasons, if you pause and manifest that greatest human gift -- curiosity.

For some years, I thought the explanation was pure and simple. Why should Democrats like illegal immigration? No reason at all! Sure, touchy-feely niceness to newcomers can play well to the left wing of the party. Moreover, kindness and investment in kids who already live here makes sense, both morally and in purely practical terms.

But after saying all of that to the Democratic base, the politicians have to think about their top constituents - labor unions and urbanites. And those core groups have no reason to like floods of cheap labor. They prefer legal immigration - people with green cards who can join unions and who have good prospects to become new voters.

Supporting evidence: since 1986, Congress has passed seven amnesties for illegal immigrants, converting one kind of immigrant into the other.From the kind that are easily exploited by predatory employers to those who might vote and pay labor dues.

This explanation still seems pretty valid, even after qualifying it with this inconvenient fact: that Republican President George H.W. Bush signed that 1990 immigration law, accelerating legal immigration. Moreover, in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed immigration reform that gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants in the country. Clearly, my pat division of motives merited some qualifiers, and I am willing to learn from facts.

Still, Democratic Congresses played a large role in boosting legal immigration, and they have always gone along with hikes in the Border Patrol. Those facts won't go away.

What about  Republicans? They go on and on, endlessly complaining about illegal immigration as a horrid betrayal, because that kind of red-rhetoric speaks to their base. But please dig it: they controlled the United States of America, top to bottom and every branch of government all through the first decade of the 21st Century, and nothing much was done.

Why? Because the folks who actually pay the GOP's bills have their own agenda. And a cynic can quickly see how many of them benefit from floods of immigrants who cannot complain or join unions or demand the minimum wage.

Can I prove these ironies? Only circumstantially; but shouldn't they provoke you to ponder?  The parties are rife with situations like this -- in which the public stance of dems or goppers can differ markedly from the actual policies that the party enacts, when it is in power.

(But this should come as no surprise.  The Republican values-base has never received anything that it really wanted, other than lip service, from the GOP. Again, the Republican Party had complete and absolute mastery of the Presidency, Congress and the judiciary, and gave the base nothing during all that time, about abortion or any other hot topic.  Only the aristocracy got what it wanted. Every time.)

== University America ==

Americans tend to self-flagellate over our "horrid education system." Elsewhere I ask - "if our schools are so bad, why do we have 85 of the 100 best universities on the planet?

The answers (several of them) are rather complex and never discussed in public... but the one reply I always get is "the best students are all foreign!"

In fact that answer is wrong. But even if it were true... so? Just think about that flood of foreign kids, flooding our colleges. Swarming in to learn, to better themselves and their homelands, and then - 90% of them - returning filled with new, wider values. What a deal! Especially when you note that they are paying for the privilege! It is the greatest investment in future peace and ensuring that the world's leaders are generally friendly to their second home - America.

But it goes deeper.  That 10% who remain here consists often of the very best, skimmed off the top and given visas, then citizenship. Envision this scam in its awesome majesty! Draw the world's best over here, teach them, infect them with new values, and keep the best? And they pay us for this? (Chuckle; hand-rubbing glee...)  Of course this has changed a bit. Chinese and Indian scholars now scurry back home because there's vast money to be made there. But the overall program still works.

It's an example of a win-win-win game. We used to be really good at finding them, before culture war imposed zero-sum thinking.  This particular one suggests some new directions for immigration policy.

== More Surprises? ==

Actually, there are issues that run beneath issues here, and they merit your consideration. Take the criteria that the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department have been required to follow, when doling out legal immigrant visas.

For decades, the top consideration went to re-uniting family members. And at first sight, that does seem a compassionate and just basis to allow people into the country, instead of keeping folks separated from those they love.

Except... isn't that just rewarding the lucky with more luck? And when you admit a legal immigrant's brother, then does the brother's son come along? Of course the son's mother (his wife) is next.  And then... her brother too?  And that brother's kid and wife... and so on...  Isn't it clear that there is no place to clearly draw a line?

There should be a way to say: "This here clan has had a lot of luck.  Let's pause for a while and let some of that good fortune go to the millions of others out there, who have their faces pressed against the glass."

Indeed, shouldn't we try for a positive sum game here? If we're limited in the number of people we can absorb per year, and can only take a small fraction of those who are both deserving an eager, then why not have a fair number of those slots go to those whose arrival will benefit us all, in clearcut and immediate ways? Are they any less deserving, just because they happen to be instantly useful?
Indeed, won't the increased prosperity they help generate here allow us to be more generous to others, in the future?

Canada and Australia and the U.S. all issue a certain number of Employment-Based visas. And a strong case can be made for increasing this number, along with slots for inventors and company builders and major investors. It has even been proposed to solve our current housing crash by giving a green card to anyone who immediately buys a home with $500,000 or more in cash.

(All right, that's rewarding the lucky, and it won't play well on the left. But those of you who follow my "contrary" swings know that I am perfectly happy aiming jabs in that direction! Sure, the right has gone completely bonkers with its War on Science and every other knowledge profession. But that doesn't mean their opponents are always correct, not by a long shot.)

== Listen Up, Rick Perry! ==

In fact, let me couch this as advice to a man I don't especially admire, and dislike in many ways... but a fellow who on occasion has actually intrigued me with the unconventional words that slip out of his mouth, from time to time.

(Example: the Texas Governor is the only other person I know who has publicly declared an obvious fat -- that the first phase of our ongoing American Civil War began in 1851, with southern oppression of northern states! Okay, I admit it; I'd buy him a beer, because to me interesting compensates for many sins, and I enjoy challenging disagreement more than I like parroted sameness.)

Okay, so right now Rick Perry has a problem regarding immigration. So crazed has the Republican base become that he must backpedal furiously from actions and positions that were completely mainstream in the GOP, during the era of Ronald Reagan.  It should be blatantly obvious to anyone with a mix of compassion and practicality that immigrant kids need health care and education... and we need them to be both healthy and educated. Duh? Well, the obvious becomes deniable, in times that Robert Heinlein called "The Crazy Years."

(Perry reminds me of the "good German" Oskar Schindler... who was a low-life scoundrel by the standards of a normal-calm nation, but who, when all his friends and neighbors went mad, refused to sink below a certain level of insane turpitude. Who then exhibited surprising heroism. We'll see if my comparison proves apt.)

Is there a way out for Perry?  Well, I can suggest one. Turn the focus toward legal immigration. A judo move. Get people talking about the larger flow, instead of the smaller. Get them talking about fresh ideas, like visas for investors and home-buyers and inventors. Take a lead there, making people talk. Heck, even blame the democrats for something they actually did for a change! (Increasing legal immigration.)

And lay it out as a bipartisan given that the border will be better policed, with new technology. Indeed, make technology a topic for optimistic talking points. (Remember Reagan?  Optimism can be good politics!)

Who knows, maybe some Republicans will even respond if you defy the Fox-propelled mad-lemming rush and actually say something good about science!  Yes, that may be too brave to ask of any GOP candidate.  Still it would set you aside from the pack...

== Shake it up! ==

What's my real point here?

Immigration, like most other policy issues, is far more complex than the simpleminded politics of this benighted-lobotomized era. An era when the sheer notion of the positive sum game is anathema... and so are people of the kind who use words like "anathema."

We could negotiate positive sum, win-win solutions, to this and a myriad other vexing dilemmas.  But it would have to start with accepting that complexity ain't evil. And neither is negotiation. And that is why I'll keep tossing these "idea-bombs."

Because some of you out there really want to live in a civilization that's worthy of the name. And together, maybe we can persuade enough of our neighbors to want it, too.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A South Pole Centennial, Cryonics, and Organ Regeneration

So many things to remark-upon, from the recent summit conference about a coming "Singularity" to the conclusion of the Iraq and Libya wars, to the critical issues raised by Occupy Wall Street... and the prospects for banking transparency in the light of Moammar Ghaddafi's stolen $200 billions....

...but I want to focus this time on some amazing thoughts and images from old and new frontiers of science.

We've entered the extended centennial  of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition toward the South Pole, from 1910-1913. A source of mythic moments, both noble and absurd, that could never have come from fiction.

I cannot too-highly recommend both the book "The Last Place on Earth" and the subsequent television miniseries.  The latter, especially, is just stunning.  Visually gorgeous and haunting. Superbly acted. And probably the best-ever juxtaposition of the extreme consequences of human competence... or the utter lack thereof.

The stark contrast between Scott's emotional fragility - his mercurial foolishness - and the calm display of relentless ability shown by his rival, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, is one of the most effective comparisons I have ever seen.

While you're at it, see a series of unseen photographs--incredible images that were recently published in "The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott," by polar historian Dr. David M. Wilson.

== Deliberately Frozen ==

There were many aspects to the recent Singularity Summit, where I heard the regular paeans to transcendence issued by Ray Kurzweil and others... plus deeply concerned discussions by Peter Thiel, Skype founder Jaan Tallinn, Artificial Intelligence theoretician Eliezer Yudkowsky and other brilliant minds, about "how to keep Artificial intelligences loyal." (The latter is a topic that I touch upon repeatedly in my coming novel EXISTENCE.)

One thought occurred to me during an extended panel discussion...

... that we do NOT want the new, godlike super-intelligences to emerge suddenly out of stock market trading programs, which are fine-tuned to be utterly predatory, parasitical and ruthlessly sociopathic.  If there were no other reason to impose a transaction tax, that should utterly suffice!

Bemusing were the medallion disks that several presenters displayed, hanging from neck chains, instructing paramedics to inform their cryonics providers, in case of approaching death, so that the head can be injected with subtle antifreeze and chilled for storage, in confident expectation of resurrection and glory in better days ahead.
Who has signed up?  Some of my best friends. Is it tempting? Well, like many singularity/transcendentalist notions, I can talk up the positive points with the best of 'em. And around these guys I find myself inevitably going into the downsides. (Well?  I am "contrary brin," after all.)

dowereallywantimmortalityMy full, sober reflections are to be found in this earlier essay, Do We Really Want Immortality? Still, these guys talk up a good show. And the Scott-Amundsen centennial brought fascinating comparisons to mind.

== Using Life to Build Things? ==

Okay, this is kind of weird. Using a simple, single-step process, engineers and scientists at the University of California at Berkeley recently developed a technique to direct benign, filamentous viruses called M13 phages to serve as structural building blocks for materials with a wide range of properties. By controlling the physical environment alone, the researchers caused the viruses to self-assemble into hierarchically organized thin-film structures, with complexity that ranged from simple ridges, to wavy, chiral strands, to truly sophisticated patterns of overlapping strings of material--results that may also shed light on the self-assembly of biological tissues in nature.

In nature, the virus attacks Escherichia coli (E.coli), but in bioengineering laboratories, the virus is emerging as a nanoscale tool that can assemble in complex ways due to its long, slender shape and its chiral twist.

== Mammalian Organ Regeneration ==

The most fascinating talk at the Summit came not from a singularitarian or transcendentalist, but one of the brilliant scientists who are making tomorrow day by day. (Despite society's turn toward ungrateful nonsense, like the Foxite War on Science.)  Stephen Badylak was lately featured on the show "60 Minutes," and is  is currently a Research Professor in the Department of Surgery and director of Tissue Engineering at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.  Dr. Badylak showed us the latest about organ regeneration in humans and other mammals.

I was stunned.  Sure, I follow what's going on.  I know that important work is being done with stem cells, and with "scaffolding" -- the use of non-cellular pig-based or other material to create a pre-shaped trellis for new cells to grow upon, into a replacement organ. There have been amazing successes in the latter arena.

Dr. Badylak spoke of the great obstacle -- inflammation -- which we are now perceiving as one of the biggest enemies of health in so many ways.  In this case, the tendency for the body to react to injury by getting livid and puttying the site with crude patching material that we call scarring.  Preventing the crude version of inflammation is step one.

He then described the wide variety of hormonal growth factors that come into play when undifferentiated cells are asked to turn into muscle, nerve and other types of tissue. At this point I expected him to then describe an artisan craft -- painting, injecting and impregnating these chemicals into different parts of the scaffolding, in order to say "grow muscle here" and "lace in nerves here!"

Imagine my surprise when it appeared that they do no such thing!  His recent profound successes have come simply by fighting inflammation, inserting the scaffold material... then encouraging the patient to USE the regenerating area, as soon as possible.  He showed us how a cancerous esophagous was ripped out and replaced by a scaffold tube, held open with a stent. In other words, use it immediately.  And within weeks... a new/natural esophagus is in place.  He showed similar examples like an Iraq war veteran who regrew most of a blasted away leg muscle.

?????  Do you know what this means?  I pondered, there in the audience.

It means that mammals have had extra regenerative capacity, held mostly latent within us for the last hundred million years.  So why don't we regrow major tissues, organs, even limbs by erecting scaffolding of our own?  I thought about it.

Consider.  Mammals are the hothouse-types.  Racing about, burning fuel like mad and eating like crazy, with a metabolism that won't quit or even pause. Furthermore, nearly all mammals are quadrupeds who, if they lose a limb, are utterly incapacitated.

Grow one back? When?  A low metabolism Amphibian can crawl into a corner and wait while that happens.  A mammal can't. It doesn't have the reserves. Nobody is going to bring dinner for months at a stretch. And so, we simply gave up the capacity to regenerate!

Scarring is the quick-patch substitute. If the injury is slight, scarring let's us get back to business asap. If the injury would take months to regrow, forget it. Not worth the investment to maintain a capacity that won't do any good anyway.

Except that now we humans can rest those months.  And we can hobble around with three limbs while one recovers. And we can augment the process with complete, hand-made and perfectly sculpted scaffolds, all-at-once. And so, for the first time since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, mammals may resume doing this fine thing.  Regenerating portions that we have lost.

Don't get your hopes up right away.  There is much to do and accomplish and test.  But if this pans out, then we'll have that much more to owe to God's second greatest gift to us - right after Love:

-- It's curiosity. And the skill and care and brilliance to be co-creators.

That is... unless the awful-stupid ingrates who are waging all-out war on science have their way.

== Late Word ==

I was so ticked off that they had killed Moammar Ghaddafi.  Not because I loved the guy, or thought he deserved any consideration.  Well, my mature 5% wants all procedures to be followed for all people - the Enlightenment Way. But no, I was pissed... because only he knew where all his money was kept!

Today's paper carried estimates of Two... hundred... billion dollars stolen from the nation and people of Libya. Ooh, what a clear case for "helvetian" levels of anger! (You'll understand if you read my novel EARTH!) That's why it was good to hear, minutes ago, that they captured Ghaddafi's top and ablest son, who may know many of the codes. For that reason alone, watch his health. I wouldn't want to be the man's prison food taster....

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Was 1957 America Better Than Today? (An Outright Rant!)

All right... this forwarded mass email put me into fill-tilt, bellowing rant mode!  It's a reaction to one of those email circulars that our crazy uncles keep sending us - you know the kind, offering vast, sweeping, counter-factual assertions in lieu of evidence, logic or even common sense, all in order to justify hating half of their fellow citizens. I generally ignore them, but this one is wildly popular among millions of "values" Americans who have been talked into hating tomorrow. It needs an answer.

So read on only if you're in a mood for pyrotechnics!

======     ======     ======

Nostalgia is for cretins.  America was built by men and women who dreamed and built. Who believed - and believe - in progress. Who forgo the sick drug of hate and negotiate solutions.

By people who respect skill and knowledge and the folks who have them.

America was not built by fellows like the author of this maudlin paean to yesteryear: This article, 1957 vs. 2010  by someone who claims to have witnessed "how far our nation has declined socially, morally and spiritually…" proceeding to list  scenarios such as: "Billy breaks a window in his neighbor’s car and his Dad gives him a whipping with his belt."

Let's follow along this one comparison between 1957 and 2010:

"1957 – Billy is more careful next time, grows up normal, goes to college and becomes a successful businessman.

2010 – Billy’s dad is arrested for child abuse. Billy is removed to foster care and joins a gang. The state psychologist is told by Billy’s sister that she remembers being abused herself and their dad goes to prison. Billy’s mom has an affair with the psychologist."

But go ahead and read this spectacular feat of tendentious-nostalgia* and temporal myopia.  You'll laugh... when you're not crying.

In fact, let me be honest and admit - two of these little tales, about how America had some simpler, more earthy aspects in 1957, resonate with  parts of me that are  - well - kinda conservative at-heart... in the old-better way William F. Buckley meant it. Still, most of this "1957" screed is drooling imbecility. Scenarios 6, 7, & 8 are sick fantasies concocted by a stupid, nasty mind that makes the lefty-flake PC correctoids look positively sane.

Oh, but I was inspired! So, with the other guy's list of time-comparisons in mind (in fairness - do peruse his versions), try on these additional contrasts between 1957 and 2010.

Hmmm let's see.

1957: Gracie (age 13) is raped by her stepfather. Shamed into keeping silent, she's guilt tripped for "asking for it." (Her eventual shrink, a Freudian, tells her she imagined it all.)

2011: Gracie has a black belt. Sucker is never going to attack a woman again. And just to make sure, she goes public. (Oh, and Freudians are extinct, thank God.)

1957: Thomas attends a segregated school without textbooks, heat or windows. Or hope. Every media message tells him he is destined to be a servant.

2011: Thomas attends Caltech. He carries no handicaps of preconception because of his race.  We all benefit from his research.

1957: Jimmy is a "four-eyes" who loves science. He is bullied, harassed, buggered and tormented. Everybody shrugs. "boys will be boys."

(I was there, in 1957. I fought back, really well. But I saw other boys crushed, pulverized, even driven to suicide.)

2011: In most middle class areas, severe physical bullying is almost nonexistent.  Today Jimmy is the CEO of a software company, making life better for everybody. Geeks and nerds are cool.  And whoever wrote that "fights were honorable" in 1957 can screw himself. I was there. Some fights were like that, I recall. But the other kind - pure, vicious terrorism - were far more common. (Only jerks who used to be bullies are nostalgic for those "good old days.")

1957: Gracie's rape turns into a pregnancy that will ruin her life. Or she goes to a back alley abortionist. Dies in agony.

2011:  Rates of teen sex, teen pregnancy, abortion, STDs, early marriage, and domestic violence are far LOWER in Blue America than they were in 1957. Divorce rates are higher, because women are empowered... but in Blue America even divorce is tipping downward, along with steeply-falling crime.

Rates for all of these things -- ALL of them -- are much higher in other parts of America - the parts that scream at us how much more "moral" their "values" are.  (It's plain statistical fact. And any nostalgia junkie can choke on it.)

One could go on and on, showing a thousand ways that THINGS ARE VASTLY BETTER today in the 21st Century! Indeed, shouldn't they be? Didn't those wise moms and dads of 1957 work damned hard to help make a better world?

Don't we praise them by admitting they succeeded? Don't we insult them by sneering that they failed? Think about that! Which of us here is deep-down more respectful to folks of earlier days? And which of us insults them as failures? 

== Not everything is better ==

But to be fair... I admit that some things today are worse today than they were in 1957!  Here are a few examples.

1957: Thalidomide babies are born armless. The bald eagle almost vanishes. Unregulated, toxins leak into waterways like Love Canal. Lakes are dying everywhere. School kids cry because the air hurts to breathe. Polio so terrifies parents that they keep children locked inside during summer, forbidding them from going to the public pool. (I remember it all.)

But in 1957 wise and good people dream of an era when scientists can help us all figure out what substances work and which ones do harm. Following 1957's Sputnik scare, all Americans think scientists are wonderful! Soon, Jonas Salk is the most popular man in America.

2011: Ungrateful imbeciles rage against science, following radio  ignoramuses into snits against vaccination, economics, meteorology, evolution, medicine and biology. Science has made terrific progress and we know tons more! Blue America keeps getting healthier and living longer. It's an age of real wonders and American science literacy is second only to Japan's.

But meanwhile, there's another America - that keeps smoking and shovels down pork rinds, while self-righteously screeching that liberals are ordering them what to eat -- (a damned lie).  And they die young.

And the War Against Science  (and every other profession that knows stuff -- like journalists, teachers, doctors, professors, civil servants, attorneys and skilled labor) rages on. Yep, some things are much worse.

1957: The greatest enemy of freedom and enterprise is Soviet Communism. A terrible threat and an evil empire! Democratic president Truman establishes NATO, the Marshall Plan and containment as national policy. Republican president Eisenhower maintains consistency and establishes a tradition of consensus negotiation between parties. Disparities of income and wealth (among whites) are at the lowest point in all of human history. The rich pay a lot of taxes, yet still have plenty to invest in the most vibrant capitalism of all time. Under Rooseveltian tax rates and regulation, the middle class grows by leaps and bounds.

Yes, there are Joe McCarthys on the right. But there are also Buckleys and Goldwaters who love science and intellect and negotiation and the kind of respectful argument that features - above all - curiosity and an eagerness to learn. Likewise, liberals and democrats utterly reject communism. Extremism is dumb. Moderation is in.

2011: Communism is gone and the far left is a joke. The greatest enemy of free enterprise is a cabal of 500 billionaires who appoint each other to director boards, protect each other and vote each other mega compensation packages, no matter how poorly the company does. They combine to take over American politics through secret slush funds and to finance culture war. Anyone who complains is pushing "class war."

The nation is sucked into a decade of trillion dollar quagmire wars of attrition in Asia -- but for the first time in our nation's history the rich refuse to help pay for a desperate military struggle. The nation is deliberately ripped by Culture War, weakening us worse than anything has since the Civil War.

1957: This was the time of the Greatest Generation that struggled against depression and fascism and saved the world. Also, they admired and adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Sure, some of them avowed that government meddling and regulation and even tax rates might have gone too far! But they were willing to start tweaking them down, incrementally, while admitting that FDR left America so vastly better off that no leader in human history ever had such a track record.

In the 1950s, even at high Rooseveltean tax rates (and some say because of them), we had three things at once, a booming, rapidly rising middle class, the lowest disparity in wealth between the rich and middle class in history (among white males), and a hugely entrepreneurial, skyrocketing capitalism, creating so much wealth that we could afford to start thinking about other things, like health and the environment and social justice.

2011:  For decades, the right has demonized the most beloved president in American history, who was adored by the men and women who this "1957" jerk claims to have been so wise, back in the 1950s!  Think about that, while I repeat it.  The moms and dads whom he calls wondrously smart and earthy and wise - they loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For most of them, the only acceptable Republican was Dwight David Eisenhower - a wonderful, decent and moderate man who believed in negotiating with democrats, not demonizing them.

Now? After spending 30 years tearing down everything FDR built, what have the rightists achieved?  A rapidly plummeting middle class, the highest disparity in wealth between rich and middle class in a hundred years, and the near destruction of entrepreneurial capitalism, under the crushing weight of monopolies. And still they rage against levels of regulation that are absurdly low, by the standards of 1957!


On the other hand... I must recall that in 1957 there were vastly more awful voices on the crazy right than the jerk who wrote this "comparison." Men who fulminated against Martin Luther King and desegregation, instead of claiming (as Glenn Beck does today) that "we invented civil rights and Dr. King was one of us!"

Men who called it a commie plot to assert that cars made smog.  Who screeched that only communists thought that tobacco caused disease. Jerks who helped cancer-causing companies to lie about it for an entire generation. Men who promised to get us off the habit of wastefully suckling the teat of foreign oil states... only to do everything in their power to keep us hooked.

Yes, 1957 was a better time...for crazies. But we still have plenty of those, and they are trying hard to catch up to the good old days.


* Fascinating recent (and relevant) science: People who are better at memory, and especially telling the difference between true memories and imagined ones, seem to have a better-developed fold at the front of the brain called the paracingulate sulcus (PCS). This brain variation is present in roughly half of the normal population. It’s one of the last structural folds to develop before birth, so it varies greatly in size between individuals in the healthy population. Researchers discovered that adults whose MRI scans indicated an absence of the PCS were significantly less accurate on memory tasks than people with a prominent PCS on at least one side of the brain.  If verified, a stunning and important finding.
But well, that's science.

David Brin
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