Sunday, December 29, 2013

Where do we stand - verging on 2014?

On New Years Eve, the Bloomberg system will syndicate worldwide my year-end essay -- more of a scary-provocative story -- about the real meaning of "the fourteenth year." 
== Reasons to believe a better world is possible ==
Where-do-we-standI have long inveighed against a pair of matched personality flaws: that some on the far-left seem compelled only to chide, never praise… and that savanarolas on the right use that chiding as an excuse to denounce progress, in general.
Both extreme wings are crazy, of course.  The world and its people and ecosystem etc do need to be saved! We have a full plate of vital projects and bad things to repair. We need to move forward if our grandchildren are to survive… and I speak to this in many places, including EARTH (1989).
Still, I have hammered on the cynically-chic pessimism expressed by playground bullies of both extremes, declaring - contrary to all evidence - that everything is getting worse.
The disproof is all around us, in steep declines of per capita violence, worldwide and steep rises in the fraction of children who live in clean homes and go to school.  No possible combination of past civilizations accomplished a fraction of what this one has -- an assertion that does not insult the best of our ancestors, who strove to prepare the way for us.  As we are duty-bound to stop cynical, dyspeptic moaning and prepare the way for better-greater grandchildren.
So let me begin this year-end political round-up with more good news, that is sure to infuriate some of you! Louis Gave - a well-known investment guru - pointed out these additional milestones:
 "The United Nations recently released a heartening update on its ‘millennium goals’ for the developing world, with many of its 2015 targets on the way to being met, or indeed already met. The target to halve the number of people living on less than US$1.25 per day was achieved in 2010; the proportion of undernourished people fell from 23% of the developing world in 1990-92 to under 15% in 2010-2012; more than 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water. 
"The list goes on but suffice to say that never in history have so many people across the globe lived so comfortably. This reflects the fact that with global GDP set to exceed US$74 trillion this year, never has the world produced this much."
Economist John Mauldin adds: "New energy production (and new forms of energy), robotics, nanotech, the second (or is it the third?) wave of the communications revolution, and the amazing discoveries in biotech are all unfolding before our eyes. Global trade is expanding, and slowly but surely governments are changing. An ebb and flow thing, to be sure, but the tide is clearly lifting more boats than ever."
Progress-happensTo be clear:  I do not call any of this cause for Pollyanna complacency -- (the fear that makes liberals and leftists suppress good news) -- but rather for guardedly optimistic militancy to keep all trends positive.
Nor is there a lack of counter-balancing bad news or heavy items dumped on our to-do agenda!  For example, ever since 2001, America has had trouble sharing in the rising boats effect -- even as we propel it in other lands by our trade deficits. With the rates of hunger in this country actually going up as a result of deliberate politics, with skyrocketing wealth disparities threatening neo-feudalism, and a tetanus-locked political caste unable to grapple with desperate economic and ecological problems, one thing is clear -- that Olde Enemies of progress are baying and chasing our sleigh.
If this goes on, the world will continue its march upward and forward.  But America will forfeit any leading role, sinking into a mist of anger and nostalgia and civil war.
Still, if you are personally unable to parse the vast number of good news items on the other side of the scale and weigh them in-balance, then YOU are part of the problem!  Because only those who see and acknowledge what is working are even remotely qualified to chide us into trying new endeavors.
Folks who want progress, but then deny that progressivism ever worked in the past, are not just very bad salesmen.  They are crazy.
=== Back to worries ===
Oh, but the To-Do list is immense and worrisome! Just because I am guardedly optimistic, that does not stop me from feeling militant about some things!  For example:
Inside-Job-movieI cannot recommend too-highly the documentary INSIDE JOB -- laying bare a calamitous chain of delusions, inanities and cheating that led to the 2008 crash and the near demolition of the American (and world) financial systems. I slid it into the player with mixed feelings, expecting something of a polemic in the style of Michael Moore -- a fellow who is often on-target but who makes me cringe with his excesses and often one-sided righteousness. (Oh, I watch Moore, but taking notes for things to double check.)
INSIDE JOB was far better. Featuring in-depth interviews with financial experts and insiders, this sobering, Oscar-winning documentary (directed by Charles H. Ferguson) presents in comprehensive detail the pervasive and deep-rooted Wall Street corruption that led to the global economic meltdown of 2008.
The flick is not just for liberals and/or leftists. You folks right-of-center desperately need to watch INSIDE JOB. It should be of special interest to those who do believe that capitalism can be made to work!  Indeed, if you want capitalism to work, and to stop being the top victim of a rising lordly-oligarchy of cheaters, then you should especially want to get informed.
(Ancillary note: I kept notes in this one, too. There were dozens of places where the producers glossed over or ignored ways in which the system did work right. But that hardly matters. There are thieves out there who do not deserve jail.  They deserve tumbrels.)
== Denying the heinous infamy ==
NamesInfamyMemes take a while to percolate, I know.  But will someone add this to my Foresight Wiki?  Back in the late 1980s I used to regularly publish op-eds calling for the "Erastratos Effect"… denying terrible villains the reward of seeing their names go down in history.  In a 1999 issue of Salon Magazine (updated last year): "Names that live in infamy: Killers want notoriety. Let's not give it to them" -- I argued that society has a perfect right to remember heinous criminals any way it chooses.  And we could choose derisive contempt.
At last, the idea is gaining traction.  In the aftermath of a recent, gruesome suburban Denver shooting, families of victims and law enforcement officials have begun urging journalists and public officials to avoid using the gunmen’s names and photos in public. The first notable effect of this trend came last year, when When President Obama flew to Colorado in July 2012 to memorialize the 12 people killed in an Aurora movie theater. He agreed not to mention the gunman’s name. And on Saturday, the sheriff investigating a shooting inside the halls of Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver announced he had made the same decision.
This New York Times article, A Plea to Deny Gunmen their Quest for Infamy, takes a simplistic view and I suggest elsewhere that there are ways to do this without engaging in "censorship."  But at least the ball is rolling.  One variant I just thought-of?  Identify the perp by his membership in whatever group helped to enable his actions.  "NRA Member 524239B12" might be a salutary appellation.
== Bitcoin and other non-standard payment systems ==
Bitcoin-lifeformRecently I posted a rumnination-tutorial on Bitcoin that got a lot of viewers. I've been toiling in this realm for another reason, though, which I'll get to in a minute.
First, Paul Krugman has a very interesting article about Bitcoin, gold-mining and the relatively greater value of (responsibly managed) paper money: "(Adam) Smith is often treated as a conservative patron saint, and he did indeed make the original case for free markets. It’s less often mentioned, however, that he also argued strongly for bank regulation — and that he offered a classic paean to the virtues of paper currency. Money, he understood, was a way to facilitate commerce, not a source of national prosperity — and paper money, he argued, allowed commerce to proceed without tying up much of a nation’s wealth in a “dead stock” of silver and gold."
Mind you, as the world's top Keynsian, Krugman is only right about 70% of the time.  I'd be more critical, if his opponents in the Austrian School weren't wrong 80% or more of the time… with their Supply Side associates batting a pure and perfect 0%.
But back to my own obsession. Micro-payments. I have been poking at ideas with others, that boil down to this: we need a way for internet browsers to empower surfers pay a nickel for an article they want to read online. A one-cent or five-cent or ten-cent button that would let any of us hand over a small increment of value for something we choose to use for short time. (I wrote about this in The Transparent Society in 1997.)
There is a mythology that "people won't pay, they want everything online to be free!" But that is baloney. Only a fool would refuse to pay a nickel for access to something she or he values enough to read for ten minutes (at 30 cents per hour.)  No… the issue is convenience! We do not want surfing to be slowed down by paywalls and passwords. Anything that takes more than one-click is criminal. But I know a way around that…
…and I believe micro-payments will not just open a billion dollar industry.  They could also save professional journalism.  Which presently is bordering on extinction.
== Cyphers are Wafers ==
Encryption-panacea-brinBut getting back to the BIG issues of freedom, privacy and all that, let me offer this over-broad and deliberately provocative assertion: Anyone who calls encryption a panacea is a religious fanatic.
I described this to the cypherpunks way back in 1996… that encryption can be broken by spies and cops and competitors in a plethora of old and new-fashioned ways… such as the different sounds that each of the keys on your keyboard make, allowing any room recording to become a transcription keystroke-logger. Oh, by all means, learn and improve your security!  But know that your favorite cypher-ware is not a six-gun "equalizer" and odds-are that someone could see-all, if they cared.
Oh, but it gets much worse.  "Thanks to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, we already knew the NSA played a central role in promoting a flawed formula for generating random numbers, which if used in encryption, essentially gives the spies easy access to computing systems. A piece of RSA software, bSafe, became the most significant vector for the security flaw. The encryption tools which hundreds of millions of people rely on to protect the private information are significantly weaker as a result."  Now it seems that -- according to some reports -- the NSA additionally bribed the security firm RSA to leave the back door to computers all over the world open.
Now RSA is fervently denying the allegation that they sold NSA keys to the back-door.  But in fact, it does not matter. There are a jillion-bazillion methods and work-arounds that cypher guys blithely ignore as they armwave sugarplum visions of encrypted utopia, without ever - even once - studying the range of secret police methods used by powers from Sumeria to the Okhrana. It is not pragmatic defense of freedom… it is religion.
And it is not how we will prevent Big Brother.
== How to live in the modern world? ==
Finally, let's circle back to that first matter… how to be a person who pragmatically and effectively  pushes for improving the world, without rendering yourself impotent with smug-sanctimonious finger-wagging?
Bertand-russell-ten-commandmentsBertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy are much wiser than anything else I have run across in a good long while.  I've been trying to live by them. Do give them a look.  They include:
1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
This particular page goes on to offer Russell's definition of "liberalism." And caution is necessary, since he lived long ago and that word has been kicked all over the map in subsequent decades.
"But the liberal attitude does not say that you should oppose authority. It says only that you should be free to oppose authority, which is quite a different thing. The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments. The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive."
LEFT-LIBERALHere Russell is stunningly on-target in the modern context.  For indeed, his definition reveals the yawning divide between "liberals" and "leftists."
Indeed, the greatest of all of Sean Hannity's towering lies is the one he repeats daily, that a "liberal" is the same species (or even phylum) as the kooky "leftists" he describes with grotesque anecdotes about this or that ludicrous-pushy political-correctness police-person.
They may be allies at the moment (liberals and leftists), out of necessity (given the screeching madness that has taken over Barry Goldwater's conservatism). But they are uneasy allies, since leftists believe that the expansion of inclusion and care must be a coercive process, while liberals want progress to come 90%+ from persuasion and negotiated compromise.
Also from Russell: "Liberalism is not so much a creed as a disposition. It is, indeed, opposed to creeds.”
This latter point explains the main difference with Leftists, who do respond with rage when you question dogma.  It also explains why rightists like Hannity conflate the two.  For on the right there IS uniformity of essential dogma.  All of their recent "civil wars" - say between tea-partiers and Fox-supported establishment Republicans - have been over minutiae of tactics.  Conservatism has become a creed, with Roger Ailes its pope.
Likewise, libertarianism has long abandoned any devotion to pragmatic competition -- touted by Adam Smith and Heinlein and Hayek -- in favor of incantatory quasi-religious doctrines of solipsism spread by acolytes of Rand, Mises and Rothbard. Sanctimony is its core agenda. Adam Smith's enlightenment -- including his contempt for monopoly and wealth disparity and oligarchy -- is spurned with contempt.
Hence, staring at their enemies, it is only human for those on the left-right-randian wings to assume that "liberals must be dogmatically driven, as I am."
LIBERAL-LIBERTARIAN-RIGHT-LEFTBut it ain't so.  Among the four main political segments of the American political landscape, only liberals are American, in their devotion to pragmatic and testable experiments, "whatever works," and negotiated compromise… all of which their authoritarian, dogmatic leftist allies despise.
(Dig this well… that it PAINS me to write the preceding paragraph! I consider myself to be a Smithian/Heinleinian libertarian with some liberal tendencies. But with the LP and the GOP having abandoned Adam Smith and pragmatic common sense entirely, I have no recourse but to negotiate with the one sane group that remains in American political life.)
Liberals need to make this distinction clear and disavow any fealty to the hoary and lobotomizing "left-right axis."  Admit that you must be allies with your lefty friends… the New Confederacy's blatant pathology and civil war mania require it.
But the Left, too, is mad. Perhaps even 10% as crazy as the red-confederates whom Rupert and his Saudi co-owners of Fox have riled into a froth.  Yes, that mad.
And they will remain loony-birds, so long as they refuse to admit that progress is possible.  That much of it has happened already, and that science and open argument are preferable to incantatory doctrines.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A blue ribbon panel recommends fixing NSA: What's cosmetic and what might work

In the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about the U.S. Intelligence Community -- and the subsequent storm of protest -- President Obama appointed a blue ribbon commission to survey the situation and report back with recommendations.  Headed by Richard Clarke, chief counterterrorism adviser on the National Security Council in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, it included a lifelong CIA professional and a trio of university professors with experience in both law and security policy (one of whom is a colleague of mine and an expert on privacy matters).  The contents of their report -- just made public -- were certain to raise controversy.
Liberty-security-changing-worldI have neither time nor the paid-pulpit to write for you all a detailed description of the panel's findings. But links to good articles about the panel should suffice. How about you familiarize yourself with their report, then come back here?  I'll wait. You can read their document: Liberty and Security in a Changing World.
Or skim through summaries:
The Right Call on the NSA in the Washington Post.
Protecting Citizens and their Privacy in the New York Times.
== A not-unexpected transition ==
In 1997's The Transparent Society (TS) -- and especially the infamous twilight zone moment on page 206 -- I appeared to forecast the 9/11 attacks with chilling detail, then went on to describe the "ratchet effect" process under which a frightened public and Congress would rush to hand new powers of surveillance over to our Professional Protector Caste (PPC).
I also suggested that, as time passed and fears ebbed, there would come rising calls to turn back the ratchet and reclaim control over the security services. That time has apparently come, spurred in large part by the Whistle Blower phenomenon described in TS.
Still, let's remember the Big Picture Context of it all… that a time will come, someday, when we are terrified, once again.  When all the "Orwellian" talk will seem far less important than handing over to our protectors any powers they claim to need.
Shall we ride this roller-coaster helplessly, oscillating between submission and indignation? Or else, how about this alternative? That we bear that inevitable future trauma in mind now, as we choose which post-Snowden reforms to demand… and which ones have a plausible chance of working?
== What can even possibly work? ==
NSA-WATCHING-WATCHERSMost of you know where I stand in regard to all of this.  I am not very much impressed by the aspect that obsesses others -- finding ways to limit  how much our protectors are allowed to see. This is a futile path for four major reasons:
A. Any surveillance powers we take away from them now will later be given back (as I just said) during the next emergency. And more.
B. It matters far less what members of the PPC see and/or know than what they can do to us. And controlling what they do requires a different set of tools.
C. Any attempt to limit what elites can see or know bears a burden of proof that it is even possible. Not once in human history is there a clear example where society's elite members were effectively barred from using a technology of surveillance, once it became available. As we saw a decade ago, re Total Information Awareness or TIA (2003), forbidding such powers merely chases them to deeper shadows, in a futile game of Whack-a-Mole.  

Today's NSA Imbroglio should be called "son-of-TIA." And whatever gets banished from NSA now will be the "grandson-of-TIA" scandal, ten years farther down the road.
D. What we need is trust, an ability to know that elites are being held accountable to high standards and to obeying their own rules. The minutia and details of wiretapping/traffic-analysis/content sampling will change faster than any regulations that we establish. But knowing that the watchmen are being watched - on our behalf - by savvy and trustworthy representatives of the People… that is priceless and immeasurably important.
== The  Blue Ribbon Report ==
With those (abbreviated) principles in mind, shall we look at the recommendations of the blue ribbon Clarke Panel?
1. Demanding that the NSA et al stop storing bulk phone and internet metadata, allowing instead for it to be cached by some neutral or commercial site… is a minor palliative.  Yes, it would add a step, a party who can ask "where's your court order?"  One parallel is the recent Boston Marathon Bombing, in which the police went door to door, asking to view private security cam footage. In that heinous case, cooperation came swiftly -- but they did have to ask. And a sweep for cam images to, say, catch casual Bostonian pot smokers would meet more resistance.
Oh, I am all for this measure. But this is mostly a sop to the headlines. Given that the FISA Court is a rubber-stamp mockery, the obstacle of a "court order" is meaningless. Anyway, let us suppose that the activists' fond fantasy occurs and that metadata collection is "banned" across the board. And you'd actually believe it? My only response will be a sadly derisive headshake and sigh.

No, the panelists' recommendation is the right one.  Just don't expect miracles.
2. Recommended: that fishing for internet-carried personal data should also require a court order. Okay, fine, the Fourth Amendment and all that. Though this - again - depends upon the words "court order" regaining meaning.  Also… privately, I think only a fool counts on any Internet content remaining reliably secret. Not when every month another massively "secure" database spills like a broken dike. Case in point, last week's spill of 40 million credit card records from retail giant Target. Again, sure, let's do as the panel recommends. But don't assume it matters all that much.
Transparency-System3. Transparency in the system… (all right, there's my word). Allow and require that phone and internet providers announce publicly the general nature and number of disclosure orders they receive from the government. Now we're getting somewhere.  Even without the specifics, we the people will get a better sense of what's going on.  

Though I'd go much farther.  For example, there should be an expiration date on releasing all specifics about who and what was being trawled.  An utter maximum of fifteen years with a "fleet average" disclosure time of five years.
Numbers 4 and 5 and 6 all try to parse distinctions between Americans and non-Americans. Part of this is to reassure foreigners and allies -- a necessary measure if Pax Americana is to retain any leadership cred. These recommendations also attempt to maintain an archaic special status for U.S. citizens, in the context of an equally archaic mission statement for the NSA to aim its gaze only at foreign threats. Finally, the panelists add some rigmarole to require fine parsing of rights not-to-be-spied-on, including promises that foreign data-sifting will only go after Really Bad Things. Okay, sure, why not? If I had been on the panel, I'd have helped write these. Though I find political posturings tedious.
Only now -- at last -- we get to the important parts -- recommendations that might actually matter. Where some actual good might come out of the panel's findings.
7. The panel recommends that "Congress should create the position of public interest advocate to represent the nation’s interests in the protection of privacy and civil liberties before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). In addition, the decisions of the court should be far more transparent; they should be declassified whenever possible."
Our legal system -- indeed our market economy, democracy and science, too -- are all based on one fundamental premise, adversarial comparison of competing views. Only competition pierces delusions. Moreover, any "court" that is not effectively adversarial is no court at all.
Civil-liberties-privacy-protection-board8. The panel further proposes that "Congress should create a strengthened and independent Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board with authority to review government activity relating to foreign intelligence generally, and not only for counterterrorism, whenever that activity has implications for civil liberties and privacy."
These two (numbers 7 and 8) go after the heart of the matter. We should not concentrate on demanding blindness where it cannot ever be verified and where some future panic will reverse every assurance.  Rather, we should act vigorously to end our own blindness to what is going on within the Intelligence Community (IC).
Sure, that community needs tools of secrecy in order to do their jobs.  But it must be TACTICAL secrecy, limited in scope and duration and always under the gaze of savvy, perceptive overseers who are not members of the Club.  Yes, those overseers should be trustworthy, discreet, security cleared and all that… heck almost any American retiree would have been more reliable than the community's own insiders, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden! But we need assurance that someone nosey, smart and always-questioning will  be looking over the shoulders of these folks we are entrusting with vast power.
Recommendation number seven makes a stab at this by setting up an advocate to make the FISA Court adversarial, instead of a mockery.  But I'd go farther. There should be several such advocates, all of them with proper security clearances of the highest trust, but diversely appointed by and answerable to a variety of elements and stake-holders, including private groups, even perhaps adversarial ones such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  Sure, I'd negotiate any degree of vetting that the Community requires in order to ensure that the actual overseers are discreet, but ultimately these positions have to be adversarial in the truest sense, or no trust can be established.
Further, there must be some way to evaluate the Court's performance, its balance and continuing credibility. That means an appeals process that actually looks into complaints and can effectively deter sweeping fishing expeditions or voyeurism. Finally, as I will reiterate and first proposed in my novel EARTH (1989), there must be a clock of expiration on the secrecy of its orders. Without that measure - ending secrecy after its tactical value has expired -- there is no credible accountability at all.
Likewise the membership of any "independent Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board" must be eclectic.  Such boards are all-too often captured by the agencies or industries they are charged to supervise.  Its members must be vetted, cleared and discreet, of course. But they must be appointed out of a pool selected from -- (or at least trusted-by) -- as wide a sampling of American interests as possible… or there will be no trust.
Is this a big enough swivel for you?  From ho-hum yawns to flaming radicalism? Can you see the theme? I care less about what our protectors know than what they can do.
I have elsewhere offered a number of additional suggestions for trust-building measures that would assure citizens they have regained supervision powers (even by proxy) over their public servants.
INSPECTOR-GENERAL-UNITED-STATESForemost among these would be to create the high office of Inspector General of the United States (IGUS) who would then take command over the IG inspectorates dispersed everywhere in government, removing them from appointment or pressure by the secretaries and directors they are charged to oversee.  I would also establish panels of well-vetted, cleared and discreet Fair Witnesses chosen from a large pool of randomly picked citizens…
…but by now you well-understand parameters of my militant radicalism. All measures that are actually effective will be at this end, increasing "sousveillance" or the ability of citizens to regain authority and sovereignty, less paranoid about how much our protectors see than watching carefully what they do.
The flip side -- which is, alas, getting all the attention by press, politicians, punditry and public -- telling our PPC not to use new powers to see, is a nonsensical endeavor and doomed to fail. Wagging our fingers and screaming "don't look!" is a puerile and futile distraction… which may be why that side of things gets all the attention.
== The Mavens Finish Up ==
Our panel's ninth recommendation goes back to the fantasy-land called private encryption, promising to keep government hands off and to allow private ciphers for citizens and corporations. Yeah right. Oh, I have no objections to this provision, just cynicism. In the nineties I told the encryption fans that all their fancy algorithms and libertarian fantasies would not matter… nor have they mattered, nor will any of it matter in the future. Yawn.
Point number ten suggests that the Intelligence Community backpedal from the insanely stupid use of 'trusted' contractors, low level military enlistees and other potential leakers. A completely unneeded proposal, as the IC is right now pulling in such contract work as fast as it can, bringing back in-house many of the services that had been farmed out in the 1980s and 2000s fetish to "privatize" - a mania that never delivered efficiencies or cost-savings and simply demolished security. With two upshots:
First, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have made sure that it will be much harder for there to be more Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens.  That bolt has been shot and - mixing metaphors - all the low hanging revelatory fruit has been plucked.
Moreover, no one in the IC will go to jail for anything that those two revealed, for one simple reason: in fact, nearly everything that they revealed was legal.  Much was embarrassing, and the two henchmen-gone-wild did us a service by restarting this whole conversation! But on the level of heinous illegality, they barely qualified as "whistle-blowers," at all.
Whistle-blower-lawsSecond, and despite that, I have long believed that Whistle Blower laws badly need updating. Manning and Snowden and Julian Assange represent not aggrieved individuals but a personality type that abounds within America and the West. A character trait that we have nurtured and fostered and propelled with three generations of Suspicion of Authority (SoA) memes in nearly every Hollywood film. These fellows serve to represent a general category, one that will not go away. Especially among bright-young-fellers of the kind the IC needs.
Hence, the government and all other elites need to hold meetings and discuss (with the rest of us) how to make lemons into lemonade. How to ensure that this trait keeps shining light on matters that badly need discussion… while by that token convincing a vast majority of potential Snowdens that the system (for all its faults) is listening, and perhaps deserves loyalty for another year.
It is a tightrope act, a striving for balance that is the price of complex, enlightenment civilization. We should now study and discuss just what a whistle-blower is and how we can maximize the benefits of this deeply American impulse to denounce what you think may be wrong, while helping to make sure that future Mannings and Snowdens weigh every factor, and have systemic means to point out errors that will net-benefit the society that fostered them.  There are dozens of clever ways to do this…
… and they must await another time.  Suffice it to say that I'm glad we are engaged in this conversation, and to play my own weirdly radical role in it.
Look. Our parents and their parents passed through crises and adjustments and ructions worse than any that we now face; so why the failure of pragmatic confidence? We are capable of fine-tuning a republic and civilization, even while we are riven by a trumped-up and wholly unnecessary Civil (culture) War. 

We have to believe that we can do this, a chore of perpetually-frustrating and grindingly incremental self-improvement that all the last ten generations somehow managed to achieve. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It isn't here yet.  But it will be called --
-- civilization.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Security, Sousveillance and Smart Wigs

== The Impossibility of Controlling Information ==
Someone's Been Siphoning Data Through a Huge Security Hole in the Internet: Earlier this year, researchers say, someone mysteriously hijacked internet traffic headed to government agencies, corporate offices and other recipients in the U.S. and elsewhere and redirected it to Belarus and Iceland, before sending it on its way to its legitimate destinations. They did so repeatedly over several months. But luckily someone did notice. One more example of how it is simply insane to base your most vital security upon "controlling information."  Not once in 30 years have I seen a single blithe assurance of security proved.

control-informationLatest example, just last week?  Forty million Target Credit Card records - spilled and presumed to now be in the hands of criminal gangs.  How many times does this have to happen, before folks start to grasp the fundamental? Dare I repeat myself? It is not sane to base your most vital security upon "controlling information." And those who obsess with promising you that it is possible are charlatans.

And the same goes for members of our security services.  Our Paid Professional Protector Caste (PPPC).
There is another way, which is to strive ever onward on two levels.  TACTICALLY to play and wage the serious game, trying to make our security better while penetrating "theirs." Sure. Has to be done, and I do not fault our civil servants for trying to do it well.
But it will be ultimately and utterly futile (hello? Edward Snowden?) unless accompanied by a STRATEGIC dedication to maintaining a strong, secular trend toward an ever more open world. 
Think… America may not remain top-dog.  Fine, so long as the general Enlightenment that emphasizes individual rights, maximized opportunity, self-reinvention, science, pragmatism, tolerance, diversity, and flat-open playing fields for vibrant competition… so long as all of that continues. These things can prevent us from being just one more failed species in the cosmos, trapped on a forever-feudal world.  Right now, the odds are against such an unlikely thing surviving, as oligarchy fights to reclaim its 6000 year dominance and make it permanent.
Only dig this well… all of the enemies of that Star Trek-like civilization are fatally allergic to light. Go ahead and think of any such foe.  Light is deadly to them all, but it is only bracing and invigorating to the Enlightenment.  

This makes the overall, strategic situation clear. A secular trend toward a more open and transparent world is the one trend in which "we" … people who want all those fine-open-opportunities for our Star Trekkian grandchildren … win. There is no other condition under which they will.
== Other "mavens" start to "get it" ==
From Evgeny Morozov: Let's Make the NSA's Data Available for Public Use:  "Search without Google is like social networking without Facebook: unimaginable. But superb proprietary algorithms and extremely talented employees only partially explain why both fields are dominated by just one firm. The real reason is that both Google and Facebook got into their fields early on, accumulated troves of data about their users, and are now aggressively exploiting that data to offer unique services that their data-poor contenders simply cannot match, no matter how innovative their business models."
NSA-data-publicI know this to be true, since I have patents for human interface innovations that would blow clunky Facebook away!  But there is no way we'd start on a level playing field, let alone planet.
"The NSA has all this data, and it's not going away. (If anything, the much-discussed data storage center that the NSA is building in Utah suggests otherwise.) It would be a colossal mistake not to come up with a global institutional arrangement that would make at least chunks of that data available for public use. At the very (utopian) minimum, it should be possible to produce a rudimentary social graph and make it globally available—to be supervised by a civil agency, perhaps within the United Nations. The United States, which has always preached free markets to the rest of the world, can, perhaps, take the lead in making markets for search and social networking more competitive."
Object?  Out of reflex?  He continues: "In other words, the real choice that we face right now is between a future in which Google and Facebook continue to dominate their core markets, collecting more and more data on their users, and a future in which the power of those companies is held in check by competition. At the moment, the users have little choice but to stick with Google and Facebook, as the user data that they already have does produce better search results and richer social connections."
==Sousveillance vs Surveillance ==
Sousveillance-over-surveillanceAn insightful essay, Sousveillance Turns the Tables on Surveillance, by Jerry Brito, in Reason Magazine discusses the arrival of cheap lapel cameras that will upload whatever you confront, every few minutes, to the Cloud.  The future is here.  With strenuous effort we might pass laws favoring shadows and thus stymie a transparent society and all of its (mixed) benefits. When various powers try to get us to do that, follow the money.
SONY is betting we'll want to bypass Google Glass and go straight to the "smart wig" that lets you wear a vast array of sensors , some of them deployable and extendable, plus actuators and… well… you can see the whole idea in far more advanced form, in 2045, in my novel EXISTENCE, illustrated by this image of my character, Tor Povlov (by artist Patrick Farley):
Tor-Farley-existenceYou can read her adventure, saving a zeppelin, using just such an array of sensors, etc. in a stand-alone excerpt called "The Smartest Mob."
Oh, here's the link to an article about the "smart wig."  And if it ain't true, then it will be!
In his Scientific American article: "A Modest Proposal: Google Glass Neighborhood Watch" Charles Q. Choi  refers to EARTH in predicting that tools like Google Glass (head-mounted cameras) will both make our streets safer and bring problems of their own as (in this case) young people react to old folks who stare while maintaining vigilante vision patrols against crime.  Here's an excerpt that he chose to clip from the novel.
“Watching, all the time watching… goggle-eye geeks… rotten old apples that sit an’ stink and stare atcha…”
Huh.  Swap out a "g" and you almost have my character saying "google-eye."
io9-surveillance-dystopiaAnd. On io9: The Ten Rules of Surveillance Dystopia. Number One: You wear location trackers that relay your every movement to corporate headquarters….Number Two: Your television is watching you; Number Three: All of your purchases are tracked using small plastic cards you carry everywhere you go….
Should we encrypt the world? Internet architects seeking to revise the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) propose encrypting all the world's web traffic.

== Penetrating the Filter Bubble ==
In my novel EARTH (1989) I spoke about the problem of user bubbles… where internet inhabitants inevitably create filters that allow in materials that agree with their preconceptions and prejudices and exclude inconveniences, even clear refutations.  In the novel, this is portrayed as extremely dangerous to a democratic society, creating little Nuremberg Rallies that reinforce strong dogmas and undermine our native abilities to see the other side, to negotiate and learn from each other. In EARTH, a community of hackers has responded with wall-penetrating programs that slip in the inconvenient fact, from time to time…
Filter-bubble…exactly the thing that cable news owners strenuously avoid, by preventing their captive "dittohead" audiences from hearing or seeing dissenting opinions. Especially not refutations of all-out lies!
Alas, forecasts in science fiction novels get little credit. Today, this "newly discovered" phenomenon is called "the filter bubble"—being surrounded only by people you like and content that you agree with.  Still, have a look at this clever suggested partial solution: How to Burst the Filter Bubble that Protects us from Opposing Views: "They also say that challenging people with new ideas makes them generally more receptive to change. That has important implications for social media sites. There is good evidence that users can sometimes become so resistant to change than any form of redesign dramatically reduces the popularity of the service. Giving them a greater range of content could change that."
==A Digital Bill of Rights==
Digital-bill-rightsThe Digital Bill of Rights, by Matthew Katz, is a fun "updating" of the US Bill of Rights takes the core meaning and language of each of the original ten amendments and updates it for the internet/online/social-media world.  This document proposes items such as: Freedom of Access and Expression, the Right to a Voice, Open Access to Cookies and Spyware use…. It is an interesting and thought provoking first stab, though also a bit too assured that things directly translate.  For example, what about anonymity and the bad behavior it sometimes spawns?
TransparencyAmendmentThe original U.S. Bill of Rights is about accountability as well as the right not to self-incriminate. Few ever discuss the Sixth Amendment's guarantee that individuals can compel speech from unwilling witnesses. That is something that net transcendentalists strive hard not to think about.
And what about pseudonymity? Can our pseudonyms get partial rights? Any provisions for AI? A problematic step, since information-based entities can be duplicated at infinitum, so do they vote?   Given that duplication ability, some of the provisions in the Digital Bill of Rights might be irrelevant or counterproductive. This is only the start of a long conversation… that ought to begin.
== And the future overwhelms… even sci fi ==
Charles Stross has announced that there won't be a third book in the Halting State trilogy because reality has caught up to him too fast The last straw was the news that the NSA planted spies in networked games like World of Warcraft. Heh, well, Charlie needs to get used to this professional occupational hazard!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Science poses challenges as we begin the fateful “fourteenth year”

== Science Gets Bigger ==
It used to be that most scientists pursued research on their own professorial salary.  Then came the glory days of Edison and Bell Labs, funding themselves out of near-term investments by eager moguls with an eye on the 5-year return horizon.  Alas, although there are certainly examples of both, nowadays, they are no longer probing the cutting edge. Commercial product development is fine, but it creates no seed corn.
The lesson? Science is getting harder!  We've plucked a lot of the low hanging fruit. "Return on Investment" that's well beyond 5 years is not the sort of thing any corporation will invest in. So, we decide to do these great things together.  Yes I said that hated word - "we." And while there are innovative new ways for "we" to engage in such collaborative endeavors (e.g. KickstarterPetriDish, and Microryza and RocketHub ), you and I both know how it still must be done, if you want major efforts to assault major zones of the unknown….

….How "we" can - by general, majority consensus - choose to pay into a fund that hires great teams to push back the shadows for us!  And yes, it is called "taxes."
Seriously. I defy you to find more spectacular efficiency and exceeded expectations than exists in a wide swathe of government-funded scientific research which, with a tiny sliver of the overall budget, laid the groundwork for vast industries by inventing jet planes, helicopters, GEO rockets, satellites, telecom, pharmaceuticals, genomics, and um… the Internet?
curiosity-roverBut let's make it simpler by focusing on NASA. And sure, I have been in the field long enough to point to some horrific examples of waste and bloat.
On the other hand, can YOU land a spectacular roving science lab on Marsdangling at the end of a winch, hanging from a rocket, suspended from a parachute, that detached from an aerobraking shell that threaded the eye of a needle, like firing a bullet into a specific window in Manhattan… from Los Angeles? I'd pay ten times the share of my taxes that NASA gets, just to watch that happen again.
And you actually listen to dopes who say "government can never do anything well"? WHY would you ever listen to such fools about anything, ever again?
Let me tell you what I did when Curiosity landed... stumbling in a daze of sheer, unadulterated joy, I staggered to the nearest window -- exactly as Peter Finch demanded that a nation do in that movie NETWORK screaming its passion to the sky -- only with one… small… difference… as I shouted to my neighbors and to the stars:
       That's what I shouted.
       You mean you didn't do that?
==Transcendence & God-like powers?==

Will Google Glass make us goo-godlike?  One researcher sees a combination of computational imaging and new-form-factor, camera-equipped devices will allow for a set of what he described as “superhero vision” capabilities.  Of course I portrayed this long ago in EARTH and more recently in EXISTENCE.  But now these notions are hitting mainstream.

Okay, the biggest recent step toward Augmented Reality (AR) is this: The Structure Sensor plugs in to any iPad and makes a detailed 3D image of your surroundings. It can map an entrance foyer or a motorcycle's cylinder head with full measurements for every edge, to 1% error. Uses abound, but something like this is essential for AR.  The Kickstarter is massively overfunded.
Something-big-comingSpeaking of godlike powers, when the brilliant algorithm-genius Stephen Wolfram claims that "something very big is coming," we had all better pay attention. In the context of Wolfram|AlphaMathematicaCDF and many other breakthroughs -- "…something amazing has happened. We’ve figured out how to take all these threads, and all the technology we’ve built, to create something at a whole different level. The power of what is emerging continues to surprise me. But already I think it’s clear that it’s going to be profoundly important in the technological world, and beyond."
Wow!  Only let me add this. In our rapid forward leap into the cybernetic age, there has been one iron rule. Developing new and rapidly improving HARDWARE has been relatively easy. Software, on the other hand has lagged terribly. (I believe something like this helps to explain the quirky-jerky way that human evolution developed, over the last half million years; indeed, it may help to explain why human beings so vastly and rapidly overshot the level of tech-sapience we needed, in order to become masters of the planet.  It might even shed light on the Fermi Paradox and why we seem so alone in the cosmos.)
In this mix of fast and slow, the Wolfram teams have played a unique role, breaking through glass ceilings of software capability, time and again. I am eager to learn more.
Looking ahead to other big advances...On MindMeld, authors including Geoffrey Landis, Gregory Benford, Julie Czernada and Ken Liu discuss Science Fictional Technologies that are just around the corner...
Meanwhile, Motorola Mobility (Google) has filed a patent for a "throat tattoo" that would allow users to subvocalize input and commands without audible sounds… now why didn't I patent when I laid it all out in EARTH?  And oops… did I just invalidate Motorola's application?

transcendenceSci Fi News alert: Transcendence is a coming film about - well - a singularity propelled by AI. My hope and expectation, based on certain linguistic turns of phrase, suggest to me hope that it would diverge from hoary luddite cliches. But the trailer seems to foretell another yawn-worthy anti-future, dystopian rant, alas.
==  More Science! ==
Introducing the DARPA Robotics Challenge winners: THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot), CHIMP: CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform, and NASA’s Humanoid Valkyrie are among the walking, climbing and driving robots of the next generation… 

Do some asteroids contain heavy lumps of  quark matter? One possible kind of "dark matter" might have settled into the sun and planets, sinking to their cores.  But one proto planet was shattered into asteroids! So lumps of that old core might still be out there, behaving oddly… and helping to explain the recent surge of interest in asteroids…?
Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims: This list will help non-scientists to interrogate advisers and to grasp the limitations of evidence, or so says Nature.
Dark-matter-experimentThe Large Underground Xenon experiment looks directly for the invisible particles thought to make up dark matter. It's truly hard, since it's been calculated a dark matter particle might pass through a block of lead. The search continues...
200 light years long with only a 50:50 chance of interacting with the normal atoms (except via gravity.)  This is a nice piece of science journalism… though I'd have liked a paragraph about how they subtract the inevitable flashes from Neutrino hits.
Cracked gives us us a glimpse of five ways that language skews your perceptions.  Worthwhile.
Scientists have now discovered sizable freshwater reserves underneath the seabed on the continental shelves around the world. It is estimated that a staggering 500,000 cubic kilometers of low-salinity water exists off the coast of North America, Australia, China and South Africa, potentially yielding vast water supplies that could delay – what researchers believe to be – a “… looming global water crisis.”
A cool photo essay on "Earth Ship" style homes.  A valuable lesson on a positive trend… though in fact it takes specialized tools and knowledge to do a few of these things… like ramming old tires packed with dirt. Still, well worth a look and pondering.
In a breakout study that should have been made decades ago, researchers have compared fertility to aging to death rates in widely diverse orders of life, from plants to hydras to reptiles and mammals. The "normal" patterns we are used to seem not to be so prevalent,  after all, putting a crimp in most theories for why we age.
Oh…. what did I mean by "fateful 14th year"?  Wait and see….