Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Attention henchmen! Voting machines and other flawed conspiracies

After some introduction, my remarks this time will swerve specifically toward a special set of individuals out there called "henchmen." But the rest of you may find it interesting. 

Will the next U.S. election be stolen?  And if it is... can the theft be reversed?

Given the abysmal reputation that President George W. Bush earned -- even among conservatives -- there is no doubt that most Americans would send a warning back in time, to prevent the theft of the election of 2000, if only they could. 

Another nail-biter election will be upon us in a week. The contest is not so much left vs. right, or Democrats vs Republicans, or even Red America vs. Blue America in Phase 3 of the U.S. Civil War. It is, rather, a crucial stage in the latest oligarchic putsch to reverse a 250 year experiment. And possibly a return to the way of life known by 99% of human societies.

What will happen if the outcome teeters close, as it did in 2000?  Can we expect sudden, surprising shifts in vote counts from crucial precincts, as happened in that fateful year? Shifts that coincidentally always err in one direction? Or weird anomalies from the early-voting tallies?  Or from absentee ballots?

Of course we can.  Other writers have analyzed the potential for fraud that has been building for years, whether through voter roll purging, vote suppression or direct shenanigens by the companies who own and operate most of the nation's electronic voting machines.  I urge you to get educated; Look at reports by an NSA analyst and others about these incredibly brazen campaigns to outright cheat the process we rely upon as citizens and heirs of the Founders, who counted on us to carry forward their Great Experiment. 

== The blatant examples are one-sided ==

I'll offer just one detail here, though it screams the travesty.  In most blue states (e.g. California) the voting machines are either fed a hand-marked paper ballot to read, or else they provide a printed receipt that the voter can inspect and drop into a separate box. Either way, all votes made in that precinct can be audited.  No matter how many back doors and cheats might be built secretly into the machines or programs, no one will dare pull a major electronic switcheroo, if enough precincts will be randomly hand-counted and audited.

The same is not true in many red states, where GOP-run legislatures gave voting machine contracts to a trio of companies alll of whom have strong Republican Party connections. (The address of one of those companies?  ES&S: 11208 John Galt Blvd. Omaha, NE   I kid you not.  John Galt Blvd.)

Moreover, in most red states that use electronic voting, the process does not involve a separate box of auditable paper ballots. No way for anyone to catch a glitch or falsified result.  Now why... why would they do that? Why would anyone do that, except in deliberate furtherance of fraud?

This potential theft will be exacerbated by the fact that news organizations and polling firms are cutting down on exit polls, this year.  Exit polling has proved to be a major deterrent to cheating, because of its high degree of accuracy.  In precincts that are neither exit-polled nor auditable by paper receipts anything -- including skullduggery and cheating -- can happen.  And many folks expect that cheating will happen... say in Virginia or Florida... if the election is tight.

Now, at a macro level, this says an awful lot about the deep and growing difference in philosophy and psychology in Blue viz Red America. An attitude of win-at-any-cost prevails as a way of life in one realm, while the other moves deliberately in the opposite direction, toward accountability and adult behavior.  Want backup for that assertion?  Only in blue states have citizen revolts ended the foul practice of gerrymandering, returning a meaningful choice to voters.  In California, for example, districts are now compact, reasonable, and are much more competitive, giving citizens some real leverage, for a change. Even if you are a republican living in a largely democratic district, as the Berman-Sherman run-off shows, you now have a chance to be heard and heeded, as never before, because gerrymandering, a blatant crime, is gone in California.

No red state has done this.  The picture is complete; and I will say it even more starkly, below.

But first... I must now stop talking to the majority of you and address the bulk of message to a very small subset. (The rest of you are welcome to listen in! This involves you too.)

== Henchmen, pay attention ==

* There is an old saying. 

When you're playing poker, if it's not immediately evident who the patsy is...

...the patsy is you.*

I have something to say to a very special audience.  Those of you out there who are actually involved in endeavors to game or cheat the electoral process.

Yes, I am talking to you guys -- the henchmen (because that really is the word) of those conniving Blofeld types who plan to manipulate voting machine results, or who are purging voter rolls or arranging for "accidental" losses of ballots or biased disqualifications or any of the other shenanigens at issue here.

You know that we know it's going on. And despite that, you've already decided on your path. Perhaps you've let Roger Ailes convince you that your fellow citizens cannot be trusted with a decision this vital. Or that we have a muslim, commie, satanist-usurper in the White House and you are cheating for the nation's good. Or else you are being very well paid! Or you're being blackmailed. Or some combination of the above. You know that, in this day and age, it is vital to keep conspiracies small, but have you ever sat down and thought about why?

(Elsewhere I've made clear I'm an equal opportunity skeptic. I opposed the USSR's evil empire and frequently inveigh against some of the idolatries and stupidities we sometimes see from the extreme left, such as "Loose Change" conspiracies about the tragedy of 9/11. Stupidities so awful that across any year they add up to a whole day's worth of the spew we get from Fox. Yes, that bad.)

I discuss the difficult situation of henchmen in both my novel EARTH and in my nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?  For in this modern era, with cameras and recording devices getting ever smaller, the chances that you'll get caught with firm evidence showing you committing illegal acts will grow with every passing day.

Indeed, if you have discussed details in meetings with co-conspirators, you had better assume the other fellow was recording you, and stashing the record somewhere, in case he ever needs it.  To blackmail you.  Or to offer in a plea bargain.

Moreover, if you have not already done this -- recorded your compatriots in secret, in case you will ever need leverage -- then you have proved you are the patsy, the stupid one, the pawn who will be sacrificed, if things ever fall apart.

This lesson applies to all conspiracies, not just to present efforts aimed at stealing the U.S. elections.  If you are a henchman, but do not want to be sacrificed like the hundreds who die for the villain in every Bond film, then you had better prepare a little blackmail of your own.

== The henchman's dilemma ==

If you are going to play, you really must read up. Be knowledgeable, an intellectual henchman. Because you're doomed otherwise.  Read about positive sum versus zero sum games.  And especially the type that fascinates scientists today, called "Prisoner's Dilemma." To save time, do a first-cursory wiki before coming back here.  Go ahead, I'll wait. Understand what it means! It applies to you.

You are in a prisoner's dilemma with other members of the conspiracy. So long as the cabal stays very small and is richly motivated, there's a chance that everyone will hold together. But consider... what if someone breaks?

Suppose some news reporter, or FBI agent, or unhappy spouse or younger brother, gets wind of the conspiracy well enough to start bugging the meetings?  Or to threaten one of your comrades and get him to turn states' evidence?  Or someone decides they are sick of being blackmailed that that it's time to be a man. Or suppose there's a counter-offer on the table that's hard to refuse?  (I'll talk about just such an offer, in a bit!)

What's to stop one of your colleagues from blabbing? Consider the tradeoffs.

Whoever blabs first will get:

-  Amnesty or a pardon.  Or else (at worst) a wrist slap.

-  A big fat book deal.

-  Appearances on a hundred talk shows.

-  A top "security" job some California tech billionaire who hates Roger Ailes.

- A new identity, if you want one.  (It won't be needed.)

- Admiration & adoration from grateful citizens. Positive mention in history books.

-  To be on the inevitable winning side.

All the other members of the Cabal will go to prison. For conniving to steal elections, they will be reviled and their names cursed, not only in this generation, but in tones now used for John Wilkes Booth and Benedict Arnold.  Some will simply die, as the top guys cover their tracks.

Oh, yes, some of the top folks may have insulated themselves.  They are the ones who have already recorded you making incriminating statements and actions, but have been careful, themselves. They already have contingency plans and know who the patsies are, who will be tossed to the wolves if anything goes wrong. Be assured, you are one of them.

In fact, I believe these top fellows are wrong about their own insulated safety, this time. Transparency is likely to skewer them like bugs, when the light starts shining. But that's a future thing, driven by coming technologies. I admit that, in past times, Blofeld often got away.

He did so by sacrificing pawns. And that's your role in Plan B. Furthermore consider this. The very best way to sacrifice a pawn is to make sure that the pawn both takes the blame and is dead, so he can't squeal. What? You think they wouldn't do that to you? Gosh, there's one born every minute.

== Happy with the position you are in? ==

Oh, but if I have planted uncomfortable thoughts, you can still shrug it all off.

 "Brin wants me to be the squealer.  He's trying to talk me into being a whistle blower, so he can help that Blue America filled with scientists and intellectuals and city folks and evil muslim-satanic-commie presidents!"

Go ahead and rationalize all you want.  But the fundamentals of what I've said here apply, no matter who is saying it, and you know that's true.  They apply to all conspiracies. And yes even to good ones! Those that are working against tyranny.

Well, except for the part about book deals and talk shows and being a hero and getting to party with starlets and the rest. That will only happen if you blow the whistle on nasty stuff. And the public will call your cabal of vote stealers nasty. Sooner or later, even a century from now, they will hate you.

Oh, there's one more thing.  I know some of those tech billionaires.  And take my word for it - they will match whatever you are currently getting from the conspirators!  If you spill the beans convincingly on a nasty cabal that is stealing elections -- or anything similar -- you will be paid at least as much as the Blofelds are now paying you to help them cheat. Double... triple! And Blofeld can't offer you the book deal, talk shows or starlets.

In fact, I am letting a cat out of the bag. (I have permission to say this much.) If we see a repeat of 2000, with an election -- even a local Congressional race -- stolen by weird electoral veers in suspicious precincts that stink to high heaven, those billionaires will go public with their offer! Millions in exchange for proof that is iron-clad and solid. 

Now look at your co-henchmen in the conspiracy. Consider that they have already recorded you. They have such proof, stocked and hidden away. While you twiddled your thumbs. They are positioned to take advantage of such offers, while you are not. And only the first one to blab will get the bonanza.

I'd get busy, if I were you.

== Other ways of stealing the election ==

Enough talking to henchmen. Now back to you regular readers.  

Of course, the problem is about more than electoral cheating. This putsch is being waged across a broad front. By far the biggest part is the tsunami of money, the insane degree to which our democracy is being bought.  The very same Supreme Court that gave us George W. Bush and the plummet of America that followed, has opened the floodgates of private cash -- and even secret foreign lucre -- to inundate our electoral process.

Who bought your candidate? See the top corporate donors for each candidate for the house and senate... and remember, we don't get any of this info re the real graft... the super-PACS. Are you happy with this?

There are some incredibly smart and wise suggestions for how we could get most of the money out of politics. (Currently, legislators spend HALF of their time fund-raising.  Think about that.) Professor Lawrence Lessig, in particular, has a set of well-backed changes that are deliberately NOT socialistic, but that would still level the playing field and make politics about competing fairly for our votes, again. Ah, but can it happen during Civil War Part III?

Not only are corporations people, but the tradition of One-Person-One-Vote will be replaced by Wallstreet-style "corporate democracy" in which votes are tallied according to the number of shares that you own.

Make no mistake, that is the objective.  We have seen that they cannot claim competence at war... or at peace... or at fiscal management... or science.  Every "social" issue from abortion to religion to flag waving... all of those things are secondary, mere ways to marshall emotion from Red America. The way slave-owners marshaled a million poor whites to march and die for the oligarchs' privileges, during the first phase of the American Civil War.

== The Chief Result: an America that no longer negotiates ==

The utter demise of the species "moderate republican" is best illustrated in this fantastic graphic from the XKCD online series. It demonstrates the blatantly obvious -- how the GOP has become the most tightly disciplined and partisan political force in US history, marshalled and commanded by one man... Roger Ailes... at the behest of several petro-princes and foreign billionaires.

== What can the rest of us do? ==

Send emails to the news networks and polling firms, demanding that they beef up exit polling this year, instead of letting it decline.

Volunteer to do poll watching and/or get-out-the-vote.  And tell your friends who despise both major parties to go have a look at Gary Johnson.

Write about this online and maybe viral this posting you are reading now.

Start talking to others about the notion of a "henchman's prize" to accomplish much the same good work that is being done by whistle blower laws.

Tell especially any henchmen you know! Or anyone who might know a henchman. They need to read this. To think about it. Hard.

Talk about how angry you will be, if 2000 is repeated, and how vigorously you will resist, if the election is stolen.  And -- if it is -- come back here.  I'll have suggestions.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Do the U.S. 2012 elections reflect the Fermi Paradox? The empty Galaxy?

The Fermi Paradox is the question of why we seem to be alone in our neck of the universe. Why don't we observe any blatant signs of intelligent life in the cosmos, including the great works that our own descendants may begin to build, if we give them a good start in the right direction?

When I first started writing about this 30 years ago, I called it the Mystery of the Great Silence -- a quandary that we've covered here and elsewhere, in articles that list over 100 hypotheses for why we appear to be alone.  A topic that is also woven into the weft and flow of my new novel, Existence.

Almost everyone who dives into this subject swiftly chooses a favorite theory.  Perhaps life erupts rarely, or intelligence, or most life worlds are more oceanic so that few create hands-and-fire users, or maybe life gets pounded in most places by comets or supernovae.  I've had the role of cataloguing these theories, refusing to tout just one! But I do have a personal Top Ten list. And two of these most-plausible explanations for the Great Silence are of significance to us today.

That's because two of them relate to political choices we'll make next week, in the United States of America. These two scenarios, which may seriously winnow down the number of visible galactic civilizations -- and might soon do the same to us -- are:

1. Bad governance leads to Big Mistakes (e.g. nuclear war, eco-collapse etc.) that kill off or render impotent many or most technological species. Note that this is a whole class of potential failure modes, a minefield of errors that young, technological races might commit, veering past one doom and escaping the next before tumbling into a third... or fourth... or...

2. Most tech species slump into the same social attractor state that snared 99% of human cultures. That pattern, repeated from Egypt and Meso-America to Babylon, China and Rome -- from Tokugawa Japan to Bourbon France to Hanoverian England -- was family-based oligarchy. The standard, pyramid-shaped social order wherein conservative elites (king, lords, priests, wizards) squelch rapid scientific advancement and middle class innovation as a threat to their carefully maintained inherited privilege.

This system - (envision all the endless variants on feudalism) - was dominant in nearly all past human societies because, for one thing, it is reproductively self- reinforcing! Indeed, you see the same drive at work in the hierarchy-seeking or harem-keeping behaviors of males in countless other species on Earth. It's a powerful and deeply natural attractor state and there's no reason it won't be likewise compelling in other realms across the cosmos.

At a glance, it is obvious how both #1 and #2 are "Fermi-relevant" failure modes that could stymie many -- perhaps most -- intelligent-technological species from communicating or spreading among the stars. Other factors may also come into play.  But these two are persuasive top candidates.

== Does oligarchy limit the potential for collapse? ==

Contemplating these two potential explanations for the Great Silence raises a question: do these two winnowing factors work together?  Or against each other?

After all, one of the top rationalizations that oligarchies have given, when they suppress science and markets, competitive invention and enterprise, is that the priests and lords are acting for the good of all.  Preventing instability and disruption. Indeed, this is a chief point raised by Jared Diamond in his great, highly-recommended, but disturbingly off-target book COLLAPSE.

In other words, a lot of species might find serenity through #2 -- while most of the rest are swept away by #1.  Together the pair may help to explain the interstellar quiet.  And naturally, the genteel stagnation represented by #2 seems preferable to the effective extinction of #1. Assuming these two choices represent our only alternatives -- and some of the characters in my new novel EXISTENCE argue that point -- then we have a pretty good idea why the stars appear so lifeless and empty of voices.

But as we'll see, that may be a false way of looking at things.  Rather, I will contend that the oligarchy process guarantees falling into fatal pitfalls, rather than avoiding them.

== The Fermi Paradox and U.S. Politics ==

These two paths and types of failure modes seem especially relevant to the present US elections. COMPETENCE and RENUNCIATION are the distill-words.  Even if you favor oligarchic conservatism as a model for our future, over the fevered drive of Periclean-egalitarian positive sum games... you are still behooved to consider the competence issue. But hold that thought. We'll get back to competence and option #1 in a minute.

First, how does Fermi Choice #2 -- oligarchy-pushed renunciation -- bear upon the 2012 campaign?  It's relevant!

Consider: in the recent debates one candidate spoke about "science" fourteen times , whereas the other has has barely mentioned it during the campaign trail.

American scientists have voted with their feet, with only 6% now calling themselves Republican. (It used to be about 50%). Indeed, the head of the GOP controlled House of Representatives Science Committee recently and repeatedly declared the Earth to be 9000 years old.  Yes, the head of the Science Committee. Of the House of Representatives. Of the United States of America.

In every conceivable way, from science to education... all the way to the rebuilding of a vastly powerful American Oligarchy, the GOP is your party if you feel that renunciation and a return to traditional patterns of aristocratic rule is preferable to Periclean instability. It is the Olde Way, pushed hardest via a media empire owned by multiple foreign billionaires, including the Saudi Royal Family.

Moreover, it may be that millions of other species faced similar choices and all picked this route! The decision may be inevitable. The star lanes may appear empty because a myriad other races made the same, Darwin-driven choice -- settling into genteel, aristocracy-tended conservatism. Which I'll admit beats extinction.

Still, in weighing this choice, I know what decision I will argue for. I vote to keep faith with Pericles and Adam Smith and Washington and Franklin and Lincoln and Frederick Douglas and Jonas Salk and Warren Buffett and the Silicon Valley geeks. 

Yes, the Periclean Western Enlightenment, with its egalitarianism, transparency, competitive markets, democracy and flat, anti-oligarchic social order does charge ahead into the future.  And yes, the faster we charge ahead, the more we'll need transparency and freedom, to probe ahead of us, finding mine fields, quicksand pools and other pitfall-dangers ahead. And yes, the nostalgia junkies and oligarchy-lovers have a point when they cry out "slow down!"

But think.  The fundamental fact of the Fermi Paradox is that we see no signs of advanced civilization "boldly going" about, out there.  So, if oligarchic pyramids are the main attractor state, among the stars, isn't that an argument that we should try something else? Perhaps something unusual? Something like this enlightenment?

Think about that a while.  Chew on it. Put it all together. If 99% of human cultures did the natural thing, and most other sapients do, as well, and we see empty star lanes... then maybe, just maybe, we should do something different. I say we ought to stick with Pericles.

Ah, but that only addresses failure mode #2. Then there is Fermi failure mode #1 and that matter of competence! 

== Stand on your record of governance ==

Whether you support the Periclean Experiment (in this election that makes you Blue... or largely a democrat... or maybe libertarian), or else you happen to favor a return to the oligarchic pattern of 6000 years (in other words, a follower of Fox-owners Rupert Murdoch and Prince bin Walied)... there remains the other Fermi Factor listed above.

Factor #1.  Is your side any good at governing?

You might yearn for a king, but if the one available is horridly stupid and BAD at statecraft, maybe you should side with the Pericleans for a while and wait for a better king.

Please.  Put aside preconceptions.  Use curiosity to overcome the all-too human tendency -- to funnel disliked information through the emotional amygdala.  If presented with clear and systematic proof that your side is incompetent, will you at least have a look? Instead of skimming.

Cutting through all the polemic, attack ads and sketchy evasiveness, this 2012 U.S. election ought to boil down to which party tends to govern better. On that, the historical record is clear. For those who can still be swayed by factual comparisons - and if you care about the role America might play in taking civilization to the stars - have a look at these stark contrasts and share them with others:

"How Democrats and Republicans differ at defense and waging war,"

This one has gone viral, drawing a lot of hits from regions where soldiers and sailors live.  If we must endure dangerous times, shouldn't we compare who does defense well? The blatant facts may shock you.

"The Eight Top Causes of the Deficit "Fiscal Cliff,"

In tallying reasons for the deficit, we see one party vastly more at fault than the other, and yet that culprit is the noisiest in denouncing the debt it created!  Supporting evidence comes from Forbes, the business magazine, which tallied the rate of increase of government spending under the last five presidents, including Reagan.  The rate of increase was lowest under Clinton and Obama. Please. Click to scan the Eight Reasons for the Deficit and judge for yourself.

"Which party stands up for science?"

This one is just awful.  You cannot name a clade of intellect and knowledge in American life that is not under attack by Fox.  But science bears the brunt.  That that is an absolute proof which side you must be on, in this trumped up phase of the American Civil War.

These are not convenient, cherry-picked anecdotes or assertions, but complete lists for clear comparison, backed up by economists, generals, admirals and the 95% of U.S. scientists who voted with their feet, abandoning a party that plunged America into anti-science hysteria.

Finally, do we really want our geopolitics run by someone who thinks that Syria is Iran's route to the sea?

== Might we be the exceptions? ==

Getting back to Fermi... one question stands foremost: who will govern better?  Those who are willing to negotiate openly, fight carefully, manage cautiously and consult science as we charge into an uncertain future?  Or dogmatists who erased every scientific panel that used to advise Congress from 1940 till 1996?  Because those panels offered inconvenient and impudent things called facts.

The great historian Arnold Toynbee studied every known Earthly civilization and concluded that societies either thrive or fail in direct proportion to how much trust and initiative they willingly invest in their "creative minorities."  The far-lookers and problem solvers.

We are plunging ahead into a mine-field, one that may have killed every other sapient race in our galaxy!  Can we be the first to pick a safe path across?

Not if we wallow in nostalgia and tell the smartest people in our society to go to hell.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Existence, Uplift, and Science News

Amid the election, I'll alternate political posts with others about science, fiction and the future.  And so, for relief, let's have a miscellany of cool techie stuff!

 First: After an incredible decade, in which the number of planets known beyond our solar system increased from zero to several thousand, astronomers have detected an Earth-sized world orbiting between the two major stars nearest to our system, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. Much too hot to sustain life, it nevertheless will help in narrowing down the search space for others. ("News from Alpha Centauri." Cool to say that!)

In a related matter - I've posted an essay, Are we alone in the universe? about the the Fermi Paradox, the Drake Equation and all that where-are-the-aliens jazz on the web site of Orbit Books, in conjunction with the upcoming release in the U.K. of the trade paperback version of Existence...

...soon to be followed by Orbit's special new omnibus collections of my Uplift Series of novels. A gorgeous-big volume entitled UPLIFT will contain Sundiver, Startide Rising and The Uplift War.  Another omnibus compendium  --EXILES -- combines Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore and Heaven's Reach.  Soon to follow... beautiful reprints of Earth and The Postman.

== A Potpourri of Cool Science!!! ==

Researchers discover a beluga whale, named NOC -- whose vocalizations were remarkably close to human speech.  

To amplify the comparatively low-frequency parts of the vocalizations, a beluga named NOC over-inflates what is known at the vestibular sac in his blowhole - which normally acts to stop water entering the lungs. In short, the mimicry was no easy task.   So they ARE trying to meet us halfway, after all!

A recent study published in Trends in Genetics suggests that a person's genes may affect their later political thinking and views of the world almost as much as his circumstances or upbringing do, and far more than many social scientists have been willing, until recently, to admit. It seems that the degree to which you are politically knowledgeable is largely genetically determined, while your party affiliation is acquired from upbringing... though this then later diverges after adults leave the nest. And yes, researchers found a further 11 genes, different varieties of which might be responsible for inclining people - in general personality ways, not doctrine, of course - towards liberalism or conservatism.

Interesting to compare to other recent science showing differences in which parts of the brain are used to think about political matters.  And what this has to say about the fact that American scientists have voted with their feet, abandoning one of the parties en masse.

Want to see the reason distilled? Click to see the original of this little poem, which is sooooo redolent in this political season.


If you don't make mistakes, you're doing it wrong.
If you don't correct those mistakes, you're doing it really wrong.
If you can't accept that you might be mistaken, you're not doing it at all."

== Ocean Acidification: deadly and undeniable ==

More than half of the six billion-plus metric tons of carbon released annually into the atmosphere is absorbed by the Ocean. Phytoplankton alone process an estimated 22 million tons of CO2 each day. This carbon sink does not come without consequence. In the last 100 years, our seas have become 30% more acidic, and that pace is accelerating. This increased acidity is impacting soft-shelled organisms such as crabs, shrimp, and oysters, many of which are unable to maintain their shells in this new, man-made acidic Ocean.

Now the crux. The ocean acidification trend lines come from entirely different sciences than those that study the greenhouse effect -- research establishments in twenty countries that have nothing to do with atmospheric studies.  And no Koch-supported "institute" has found anything wrong with them.

Unlike atmospheric studies, here's an area where your denialist uncle could take the samples and measure them, himself.  Two-thirds of our oxygen comes from the Ocean. But if rising acidity collapses the oceanic food chain, including phytoplankton, suffocation might be just one of many things we'll sue the denialists for.  And tell your uncle that includes him.  The refugees will need homes.  The denialists will share or lose theirs, by simple tort law. Time to adapt, out of simple self-interest.

== Open Source and hope ==

In a recent blog I described a vast array of ways that folks are empowered (or not) to engage in citizen science or open source development.  Now comes another aspect to that movement. Can the open source science movement extended lessons derived from its central core -- programming?  Software engineer and Linux pioneer Linus Torvalds saw a solution to this problem—“git,” a system that allows for collaborative development. This in turn inspired Preston-Werner and Hyett to create, a hosting site that allows multiple programmers to work on the same source code at the same time, with changes getting unique signatures.

I'll be keynoting a Qualcomm conference on Open Source on November first. Here's a site that explains some aspects , and that will link you to Clay Shirky's fascinating TED talk about the great hope ... how open source software might lead to "a new way to argue." (I portray this happening in EXISTENCE and also in a scholarly paper.)

== Space! ==

Don't get your hopes up just yet for a comet extravaganza. But do make plans to keep an eye on the sky in late 2013! Comet ISON will pass very close to the sun and may become the brightest in all our life-times.  Well, perhaps. Learn all about these cosmic visitors (the topic of my PhD thesis) in HEART OF THE COMET!

The Japanese IKAROS spacecraft is (at last) a full scale solar sail test mission, something NASA for some reason avoided doing for half a century. The test probe has already passed Venus. And now it's time to start using this naturally attractive (if slow) means of travel a lot more often in space.

Spiders from (on) Mars? With apologies to David Bowie... Are the mysterious black "spider" discolorations in some dune area of Mars from CO2 geysers?  Or some  even weirder explanation?

And speaking of the Red Planet: Craig Venter and Jonathan Rothberg are competing to put a DNA sequencing machine on Mars, each claiming that it is the best way to search for and confirm Marian life. "This will work only if the DNA on Mars is exactly the same in its fundamental structure as on Earth," says Steven Benner, president of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida. He says he's skeptical that will be the case: "It is very unlikely that Terran DNA is the only structure able to support Darwinian evolution."  Though I lean slightly toward Venter.  Some of the chemistry of DNA life has been shown to imply have the best combinations of stability and just the right breakability and attachment probabilities in the bonds.

== And more Sci Potpourri ==

A very nifty innovation called MosquitoDMZ offers a new kind of trap that lures females to lay their eggs in  a place where they cannot thrive.  A clever technique. Though I still like the laser zappers I predicted in EARTH!

Imagine a clock that will keep perfect time forever, even after the heat-death of the universe ... a "space-time crystal," a four-dimensional crystal that has periodic structure in time as well as space.   The concept of a crystal that has discrete order in time was proposed earlier this year by Frank Wilczek, the Nobel-prize winning physicist at MIT. ... And now other scientists claim they know how to made one.

How cool is this?  A singularity laser? "The idea is to create a black hole next to a white hole so that their event horizons are separated by just a few hundred micrometres and create a small cavity. Then they show that when light is fired into this cavity, it is reflected off the white hole horizon onto the black hole horizon, back to the white again and so on. Researchers show (theoretically, for the foreseeable future) that during each reflection, stimulated emission of Hawking radiation (from the stressed vacuum itself) effectively adds to the beam, thereby amplifying it.  They say this additive process is logarithmic so a small seed of light ends up producing an intense beam of radiation.

"Their real triumph, however, is in showing how such a device could be made in the lab. They point out that the refractive index of certain materials depends on the intensity of light inside them. So the light itself changes the refractive index. That means a very intense beam can create a huge gradient in the refractive index. This gradient can be so steep that it behaves like an event horizon. In fact, a single pulse can create black hole horizon at its leading edge and a white hole horizon at its trailing edge. They go on to say that it ought to be possible to do this in optical waveguides made of diamond."

Schades of Schadenfreude! This new game lets you play a virus or nanoplague and acquire new characteristics in search of the way to slay all life on Earth!

iO9 offers a pretty cool and logical and interesting appraisal of time travel fiction.  Very smart... if nowhere near complete.  I can think of five other scenarios...

Professor Sandy Pentland of MIT discusses Big Data and how the tsunami of information about you and me may be used by corporations and elites... and possibly in a way that's fair to common folk.  Or else become a tool for Big Brother.

Methods for performing encrypted communications using quantum-entangled "teleportation" are moving forward rapidly.  Recent experiments have achieved results over several kilometers.  Chinese teams are even planning soon to launch a satellite to test quantum-entangled communications back and forth to orbit and EUropean and Japanese groups are also in the race.  But not (apparently) the United States... for some strange bureaucratic reasons.

Meanwhile, there are advances in the field of quantum computing, with the latest endeavor featuring an alliance with Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos and the CIA's research group In-Q-Tel, to support the D-Wave company's latest quantum computer -- 512 super-chilled , superconduction niobium loops are arrayed in a layout of qubits that conforms to an algorithm that solves a particular kind of optimization problem at the core of many tasks difficult to solve on a conventional processor. It's like a specialized machine in a factory able to do one thing really well -- the range of "optimization" problems.

== Reproduction without any(!) sex at all? == 

Want baby mice? Grab a petri dish. After producing normal mouse pups last year using sperm derived from stem cells, a Kyoto University team of researchers has now accomplished the same feat using eggs created the same way.  In other words, stem cells can be turned into sperm and ova and viable offspring result.

I admit surprise. I truly thought that mammalian meiosis -- the division of (say) our human diploid 46 chromosome cells into subtly shuffled sets of haploid gametes (reproductive sperm or ova) with 23 choromosomes each) would turn out to be a complex process, requiring not only pluripotent stem cells and a triggering set of environmental cues, but the ongoing participation of a surrounding, complex organ, like the ovaries or testes, to take the cells through a multi-stage process.  In retrospect, I am not sure why I felt that to be likely.  Perhaps because the shuffling and separation and creation of the surrounding active cells seems fraught with potential for so many errors... by comparison, fertilization and creation of a blastocyst zygote and embryo seems simple!  Just a matter of cellular automata sorting themselves out through neighbor interactions.  But clearly, I was wrong. (I've been known to be! Remember that poem about science?) This just keeps getting stranger.

Questions? Are the offspring fully re-methylized... completely young?  Or do they inherit the donor's aged chromosomes, the way the cloned Dolly the Sheep did?  And does this mean the only remaining miracle is the womb?  That women can now well and truly do without males, by creating their own sperm?  Do NOT anger that woman researcher at the next lab bench, fellows.

== The latest from "are we in a simulation?" ==

I recall when "are we all living in a simulation?" was a really cool and surprising question!  Yes, I'm that old.  So old that my novelette "Stones of Significance" explores a few aspects of this topic for the first time, before they became cliches.  But time... or its simulated effects... moves on, and now there's serious thought to how physics itself might test whether this "existence" of ours is in the original universe or one of the mazillion simulated ones being run in super advanced computers in that "real realm."

(Or is it turtles (simulations) all the way down?)

Some first order reasons to imagine it is so?  Well, the simulators would have to save money or computational power somehow, by limiting the burdens of the simulation.  One way to limit the size of the space the inhabitants can experience directly (rather than just observe with telescopes) is to have an upper speed limit. Also a bottomost temperature.  And a limit to the degree that you can parse position and momentum... or energy and time... so that you cannot dive into the small to an infinite -- or fractal -- degree.

Now see a paper that suggests experiments that might actually observe the mathematical latticework within which we are being simulated.  Assuming that lattice of time and position is cubic, as are all our current cellular automata models, then that spacing should show up in high energy physics experiments. (Of course, the uber-modellers might use a different stacking of cells, to mess us up! Better check for hexagonal and other crystal structures, as well!)

== And finally... ==

Science is not immune to controversy, especially around the edges. (Indeed, scientists are among the most competitive humans that our species has ever produced.) With science itself under concerted and deliberate attack by one entire wing of U.S. political life - (and sneered at by a few far-extremists of the other wing) - it would be surprising not to see the issues fester and broil even at sites like See this essay, in particular, discussing why author Robert Wright has taken a sudden veer, inviting "prominent creationists" to inveigh upon his "bloggingheads" show without proper counter-weight foils or challenge.  Yes, he also brings on prominent atheists. All should be challenged in the spirit of reciprocal accountability.

While I have long recommended Wright's book NONZERO as a good way to introduce folks to the concept underlying our enlightenment -- the positive sum game - I have grown increasingly worried by Wright's foray's down avenues that veer away from science, modernity or even history.  Well well. It's too soon to judge... and maybe it's just a different standard of looseness in style of disputation. Indeed, I would generally trust Wright over his accusers! Still, we live in an era when polemic too-often trumps reason. Your reportage on this is welcome.

And yes, there will be more social-political commentary soon.   So far, I have covered two major topic areas that ought to be significant (and overwhelming) for any U.S. citizen who claims to truly care about the future of America, the Western Enlightenment Experiment, and our species.  The Eight Reasons for Our Budget Deficit and the stark Difference Between the Ways that Democrats and Republicans Wage War. I don't expect to have much influence -- those who are persuadable by facts and evidence have long  ago taken sides, favoring the candidate who most often mentions the word "science."  Still, it's important.  And we all have uncles and aunts who just might listen.  Or read with a willingness to learn.