Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Potpourri of Questions from Reddit

Yesterday I did a grueling 8 hour Reddit AMA: Ask Me Anything, archived here.  Shall I go ahead and post some of the questions and my answers?

What advancement that will happen within our lifetimes do you most look forward to? Why?

Reddit-AMAI talk to a lot of the "Singularity" guys and I get to be the grouch toward their expectations of looming imminent immortality. Not that there won't be advances; I hope for some! But I think the human enlightenment projected is vastly more important than any one person's greedy clutch at life extension! Hence, what I yearn for is improvements in PROCESS. The Enlightenment processes of markets and democracy and science have been spectacular! Guys like Clay Shirky claim the Web is making us hugely smarter in real time. But ....  I don't see that. There are many tools still missing and lobotomizing conversation to 140 words won't do it.

I show some of those possible improvements... in EXISTENCE!

The web transcendentalists are one side, then you get cyber-cynics like Nicholas Carr. You might like my article showing what both sides miss:  My Salon Magazine feature comparing the technology pessimists to those who think the Internet is turning us into gods: Is the Web Helping Us Evolve?

What advancements have the potential to change everything?
  • Better online methods of discourse
  • Brain/intelligence augmentation
  • Artificial Intelligence... assuming we prevent it from emerging from predatory high frequency stock trading programs (if it does we are so screwed; and yes I know you are reading this, Goldman-Sachs Pouncer 234s!)
  • Getting all to realize that self-righteous indignation is a real, bona fide drug-high self-doped addiction! One that we baby boomers are expert at!
What can we citizens do, to overcome governmental resistance to transparency? The issue ends up buried under all the other partisan concerns -- yet every aspect of government would be so much better if transparent. How can we overcome the static friction and get the ball rolling?

TransparentSocietyYou expect the mighty to willingly let themselves be kept accountable? Look at the last 6000 years. We humans (especially when powerful) always come up with reasons why WE (and our friends) need privacy while our foes need accountability.

Those 6000 years show how obstinate the problem is, but they also show reasons for optimism! The Enlightenment's 250 year experiment has been amazing. Adam Smith said break up power into smaller chunks so the mighty will help us to hold EACH OTHER accountable, and we did!

The time to worry? When the mighty conspire against this solution.  As they are doing now.

Always watch out for the next layer you missed. I am "Contrary Brin" and hence I must point out that all the power consolidations you are mentioning (government bureaucracies) are old and have not changed much in decades, yet you fret them as if they are skyrocketing.

Taxes are near their lowest rates in 80 years, Federal and state shares of the economy are plummeting and historically low. So why your fixation on that center of power? Might it be because far more aggressively rising accumulations of power want you focused that way?

I am a Smithian-Heinleinian libertarian. I distrust ALL accumulations of power! Look back across 6000 years and tell me who was oppressed and who were the oppressors?

What group of conspiracists worry you the most? Political, economic, military, scientific, insert group here?

We all do selective perception. If you are "progressive" you notice conspiracies of the right and vice versa. (Personally, I find the "left-right axis" to be lobotomizing.)

I am Contrarian -- so my libertarian friends get poked by me and they think I am liberal. My liberal friends hear me rave on and on about Adam Smith. But yes, I do believe that one conspiracy - HG Wells's mutant/cannibalistic "murdochs" - is the worst.

Technology is lowering the barriers to entry in writing and publishing books, particularly through the ebook phenomenon. Do you think that large publishing houses will still be playing a major role in 10, 20, or 50 years? Or will we have completely switched to a grass-roots self-publishing system?

Think of human society. 99% of those before ours were pyramid shaped, with oligarchs atop -- and we may be heading back that way. But the West invented the diamond-shaped society in which a thriving middle out numbers the poor or rich.

It turns out some professions are naturally diamond-like. Like engineering. You engineers MIGHT be rich or poor but are likely to have a house/car etc.

The arts will ALWAYS be pyramidal. For every Steven King there are ten of me who are doing great but who envy him (he's a nice man actually.) For every author who is comfy there are ten squeaking by. And so on down. What has changed is the PATH to climb the pyramid. You can still get plucked up to the top by mavens and pros (editors) OR you can climb the Ramp of Merit with online pubs and fanzines and e-books.  These aren't either-or paths.  They are complementary.  Both will endure and we'll get good art in both ways.

In your Uplift series, there are several earth species which eventually achieve sentience. What are your thoughts on developing the intelligence of these species? Should we interfere or leave them to go on as they have? Or, rather, should we expand our ideas surrounding sentience to encompass these species?

StartideThe left will say "they have their own nobility and style of intelligence!" And the right would decry meddling in God's plan.

But I have met the dolphins and spoken to their researchers. ALL agree the creatures would love to be smarter than they are. They seem frustrated and are desperately eager and get awfully miffed they can't figure out a problem they know that a human child can easily suss.

I consider it criminally selfish to hold onto the top position - all for ourselves - if we could help others up that last and obviously very difficult few rungs. LOOK at how many other races are stuck at nearly the same level! Dolphins, parrots, apes, sea lions, possibly octopi. Something about the next step is HARD and I think maybe we should lend a hand.

Many will call EXISTENCE a prequel to Startide Rising in that it shows one possible beginning to the Uplift Project. And it shows that it won't be easy!

Oh, thousands of folks have written to me jazzed by the notion that we might someday spread the diversity of intelligent civilization on Earth - a worthy goal! We'll make other minds! AIs! Uplifted dolphins and apes! Heck we might even manage to uplift our children!

But then people realize that uplifting apes or dolphins would take 200+ years and along the way? Pain.

Since writing The Transparent Society, have you changed your opinion about the potential for transparency to improve society? Do you track projects related to implementing the concepts presented in that book (and if so, do you have a list of active and/or defunct projects)? Are you interested in being involved in such projects?

I grow increasingly convinced that the four great innovations of the Enlightenment: Democracy, Markets, Science and Justice, absolutely depend on most of the participants knowing most of what's going on, most of the time.

All four languish, sicken and die if secrecy prevails.

I am a moderate! The Transparent Society is filled with discussion of exceptions where secrecy can pass a burden of proof and privacy is important!
But ironically it can only be defended if we see well enough to catch the peeping toms.

What sparked the idea for an entire civilization built upon uplift? Do you see this as the inevitable progression of intelligent species or was it just a thought experiment?

ExistenceHCGREAT question. Almost all I do is informed by the Fermi Paradox. EXISTENCE lays down dozens of hypotheses (amid a rollicking, idea-drenched adventure!

In the Uplift Universe I wanted to do space opera with LOTS of alien races. Only how can that happen and be stable if everyone is colonizing and warring like mad... the galaxies would go to hell.

But the progenitors set up this cycle, see, in which your status depends on how many "offspring" races you raise up. This means everybody becomes fanatical to protect Nursery Worlds where candidate species can rise up. Wars are limited and potential protected... see? It is not a friendly cosmos, but it does limit the worst failure modes...

Do you think humans as a species could survive in a world where there is no scarcity?

I think Star Trek is the most wholesome sci fi ever and it portrays a somewhat post-scarcity world. Look many of us already live in such a world. Our cave ancestors would call us gods.

Do you know where your own contrarian streak comes from?

A sense of how desperately little time we have to get things right. And that everybody who enslaves themselves to a simpleminded dogma is betraying their own agility of mind or ability to learn from one another.

Even if your side is 80% right, it desperately needs its faults questioned!  Criticism is the only known antidote to error.  So thank your foes for providing lots of it!  To help you improve.

Then return the favor!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Solutions" to the Fermi Paradox - our contest winners! (Part Two)

Last time in Part 1, we went over the top prize winners of our experiment/contest, drawing "crowd-sourced" answers to the Fermi Paradox or The Great Silence -- the quandary of why humanity has (apparently) never encountered extraterrestrial civilization.

Now let's finish going through the finalists:

#7 We're an evolutionary simulation coded into some incredibly complex computer, and while there's enough computing power to model the behavioral and biological processes and interactions of all the life on planet Earth, there isn't enough to model intelligent (or otherwise) life for the rest of the universe, so they have to rely on simpler astrophysics algorithms. Maybe if that next grant gets approved, they'll be able to add in another few clusters and work on a "First Contact" situation... —Carter Boe

A big concept, but also a bit of a Giant Waffle.  I have put some creative thought into it. (See my stories "Reality Check" and "Stones of Significance"!)

#8 Our universe is part of a very advanced simulation in another universes cutting edge computer system. The system is designed to test out various theories of creation i.e. a big bang based on whatever the prevailing theories are - they then watch it all unfold and see how closely the results are to what these beings perceive in their "real" universe. this simulation has been tweaked and rerun many times because the results didn't quite match - the last time has been amazingly successful so they let it keep going and add memory and processing power as time goes by and as the simulated cosmos coalesced into our universe. They kept it running but tweaked it here and there and eventually decide to help form a world that can contain life similar to their own. Most of the computers' processing power in concentrated on resolving the detail and simulated life on that single simulated world. Every individual being, their thoughts and dreams, every bird that falls from the sky... They simply don't have enough memory and drive space yet to create "aliens" for us. (spoiler alert) in the "real" universe they never generated any speculative fiction so they haven't wondered in any important way at the coincidence... why are there no radio signals coming from intelligent life in their space? Until they read some sci fi created by the folks in their simulation...—Jim Simbrel

Hommmm you folks certainly glom onto a fashionable idea!  It was pretty fresh a decade a go! See those stories...

#9 We are, in fact, alone in the Universe. We are the first, We are the Progenitors of the great galactic civilizations yet to come. It's lonely at the top. –Tom Owoc

Now for this, let me recommend a different story... it won a Hugo Award!  "The Crystal Spheres."

#10 Most societies evolved real-time communications using a fundamental principle or particle of physics we never discovered and thus never had to leverage the electromagnetic spectrum in this way. Radio is our solution to a problem no one else has and thus unique in the universe.  –Adam Maxwell

Hm... well, maybe.  And yet when we found radio, did we completely abandon drums?  Completely?  Or even at all? New Guinea natives might not notice the radio waves all around them, but they'd recognize the thumping on a passing ocean liner as having human origins!

#11 There are one or more paranoid, raptorial spacefaring species who attack, pillage, and destroy any civilizations whose electromagnetic radiation they detect. The only civilizations to escape destruction are those who have shielded their EM radiation sources from detection, by virtue of natural, innate caution, or from having learned of the dangerous aliens prior to developing electronic technology. For all other civilizations, they are detectable only in a narrow time window, until they are discovered and annihilated by the aggressors. This produces a relatively silent galaxy that may in fact harbor hundreds of sentient species. –Ed Uthman

ALONECOSMOSVery much a theme in Existence.  But also, again, have a look at this missive against METI: Shouting at the Cosmos…or How SETI has taken a worrisome turn into dangerous territory. We aren't saying this is likely.  We are saying that sensible people should discuss it before arrogant fools scream into the cosmos "Yoohoo!" on our behalf.

#12 Given the scale of just our own galaxy, much less the vastness of the universe, the likelihood of anyone being in our celestial "neck of the woods" is slim at best. I'd propose that there's no paradox...if they're out there, they're just too far away. –Jared Freeman

True, we might simply not overlap with the others! But this assumes that the number of advanced races is very small in order for the statistical non-overlap idea to work.  But if there are numerous long-lived species, then we get the Fermi Paradox. And if they travel?  A lot?  Colonization changes all the numbers!

#13 The civilizations that are advanced enough to communicate with us are too advanced to want to communicate with us.—Derek Whittom

Hrm. So we're like ants to them?  Well there are still plenty of human scientists who are interested in ants.  You neglect how inherently interesting we are!  The number of new tech races appearing in the galaxy at any time is not comparable to ant colonies on Earth.  At absolute maximum it might be one or two a year. And advanced race would deputize specialists, or robots, or lesser selves to look into and see what such newbies might have that's interesting or entertaining to offer.

Good stuff!  As I said, you'll find versions of some of these -- and some that will surprise you(!) in the novel.  A few of them revealed with surprise gotchas!

What impresses me most is your mental agility and verve. Keep at it! Stay interested and lively.  Never let us stop being a vigorously future-facing and scientific civilization.

ExistenceHCI discuss many of these ideas in my novel, Existence.

Return to Part One, or see a collection of articles exploring the Fermi Paradox and  SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Solutions" to the Fermi Paradox - Contest Winners! (Part One)

Prepare for a feast of ideas (below) about why we seem alone in the cosmos.  But first...

Illustration by Patrick Farley
A wonderful review of Existence from io9: “The story is about life — though he's calling it Existence, since not all the characters are alive in a biological sense. It's all about the chaos and passion of adolescence — the designs we make for our lives when we're young, before unforeseeable events send us spinning into strange new orbits. It's about the way the world narrows and focuses, as hobbies turn to avocations, legacies are considered and the afterlife looms....     The book proposes that there is not one answer to Fermi's paradox, but hundreds of answers, ranging from the quotidian to the weird. It also proposes that the best way to confront these answers is deeply human: to be creative, diverse, compromising, curious. That to reach Heaven — or something like it — requires that we look beyond ourselves, beyond humanity (all six species of it), and into the universe beyond.”

=== Winners of the "why are we alone" contest ===

My latest novel, Existence (published yesterday) reveals dozens of scenario about first contact, including a couple of unique ones concerning the Fermi Paradox or The Great Silence, as the quandary of why we have never encountered extraterrestrial civilization has been called. I've written about all this extensively in scientific papers and in fiction.

Only then I figured, why not go all-modern and crowd-source this question! So I put it to the folks at may Facebook Fan site, spurred by the offer of a prize -- a hardcover first printing of EXISTENCE going to the top vote-getter.  We got a fair number of submissions and the top responses are presented here, ranging from the serious and thoughtful to the humorous and ironic...
...starting with our Grand Prize winner, Mr. Tony Farley, a physics teacher from California.

#1 We don't have the capabilities to detect anything but a tightly beamed signal. And like detecting the sound of a jet in the sky, where you can see it, is not where you can detect signals from it. You have to point your microphone behind it. With tightly beamed signals over galactic distances, you have to know the proper motion of the planet and its sun and they have to know our proper motion to beam it to us. If they are ten light years away, they have to beam it to where we were ten years ago and we have to point our detectors to where they were ten years ago. All the SETI searches ignore this and hope a civilization is sending out a ridiculously powerful beam in all directions.  –Tony Farley

Tony Farley has also published a physics text, The Electric Force, for the iPad.

In fact, Tony, you are partly on-target with this one. But first, where you are wrong. SETI searches engaged in by the top group near Berkeley do compensate for motions and Doppler shifts and orbital variations to a degree that would amaze you.  They can detect a signal that is spectrum-varying with time and compensate for that as the source spins and rotates and revolves around a noisy star. These are clever folks.

Still, you are right that they still make untenable assumptions. They search the sky with narrow listening beams... looking for aliens who might be BROADcasting hello signals in all directions.  But there's no reason that even a beneficent race would do that, around the clock, for eons.  Horribly expensive.  They would, as you say, "ping" likely targets like our solar system, maybe once a century.  To detect such pings, instead of one expensive SETI program in one place, we should have a thousand backyard receivers, networked, scanning the whole sky at once.  Look up Project Argus of the SETI League!

And congratulations on your prize! A hardcover of Existence is winging its way to you.

#2 The universe is big in space AND time. It would be a major accomplishment for a technological society to remain intact for a million years, yet that is just a blip on the scale of the universe. How many galactic empires came and went before the Earth was even capable of supporting life? –Thomas Nackid

A good question.  And yes, we might simply not overlap with the others!  But note, Thomas, your assumption is that the numbers of tech races must be very small (and that may be the case) in order for the statistical non-overlap idea to work.  But if there are numerous long-lived species, then we get the Fermi Paradox. And if they travel?  A lot?  Colonization changes all the numbers!

Even if they just explore and don't colonize, then the Earth would likely have been visited.  But even one toilet flush during the Archaean would have changed life on Earth in ways we'd detect in the rocks.

#3 Life, even intelligent life, is common in the universe, but advanced civilizations are rare, and hard to find in the small window of time that we have been looking, and not all advanced civilizations are nice. Getting between stars and communicating between stars is hard, and having someone close enough to communicate with at the same time you're communicating is rare, and sometimes perilous. We have not found anyone yet because we can only shout at our nearest neighbors, and our local neighborhood is currently empty, probably by chance and possibly by malice. –Ilithi Dragon

I am one of the SETI experts who has been arguing that the Great Silence may be telling us something.  "If all the races more advanced than us are being quiet... maybe they know something we don't know?"

Several major voices in the field, Like former NASA SETI chief John Billingham, have joined me in resigning from major committees in protest over the SETI Institute's role in helping clear a path for METI or "MESSAGE to ETI."  See our complaint: Shouting at the Cosmos -- or How SETI has taken a Worrisome Turn into Dangerous Territory.

#4 They won't unscramble the signal until we put a deposit down.  –Lone Hanks

hrm... you REALLY want to read my novel EXISTENCE!  There will come a couple of moments when you just break down with guffaws!

Along those same lines: We haven't yet chosen a intergalactic long distance carrier. --Christopher R. Vesely

#5 The "Do Not Feed the Humans" sign just past Pluto deters all but delinquents making crop circles.  –Kevin King
Ditto my answer to #4!

#6 Civilized people do not just drop in uninvited. –Eli Roth
We've been inviting!

Along those same lines: There may be a "Prime Directive" ethos that they stick to. --Glenn Brockett

That's the "Zoo Hypothesis" that comes in dozens of variations... all of which assume either that the ETIS are few and share the same value system, or else have one heckuva police force...

I'll toss in one last one:

ALONECOSMOSAs society gets rich enough and technologically sophisticated enough, eventually everyone is able to live in their own personal Matrix, customized to provide them with their ideal life. Soon after the civilization stops bothering to expand any further, as the perfect existence can already be found on their home planet and nothing more could be wanted. Humans have a rare neurological structure that prevents them from being satisfied with this sort of simulation. –Eneasz Brodski

See also a discussion of The Great Filter: Does a Galaxy Filled with Habitable Planets Mean Humanity is Doomed? on io9 -- Robin Hanson’s concept that there may be some obstacle that consistently prevents species from reaching the technological stage where they can traverse interstellar distances.  (That's the core topic in my new novel.)

Hey, we've run out of space (get it?) So we'll go through the remaining top candidates next time.  Meanwhile, Congratulations Mr. Farley... and the rest of you for having lively minds!

Continue to Part 2 of solutions to the Fermi Paradox

ExistenceHCAlso see a collection of articles exploring the Fermi Paradox and SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

 I explore many of these ideas in my novel, Existence.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sci Fi Forever! Quirky Thoughts from recent Brinterviews

Amid the media frenzy leading up to release of Existence (June 19), some interviewers posed questions that I found especially interesting. Here are a few fun examples.

==The Amazon Book Blog==

Illustrations by Patrick Farley
- Like Earth, your new novel is set in the 30 to 50 year time frame, taking samples of world civilization all over a planet that’s in danger. What’s the appeal of this kind of science fiction and how do you make it fresh for jaded readers? 

 Most of storytelling in literature boils down to one basic issue, how we balance our hopes against our fears. Within a novel, we adopt the characters’ yearnings – briefly – as our own, trying them on for size. And when those dreams, those ambitions, are threatened?  That drives both empathy and a gripping plot-line.  The hopes can be as small-scale as getting invited to a dance and the threat might just be a teen rival...

...or the issues at stake may ramp up to include absolutely everything we value. Our families, nations, civilization, and continuing survival. Our chance to continue existing as a species.  Perhaps even the flourishing of life itself, in our galaxy.

Is that topic too both broad and heavy for a summer novel? Maybe so! And yet, I found the experience of writing EXISTENCE both fun and – at times – even humorous.

- What was the hardest part to get right?

Always - making aliens seem plausible. And catching just the right tone for characters living in a near future that is both very different from our time, and yet strangely unchanged.  Just the way 2012 would surprise any person brought forward from 1967. Half the time she would say: "Wow! We never thought of that!"  And the other half? "You mean you future folks are STILL doing THAT?"

- What was the most fun about writing the book?

The very hings that make peering into tomorrow difficult are the same traits that make it so enjoyable, even addictive.  It's why I keep coming back, trying (along with you)  to see a little better.


- In most of your books and papers you tend to take the optimistic view of the future, but it is certainly not Pollyannaish.  You interspersed sections EXISTENCE to discuss the many ways our world could end, and even talked about a game of “choose your own apocalypse.”  In the end, though, you are an optimist.  What makes you think that way?

I am not, by nature, a Pollyanna or optimist.  Rather, I’m dragged, kicking and screaming, into optimism by the plain and simple fact of human progress. After 9000 years of wretched feudalism, in which lords and kings and shamans bullied everybody around them, we’ve spent just two centuries years experimenting with openness, curiosity, freedom and willingness to embrace the diversity of minds. 

 Imperfectly!  Indeed, I hold out little hope for western civilization, if we don’t end Culture War bickering, returning instead to fair argument and negotiation. In 1945, we western pragmatists stopped the rising tide of murderous dogmatism at its peak and then helped ensure that it gradually ebbed. Professor Steven Pinker, in “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” proves conclusively that violence has declined while freedom, prosperity and health have climbed in every decade since the end of WWII.  We are making the world Gene Roddenberry portrayed in Star Trek! Even though, during each particular year, it doesn’t seem that way.

This puts a born-grouch like me in a terrible bind. I could enjoy the sick pleasures of cynicism… and be a fool for ignoring facts. Or I can grudgingly admit that progress happens, while pointing out the myriad ways that it may yet fail. 

I decided on the latter. To embrace the complex tension of our time, between hope and the chance that it may all go away. At least, that’s the suspense in Existence!

- In a hundred years what do you think future scientists will think of the science in your books?

Well, the far-future novels like Startide Rising and Glory Season speculate technologies that may turn out to be impossible, as science advances. Certainly the physics that helps propel the plot of EARTH is speculative, though it helps to drive an unusual plot. And we won’t even go into “warp drive!” So? Look, we still read and love Jules Verne, despite some things that he got wrong.  And every novel by H.G. Wells contains a mix of amazing foresight and incredible howlers! I ask future generations to be just as forgiving.

- In EXISTENCE you resurrected some of the earlier themes in previous novels (Project Uplift), as well as philosophical notions in your nonfiction.

Many new readers will find “uplift” intriguing. The notion that we might increase the diversity of culture on Earth by helping creatures like dolphins and chimpanzees to join us, as equals. That may take some meddling on our part. And that raises a whole raft of moral and scientific issues, that get raised in Existence. Of course, longtime readers of the Uplift books are welcome to view this as a prequel, of sorts.

-What are you working on now, or what do you envision will be your next novel?

Several projects.  What if Americans and Europeans turn inward, leaving leadership of civilization and progress to nations of the South and East? What would real Artificial Intelligence (AI) be like and what might it demand from us? I have a teen-adventure work in progress – aliens abduct an entire southern California high school! And my first sci fi comedy novel. But I expect I’ll only find out what my “main” project is after I get started. Once I meet the characters. Get swept away.


- What are some of your favourite adaptations and what makes them so good? What are some you disliked and what made them bad?

WATCHMEN was by far the most faithful adaptation of a book, ever, down to the look and feel of individual characters.  Close behind was the more difficult task that David Lynch did with DUNE, compressing admirably the concepts and ironies of that great work. Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was also dedicated to utter faithfulness.  Fans are free to complain about the few-but-necessary simplifications, but they never had to squeeze everything from a giant tome into a couple of hours.  (See below about how many more hours of pleasure you get from a book.)

The quirkiest adaptation was Paul Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS. The director put author  Robert Heinlein’s words into the characters’ mouths, expressing the author’s philosophy. Only then Verhoeven used hints and imagery to suggest that he (the director) did not necessarily approve of the portrayed civilization.  He honestly showed the upside benefits of Heinlein’s world, but drew attention also to downsides. I found it fascinating how he combined all of this into an action-drenched “bug hunt.” The after-viewing arguments I had with others would have pleased this provocative fellow. And I’m not surprised that most viewers, even fans, missed all this.

-As an author, how do you think the process of adapting a novel to screen can be improved? What might a publisher/editor do to improve it?

It won’t improve as long as all decisions are made by producers who never read.  There is, in Hollywood, no lower caste person than the writer.  This will change soon, as we start seeing “animated storyboards” in which the same skills that I bring to a graphic novel can combine with those of a programmer, artist, musician and a few voice actors… to make a 90 minute animated pre-version of a film.  

When this can be done for 5 figures, suddenly such writer-led teams will have the power to create rough cuts of entire films… versions that might even gain followings on the Internet. Concepts and fresh stories will become important again, instead of endless remakes and remakes.

And that should suffice for just a sampling, a glimpse at what I’ve spent the last week doing, sometimes answering the same question in several different ways, in order not to duplicate myself (Kiln People, anyone?) and to keep it fresh. Ah well. Things could be worse. Like... what if, instead of too many questions, there were too few!

Now to offer up those entertaining miscellany I promised. And science!

=== Other great Science Fictional News! ===

The second most awesome book on sale now is Going Interstellar: Build Starships Now! Edited by Les Johnson and my pal and sci fi colleague Jack McDevitt. Bold ideas about the kind of stuff we might be doing soon if we stop all the backbiting (and looking backward) and resume our love affair with both science and the future.

Another sure-fire winner and terrific deal in entertainment? Check out Howard Tayler’s latest, The Sharp End of the Stick. I had the honor of writing the introduction for this latest installment in his marvelous and hilarious series.  Oh, also have a look at Tayler’s rendering of Schlock Brin.  A new member of Tagon’s Toughs? Naw. Just what I might look like if I had the misfortune of being inducted into the Shlock Mercenary universe.

=== And Finally === 

Want to keep your favorite author in cheese blintzes and sweat pants? Then buy Kim Stanley Robinson’s... I mean Vernor Vinge’s... I mean David Brin’s latest book, on sale June 19!

Seriously. (May I? For just a moment?)  Next time you contemplate a book’s retail price, try dividing it by the number of hours of pleasure you’ll get, reading it.  Then tell me of any other pastime with a better minutes per pennies ratio of sheer joy!

And yes, that is exactly what I’m promising, as a special offer, during publication week.

Sheer joy.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A victory in our right to look back… plus online "Brin Events"

== First a quick update about coming online events ==

* Join me for a big, informal Twitter extravaganza on June 20 at 1pm PDT  #TorChat

* Culminating in a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" marathon, scheduled for June 26, starting at 3pm Pacific (6pm Eastern or 2300GMT) and continuing until... whenever!

By the way... anybody who helps the preview trailer of Existence to go viral will gain points in the Briniverse!   And see below how to sign up for our once-a-year newsletter, going out Tuesday!

== More on the importance of Looking Back at Authority ==

On to important matters. One theme that recurs in EXISTENCE... and in daily life ... is the question of how to maintain freedom and hope in the presence of overwhelming power.  Which could be oligarchy, or aliens... or the cop on the corner.

I've long held that the most important civil rights issue of our time is ensuring that citizens maintain their power of "sousveillance" or gazing upward, unafraid, in order to hold authority accountable.  When a private person has any sort of clash with powerful figures, especially the police, he or she has only one refuge, one recourse that should overpower all other considerations.  The Truth.  The U.S. Constitution repeatedly emphasizes a citizen's right to that recourse.  But lately, many police officers have tried to prevent people from recording arrests with their cameras and cell phones.

As I've often said, one can well-understand how human it is, when you have such a difficult and dangerous job, to wish you weren't also under a constant glare of scrutiny.  But welcome to the 21st Century.  Police officers deserve all sorts of allowances and respect when they perform their functions professionally and well - and forgiveness of occasional and understandable lapses. But we cannot let them win this one.  Not at all, at any level.  Those who resent scrutiny by their employers should seek other lines of work.

And now things seem to be falling into place on our side, for a change.  Not only have several court cases repudiated camera seizures, but now the Obama Justice Department has issued a stinging rebuke to the City of Baltimore for insufficiently protecting a universal right of citizens to record public events in a non-threatening way.  The existence of a right-to-record is laid out explicitly, in no uncertain terms.

Need any further proof that there is a difference?  Despite the fact that police officers have (for very good reasons) been voting democratic far more in the last decade (like all the other professional or knowledge castes), the Democratic administration simply had to issue this statement.  You know that it would not have been issued under Republicans.

And while we’re on the subject, here is a recent law paper: A Due Process Right to Record the Police, lining up the argument for a right to record as a core element of “due process” guarantees in the Constitution. While this article is cogent and persuasive, it includes a puzzling footnote to the effect that it is “worth noting that such a right might also find penumbral support in the Sixth Amendment’s right to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in a defendant’s favor.”

Here I deeply disagree.  It is not “penumbral” at all.  The neglected and seldom discussed Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is, in fact, one of the most important and vital in the defense of liberty and justice. It goes beyond what other clauses provide - by merely limiting the powers of the state - and instead lays out a positive power for the citizen to aggressively seek and compel testimony or other information in his or her own defense.   This is the very same aggressive demand that the citizen is asserting when using a camera or recording device to protect himself, in advance, against abuse of power.  The Sixth is the very heart and soul of our campaign to use transparency to defend both freedom and our civilization’s great experiment.

== Other Cool Items ==

In The not-so-fine Line between Privacy and Secrecy, Valkyrie Ice does a pretty fair and eloquent paraphrasing of my “Allegory of the Restaurant” - and the power of reciprocal transparency to let us have some privacy, even in a world filled with light.

And swiveling 190 degrees to the "sprituality front..." Just because I am a big old Science Guy who believes passionately in the Western Enlightenment, that doesn’t mean I am at all trapped by the zero sum game that says you can only be one thing. Be interested in just one thing.  I know for a fact... and from my days in the sixties... that you can dip into “spiritual” matters now and then, without harming at all your ability to think logically.  What “is” can be separated from “what’s cool to ponder.”  And hence, I can dig where my friend and fellow author Matt Pallamary is at, with his novels and nonfiction books about exploring the Amazon and experiencing the altered states that came from using native ... well... spirit-shifting plants.  Watch his one minute video. And some of you can picture scenes in my books where - clearly - I must have talked to Matt too much!

== Science ==

Amid the flood of reported planet discoveries, made by the wonderful Kepler spacecraft ( which finds them by measuring “transit” planet passages between us and the parent star), a paper now contends that a third of the claimed finds may be false positives.  “We cannot say anything about smaller planets,” says Alexandre Santerne, a graduate student at the University of Aix-Marseille in France and coauthor of the paper. “It’s just for giant planets close-in.”

This doesn’t surprise me.  I felt it was odd how many huge, close-in planets were turning up.  We are still in an era of fantastic discovery.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Honoring Ray Bradbury ... by Exploring Tomorrow

ray-bradbury_2240966bMy friend Ray Bradbury passed away this morning. While 91 is certainly a ripe and full age, especially for a revered figure who leaves behind a vast and highly esteemed legacy, there is still a certain bittersweet, knowing that he worked until the very end. Science-fiction authors never retire, you see. The need to spin yarns — to weave dreams about tomorrow — is always the last thing to go.

At Salon Magazine's request, I wrote this tribute to Ray Bradbury: American Optimist. It was therapy-solace, on the day that my fellow Los Angeles High School alumnus graduated from our Earthly plane... leaving this particular world less colorful, less passion-filled today.

RememberingRayBradburyRay was the last living member of a “BACH” quartet — writers who transformed science fiction from a pulp magazine ghetto into a genre for hardcover bestsellers. Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Robert Heinlein helped shatter barriers for the rest of us, establishing the legitimacy of literature that explores possible or plausible tomorrows. But it was Bradbury who made clear to everyone that science fiction can be art. An art form combining boldness and broad horizons with sheer, unadulterated beauty.

BradburyStoriesAnd love. Ray always spoke of it. Love of possibilities and imagination. Love of language, the rolling of phrases off tongue and pen. Also hope, without which, love is sterile.
Ray Douglas Bradbury was born in 1920, in Illinois, but at age 13 became a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, graduating from L.A. High School in 1938 … exactly 30 years before I did. Among many early influences on a fertile young imagination was the (way cool, to a child) fact that one ancestress had been executed as a witch in Salem, Mass., in the 1600s. He described the lasting impressions left by early Lon Chaney films, or when a stage magician touched him on the nose with an electric sword, commanding him to “live forever!” Like my own father, he nurtured his love of writing in free public libraries and while hawking newspapers on Depression-era street corners. And, as did many authors who followed, he got his start writing stories for mimeographed fan publications, climbing gradually upward while honing his craft.

Sometimes luck can strike like lightning. When Ray got the celebrated British expatriate  writer Christopher Isherwood to take a look at the manuscript for The Martian Chronicles, the resulting review launched Bradbury … well … not out of poverty, not yet, but into a career. One that later took him through Hollywood, scripting films like “Moby Dick,” as well as into television and punditry, all while helping raise four daughters and penning one luminous book after another, exploring the edges of the barely plausible.

But I’m not here to write a biography. This is an appreciation and, hence, in keeping with Ray’s own style, let me give way to impulse. To passion.

Indeed, I referred earlier to Ray’s fervent dedication to love and hope and the power of words that yank at us, compelling empathy. But there was another emotion that he would evoke, from time to time. One that always left a lasting impression on audiences, when he gave one of his popular lectures.

Onstage, Ray Bradbury could wax eloquently and vociferously angry at one thing, at one human trait — cynicism. The lazy habit of relishing gloom. The sarcastic playground sneer that used to wound him, and all other bright kids, punishing them for believing, fervently, in a better tomorrow.

Ray had one word for it. Treason. Against a world and humanity that has improved, prodigiously, inarguably, fantastically more than any other generation ever improved, and not just with technological wonders, but in ethics and behavior, at last taking so many nasty habits that our ancestors took for granted — like racism or sexism or class prejudice — and, if not eliminating them, then at least putting them in ill repute. Ray spoke of the way violence has declined, worldwide, long before Harvard professor Steven Pinker clarified the case, in his recent book “The Better Angels of our Nature.”

illustrated-man-1Yes, Bradbury’s stories and novels often plunged fearlessly into dark, foreboding themes. The world ends in The Illustrated Man and we decline into Big Brother levels of dystopia by the unusual path of liberal political correctness in Fahrenheit 451. We are reminded of villainy in Something Wicked This Way Comes. After reading Bradbury's short story, “All Summer in a Day,” the reader knows with utter clarity, how basic is the tendency toward cruelty, and that childhood is neither pure nor innocent.

Could anyone reconcile this chain of chillers with overall optimism?  Ray did. Human beings are fretful creatures, he said. Our skulking worries often cause us to shine light in dismal corners, and thus help us to do better! To be better.

Good literature has that power.  Indeed, science fiction offers writers a chance to create that most potent work, of which “Fahrenheit 451″ is a prime example. The self-preventing prophecy that so shakes up readers that millions of them gird themselves to prevent the nightmare from ever coming true. That’s power.
Moreover, even someday, when we’ve tamed our surface selves, growing up in our fair interactions and behaviors, partaking of a mature civilization, there will still endure, below the patina, a roiling, molten species, fevered with impulses and wild dreams. Far from becoming pallid beings, we’ll love to tell ghost stories by firelight and shiver at the touch of chill fingers up the spine. Why would we ever give that up?

Ray Bradbury saw optimistic progress and dark fantasy as partners, not opposites. On camera, during the moon landings, he could not stay in his seat! And he demanded that others get out of theirs. Long before Peter Finch did it in “Network,” Ray demanded that viewers stand up, step outside and shout!  Only, instead of cynical resentment, he insisted that we “get” what had just happened, how we had – all of us – just become a bit more like gods.

Those who yawn at such achievements, he denounced, calling them “ingrates.” And ingratitude he deemed one of the lowest human vices.

Ray was grateful, always, for what life had allowed a geeky youngster to do. I am thankful that he was my friend. And we who love both words and freedom of the mind should all feel gratitude today. For all those wonderful words.

And so long, Ray.  Thanks for all the stories.

Speaking of Salon, my author's page as a columnist-contributor offers a review of articles that range in topic from transparency and freedom to Tolkien and Star Wars. From how to help Haiti to "Why Johnny can't code." From admiring Ray Bradbury to how the internet may be turning us into "gods." Unlike blog entries, these articles were crafted with meticulous and provocative (and eloquent!) care.

== Book Tour Events ==

In the coming newsletter and at you’ll find a schedule of both live events and chances to meet/chat with me online. Virtual channels will range from Twitter to Reddit to a vivid new (beta) video chat room. Hope to either see or "see" you soon!

==Also in the Realm of Science Fiction == 

The New Yorker magazine published "The Science Fiction Issue," with stories and essays by Jonathan Lethem, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, China Mieville, Junot Diaz, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, William Gibson, and others. Has the literary mainstream changed its collective mind about SF and its readers? Judging by its selections, what does The New Yorker think Science Fiction is all about?

=Was The Uplift War also good anthropology?=

Are human beings natural athletes? In All Men Can't Jump, on Slate, David Stipp contends that our greatest leapers, jumpers, sprinters and so on would seem hilarious to the animals out there whose four-legged gallops nearly always leave us in a cloud of dust.  Stipp goes on to make a point that I illustrated with Robert Onmeagle’s race across a continent in The Uplift War, that humans excel at one sport, above all - long distance running.  For about a dozen reasons, we are the masters at this art and it may have been crucial in both our survival and evolution.

Still, I must quibble with Stipp’s exaggeration, his claim that long distance running is our only physical species superlative.  Wrong.  To that you must add anything having to do with precision that a few (not all) humans can achieve. From the delicate movements controlled by finger and thumb, to tonal-sound control more accurate than any bird or whale, to the cosmically difficult task of accurate throwing.  Indeed, University of Washington researcher William Calvin, in The Throwing Madonna, shows just how special this last trait is, how difficult, and how it might even have pushed brain development toward capability for language.

Indeed, the maligned American pastime of baseball may be by-far the greatest and best sport by one criterion, when it comes to emulating and training for genuinely useful Neolithic skills! Think about it.  The game consists of lots of patient waiting and watching (stalking), throwing with incredible accuracy and speed, sprinting, dodging... and hitting moving objects real hard with clubs!  And arguing. Hey, what else could you possibly need?  Now, tell me, how do soccer or basketball prepare you to survive in the wild, hm?

=== And an Old Sci Fi Theme - Marching Morons? ===

Are electronic media and devices lobotomizing the new generation?  Or empowering all of us to reach ever-higher levels of awareness and effective citizenship? Read an excellent perspective on the pros and cons of the modern, wired lifestyle -  The Information: How the Internet gets inside us, by Adam Gopnik.

This New Yorker essay dissecting the debate between cyber transcendentalists techno-grouches covers much the same ground as my Salon Magazine feature, Is the Web Helping Us Evolve? comparing the technology pessimists to those who think the Internet is turning us into gods. Only Gopnik then forges into different territory, offering both greater erudition and some well-crafted insights that - honestly - I never contemplated before.

Compare the two. It is a tall wave that we're surfing.

Monday, June 04, 2012

News in the Science of "Looking"

Flash news: The U.S. government’s secret space program has decided to give NASA two new telescopes for orbital use, as big as, and even more powerful than, the Hubble Space Telescope. Designed for surveillance, the telescopes from the National Reconnaissance Office were no longer needed for spy missions and can now be sent with missions aimed outward, instead of inward, to study the heavens. They have 2.4-meter (7.9 feet) mirrors, just like the Hubble. They also have an additional feature that the civilian space telescopes lack: A maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain more focused images. These telescopes will have 100 times the field of view of the Hubble. The problem: NASA needs money to instrument, fly and operate these scopes. Sign the petition to fund the NRO telescopes.

I hope this doesn't increase the risk that Congress will kill the James Webb Space Telescope, though now an extensive re-design of that problem-plagued project can be undertaken without it being a calamity for humanity and science. One question that won't be answered: what does the secret space program now have to replace these now outdated telescopes?

When you are outside, look up... and smile for the cameras.

Speaking of surveillance tech... When the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan, will the West be blind to developments there? In addition to satellites, drones and human intelligence, there will be a fourth way to keep an eye on movements and activities in the region that once gave bin Laden his base to attack New York. The technological edge keeps shifting and - as I wrote in The Transparent Society (1997) the age of micro-cameras and nano-veillance is upon us.  Now the U.S. military seems about to embark on the biggest "bugging" operation of all time, planting all over Afghanistan small, almost undetectable devices that might pass along images, seismic, audio and even radar data for as long as twenty years, operating on solar power.

If my own forecasts were on-target about this, then the foresight of Patrick Farley's "Spiders" online graphic novel is downright creepy! I have long admired this underground work and often show portions when I consult about future trends in Washington.

Take a look at Farley's other work at electricsheepcomix... and the wonderful preview-trailer that he just made for my new novel (ready to pre-order) Existence.

And how good news brings bittersweet thoughts of might-have-beens...   Now that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has achieved a fabulous milestone and won a contract to supply the International Space Station (ISS), I am reminded of how that destination could have been far, far better... for much less money.  In 1983 I authored a California Space Institute study showing how with just FIVE shuttle launches we could have had a space station vastly larger than the present one and in many ways far more capable... and twenty years earlier... using Shuttle external tanks and something called the Aft Cargo Carrier.

Note  - that article doesn't even mention the best use, as an airlock into the hydrogen tank, so it might be used as 1500 cubic meters of laboratory/living space. Five missions, that's all, to exceed by far what we have now. Woulda been so cool. For another coulda-been, see also my novella: Tank Farm Dynamo.

And while we're discussing how openness - even aggressively applied - can help us all... here's another item forecast in The Transparent Society -- the rise of the whistle-blowers!  A former home appraiser will receive $14.5 million as part of a whistleblower lawsuit that accused subprime lender Countrywide Financial of inflating appraisals on government-insured loans. Kyle Lagow's lawsuit sparked an investigation that culminated in a $1 billion settlement ... The complaints were brought under a whistleblower provision in the U.S. False Claims Act, which allows private individuals with knowledge of wrongdoing to bring suits on behalf of the government and share in the proceeds of any settlement.  It is one of the best laws passed in 30 years and I know twelve ways to make this phenomenon even better.

=== “Generations” on many time scales ==

Have we entered the Anthropocene? The term was coined by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer but has been widely popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who pointed out that many of the past boundaries between geological eras were demarked by relatively sudden mass extinctions.  For example, at the end of the Permian, or the Cretaceous (the demise of the dinosaurs.)  Some extinction causes are known... like the asteroid that brought the dinosaurs' reign to an end.  Others are controversial.  Few knowledgeable people doubt any longer that humanity is wreaking great changes on this planet.  Even without a major extinction event (a medium scale one seems unavoidable) we are having "geological" effects that would be noted by scholars studying the planet a billion years from now.  With our mines and drained hydrocarbon zones and cities, we are laying down what will be traceable sudden (and vast) layers of anomalous composition that will scream out  - "an adolescent species went hog-wild here, for a very short while."

The question... will those scholars be descendants of ours, who return to study those layers, knowing that we grew up in time the beget a great posterity?  Or will they be others, who shake their heads (or tendrils) noting "well, here's another dumb bunch of punks that didn't make the transition. Who never matured in time to become confident starfarers and change the galaxy."

On a scale much close to home, but eerily similar in tone: An interesting commencement address by Neil Howe  author of The Fourth Turning, about how (especially in America) generations tend to run in cycles that compensate for or correct the excesses or mistakes of their parents. “The Millennial Generation is correcting for the excesses of Boomers and Gen Xers who today run America. I need not remind you what those excesses are: leadership gridlock, refusal to compromise, rampant individualism, the tearing down of traditions, scorched-earth culture wars, and a pathological distrust of all institutions.”

Hrm, well, amen to that.  It’s an inspiring speech, even with salt.

At one level, of course, this hypothesis is utter drivel.  Only a few “generations” have congealed with the pure, nameable traits and sense of separation that the author grew up used to, in the Boomer era.  All this “turning” stuff is just another example of the power of human pattern recognition.  And yet... and yet as a metaphor for some very real trends, there is a lot here to ponder and be hopeful about (with copious grains of salt.)  I personally observe in my own teenagers and their friends, many of the traits Howe discusses.  They appear to be better, wiser folk than we self righteous boomers, who did important work, a while ago, but whose passing will be a blessing to America.

Can we use insight to think rationally? The one area where Sigmund Freud offered breakthrough insights of profound and permanent value was by demonstrating conclusively that the unconscious mind exists, that it has agendas that often differ from our surface rationalizations, values and proclaimed beliefs, and that it can affect our decisions and biases before we even begin consciously weighing them. Alas, like so many other brilliant men, Freud went on to make unjustified leaps of elaboration that - ironically - erupted out of his own tortured unconscious. Still, science is continuing to verify the original insight.  See this rumination on how difficult it is to be sure we are being truly rational. Take it as a caution. And repeat the sacred statement of science. “I might be wrong.”

=== The Science Fiction Side of Progress ===

See a lovely review comparing Ridley Scott's long awaited sci fi film PROMETHEUS with my new novel EXISTENCE.  Both of them fresh, 2012 examinations of some disturbingly challenging questions.

Star Trek writer Marc Zicree teams with GALACTICA fx whiz Doug Drexler & Sci-Fi Legends to reinvent classic 50s show "Space Command" as feature films.  Marc Z brings substantial talent to this project, as well as the legacy of vivid, optimistic science fiction, offering hope instead of despair, that he and his colleagues will try to re-light.  I wish them luck and every success.

What five books do I wish I had written? Is self-publishing the new ‘slush pile’? What literary characters would I like to invite to dinner?  Michael Keyton puts me "On the Rack" with these and other tough questions…

=== And Science Potpourri ===

Neuroscience for Everyone! Backyard Brains offers the Spiker Box, which allows kids and amateur scientists to study the electrical impulses of neurons. Watch the video: Take one cockroach; dunk in icewater, then extract one leg (don’t worry: it will grow another), place needles in your leg specimen, then hook leg up to  your Spiker Box, to view neural activity on your iPhone.  Next target: Earthworms, and then…

San Antonio to track students via RFID in ID cards -- in an effort to increase revenue via higher attendance.

In a groundbreaking study, researchers from the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom have discovered a link between the déjà vu phenomenon and structures in the human brain, effectively confirming the neurological origin of this phenomenon. Despite past studies investigating this phenomenon in healthy individuals, no concrete evidence had ever emerged ... until now. The study is presented in the journal Cortex.  (Hm... as in my 250 word short story Toujours Voir? (Always to see) from The River of Time).

Scientists now believe it is possible to expand the DNA alphabet, substituting unnatural letters for the nucleotide bases, perhaps enabling the production of novel molecular probes, nanomachines, or ...even new synthetic life forms.

Wondrous stuff!

Remember folks, please do help the Existence trailer to go viral?  ;-) And I hope to see some of you on book tour. Thrive and persevere!