Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Will the world’s middle classes rise up, in a “Helvetian War”?

 My 1989 novel Earth is credited with a fairly high predictive score.  In fact, fans maintain a wiki to track its successful "hits" - including little things like the World Wide Web and wearable augmented reality "google goggles." See: Earth-related predictions.

(They also track some embarrassing "misses"... ah well.)

Set in the year 2038, Earth portrays citizens in that near-future era looking back upon a brutal struggle that took place in the 2020s.  The Helvetian War was unlike anything we've seen since the French or Russian Revolutions. A radical rising by a fed-up world middle class, pushed against the wall by cynics and the corrupt connivers.

What they seek - and attain - is not socialism, a discredited foolishness that arose out of silly abstractions that bore no relationship at all to real human nature. Market economies have out-performed socialist or communist or oligarchic ones so overwhelmingly that only delusional fools - or would-be oligarchs - should prefer top-down, bureaucratic control instead of the fluid productivity that we get out of creative competition. (Does that make me sound like a right-winger? Silly.  Broaden your memes.)

No, the new radicalism that may be demanded in the 2020s -- especially by emerging middle classes in the developing world -- is to give all people a chance to compete fairly, free from parasitism by their homegrown kleptocrats and from the rising global variety. Free from the secret, conspiring control of a caste that Adam Smith himself called the oppressors of freedom and market economics across 6000 years.

"All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind." --Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations

Now, in that context, consider this headline. $21 Trillion hoard hidden offshore by global elite.

Yes that is a "T" and not a "B." Just sit there and consider that number.  Then think about my prediction that the world's middle classes will become radicalized, perhaps in the 2020s, or even sooner.

The study in question estimates the staggering size of the offshore economy and how private banks help the wealthiest to move cash into overseas havens. Russian, Saudi and Nigerian oil barons top the list, followed by US and British bankers and then drug lords and other criminal enterprises.  The totals amount to as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together.

With US tax rates at their lowest levels in 60 years, and taxes on the rich at their lowest levels since 1920, it would seem that they still aren't low enough for today's super wealthy.  Consider the GOP's potemkin rally in Tampa, in this context.

See also this angle: This hidden wealth costs western democracy governments $280 billion a  year in lost tax revenue. That's annual.  An amount so huge that infrastructure repair and boosted science could coincide with cuts in the actual tax rates for law-abiders who aren't part of the secret Lords Economy.

Want to see where this might lead?  Try reading Earth.

== Is a World Middle Class Even Possible?

In fact, it is more than possible. If by "middle class" you mean having a clean home with electricity and sanitation, a washing machine and access to transporation, plus kids who are in school with adequate food, clothing and books, then that already includes two thirds of the Earth's human population, a fact that is seldom mentioned by either left or right.

Why is this good news ignored? Because of the Paradox of Progress.  It's all a matter of deep personality. The reflex of folks on the right is to avert the gaze from problems to be solved and to resent nagging to solve them. The reflex of the far-left is hypersensitivity to perceived problems. To rail for solutions - but to deny that any past attempts at improvement ever worked! The right is suspicious toward the whole notion of "improvability" of either humans or society. The left wants improvability, passionately, but insists it has never happened yet.

Both extremes are - in effect, completely crazy.

See The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, by Gregg Easterbrook. 

Amid ongoing debates over progress, there is a third group. Those who seek to improve the human condition and who admit that steady improvements have already taken place.  These are called "liberals" - a very different breed than leftists - and to them the question of whether development has taken place inevitably gives way to practical discussions.  How to foster a speedup of already ongoing progress.   Pragmatic progressivism eschews dogma in favor of asking: what has worked and what hasn't?

What's becoming clear is that some parts of the world are doing better than others.  In 1970, South Korea had a lower per capita GDP than Ghana.  Today, all the nations of East Asia have left all African nations in a cloud of dust, and that includes China, which had a thirty year hiatus under Maoism.  Today, Latin America has large areas that are burgeoning -- e.g. Brazil -- and sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing its most rapid rate of growth (outside of certain hell-holes) since colonial kleptocrats gave way to local kleptocracies in the 1960s.

Still, the African acceleration is only impressive compared to previous stagnation. And some regions that have tried -- under pressure or tutelage from international development agencies -- to reform their laws and civil society, have failed to make them sufficiently competition-friendly to invite much new investment, or to give vibrant locals a level playing field against conniving local elites.

== What do the professionals say? ==

Two interesting perspectives offer a glimpse at just how difficult the problem can be.

In a fascinating and vivid audio-visual presentation, Owen Barder explores the implications of complexity theory for development policy. He explains how traditional economic models have tried and failed to understand why some countries have managed to improve living standards while other countries have not. Using complexity theory, he shows that development is a property of a system, not the sum of what happens to the people within it.

While Barder is both interesting and informative and is on-target in his range of criticisms - (do watch the video!) - in the end he winds up sounding like a lot of "complexity" fans.  Okay, so the problem is complex.  Thanks for telling us that.

For balance, have a glimpse at an interesting, if a bit depressing, appraisal of the likelihood that creative-competitive capitalism can ever take root in MENA -- the Middle East and North Africa -- despite formal legal reforms.  The problem is an ancient one... oligarchies of a few at the top, engaging in what Adam Smith called "rent-seeking," using informal connections and conniving to bypass the new "civil society reforms" and still maintain their advantages, thus repelling or driving out investment in new competitive enterprises.

It is a standard pattern that this World Bank report deems fairly hopeless to overcome in this region, though others are doing better... while the United States slips ever deeper into the classic oligarchic pattern that Adam Smith loathed.

So, shall we commit seppuku and give up?  Of course not.  There is enough light erupting all over the Earth to encourage belief in progress, not only that it can happen, but that it has.  And that tech-driven transparency will help, when citizens can record and expose local corruption with the touch of a cell phone.  And that -- far better than chiding -- is good enough reason to persevere.

== So, will the world's new middle classes rise up? ==

As I portrayed in EARTH... and explore a bit in EXISTENCE... there are two types of uber-rich.  Those who are loyal to the Enlightenment Experiment that empowered their rise and (in effect) gave them everything they have... a diamond shaped social structure in which even with their billions, they - and their children - will keep facing fresh competition from a lively, vibrant population of educated and confident citizens...

...versus a portion of the new-aristocracy that simply does not get it.  Who think - as oligarchs did in 99% of past human cultures - that they are superior NOT because of this year's latest goods and services, but because wealth inherently means lordly merit.  Such folks aren't at fault for having this reflex.  We are all descended from the harems of guys who pursued power tenaciously and darwinistically.  The reflex is in our genes.

But it's a poison. Our Enlightenment Experiment achieved more human progress in just four generations than all the preceding feudal societies combined.  Its founders, like Adam Smith, recognized the oligarchic tendency and denounced it.  They knew that the foolish "uber" types would keep trying to pound our diamond shaped society back into a pyramid, promoting "rent-seeking" income (like dividends and capital gains) ahead of the wages earned by creative and hardworking people with their hands.

Inevitably (and history bears me out) all this conniving will have just three possible outcomes.

1- They succeed.  The Enlightenment Experiment comes to an end. (In Existence I explore the rationalizations they might give, to excuse such a backward shift, some of them very clever!)

2- The middle classes - uniting in common cause with knowledge professions like science - could enact yet another mild, moderate, incremental, American-style revolution, of which 1776 was only one example. So was the first U.S. Civil War and Teddy Roosevelt's progressive era, and FDR's New Deal, in which oligarchy gets stymied just enough to keep freedom and creative competition and entrepreneurial markets and  transparency and divided power and opportunity and social mobility going, while maintaining the allure of competitively-earned wealth as a reward for delivering cool things into the world.

3- Paris... 1789.

ClassWarLessonsHistoryHere is the chief difference between the good/smart/tech billionaires and the fools who now use Fox News to push an idolatry of property that has always, always, always been the enemy of competition.  The smart guys -- the billionaires in Silicon Valley for example, or Warren Buffett and Bill Gates -- want option number two. If need be, they will join the world's middle classes and help keep our looming "helvetian wars" mild.

In sharp contrast, the ones who are pushing the United States into Culture War... indeed, the lastest phase of the American civil war ... actually think they are very smart.  But their efforts, if successful, will only lead to outcome#3.

They aren't as smart as they think they are.

     =====     =====     =====

== See also: Class War and the Lessons of History

and Libertarians and Conservatives must choose: Competitive Enterprise or Idolatry of Property

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Scientific truth-seeking: An evolving process

== Big Minds Ponder Big Ideas? ==

The New Perspectives Quarterly has one of its unique features up again... a summary of ideas and concepts that were discussed by a gathering of notables at a meeting of the Berggruen Institute, last spring. Participants ranged from Jared Cohen of Google Ideas and Mircrosoft strategist Charles Songhurst to Transparent Society author David Brin; from Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo to MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito; from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to political scientist Francis Fukuyama to Alec Ross, the U.S. State Department’s top digital diplomat.

The idea-summary, Democracy and the Smart Mob - prepared by journalist/author Nathan Gardels - is very dense, with a fresh concept (or two or three) in every paragraph,  Extremely efficient; you'll need to focus and turn off your multi-tasking bars, even the background music!  But if you retain any attention span from the Old Days, you should find it well worth while.

Which brings up a fascinating modern problem.  Perhaps the most important one, since it affects how rapidly and well we can bring our vaunted skills to bear on other problems.

== Standards of Transparency in Science? ==

The issue of attention, scrutiny -- and transparency --  has never been more paramount than in science, which sets the gold standard for accountability in the hungry search for truth. But there have always been flaws and biases. (Believe me!) New technologies offer ways to both speed the results publication and expose them to credibility-ranking through criticism, not by abandoning peer review but by finding ways to crowd-source it with feedback ranked by a credibility scoring system. (I have proposed something similar as a terrific business someone might provide for the public as a whole.)

A range of discussions "have pushed publishers to explore alternatives to traditional publishing (such as data journals like GigaScience and data repositories like figshare and Dryad), and to rethink standard business models (for example PeerJ and eLife). (See “Whither Science Publishing,” The Scientist, August 2012.)"

It's an important topic that shows how seriously the smartest people in our civilization are taking on these issues, developing tools of verification and accountability that we can only hope will someday shine light also into the smokey worlds of commerce and politics.

Consider the following as an example of a discovery-trend that pokes hard at standard models and hence merits close scrutiny before acceptance... but which also offers tentative promise of rapid benefits, if confirmed.  Hence, rapid 21st Century attention should be applied.

== Solar neutrino dependence for radioactive decay? ==

Recent research findings appear  to suggest the rates of decay of some radioactive elements may vary according to our distance from the sun, or bursts of solar activity.  Moreover, one potential practical use may be to detect and predict solar storms well in advance.

The proposed mechanism... some purported effect that solar neutrinos may have on the weak nuclear force... is one that pokes my skeptical reflexes, as a physicist.  I am open minded but will need to see a LOT of evidence for something like that.

Here's the basis: Some groups found statistically significant correlations in the rate of decay of certain elements, which appear to be very slightly - but consistently - different in January and July, when the Earth is closest and farthest from the sun, respectively.

"When the Earth is farther away, we have fewer solar neutrinos and the decay rate is a little slower," Jenkins said. "When we are closer, there are more neutrinos, and the decay a little faster." Researchers also have recorded both increases and decreases in decay rates during solar storms.

"Since neutrinos have essentially no mass or charge, the idea that they could be interacting with anything is foreign to physics," Jenkins said. "So, we are saying something that doesn't interact with anything is changing something that can't be changed. Either neutrinos are affecting decay rate or perhaps an unknown particle is."

Fascinating.  Let's stay tuned.  Above all, let's watch carefully how the newly "tech-speeded" process of discovery, review and publication/feedback works in this test case.  The process is very important to us!  And let's bring the lessons to the outer world.

==Reinventing Discourse==

DisputationArenasArrowCoverAs a matter of fact, I've had a longstanding interest in improving methods of human discourse in general -- which have, unfortunately, not benefited from advances in information technology, anywhere as much as they should.  Indeed, judging from the condition of "culture war" in the U.S., discourse is plummeting to incredibly low levels.  Yes, search engines allow each of us to glom onto vast amounts of info-stuff on any topic, helping to make us glib and confident in our shallow "facts" (or rather - assertions). But without any processes for analytics, credibility, attribution or accountability, there is just no way for truly bad ideas or memes to die, let alone decline in virulence.

I wrote about this meticulously (though perhaps too academically) in Dispute Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness,  an article for the American Bar Association's Journal of Dispute Resolution. And I portray in my new novel EXISTENCE portraying a new future when all the missing parts are in place, allowing free citizens to coalesce upon any problem in "smart mobs" that swiftly self-organize, applying advanced analytic tools and deploying fierce citizenship in rapid-real time.  Alas, the horizon does not seem replete with endeavors that might make the dream come true.

See also an accumulation of articles and speculations about transparency, freedom and technology.

So, can we come up with better ways to argue and possibly even negotiate?

One approach that might be a step in the right direction was pointed-out to me by Dr. Paul Dixon co-founder,  "Harnu is equal parts translation service, news and content aggregation, map interface, and social layer. Our goal is to connect individuals who would otherwise never meet; to allow anyone to send a message or question anywhere in the world, and get an answer back. Our thesis is that if everyone growing up in middle America just knew one person growing up in the Middle East, the world would be a very different place - and that there's no reason that can't happen."

Some of you should try it and report back.  A step toward global perspective is welcome.

== Is the e-era green enough? ==

Pete Markiewicz has posted an interesting article, Save the world through Sustainable Web Design, describing how the "green medium"… publishing and reading electronically… may be a bit less eco-friendly than people think.  Oh, the per-word carbon footprint is lower, but the sheer volume has big effects. "According to one estimate, pushing exabytes around in 2011 took as much as ~9% of US electricity (up from 3% in 2000), and 5% worldwide. Processing this energy into bits required enormous amounts of water, mostly for cooling data centers. Within a decade, those same data centers may use more power than the entire airline industry. At the same time, new web services continue to drive the manufacture of new computers, with a resulting mountain of e-waste. Despite steady increases in computing efficiency, the internet’s footprint will only grow larger as populations in Asia and elsewhere come online."

== Sci Miscellany ==

* Just when you thought things could not get cooler or weirder... A pulse of light can have almost any shape in space and in time, determined by the amplitudes and phases of its frequency components. Surprisingly, single photons can also be generated in a variety of complex shapes. The difference is that the amplitude for a single photon doesn’t represent a definite value of the electric field strength; instead it’s associated with the probability of detecting the photon at each location and time.

Researchers could also encode information in the photon shape and transmit it from one place to another. There is so much flexibility that a single photon could represent any letter in the alphabet, for example, or even a quantum combination (superposition) of several letters. ... They created photons that had two separate frequency components with a particular phase difference. These photons were efficiently detected using local oscillator pulses that had a matching phase difference.

* Interested in design and the beginnings of YOUR era?  See this fascinating article about how HP designed the first modern hand-held calculator, the HP35.  I remember it well!

* See a fun video about how the Gates foundation is offering prizes for the re-invention of the toilet.

Still, along very similar lines, I yearn for a re-invention of our likewise stinky levels of public discourse.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Who is worse? Those who think progress will be easy? Or those who deny progress at all?

== Grouches versus Pollyannas... spare us! ==

Economics-pundit Niall Ferguson has weighed in again.  This  time, in Don't Believe the Techno-Utopian Hype, he rails against the super-optimists -- those who believe that eternal rapid progress will be the natural, even teleologically ordained, result of ever-rising information technology and connectivity. 

That movement -- variously called transhumanist or singularitarian, extropian and so on -- has its world capital in Silicon Valley, home of Singularity University, where zealots claim the future can, must and automatically will be bright.  Reacting with a grouchiness that has political-wing predictability, Ferguson joins Francis Fukayama, Peter Thiel, Bill Joy, Nicholas Carr and others in disdaining the florid forecasts of those I call "techno-transcendentalists."

Much of what Ferguson says about this movement is true, as far as it goes, so go ahead and read his essay before coming back here. I'll wait...

Indeed, emotionally, many transhumanists differ little from millennia after millennia of priests and shamans, who promised to lead every generation of our ancestors toward bright horizons, shucking off the limits of this gritty, morbid, moribund reality. The chief difference nowadays is that our 21st Century transcendentalists have split into two factions.

An old fashioned variety are repelled by technology and continue to offer skyward redemption  via the standard methods.  Whether it's Old-Time religion or New Age mysticism, the underlying trait remains the same. Offer folks a doorway to a better world via non-physical, non-verifiable abstractions -- e.g. prayer, incantation or secret concoctions

The newer type of transcendentalist preachers seem to have the same basic personality and need to promise a better world, only with one crucial difference. Tech-educated and tech-confident, they veer away from belief in incantations toward faith in the unlimited transformative power of Moore's Law.

== In defense of dreamers ==

Whenever I'm around singularity guys, I become the grouch in the room, and not just because I am "contrary."  Only followers of Fox News seem to have less grasp of history than the singularity zealots, who proclaim that Marx-like technological teleology will glide us all into godhood, within a decade or two. Both groups ignore the many ways that freedom and creative markets and other enlightenment miracles were quashed, in 99% of human cultures.

Civilization1On the other hand, it rankles me to see them dissed by pundits whose depth of insight would not get your toes wet. Niall Ferguson, especially -- a glib lightweight who flounders in the shallow end of the idea pool -- is superficial to a degree that should win him a nice, cushy sinecure at Fox.

For example, Ferguson uses today's parochial social/economic concerns as proof of some grand, generalized, spenglerian decline-of-the-west, and this "demonstrates" that technology-propeled progress is not only a vain hope, but intrinsically impossible.

But while the middle class may have stagnated for a time in the U.S. -- (what do you expect, when a vast portion of their wealth is siphoned by a neo-feudal oligarchy?) -- Ferguson ignores far more significant news. The stunningly rapid rise of middle classes in developing nations.

news-positiveNeither the left nor the right has any interest in acknowledging good news -- and complicit mass media find even the possibility absolutely allergenic. So, we hardly ever hear about the rapid decline in violence, each decade since 1945, that Professor Steven Pinker documents in his  book, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Nor the rate at which new generations are becoming more educated and technologically empowered in China, India and even Africa...

...a vast social leap that has been propelled largely by the American consumer and WalMart.  Probably the greatest phenomenon of the last 60 years, and the direct outcome of deliberate policies first put in place by George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, this process of uplift through trade is barely acknowledged anywhere, even by the brightest observers, like Paul Krugman.  It is the chief achievement of Pax Americana.  And future generations will call it miraculous.

True, this fantastically effective "aid program" could be better managed. For example, the US and the west should act more decisively to defend their crown jewels, the intellectual property and fruits of creativity that allow the western goose to continue laying Golden Eggs for the rest of the world. Corporate China, in particular, would seem eager to kill and eat the goose, proof they are not yet wise enough to replace the American Pax.

Still, the bigger picture is vast and fascinating and overwhelmingly positive, overall. The slight declines in America that Niall Ferguson cites -- and that were wrought almost completely by his side in culture war -- are still just surface blips in a trend whose epochal plus sides are beyond the comprehension of myopes like Ferguson.

HowAmericansSpentThemselvesLet me reiterate this point, since no one ever seems to grok it. A century from now, the way that U.S. consumers uplifted most of the planet will be viewed as one of the great accomplishments of our age.  (See: How Americans Spent themselves into ruin but saved the world.) Perhaps the greatest. Out of 1945's depth of despair, brilliant leaders like Marshall set up the world game so that its overall sum has become overwhelmingly positive. Moreover, any "economist" who ignores this yang side of the picture is simply a fool.

== Will it be a world for grouches?  Or Transcendentalists? ==

Neither.  In my new novel - EXISTENCE - I portray what is likely.  A grinding-ahead of progress that the wise investment seer John Mauldin calls "muddling through." We will accomplish a great deal of what the transhumanists envision, though it will be grittier and more complicated, with lots more irritations than we are assured. There will never be a point when we declare: "oh wow, we are gods now!"

In other words, it will be like the huge progress that we've achieved already.  And there will still be those of the so-called right and left and mystical fringe - dopes who deserve no credibility at any level, like Niall Ferguson - who deny that progress happened at all.

In fact, we may have a chance to create a fantastic new civilization on this planet, by returning to and enhancing the Enlightenment methods that brought us to this party.  

tools-enlightenmentMethods like transparency and reciprocal accountability and divided power and pragmatic negotiation that have nothing whatsoever to do with "left" or "right" but that are deeply threatened by one side in our current culture war.

If we restore our fervent, even militant fealty to those methods, then this pax will continue to generate vast, positive-sum miracles. But it won't be easy or fore-ordained.  If it were, the sky would already be filled with the alien starships from countless other civilizations who found it easy before us.  That empty sky tells us a lot.  It is gonna be hard.

We can reach for a bright horizon. But only if we ignore the grouches... then sigh and slog past the lovable dopes who say it will come as a gift, as natural as sunrise.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Are animals intelligent ... enough?

A recent, fascinating recent study is Decoding Animal Languages, by Con Slobodchikoff.  At one level, it is an inspiring demonstration of how new technologies can liberate us from preconceptions and open new avenues of empathy, helping humans to understand the other species who co-inhabit this planet with us.

As Temple Grandin has pointed out, in her campaigns to reform the meat industry, we do not have to entirely abandon the omnivorous cravings of our caveman ancestry. But we are obliged to offer our fellow creatures the best deal that's compatible with our legitimate needs. Doing that entails finding paths of greater care and understanding. Prof. Grandin explores the language of animals through her gifts as the world's most impressive and high-functioning fully autistic person. Dr. Slobodchikoff is doing it with acoustical science.

I have some history in this area, having visited many researchers to learn about animal communications, in preparation for my "uplift" series of novels. These portray a future in which humanity meddles with the intellectual capacities of higher animals.  

Prior authors explored this territory -- HG Wells, Pierre Boule, Cordwainer 
UpliftMontageSmith - so I avoided their standard scenario that, in arrogating the promethean powers of God, humans would reflexively opt to be cruel or to enslave the new minds.  Instead, my readers explore what problems neo-dolphins or neo-chimps might have, even were the endeavor done with skill, kindness and best intentions.

The end result - 200 years down the road, might be a pan-Terran civilization filled with broader styles and more diversity of wisdom - a fine dream. But are we willing to pay the price? Which would be pain.  Lots of it, unavoidable, for those intermediate generations of cetaceans and simians, and for ourselves, as some of the steps and missteps along the way prove awkward, mistaken, or even or tragic.

I have no doubt that powerful forces from both left and right would unite (as I portray in my new novel, Existence) against any such effort, one side decrying any hubristic attempt to revise God's plan and the other proclaiming that natural species are already smart enough, with great linguistic abilities and their own nobility of spirit, equal in value to our own.  I do not wholly disagree with the second of these objections!  But it is, in the end, wrongheaded.

Consider the recent work of Dr. Slobodchikoff and others, demonstrating the basic linguistic ability of prairie dogs, adding them to a long list of species who can signal complex arrays of factual-practical information.  And the smaller but significant number of even-smarter species who seem capable of genuine sentence structure, questions, answers and basic logical-semantic interpretation. Those who can do all this, with vocabularies in hundreds of words, include dolphins, apes, parrots, corvids (crows), pinnipeds (sea lions) and dozens more (with dolphins and chimps slightly ahead).  Is this evidence, as Dr. Slobodchikoff implies and as many on the left insist, that all these threshold races have what's sufficient, noble, and in no need of human "help"?

Or does it suggest the very opposite? All seem to crowd against an obdurate and perhaps natural limit, bumping against the same glass ceiling. Evolution brought each, separately, to the point where individuals can interact tribally, solve basic riddles, organize a few, primitive-coordinated activities, and perhaps (in a few cases) contemplate some kinds of irony, esthetics or even whimsey. But Darwin is stingy. He allows urgent species (sometimes) to achieve their minimal needs. But it is another matter to get what you want.  

And speaking purely anecdotally, I can tell you that the dolphins who interact with sincere human researchers appear to want - desperately - to be smarter than they are. It is a subjective impression I have heard from the scientists themselves, a number of times.

9780465031313There is growing evidence that something very special happened to a few thousand African hominids, half a million or so years ago… and in accelerating stages ever since, up to today. That special thing - a runaway selection process that made a race capable of contemplating what YOU are contemplating, right now - was certainly unique on Earth and may be unprecedented across vast stretches of the Galaxy. It enabled us to rise so high that our abilities and numbers may threaten the whole planet.  Or else - if we choose - empower us to save the Earth, and heal it and tend and manage it.

Either way, that's power, man.

Those who attempt to downplay this leap, by saying animals have "language" too, miss the point.  It s not in simple, qualitative, on-off switches like "tool use" or use of basic semantics that we are so profoundly different.  It is the additive, multiplicative, exponentiated effects that have come from combining a myriad skills in a stunning momentum of mind.

While some of our savants ponder how to analyze, emulate and even amplify these powers in silica, it may be time, as well, to contemplate the cousin consciousnesses that we already have, all around us.  Natural beings who may not have to bump against the hard ceiling of their pre-sapient limits forever, but whose destinies may be broad and vast indeed… providing we grow wise and good and skilled enough to show the way.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Obama on the importance of Curiosity

I write this from Pasadena, where I just finished a public evening (that will be podcast soon on the site of KPCC FM radio) discussing with USC Professor Paul Rosenbloom  and the Planetary Society's Mat Kaplan the future of artificial intelligence, uplifting dolphins, and good or bad types of singularities.  You know... small stuff.

Two weeks ago I spoke at Planet Fest (Why the Sudden Activity in Space?), prepping folks for the celebration of fantastic news, that we Earthlings were capable of sending a stunningly advanced robot that could lower itself by crane to the surface of Mars.

But there are implications that extend beyond science.

If you like being part of a civilization that celebrates science and intellect and progress… while willingly negotiating in openness and improving through the reciprocal criticism of faults… then you are behooved to lift your head, this season, and note the implications in politics.

It is no longer  the process we knew in the days of genteel scholars like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley -- when politics was a matter of choosing between an array of policy recommendations based on competing, fact-driven arguments, finding compromises and practical mixes of solutions that blended private and enterprise initiatives with a closely watched and accountable democratic-consensus state.  

That kind of politics is over in the United States of America.  At least it is during this, the third phase of the American Civil War.  One of the parties has been led - by some Australian and Saudi and American billionaires - down a path so biliously opposed to science and logic and facts that only about 5% of US scientists will have anything to do with it anymore.

(Indeed, my standard challenge is to name ONE broad professional caste of intellect and knowledge that is not under attack at Fox, from scientists to teachers, civil servants, law professionals, journalists, professors, medical doctors, economists... I can name a couple that Fox leaves out of its jihad against intellect... but can you? And if you cannot name one... even one... then can we take it as a proved trend?)

== What role Curiosity plays in all of this ==

In contrast, this is the kind of jovially supportive whimsey that we used to get from both parties… and maybe we will again, someday.  Scan this from last week... then go on to my reflection on the import of a single word.

President Barack Obama placed a congratulatory telephone call to the NASA team behind the Mars "Curiosity" rover, joking he might go for a Mohawk to emulate flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, and quipping that he needed to be told "right away" if the probe finds any little green men.

"If, in fact, you do make contact with Martians, please let me know right away," he said in the call. "I've got a lot of other things on my plate, but I suspect that that will go to the top of the list. Even if they're just microbes, it will be pretty exciting."

On a more serious note, Obama congratulated the team on Curiosity's successful landing on the Red Planet a week ago and praised the technical skill required as "mind-boggling."

"What you've accomplished embodies the American spirit, and your passion and your commitment is making a difference," he said."

"'Curiosity' is going to be telling us things that we did not know before and laying the groundwork for an even more audacious undertaking in the future, and that's a human mission to the Red Planet," Obama said.

And he pledged his "personal commitment to protect" government investments in science and technology.

== Okay, here's a little reflection on a beautiful word ==

I am reminded of the one moment that impressed me most about Barack Obama… during his victory speech after the election in 2008.  I listened carefully and shrugged as he said all the things we knew he had to say.  Some promises from his stump speech.  Some cordial words offering a handshake and negotiations to the other side.  The usual platitudes one must say, about courage, neighborliness, patriotism, progress, lifting our eyes to the horizon… yadda.  Good stuff, but expected.

I was listening for something else.  For the bits that any smart person would stick in, even though they weren't expected or required.

Even a seasoned politician must feel a burning wish to insert a new thought now and then… even just one… that has nothing to do with politics, but instead what he, personally, feels to be missing.  Something - perhaps - that he deems to be desperately needed.

Then I heard it… when he listed eight national character traits essential for our success… and there, mixed in with seven expected ones was…

… curiosity...

Go back and  watch that speech again.  You'll hear that word, which has no possible political redolence in the standard catechisms of the insipid left-right axis.  

And yet, it is telling... and tells a rich allegory, in light of our nation's recent, magnificent accomplishment, It also lays down before you the stark clarity of the core difference between two sides in this, our tragic Civil War.

It isn't about "left" versus "right."  It never was, and don't let anyone get away with telling you it is.

This is future versus past.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Romney's "13%" solution

Mitt Willard Romney now informs us that he did pay taxes during the last ten years.

Thus he attempts to staunch - despite his own refusal to provide proof in the form of tax returns - the assertion of critics like Democratic senator Harry Reid that Romney paid no taxes at all, across some of that decade. Every year, I’ve paid at least 13 percent,” Romney said, apparently referring to his effective federal income tax rate. 

Now let's do the unusual and actually parse it out. There are more aspects to all of this than you could shake a schtick at:

#1 First off -- please read between the lines.  In effect, Mitt Romney is only saying "for the years in question, I paid at least 13% on the final NET taxable income that appeared on line 43 of my form 1040." He said nothing about how large or small that final net taxable income was. Nor how much tax he actually paid.   All that his recent statement claims is that the amounts weren't zero, in years when he made between twenty and forty million dollars in gross income.

Consider, carefully. It's not 13% of his gross income, but of the final net taxable income after most income has been removed by shelters and dodges. Thirteen percent… on what was LEFT after sheltering most of it from ever appearing on line 43… and this should impress us?

In a Washington Post article, Ezra Klein lays this out carefully: '“Adjusted gross income” (AGI) is pretty close to what you think about when you think about income. “Taxable income” is what you’re left with after accounting for deductions like the home mortgage interest deduction.'  (Or the myriad other deductions and shelters available to the uber-rich.)

'Daniel Shaviro, a professor of tax policy at NYU, made the same point. “The key question here is 13.9 % of what. We know he paid zero tax at the capital gains rate in 2009, since he had loss carryovers for 2010.  So he may have had ridiculously low adjusted gross income (AGI), relative to his economic income for the year.”

Yes it is obscure... and yet important.  Let's hope the real lesson of all this comes across.

#2. Mitt Romney did provide 20 years of tax returns to John McCain, back in 2008, when he was being considered for the VP slot. If McCain deserved to see them at that time, as Romney's prospective 'boss,' then what are we? Chopped liver?  Aren't we the real bosses, deserving all information about the executive we're meant to hire? Similarly, Romney demanded tax returns from his prospective vice presidential candidates.

On this aspect, blogmunity member L. Lyons proposed: "Four years ago in the depths of the largest recession since the '30's John McCain and his campaign team vetted Mitt Romney as a potential VP candidate. Part of the vetting was to look at 20 years of IRS returns. Remember this was in 2008 with the economy nearly in freefall. They looked at Romney's tax returns, and chose Sarah Palin."

#3. In any event,  Mitt Romney knew he would face this issue in 2012. Indeed, he's been running for president for most of the last two decades.  And the GOP tradition held once again - that the nomination always goes (in order of priority) to (i) a sitting GOP president, (ii) a sitting GOP vice president, or - barring those being available - the fellow whose turn it is.  That is what has happened every single election year since 1960.  Barring situations (i) and (ii), the nominee the fellow who came in second for the nomination last time.

Hence, Mitt knew the nomination would likely fall in his lap in 2012 - as it has - so why did he not get ready, so that at least 4 years of tax records would be pristine and ready for public scrutiny?  Isn't the presidency worth sacrificing some tasty tax dodges? Given all that, if there are any embarrassments in those returns, what does that say about the intelligence and foresight of a man who is urging us to "make me commander in chief"?

Frankly, I'd prefer the notion of a Dan Rather Gotcha to the idea that we'd let anywhere near the presidency a man too stupid to clean up his finances before running for the top job.

#4.   Is Mitt simply delaying in order to get nominated, and then let whatever S#!^! hit the fan? Less than 2 weeks and counting, then at least he gets to be in history books, even if the party dumps him (unlikely) in October.  Ah, but follow that musing for a bit! Suppose six-term Congressman Paul Ryan inherited the top slot, simply because one man picked him for ticket-balancing reasons? What would that say about our crazy party system?

Heck, what does it say that a party would aim to vest full executive power over Pax Americana in a pair of men with zero foreign policy experience whatsoever and a combined total of less than twenty years in public office? And zero at a top national level?

#5. Going back to Harry Reid, the most senior Mormon official in the United States, who hopes to stay that way. I have one piece of advice for Reid that he should carefully consider. I suspect the possibility of a Dan Rather lure Harry Reid has pounced on an apparent weakness (claiming a Bain investor told him that Romney paid no taxes for ten years.) But remember the Swift Boaters. Reid may have been fed a "reliable" rumor deliberately, in order to draw him onto a branch that could be cut  off.  You can be sure that tactic will be used at some point, even if it wasn't on this occasion. Double check your sources. And don't be too shocked if, suddenly, at an opportune moment, Mitt opens up a dozen tax returns and there's nothing noteworthy. I don't deem it likely, but it's better  than scenario #3 (above)..

And finally:  From the same article we offered in lead-off position, lower down. “We pay our taxes,” Ann Romney said. “We are absolutely — beyond paying our taxes, we also give 10 percent of our income to charity, so that you know, we have no issues that way and the only reason we don’t disclose any more is, you know, we just become a bigger target.”

Hm. As faithful and obedient Mormons, they are  obliged to tithe 10% of their income to their church.  It is pretty much automatic. That is the "charity" of which Mrs. Romney speaks… and it implies that this very very rich couple doesn't give hardly anything beyond that. Nothing at all to what the rest of us would call voluntary generosity.

What? I am hoping she rounded-down! But why would she?  Jumping jiminy, even the Koch brothers give something to acceptably rightist charitable causes.

In fact, let's withhold judgement as this is damnation on very slim evidence (then show us the returns!) But on the face of it, this sniffs like aristocrats who cannot be bothered to pay back or pay forward, lifting even a finger to help their nation, or to make a better world.