Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Navy, Russians, Shipping & Insurance Companies...and Climate Change

I regularly consult with various branches of our “protector caste”... from the military services and homeland security to several unnamed “agencies.” Naturally, I am encouraged by the fact that some of the most serious-minded men and women on the planet are very interested in well-grounded projections of diverse possible futures - not only mine, but those of several other "science & sci-fi guys."

I can’t tell you about some of these “future studies.”  But I am free to share this one observation:

Absolutely all of the top-elite officers of these services appear to be convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, about Human Generated Climate Change (HGCC). All of those I have met consider it to be both real and one of the greatest challenges of our time.

Ponder this: the US Navy is striving with great intensity to prepare for an Arctic Ocean that is nearly ice-free for large parts of the year. Canada is shifting most of its military budget northward.

The Russians have moved an entire division to the Siberian northern coast.  And dig this.  The Russian Navy’s top priority? Their pride-and-joy?  SIX brand new, double-hulled, nuclear powered icebreakers they recently put in service. (The U.S. has one large, single-hulled, obsolete oil-powered breaker, soon to be retired. The U.S. Coast Guard operates three smaller, conventional ice breakers out of Seattle.)

A year or so ago, the Northwest passage opened so wide that a flood of cargo vessels raced through it from China to Europe. And prospectors are sifting for treasures on the sea floor, where Peary once spent a summer dragging sledges over ice-continents in search of the Pole.

What do all of these groups share in common? They cannot afford to let their view of reality be warped by willful delusion, just-so stories, Beckian rants and dogma, They don't have the time for denialism. Want another example?

==  Insurers Confirm Growing Risks, Costs ==

Stakeholders from the insurance industry met with members of the U.S. Senate to acknowledge the role global warming plays in extreme weather-related losses, and to issue a call for action.  "At a Capital Hill a press conference on the cost of climate change, debate was not on the agenda. Pointing to a year of history-making, $1 billion-plus natural disasters, representatives of Tier 1 insurance companies took a definitive stance with members of the U.S. Senate to confirm that costs to taxpayers and businesses from extreme weather will continue to soar because of climate change.

merchants-of-doubt1"From our industry's perspective, the footprints of climate change are around us and the trend of increasing damage to property and threat to lives is clear," said Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America. "We need a national policy related to climate and weather." Perhaps no industry better understands the impact of global warming than the insurance industry whose job it is to analyze risk. See the video of the March 1st press conference. Marsh & McLennan, one of the world’s largest insurance brokers, called climate change "one of the most significant emerging risks facing the world today.” As Jules Boykoff put it in The Guardian, "Let's be clear: insurance firms aren't altruists; they're capitalists. A rise in extreme weather means a fall in their profits. This is hardball economics based on risk analysis, not save-the-polar-bears stuff."

Read more in: What Insurance Companies already know about Climate Change.

So, if all the men and women who must combine brains, education and professionalism with harsh practicality can see the desperate need to prepare, how do 40% of the citizens of a great nation enter denial so severe they'll demean and ignore not only scientists and the insurance industry... but even the U.S. Navy?

stormsofmygrandchildrenAre all of these groups (and a myriad more) absolutely convinced that absolutely every single aspect of current climate theory is absolutely proved in all levels, in all ways?  Of course not. There is always room for sincere skepticism that aims at finding flaws and improving our models of the world.

What they can’t afford is prim dogmatism. They have to pragmatically prepare for the world that appears 95% likely (by preponderance of evidence and expert calculations) to be coming.

On the other hand, there is a word for people who refuse to take reasonable precautions, or even negotiate in good faith the cheapest and most efficient just-in-case precautions, demanding instead (at the behest of a couple of coal-billionaire brothers)  that climate theory be absolutely proved in all levels, in all ways, before we take prudent, moderate measures to protect ourselves.

That word is imbeciles.

== Consistency: A Litmus of Madness ==

Here is a distilled essence showing just how bad it's gotten.  How thoroughly Murdoch-Limbaugh-Norquist-Waleed, the four horsemen of America's collapse, control the Republican Party. Two years ago, 100% of the GOP Senators voted the party line 100% of the time, all votes, for every issue, all year long.

Hell, a single dumb light switch could have done that job. What's the point in being a "statesman" or delegate of the people to the world's greatest deliberative body? As Mark Anderson put it: "This is the opposite of informed, rational decision-making. If that's all they are going to do, why not save a few billion dollars and just put hats in their empty seats, and let them stay home? In other words, Newt's party discipline has poisoned American politics.

 == Moral Decline? ==

All right, I am almost done with this political blog-trilogy. So let me just add a couple more thoughts.
Many - even most - "red" voters proclaim they are motivated in large part by anger over America's "moral decline." Rick Santorum says it is Satan's work, undermining the moral foundations of the nation that is his biggest obstacle on Earth.  But is this assertion subject to any kind of test or comparison with facts?

In a fascinating article, The Economist explores measurable things like divorce rates, abortion, violent crime, high school dropout rates and teen pregnancy... all of which have declined... most of them steeply... in the last couple of decades. (Unmentioned by the article: rates for these things, as well as domestic violence, STDs and teen sex, have all declined much less in purportedly "more moral" Red America than they have in Blue states and cities.)

Teen pregnancy is at its lowest level in 40 years.  Shouldn't that indicate something?

There is one contrary statistic, so read the original article. But this would seem to be yet another case of looking for a mythical reason to rationalize a fuming, volcanic anger that has other, much more psychological causes.  The truth is often bitterly inconvenient to dogmatists

(And you lefties... you have some of your own!)

== Political Miscellany ==

Here is a quickie interview on my local NPR station in which I did some rapid blather about taxes and pyramids and diamonds and oligarchy and historical perspective.  Stuff you’ve all heard from me before, but redolent and relevant this year.

An interesting piece of film-polemic. Biased but very telling. Asking anti-abortion demonstrators if making it illegal should then send women to jail.

A fascinating story about re-shoring or in-sourcing of manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.  - claimed to be a growing and significant trend.

Courts ruled that GPS trackers on cars require a warrant. FBI turned off 3000 GPS trackers currently in use, and now has to apply for permission to turn them back on, in order to find them, in order to remove them.

AND FINALLY: More on high frequency trading (HFT). In recent postings I gave five different reasons why they infernal mutation of capitalism threatens to destroy the very same capital markets that brought it into being. Now here’s another: "Sometimes high-frequency traders don't even profit from the trade itself. They buy and sell shares at the same price and make money by sending large orders through the exchanges. NYSE, Nasdaq and others want to attract the most traders. So they offer rebates of 20 to 32 cents per 100 shares to traders who send in large orders. On the electronic exchange NYSE Arca, traders who can move 35 million shares pocket a quick $112,000".

Yeesh. If there were one tax we desperately need, it is this one.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who is Insulting the Middle Class?

A deep irony, underlying our political season, is that the U.S. middle class...the biggest victims of the first decade of this century, are also being slandered relentlessly. The ongoing campaign of propaganda that democracy can't work and we should turn to oligarchy has many threads. May I take you on a tour of some of the nastiest and most repulsive component memes?

One of the oldest is a nostrum that under a democracy the people will inevitably drain the public treasury by demanding more spending than taxes. The theory is that citizens who get more than they pay for will vote for politicians who promise to increase spending.

TYTLERCALUMNYThis is often called the “Largesse Canard” -- an outright fantasy that was first fabricated by Plato, in order to demean the Athenian democracy, and that more recently was expressed in an oft-quoted aphorism, supposedly by Alexander Tytler: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

“Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.”

This smugly cynical assertion has been circulated widely among the dour Rothbardians and Randites who dominate today's warped version of the libertarian movement....

...and it is a damned lie.

Remember the 1990s?  When Bill Clinton ran budget surpluses and wanted to spend the black ink buying down  public debt, instead of frittering it on short term “largesse”?  Nearly all of his support came from the middle class. By huge majorities, those working Americans polled their preference for debt buy-down. So why did it instead get flushed down the toilet of Supply-Side (voodoo) tax gifts for the rich?

Because (duh) the aristocracy - supposedly wise and far-seeing - rationalized a demand for instant gratification, instead of reduced debt which (ironically) would have lowered commercial borrowing costs overall and led to the very scenario that they were supposed to be after in the first place! In other words, U.S. federal debt pay-down would have engendered far more new business activity than opening our veins for the wide-open maws of plutocrat vampires.

History shows that it is always the aristocracy that behaves in spendthrift ways, not the middle class.  (Oh but they do like to invest lavishly in “think tanks” and media empires, ordering them to spread calumnies against citizenship. Propaganda like the Largesse Canard.)

Now a new twist. Dean P. Lacy, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College, has identified a theme in American politics over the last generation. Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates. And Professor Lacy found that the pattern could not be explained by demographics or social issues." See a map showing the geography of government benefits.

The full article is six pages, a typical New York Times in-depth Sunday magazine drill-down.

Seriously, read up on this.  You need to be armed against these insults to the people who actually create the wealth in our civilization.


Collected articles on The Economy: Past, Present and Future

Friday, March 23, 2012

Save Cato from the Kochs? Should we care?

Much in the news is an effort by the Koch brothers - coal barons David and Charles - to seize complete control over the Cato Institute, which has long touted itself as the leading libertarian think tank in the United States.  Staffers and fellows at Cato have been beating the drums of insurrection, calling for support and funds to stave off this blatant takeover by extreme-right oligarchs.  And many - even liberal intellectuals - have come flocking to the cause, offering support.

Is this just a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend?”  Or are there layers beneath layers?  Does it even matter?

First: fair warning.  Though I oft call myself "a type of libertarian," I'm not today's typical variety.  Yes, I tout Adam Smith widely and feel we'd all benefit - especially liberals - from re-immersion in the profound common sense of "the First Liberal."  Moreover, I am the only sci fi author who ever keynoted part of a political party's convention - the Libertarian Party - at which half the audience gave me a standing ovation, defending me from being lynched by the other half! (The latter, Rand-Rothbard half has - alas - taken over the movement, with calamitous consequences.)  Have a look at how libertarians might save their cause... plus some fresh ways that they - and liberals and conservatives - might view the political landscape.

But back to this attempted putsch to take over the Cato Institute, and the "brave resistance of its scholars."

== Who are the villains? ==

We start with the most blatant fact - that the Koch brothers, together with Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Grover Norquist and Prince Waleed, have been core promulgators of America’s current, lobotomizing Civil War, which has demolished the nation's traditional notions of negotiated pragmatism.  A big part of this has been the anti-future, relentless War on Science.

As their frenzy to degrade science metastacized, it turned into a campaign against every “smartypants caste” or knowledge profession in American life. Their other goal - destruction of the U.S. Civil Service - would then leave just one elite standing. The same elite that crushed liberty and markets in every other culture for 6000 years.  The same oligarchic elite that Adam Smith publicly despised in Wealth of Nations, calling it the  basic enemy of true capitalism and the age-old oppressor of mankind.

The damage that these half dozen men - plus a few dozen more - have done both to the people of the United States and to Pax Americana is too spectacularly consistent to have been anything but deliberate.

Ah, but having said that, is the Cato Institute really worth getting in a froth over?  I consulted and wrote for them a few times, back in the last century, before I came to see how shallow was their commitment to Smithian libertarianism or the fundamental goal of encouraging creative competition in society. In fact, parsing down their messages, we find that encouraging creative-competition is the very last thing on their minds.

Ignoring those 6000 years, during which markets were always destroyed by oligarchic cliques, Cato helped to spread the modern mythology that freedom is all-and-entirely about idolatry of unlimited private property.  Government and only government is inherently evil, anti-market or anti-liberty.  If you point to history... any history at all... or to the actual words of Adam Smith, they change the subject with stunning alacrity and truly awesome verbal agility.

In other words, the oligarchic right never had better whores than the intellectual courtesans at Cato.  Polysyllabic prostitutes eager to twist their tongues around fresh rationalizations for a new feudalism.

Read the article. Scan what percentage of Cato’s donors and board members ever gave to genuinely libertarian causes, as opposed to a Republican Party fast spiraling into aristocratism and know-nothing, anti-intellectual populism.

== Example: The "case" for privatizing Social Security ==

Take Cato’s relentless campaign to privatize Social Security. Funny thing about that. Both times that it came near passage... in the late nineties and 2005... it would have dumped 100 million naive sheep into the stock market just in time to re-inflate a failing valuation bubble, letting oligarchs dump half a trillion dollars in unwanted shares onto “greater fools.”

On both occasions, within a few years, most Americans' portfolio values would have been slashed in half.  (And maybe it should have happened!  The Democrats should not have prevented it.  The ensuing turmoil and anger - perhaps reaching French Revolution levels - might have “solved the oligarchy problem" for a generation. A bit (a lot) more severely than I'd prefer.  But at least there'd be no debilitating, lobotomizing, murdochian "culture war" by now.)

Let’s be plain.  The role model for this “privatization” (of social security) was the selling off of Russian state assets after the fall of communism, in which the shares distributed to each Russian citizen soon were snapped up by a few dozen savvy insiders who became today’s famous Moscow Oligarchs. Some of the richest plutocrats in the world arose from insider manipulation of the unwisely executed privatization of state assets... and NOT the creative-competitive delivery of innovative goods and services.  If you call such monopolist-moguls "capitalists" who deserve their vast lucre, then you add to the spinning in Adam Smith's grave.

And make no mistake, this timing was no coincidence.  The "let's privatize social security!" movement only gained its full head of steam... propelled by the Kochs and other eager-funders... after they witnessed how well things went over in Russia.  It was their role model. And Cato led the charge.

Okay, so now we should weep and gnash our teeth, because these guys now face final takeover by the Kochs, who effectively owned their brothel already and are now simply ending the pretense of independence? The hypocrisy? Because the dukes' court apologists might now have to drop the play-act... and admit - like Blanche Dubois - that their gentlemen callers actually owned them, all along?

Don't bother, fellows.  Try this instead. Go out into the market you claim to love, and get actual jobs, delivering goods and services.

Weep for Cato. Crocodile tears.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Space-Launch Mass Drivers and von Neumann machines: Science meets Science Fiction

The notion of gun-propelled launch goes back to Jules Verne. Such Mass Drivers have been envisioned in numerous Sci Fi tales, including Earthlight, by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Heart of the Comet by Benford & Brin. We've also seen them portrayed in Buck Rogers, Babylon 5 and Halo. Now, two researchers propose that a space-capable mass driver may be feasible. Startram would act as an electromagnetic catapult, using maglev technology, to accelerate and launch spacecraft into orbit, without using rockets or propellant. James Powell and George Maise take a highly optimistic view, claiming that a system capable of launching payload into orbit for less than $40/kg could be built using existing technology—if we were to gather substantial international support.

Sloping a launcher along the western face of Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador or Mt. Kenya would allow a very profitable/cheap launch system for cargo. But see the concept for a 1200 km long version (to spread out the g-load) for passengers! And yes, we studied stuff like this long ago, back when I worked at CalSpace.

A slanted mass drive along Chimborazo (and yes it needs to be near the equator) would need "super-capacitor" surge capability, far exceeding the ability of nuclear plants to deliver in real time. But here's how you do it:

You have several nuclear power plants--but their main job is to raise/pump water to several big/high artificial lakes. When you fire, you DRAIN those lakes through many-many-many rapid tubes to standard hydro-power turbines. The nukes are just for steady replenishment of the lakes.

This is highly do-able with existing tech. Especially if you have whirling tether grabbers awaiting in low earth orbit. These could snag the cargoes and give them circularization momentum... or else act as electrodynamic tugs from there.  (To learn the principles involved, see my short story Tank Farm Dynamo.)

Hence, the cargoes might not even have to take along the fuel to circularize and the tethers themselves use solar power to replenish the donated momentum. Again, there's nothing to research... just develop. We could be doing it within 5-10 years.

==Autofacs and von Neumann Machines==

Philip K. Dick’s 1955 post-apocalyptic story, Autofac, short for Automatic Factories, was one of the earliest fictional portrayals of nanotechnology and self-replicating machines – an example of von Neumann probes, which he called “Universal Assemblers.” Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson both argued that the reason we have observed no self-reproducing probes in the universe is because the probes would spread like a cancer; building such probes would be suicidal to their creators and destructive to any species they encounter.

Indeed, Dick’s Autofac is set after war has devastated much of Earth; robotic autofacs scavenge and monopolize the planet’s remaining resources (“We mere people come second.”), to build devices that humans no longer need. Humans have lost the ability to communicate with or control the autofacs, as they continue their relentless autonomous activity: “Maybe some of them are geared to escape velocity. That would be neat – autofac networks throughout the universe.” Would it really? My next novel, Existence, will offer a new take on some of these probes…

==Terminator Goggles==

Augmented Reality is soon to arrive: Google Goggles are smart glasses with heads-up display that will stream in real time to a screen in your field of view, providing GPS, facial recognition, web info, entertainment (and ads)—operated by voice control and/or head motions. Image recognition tech will overlay names of colleagues or buildings, background on historic landmarks or artwork, restaurant or movie reviews. Will all this expand soon (as I portray in a coming novel) to plaster everyone on the street with nametags? Perhaps credibility ratings ... or the opinions and "reviews" of past dates or spouses?

==And more Science Fiction==

An article about our ongoing efforts to use science fiction as a tool for teaching and stimulating bright minds -- Reading for the Future -- has been published in the December 2011 issue of VOYA (the magazine for young adult librarians).  It's a worthy effort that will continue at this year's World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, next August. Read about how Sci Fi can help save the next generation and civilization! Tell teachers and librarians. And consider helping. Also see a collection of resources for using Science Fiction in the classroom.

Isaac Asimov identified three basic types of science fiction scenarios: What if, If only and If this goes on…. Paul Di Filippo has written - in a cover piece for Salon - a fascinating review of two recent sci fi novels exploring Big Ideas of the ‘What if’ category. In Arctic Rising, Tobias Buckell spins a massive geoengineering project to counter climate change. Meanwhile Matt Ruff’s The Mirage is an alternate history in which America is a backward, fundamentalist nation, breeding terrorists responsible for destroying the World Trade Towers of Baghdad…Well worth a look.

And now Elon Musk, of SpaceX, claims that within ten years, he will be able to send passengers to Mars (and back!) for $500,000. Science or science fiction?  Only a fool would bet against Elon.  So I might as well sign on!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Total Information Awareness and Crime Reporting Apps

== From the Transparency Front ==

Total Information Awareness?   NSA (the National Security Agency) is building a mammoth electronic spy center in Utah. The $2 billion Utah Data Center, to be completed by Sept. 2013, will be five times the size of the US Capitol. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher and analyze torrents of information flowing through the world’s communications databases— with an ability to handle yottabytes of data. Much of it international but a fair amount obtained by sifting intra-U.S. phone and email traffic.

What does this have to do with transparency and freedom and all that?

Only this.

Our protectors of online liberty, ranging from the ACLU and EFF and Privacy NGOs all the way to European Privacy Bureaucrats, are all very well-meaning - but clueless if they think laws, regulations and procedures will prevent elites (over the long run) from seeing anything that they want to see, or knowing whatever is within reach to know. Why? It's simple and basic. We’re monkeys!  And a powerful monkey will not let you prevent him from seeing. Name one nation in all of human history where the elites allowed this to happen.  One.

On the other hand, we can prevent the mighty from becoming tyrants by looking back!  If we master the arts of sousveillance or watching the watchers, then no matter what they know about us, there will be limits to what they can do to us.

The chilling thing about the new NSA facility is not how much better it will let government “protectors” see, in order to better protect us.  The scary thing is that there won’t be officers of a uniformed and independent Inspectorate, roaming the halls on our behalf, making sure that protection is the only thing going on.  Or better yet, dozens of randomly chosen citizens (with security clearance) whose universal-access badges give them the right to poke their heads in any door and ask any question.

Inconvenient?  Irksome?  Will the protectors complain?  Tough. We need to demand that price! In exchange for their omniscience, they must surrender any chance of omnipotence, by letting us wrap them in chains of accountability. A chain we can yank, to remind our watchdog THAT he is a dog... lest he start thinking like a wolf.

==An App for Reporting Crime==

Want to report a crime, terrorist alert…or just snitch on your neighbors? The new Suspicious Activity Reporting Application, a crime-reporting app for your Smartphone, lets you snap a pic, and anonymously voice your suspicions to authorities. Developed by the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security, the free app is available through Itunes. “The longer you wait the less accurate eyewitness information becomes and evidence fades,” said Thom Kirk, Director of the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center. “Enabling the information to be sent at the time the activity is taking place will not only improve the accuracy of the report, but also improve the ability of the authorities to respond quickly.”

Is this an aid to community policing or a way to harass your neighbors; a powerful tool against terrorism or the next step toward Big Brother?

Or rather... clearly if we all have this, then Big Brother becomes impossible!  But (as I explore in The Transparent Society) might this lead to a nation and world filled with oppressive little brothers?  With nosy neighbors bullying each other, or tyranny by a perfectly democratic 51%?  I show good reasons to believe we may evade this pitfall too!  But not if we remain mired in civil war.

== Sci-Tech Miscellany ==

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding Boston Dynamics’ development of a prototype robot called the Cheetah. (Recall Boston’s incredible robot donkey... and the satires it inspired?) The cat-like bot managed to gallop 18 mph on a treadmill, setting a new land speed record for legged robots. (The previous record: 13.1 mph, set at MIT in 1989.) The company has a prototype human-like robot in the works called the Atlas that can walk upright and use its hands for balance while squeezing through narrow passages on surveillance or emergency rescue missions.

Smart lighting: Philips has a system being widely used all over the world now with some statistics to back it up.  They have just one camera in each light, facing straight down, with the light around the camera (concentric). The result is a computer vision system with mesh-based computing that estimates the number of pedestrians, cyclists, etc., and their speed and direction of movement, and predictively adjusts the light outputs on all the lights, to optimize for the activity detected by the vision system. One result is a 75% reduction in energy usage with no noticeable reduction in light output.

Ah, but will all lamps on public streets and areas then come equipped with cameras?  (As I already portrayed in EXISTENCE.) Oh, what they'll see... and report.

Meanwhile.... more sci-tech miscellany! 

A radical Japanese biplane design flies supersonic airspeeds without the sonic boom. Misoru (sky in Japanese) uses two wings to reflect shock waves back at each other, zeroing out the pressure shockwaves.

NASA has released a mosaic of images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

A gorgeous visualization of the Universe – dark matter and all.

== The Ideal Language for Human Speech? ==

In our increasingly interconnected, global economy, we will need to communicate effectively with the rest of the world. What is the best language for this generation to learn? By the numbers, Mandarin Chinese seems an obvious choice. Spanish or Japanese may be essential for international business. We will also need more interpreters of Arabic... A fascinating question, as humanity is busy re-erecting the Tower of Babel.

Of course English is today's lingua franca (an ironic term) for business and science.  But soon, we'll all carry translation devices that will make the question at least somewhat moot.  So what is my long term answer to this question, in my role as a science fiction author? Over the long haul... my candidate?

Hawaiian.   Really.  In a hundred years, translation and computer assistance will be automatic/invisible, conveying both surface meanings and underlying gloss and nuance.  Meaning will become separated somewhat from the sonic specifics, or even which language has the most speakers or largest vocabulary or greatest catalogue of literature. Hence, we'll choose the language to come out of our physical mouths by one criterion only.

Beauty. The sounds, themselves.  And by that token, there is only one truly beautiful language.  You cannot say anything in Hawaiian without it sounding just perfect. Any man or woman would choose a Hawaiian-sounding name. It's what our descendants will speak, whether to each other or to machines or to aliens, even to dolphins.


==Scientific nomenclature?==

Okay so is YOUR last name a piece of scientific nomenclature? "B. mori fibers were made up of two brins of irregular shape embedded in a proteinaceous coating. Failure occurred by fracture of the brins, whose fracture surface presented a fine globular structure corresponding to the ends of the nanofibrils of 1–2 lm in length and 100 nm in diameter, which form the B. mori silk brins according to the analysis of the brins by atomic force microscopy."

== And finally... two related items... 

Disphoria, Normopathy, and Aporia… Ten Psychologica states you’ve never heard of…and when you experienced them.

And,,, The best bottled water ad, ever?  Well.  It ain't Hawaiian.  But Kamehameha would've liked it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Contemplating Civilization: its rise, fall, rebuilding... and future

Go read one of the most important books in the past twenty years, Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny: " can capture history's basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interactions" and "social structures evolve that realize this rich potential -- that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth."

 Our entire Enlightenment Experiment has been about positive sum games. Open-competitive Economic Markets, Science, Democracy… these are all examples of systems set up to harness competition and produce positive sum results for all.

See my article, The Unlikeliness of a Zero Sum Society.

Alas, there are forces in human nature that always trend toward ruination of such systems. Winners tend not to want to compete as hard, next time, so they use their wealth and power to cheat! It is called oligarchy; the very thing that wrecked markets and democracy and science in all past cultures. Every single last one of them.

Except ours... but not without a struggle in every generation. Today, capitalism isn’t the enemy; it is the #1 victim of an ongoing attempted coup by oligarchs - who are only doing what humans are programmed to do, when tempted by feudal privilege.

 If liberals would only read the "First Liberal" -- Adam Smith -- and realize this, they might drop both the left and right and stand up for the balanced market that emphasizes small business, startups and brash-competitive creativity, instead of monopoly, corporatism, state-paternalism and aristocracy.

Heck, if our ancestors could stand up and save the Enlightenment during their crises… so can we.

Then take a look at Niall Ferguson's new book Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Ferguson appraises some of the reasons that civilizations fail, a topic that Jared Diamond surveyed (with a bit too obsessive a focus only on environmental causes) in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed... and that I take a Big Perspective on, in my next novel, Existence.

In his article, Western Civilization:Decline or Fall?, Ferguson describes how he sees our way out of a "decline of the west:"

"What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anti-competitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic."

In other words, break free of the hobbling/crippling, oversimplifying metaphors like "left-vs-right" - a curse bequeathed on all thinking, by the French Revolution - and get back to acting like intrepid grownups again.

==Rebuilding Civilization==

Open Source Ecology: Following the DIY "maker" trend, one ad-hoc group is producing open source modular plans to the 50 different industrial machines necessary to build a civilization -- or at least provide a self-sustaining village with basic comforts. The basic fifty include: backhoe, bulldozer, baler, wind turbine, cement mixer, electric motor, steam engine, dairy milker, baker oven, aluminum extractor from clay, and bioplastic extruder, among others. The more complicated ones build upon the simpler ones. In northern Missouri, they have used their compressed brick press and tractor to build a manufacturing facility to construct more models.

The founder, Marchin Jabukowski (TED Senior Fellow) is a Physics Ph.D., who dropped out to work on this project. His orientation is post-scarcity society rather than disaster, but if one were wanting to create a generalized resiliency rather than prepare for specific movie scenario plots, it would be a good place to start. See his TED talk: Open Sourced Blueprints for Civilization.

See the WaterWheel, a stunningly simple innovation that could improve lives in the developing world --  particularly for rural women who may spend hours trekking and carrying water in jugs back to their villages. This is an invention that deserves funding to spread. See the website, Wello.

And now, Open Source Ecology is teaming with WikiSpeed to build an open source, modular, configurable electric car with high fuel efficiency that meets U.S. safety standards.

==Rebuild Everything==

Seems related to a TV series I was pitching for some years, to start with contestants wearing loin cloths in the desert, challenge them to make stone tools, then leather, and eventually smelt metal, etc.  The show?  REBUILD EVERYTHING!  Picture "Survivor" meets "The 1900 House" meets "Junkyard Wars"... then throw in lots of fascinating Discovery Channel riffs... along with a dash of "The Flintstones". Include some tasty inter-tribal rivalry, and add a sensation that viewers are actually learning something of value, becoming a little more capable and knowing about their own culture.

REBUILDEVERYTHINGIn the ultimate challenge, competitive teams race each other, starting from scratch to rebuild civilization! Instead of just surviving, they must chip flint, make spears and arrows and traps, stitch clothing from hides (no animals will be killed directly by the show). Once the Stone Age has been conquered, contestants move on to re-invent pottery, weaving and agriculture -- then mining and smithing copper ore, then bronze, iron and so on. Each next step must be taken by using technologies achieved at the previous level.

Once they succeed at a task, it is assumed that their “civilization” (their team) has that technology from then on. They will be provided any tools they require from that level, in order to attempt the next.

Envision season four ending with them chugging up-river on a built-from scratch steamboat, prospecting for ores to make the first TV....

==Threats to Civilization==

In EXISTENCE I portray the rich buying up small island nations that are doomed by rising tides, then building stilt cities on those nations, who already have legal international sovereignty.  Now see the beginnings: leaders of the Pacific archipelago Kiribati are considering moving the entire population to Fiji, as their islands are threatened by rising ocean levels. When you see stilts rising over there, know that I told you first.

We have overseen the largest wealth re-allocation in history: The US has transferred 7 TRILLION dollars to Middle Eastern nations in exchange for oil.  Ponder that. And the bosom pals of middle-eastern potentates who ran the US for many years, undermining all efforts to get off of the oil teat.

Now T. Boone Pickens is back touting natural gas... of which North America apparently has a vast supply... as a way to break that habit.  Sure it is still fossil/carbon fuel (though better and cleaner than oil).  But it might serve as our “bridge” in order to both do better and keep some of our money, to invest in the true solution technologies of the future.  Pickens will stand to make big bucks if we go along with his plan.

But at least we’d know what we are buying - a deal that makes sense, unlike the total sellout of our children that happened in the first decade of this century.

==See more articles on Enlightenment Civilization: Looking Forward not Back

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Eavesdropping, Surveillance and Looking Back

==From the Privacy Front==

Starting our potpourri of sci-tech-soc news: Kinect is watching you! People choose to post personal information on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. However, game platforms like Microsoft's Kinect, continuously observe your nonverbal behavior, capturing every move you make. Subtle facial movements and gestures may seem harmless to share with others, but the way you move is frequently even more revealing than what you say. Researchers have used the Kinect to gather data to diagnose symptoms of ADHD; advertising companies may acquire such data to fine tune commercials.

Look back to watch those who are watching you! Collusion is an experimental add-on for Firefox that allows you to see any third parties that are tracking your movements across the Web. In real time, it visualizes the data as a spider-web of interactions between companies and other trackers. Mozilla is developing Collusion, with support form The Ford Foundation, to enable users to not only see who is tracking them across the Web, but also to turn that tracking off when they choose. You will be able to opt out of sharing your personal data with a global database.

We seem to be - very gradually - winning the most crucial civil liberties issue of our time.  “An Illinois court declared the state's controversial eavesdropping law unconstitutional--opening the recording of encounters with police.” This case is especially important because Illinois politicians made it a matter of explicitly aggressive anti citizen law. “Illinois' eavesdropping statute, one of the strictest in the nation, makes it a felony to record any conversation without the consent of all parties. It carries stiffer sentences — of up to 15 years in prison — if a police officer or court official is recorded without his or her knowledge”  Now, one can understand their reasoning.  Given that nearly all of the last 5 or so Illinois governors have gone to prison and most Illinois pols are deathly afraid of wiretaps, having citizens free to catch corruption terrifies them.  But they need to understand.  This will not stand.   

==Disputation Is Central==

I’ve long promoted the notion of “disputation arenas” or ritualized combat for ideas, as one major way the Web could finally pay off in vital, grand scale ways, doing for that realm what markets do for products and services and science does for truth. In fact, for a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit."   Also available on Kindle.

This was a core concept in my “Eon Proposal” for several dozen ways to improve our problem-solving skills in times of crisis. Now it appears that Google is taking a step toward bringing disputation to life, with its Hangout Series:  “Versus…will give you the chance to question people who are close to the decisions being made on topical issues, on both sides of the debate. Real-time voting on the channel will also let the speakers know how their arguments are resonating with viewers."

The first debate will focus on the topic of the War on Drugs and will feature the opinions of a wide variety of celebrities, politicians and tycoons...  

==Hackers and Cyberpunks==

Even back in the 1990s, while writing The Transparent Society, I opined that most of today’s romantic “cypherpunks” or hackers - who proclaim themselves to be righteous, brave and sophisticated anarchists or revolutionaries against Big Brother - generally show astonishing naivete and ignorance over even the basics that underground movements understood, going back to anti-Nazi or anti-Soviet resistance, or the cat-and-mouse games versus Czarist secret police, or other legendary struggles going back to Sumer and Babylon. Of the twenty or so fundamental techniques used by oppressive regimes to staunch rebel movements, only three or four are thwarted at all by secret coding and other crypto techniques. Most of the hackers I’ve met seem to be completely unaware of the others, or the relevance of actual history... or else appear to be blithely reliant upon the fact that they don’t live under Big Brother at all. The fact that they can rely on news media, lawyers, and civilized law to protect their persons and families.

That is not to say we might’n’t someday need to resist a genuine Big Brother regime!  History shows that the odds are always against enlightenment, freedom-based societies. To some extent, the romantic Suspicion of Authority (SoA) expressed by cypher-hackers... and libertarians and liberal anti-corporatists... is deeply based and justified.  We are now experiencing an attempted oligarchic putsch like nothing seen since the 1890s. Indeed, I do not mind supremely skilled young geniuses honing useful cyber arts, prowling and poking a bit and becoming capable at skulking through the mazes of power... even if those methods are still less-than-crucial in a society that remains mostly lawful and accountable. Because it might cease to be so! We may need such skillful Neuromancer-types someday. And so, I am not offended by non-harmful “fooling around” with backdoors and cracking and such. Activities that really should be tolerated to some extent. (Indeed, they are! If no money or harm-doing was involved, those who are caught often thereupon face... job offers. (Shudder.))

But here’s the ultimate irony. Those who are best at this craft aren’t preening in public, nor pulling indignant-posturing stunts, attracting the attention of law-enforcement. Want recent evidence? See the latest example, as one of the most “legendary” of the latest round of extroverted hackers was caught fairly easily, then spent months ratting out his comrades.  These aren’t the adults in their movement.  The grownups are keeping low profiles, acting as citizens... while honing their craft quietly, against the day we all might desperately turn to them.

Moreover, just like us, they actually hope such a day will never come.

==Science Snippets==

Earthshine reveals how to analyze exoplanets. 

The biggest obstacle to studying distant planets? Separating their weak light from the blinding photon-torrents pouring out of their nearby suns. A possible method has been suggested to  - "capitalize on a notable difference between light that is reflected off a planet and light that is emitted by a star: the former is often polarized, whereas the latter is not. To demonstrate the enhanced amounts of information embedded in polarized light, Michael Sterzik, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory in Santiago, Chile, looked for biosignatures in Earthshine — the sunlight that’s been reflected off of Earth to the dark portion of the Moon’s face and then back to our planet. “The state of polarization contains a lot of information that hasn’t been used very often,” Sterzik says. Once the planetary component is thus separated, it can be analyzed for spectral components like water, methane, or even chlorophyll.

Hm... actually, this sounds like reason to call up my old UCSD physics Masters Thesis.  While my doctorate provided the modern explanation for comets (covered in a dusty, insulating layer), the earlier work was an advance in the theoretical treatment of polarized light passing through inhomogeneous, unevenly absorbing media... in other words, planetary atmospheres.  

Under certain special circumstances, quantum systems can remain coherent over much greater timescales and distances than conventional quantum thinking expects. Moreover, it appears that that life exploits this process in a way that explains the recent observations from quantum biologists.

Quantum biology you ask? Whassat? The two most famous examples are in bird navigation, where the quantum zeno effect seems to help determine the direction of the Earth's magnetic field, and in photosynthesis, where the way energy passes across giant protein matrices seems to depend on long-lasting quantum coherence.

And now something nifty: a DIY gadget shines different colors of light on a surface depending on its temperature, helping to show where more insulation is needed in a room.  Just the beginning of citizen empowerment through sensortech!

==And Finally== 

Chuckle at this scientifically modified  pastiche of the Last Supper.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Unscientific America -- Denying Science at Our Peril

Increasingly, scientific consensus is failing to influence public policy. Facts, statistics and data appear insufficient to change highly politicized minds... and science has started scrutinizing why.

Alas now, this topic inevitably devolves down to our screwy American politics. And while (as I avow repeatedly) every political wing has its anti-science flakes, growing mountains of evidence suggest that one wing has gone especially frenzied in an anti-scientific snit. Or else (as that wing contends) science itself has become corrupted, top to bottom, rendering "evidence" suspect or moot. Let's examine both possibilities.

Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, has a new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don't Believe in Science, in which he describes how firmly some of our neighbors - even moderately well-educated ones - now cling to aphorisms, assertions and just-so stories in order to clutch a politically motivated view - or mis-view - of scientific data.  Misinformation persists – and propagates – about the dangers of vaccinations, the hazards of nuclear energy, the credibility of creation vs. evolution, and the preponderance of data supporting global warming. In case after politically-redolent case, we find that evidence has a limited power to persuade on hot button issues where deep emotions are involved.

I agree with Mooney that this delusion-conviction effect has done grievous harm to our once-scientific and rational nation. And anyone would have to be deaf, blind, and in hysterical denial not to see these trends operating, in tsunami proportions, among our Republican neighbors.

Still, let’s be fair. There are cases of conviction-delusion on the left, as well. Just look at some fantastically illogical purist stances over the nature-vs-nurture argument, in which leftists hew to absolutist positions based entirely on what is politically correct and dogmatically convenient, never bothering to notice that they claim human behaviors are completely uncontrolled by biology... except when they are completely controlled by biology.

No amount of evidence can alter the way fervent believers want the world to be. Another example, the tense alliance between liberals and leftists  crumbles over issues like the careful restart of nuclear energy, something the liberals are now willing to cautiously resume.

The key difference is not whether such delusionally subjective-selective perception occurs on both political extremes - it does. No, what should matter to us all is how thoroughly the reflexive-denialists on one side control an entire movement, political party and power complex.... and ran the entire country... off a cliff. Meanwhile, the subjectivity junkies on the other side are marginalized (if loud.)

Mooney describes in detail how bad it is - that millions of our neighbors deem facts to be malleably ignorable. Though soundly refuted by scientific studies, angry parents continue to believe their children acquired autism through vaccinations: "Where do they get their 'science' from? From the Internet, celebrities, other frantic-angry parents, and a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, all of which forms a self-reinforcing echo chamber of misinformation," writes Mooney, noting that for every five hours of cable news, just one minute is devoted to science. In 2009, 15 year old U.S. students ranked 17th out of 34 developed countries in science. A firm foundation in science is fundamental to modern citizenship as well as our ability to innovate and succeed in a global economy.

In fact, the “war on science” has ballooned long past any mere attack upon the credibility of researchers and professors.  It now manifests as a general “war on all knowledge castes” -- including teachers, economists, journalists, civil servants, medical doctors, skilled labor, judges, diplomats... everyone (in other words) who actually knows a lot. All are routinely attacked on you-know-which-murdochian-"news"-network.

Science itself is turning attention to this problem and things are not looking good.  According to one study (via Mooney): “The result was stunning and alarming. The standard view that knowing more science, or being better at mathematical reasoning, ought to make you more accepting of mainstream climate science simply crashed and burned.” It was found that conservatives who knew more tended to dig in their heels against new facts or budging their views, using what they already knew as bulwarks against changing their minds. But this did not hold for the other side. Educated liberals who were pre-disposed to be suspicious toward nuclear power nevertheless were adaptable when shown clear scientific data assuaging their fears. (I would love to see this experiment done on liberals re: nature-vs-nurture issues!)

Mooney concludes that even education fails to serve as “antidote to politically biased reasoning.”

Take a look at this excerpt of Mooney's latest book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality (due out in April). It shows that our current Culture War is not about left vs right at all.  It is about two very different sets of personalities and worldviews.

See also: The Case for a Scientific Nation

== It's not all bad news ==

Oh, heck, want a positive note? It may be possible to overcome this sickness, enflamed deliberately by Roger Ailes and his crew. Stanford Prof. James Fishkin and his colleagues ran an experiment in which a full spectrum of Californians were brought together and asked to soberly deliberate on state problems, negotiating a range of solutions. With their minds focused by sober responsibility, rabid partisans suddenly displayed flexibility, curiosity, willingness to learn and ... (yes even the Republicans)... a readiness to negotiate with their opposing neighbors, without calling them satanic.

Fishkin and his colleague, Bruce Ackerman, call for a new holiday for each Presidential election year, Deliberation Day (to supplement Presidents' Day) when "people throughout the country will meet in public spaces and engage in structured debates about issues..." to revitalize a spirit of open communication and negotiation in democracy.

== But the bad is still plenty bad ==

All too often politicians use bad science to justify their political agenda. Both right and left have favorite conspiracy theories about Global Climate Change (which I've discussed in Climate Skeptics and Climate Deniers). On global warming, Rick Santorum said, "I for one never bought the hoax."  But consider…which is more likely: A massive conspiracy involving 90% of scientists worldwide -- or oil companies spending vast sums to sway opinion, and influence public policy to protect their profits? Decide for yourself.

In any case, most of the methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions involve increasing our energy efficiency and stimulating development of new forms of energy -- things we ought to be doing anyway to remain competitive and current in an ever-changing global economy.

Oh, please... you Brits over there... nail those guys who have done so much harm to America. Whose family name reminds one of the underground-dwelling cannibals of Wells's novel The Time Machine.

==Campaign Finance: Follow the Money==
Talking Points Memo
Compare numbers of campaign donations under $200 and those over $200 between Obama, Paul and Romney. Who has a broad range of support? Who is the populist candidate?  A fascinating comparison... especially when you add in super-pacs, whose average contributors (for Romney) have been in the $100,000 range.  Citizens United, anyone?

Do you think we’ve been exaggerating the degree that the super-uber-rich are buying influence in politics?  Just one small group of immensely wealthy GOP donors...almost all of whom attend twice-yearly secret meetings hosted by the billionaire Koch Brothers -- have already sent gushers of cash to Super-Pacs supporting Romney, Gingrich and even Ron Paul. We’re talking upwards of One Hundred Million Dollars... and it is only March.  Tell me... is there any red line that even your fox-crazy uncle must decide is intolerable?  Can we stop this?

WhoWhatWhy reports that that Saudi prince Walid bin Talal - Rupert Murdoch's top partner at Fox - has invested heavily in Twitter.  An event coinciding with Twitter's recent announcement that it would cooperate with censorship of any content deemed "illegal" in any country, whatsoever.  WhoWhatWhy can get a bit "over-eager" but these facts speak for themselves.

Iceland shows the way. If the European (and American) debt crises seem endless, with Big Banks the only relentless winners, then read up about Iceland, given up for dead after their foolish bankers (who called themselves “geniuses”) leveraged the country into tsunamis of red ink.  What this article doesn’t talk about is the “gender aspect”.  In effect,, the women of Iceland simply took over.  Grabbed the reins of politics and finance out of the hands of their “genius” husbands and sent them back to the fishing boats, where they belonged.

Following those rumors of a brokered GOP convention?  A lot of simmering talk about drafting... Jeb Bush.  This survey of Bush Family "coincidences" may be a little biased... but the facts do speak.