Monday, February 25, 2013

Questioning Existence: A Reading Guide

Here I provide twenty questions for readers of Existence!

ExistenceHCBillions of planets may be ripe for life, even intelligence. So where is everybody? Do civilizations make the same fatal mistakes, over and over? Might we be the first to cross the mine-field, evading every trap to learn the secret of Existence?

 An astronaut grabs a crystal lump that might be an alien artifact, sent across the vast, interstellar gulf, bearing a message. "Join us!" -- it proclaims.  What does the enticing invitation mean? To enroll in a great federation of free races?

 Only then, what of rumors that this starry messenger may not be the first? Have others fallen from the sky, across 9,000 years? Some offering welcome. Others... warning!

 This masterwork of near-future, intensely realistic science fiction combines hard-science speculation and fast-paced action with deeply thoughtful ideas and haunting imagery.

Yes, it is (a big) paperback.  And e-book prices have dropped also.

If you like the novel, feel free to leave comments on Amazon, Goodreads and other sites where avid readers share book news.

Finally... and responding to requests from many Book Clubs, teachers and reading groups... here (with a few small spoilers) is a Readers Guide and Study Guide to this book.  There.  Promise kept.


Existence_B.indd1. Existence is set in the year 2050. How does Existence compare to other movies or books set in this near-future timeframe? Is it more optimistic or pessimistic about humanity's future? 

2. How do you imagine your life being different forty years from now? 

--Think back to your grandparents’ lives forty years ago. What would they find most surprising about life nowadays?

--On the other hand, what things have remained relatively unchanged over that time?  Would they be amazed or disappointed in this “future time” you now live in?

3. What do you think has changed more in that time? Technology?  Or social matters like racism or our views of the environment?

TorCrop4. Tor is a new type of journalist, relying upon crowd-sourcing to instantly gather and evaluate news. How do you see the changing role of traditional media as the "news" moves in this direction?

--To what degree will folks on the street become “journalists”?

5. Hacker is part of a fanatic group of amateur rocket launchers. Elsewhere, Brin has spoken of the “Age of Amateurs.” In what areas of our society do you see amateurs taking on more of the roles of professionals? 

--Particularly in science, how has citizen involvement taken off, returning to an older tradition?

6. Xiao Bin and his family live on the edges of society near Shanghai, reclaiming the drowned wealth of past generations. Give examples from around the world where the uneven spread of technology has left some groups marginalized and impoverished.

shoresteading7. How do you think people would respond to the confirmed discovery of an alien artifact – with fear, hope, or exhilaration? How would such responses vary across the globe?

--Are some civilizations more open to change?

8. Brin gives a number of reasons why we have never been contacted by aliens. Which explanations do you find most plausible? Do you expect that we will experience “First Contact” during your lifetime?

--Would the discovery of alien races shift our perception of God, of religion, of hope or salvation?  

--Would new technologies save us, unite us, or would they disrupt things, and potentially be dangerous?

9. Anthropologists have studied the often-traumatic after-effects when isolated tribes here on Earth were first exposed to the technologies of the developed world. How would earthly cultures change after contact with alien civilizations?

10. If aliens delivered a gift – one piece of advanced technology -- what would you hope for?  What questions would you like answered?

--Or would we feel “cheated” if advanced aliens solved our problems for us?

11. Repeatedly, scientific discoveries have shifted humanity’s image of its central place in the universe. Galileo showed that Earth was not the center of the universe. Darwin showed that humans are part of the evolution of nature.

--Can you think of other advances that have shifted scientific “paradigms” or models of the world?  Do those shifts always “humble” us? Or might we be special after all?

12. If a visiting alien race called a select group of human volunteers on a one-way trip to visit their homeland, would you volunteer? Do you know others who would?

xiaobin_small copy 213. Brin portrays a world facing global warming and rising ocean levels. How do you envision the world changing if present trends continue? 

--How will populations/agriculture shift?  How will you prepare and get ready for change?

14. Smart glasses that project data, maps and messages seem to be within reach. AI or artificial intelligence is pervasive in the world of Existence. How do you see this always-connected world changing how you live your life?

TransparentSociety15. Can we maintain both freedom and privacy? If the cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper and more numerous every year, should we restrict the power to see-all to some elites?  The government or the rich? 

--If we pass laws to banish them, will that stop elites from seeing? Or will those laws just ban us from sharing the power to see-all? 
--Should everybody get to use them and keep an eye on each other?

16. Brin presents a rising oligarchy -- a powerful group of wealthy individuals/corporations who seek to control humanity’s destiny. This was the standard model for most of human history. Is this realistic in the modern world? Can we use the tools of openness and transparency to keep tabs on a powerful elite?

images-217. In particular, Brin presents autistic individuals empowered by future technologies. 

--Do you think that technology can help autistic individuals and others with handicaps to achieve their potential? See praise for the book from Temple Grandin. Does one such expert mean the book was accurate in its portrayal of empowered autistic people?

18. Some of Brin’s other books such as Startide Rising and The Uplift War center around genetically-uplifted dolphins and apes who become citizens and fly starships. 

--In what ways can Existence be viewed as a prequel to these "Uplift" books

--Would it be desirable to increase the intelligence of these animals – not to be slaves but to join us as equals? Or do you find this concept disturbing? 

--Would people oppose it from both left and right? Would the potential rewards, centuries from now, be worth the cost?

UKPostmanPB19. In Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman – and in the film by Kevin Costner – people miss civilization and fight to restore it.  Is that too optimistic a view of human nature?  

--Do gloomy post-apocalyptic films seem more accurate to you?  Which is more helpful and likely to produce effective action, cynicism or hope?  Which is easier?

20. In Existence, the aliens inside the artifact come from races that have mostly died off. 

--What fatal pitfalls might befall technological civilizations and lead to their downfall? Could humanity somehow manage to avoid these failure traps and rise up to explore the galaxy?

==A downloadable version of this Reading Guide can be found on my website.

See also a collection of Author interviews on Existence

Friday, February 22, 2013

Was 2012 the "best year in the history of the world"? (Plus puzzlers and potpourri)

Most of you know that I have a reputation for optimism.  I find that irritating since, in fact, I have a rather low opinion of humanity and of our dismal historical record. I know the odds are against us, especially in a galaxy that seems devoid of voices.  Still... I find today's fashion for universal cynicism - spanning from left to right - to be not only tedious and dull, but fantastically unhelpful.  The Enlightenment, the best thing that our species or planet ever did, thrives on a confident, can-do, problem solving spirit. Not the sick drug of pessimistic sanctimony.

I've long pointed to work done by Prof. Steven Pinker and others, showing that inter-human violence has fallen steeply (on average and per capita) every decade since the end of World War II.  Civilization's moral compass has swerved in powerfully positive ways. Although the campaign to rid ourselves of racism, sexism and other sicknesses is far from done, those ancient ills were taken for granted in most cultures but are now driven into ill repute. As the environmentalist author of EARTH, I feel we'll become good planetary managers as much by learning from what we've started doing well, as from self-flagellation.

prosperitySo I had to pause and wonder why I was irked by an article in The Spectator (UK), blithely declaring that "2012 was the best year ever! Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity." It's not that any single thing the author wrote was wrong: the campaign to halve world poverty reached its goal seven years early, for example, in 2008, and no one said a thing. The list of good news is long, amazing and encouraging. The author is right to point out that gloom blinds us to hope.

Still, as a "contrarian" I find occasional outbursts of fizzy optimism just as grating as the much more common habit of grotesquely thoughtless grumpiness. The optimists are more-right and more-helpful, by far! Still, do read this article. He's completely right!  Yet the aroma of smug satisfaction is almost as bothersome to me as the overwhelming stench of  me-too cynicism rising from millions.  We have grownup work to do.  Both sides... grow up.

== Interesting Miscellany ==

The rest of this posting sweeps up a wide melange of miscellaneously enticing items: enjoy.

My friend Kevin Kelly offers a fascinating perspective on the meaning of General Transparency in the era of YouTube.  "Cameras are becoming ubiquitous, so as our collective recorded life expands, we'll accumulate thousands of videos showing people being struck by lightning. When we all wear tiny cameras all the time, then the most improbable accident, the most superlative achievement, the most extreme actions of anyone alive will be recorded and shared around the world in real time. Soon only the most extraordinary moments of our 6 billion citizens will fill our streams. So henceforth rather than be surrounded by ordinariness we'll float in extraordinariness."  And "Over time this extremism accumulates. When the improbable dominates the archive to the point that it seems as if the library contains ONLY the impossible, then these improbabilities don't feel as improbable."

The_World_Until_Yesterday_coverSee a review of Jared Diamond's new book:  The World Until Yesterday. The span and thrust are pretty clear -- it seems likely to be much less important a contribution than Guns, Germs and Steel or Collapse, at least on the grand level of sweeping ideas.

In portraying the wisdom -- and some systematic errors -- of tribal societies, Diamond comes down as he did in the disappointing final chapters of Collapse, deeply skeptical of modernity and its prospects for achieving respect-worthy civilization. He expresses nostalgia for the primitive that - while sometimes insightful and willing to perceive warts - can also, in some campus communities, turn into a fetish. Indeed, in EXISTENCE I portray him as an archetype for one variety of renunciationism -- a philosophy you'll be hearing more about as we head toward the mid-century crisis of choice -- whether our path will be forward or back.

Still, I always recommend Jared Diamond's works. He is a major thinker and you will be broadened. Though it's rare to come across wisdom as fine as Jonas Salk's succinct: "Be a good ancestor."

=== Fun numeralogy and destiny ==

Interesting facts about 2013:
- first year with four distinct digits since 1987
- first since 1432 with four consecutive digits!

The secret bad day? January 13, 2014 could be viewed as the 13th day of the 13th month of the 13th year.

Oh but the biggest deal?  The Fourteenth Year.  You'll be hearing more about this from me.  The fact that the 20th Century "began" in all its character, in 1914… as the 19th Century began with Napolean's defeat in 1814.  It is a daunting trend to contemplate, if you let it really sink in.

JT-CollapseHeck let's spread our sources wider from Jared Diamond and glance at another take that's relevant:  Joseph Tainter's (1990) book: The Collapse of Complex Societies contains Tainter's theory within the title. Tainter appears to take the view that the social complexity of major urban cultures creates the seeds of collapse through an inevitable process. Rising populations, over-used resources, growing stratification of classes, difficulties of allocation and management, all of these problems can be solved by innovation and determination. But unlike Toynbee, who sees ongoing renewal in a culture's "creative minority," Tainter says that this renewal process gets harder and harder to maintain, with ever diminishing rates of return.  In this dour view - somewhat of a cross between Marx and Spengler - Tainter seems to agree with Diamond that our sole hope for long term stability is to rein in ambition, to reduce complexity, even if that requires some degree of suppression...

If you've read my review of Collapse, you know how highly I think of Diamond's scholarly efforts to warn us of problems… and how little I think of his proposed solutions.

Me? When it comes to prescriptions, I'll go with Toynbee.  We need a vigorous society, not a cowardly one.  A culture that invests eagerly in its creative minority.

== Making a new world ==

So, is the "maker movement" going to rescue American manufacturing independence... and civilization in general, as some  tech-utopians not predict? (And as I depict in my graphic novel TINKERERS.)  Have a look at a very thoughtful essay in Technology Review that considers some factors that the tech-transcendentalists - in their zeal to believe - may have missed.

While we're on new worlds:  "Dio" is a new endeavor by Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, to do something I had been aiming at with my Holocene invention, empowering folks and businesses to create their own virtual worlds.  It looks pretty crude so far... and could definitely be vastly improved with my patents... but I'd be interested in what people think, who try it out.

PATENTWhy Silicon Valley innovation has stalled. A fascinating article that uses a simple metaphor to show what's wrong with the current Startup-VC Mentality. "Unlike medical research, or for that matter microprocessor engineering, the current internet space is largely driven by people trying to make a fast buck as opposed to people working at the edge of the envelope." ... "People aren’t driving new technological innovations so much as they’re creating convenience models.... There’s nothing wrong with entrepreneurs seizing a business opportunity, but what is disconcerting is how this entire segment has convinced themselves that they are on the cutting edge of innovation and have all the answers. Using the medical analogy, the current environment in the internet space essentially tells people that they will make more money as a pre-med dropout opening clinics than as a serious researcher looking for a cure for cancer."

Tell me about it.  I have patented several dozen fundamental interaction modalities that would enhance online communications. But they do not fit the "massage what's familiar" mindset of those who have made billions milking the obvious and plucking the low-hanging fruit.

Ah but want good news? Sales of super-efficient and durable LED light bulbs are skyrocketing as prices fall, posing a new challenge for manufacturers. LED lights offer higher profit margins, but because they can last for decades, people will be buying fewer bulbs — of any sort. The Energy Information Administration estimates that total light bulb sales will fall by almost 40 percent by 2015, to just under a billion from 1.52 billion bulbs, and continue their decline to about 530 million by 2035, with LEDs making up a steadily increasing portion of the market. New versions even accept bluetooth commands to adjust color or output on demand.  (We've spent to LED our highest use areas and will shift each room as prices keep falling.  This is an ingredient in world-saving.

romanceWindDo you tire of videos everybody says you HAVE to watch?  This kite-flying display -  Romancing the Wind - is spectacular... by a Canadian in his 80s. More sublime than you ever could have expected.

Danger 5 is the most creative comedy I've seen since Coupling. (Sort of WW2 in the 1960's with cheesy special effects).  Then go to and watch the 2 episodes they have up. New ones added every Sunday.  "Team, your mission is to stop the flow of weapons into France and above all, Go Kill Hitler!"

Ooooh I am so so tempted by this... Father hires virtual hitman to assassinate deadbeat son in online video game. Get off! Go outside and throw a ball.

== More Marvelous Miscellany ==

contemplation of Shakespeare and Galileo..both born in 1564 (450 years ago next year).Galileo supposedly the day Michaelangelo died.  And Newton born the year Galileo died.  Ah cue Rod Serling.
Kickstarter projects come in a wide range of ambitions.  Here is one at the high end. Motion capture maven Tracy McSheery is participating in a project to create an animated movie: Tower of the Dragon, with just $50,000 of startup funds. See" Features some cool freebies.

Here's a short film Tom Munnecke did a while back about Jonas Salk's "good ancestor theme."

Speaking of ancestors, the appropriately named CRACKED site has distilled why we do not need social status in society to be something that's inherited (as ruined 99% of human cultures.)  See: The 5 Most Hilariously Insane Rulers of All Time. Though poorly-written and historically flakey in spots, it is still tragically funny. Even if it leaves out the worst loony monarchs, by far. Try Victoria's grandsons "Nicky" and "Willy." Time travelers... skip Hitler and take out those two. If the Kaiser and Czar had had "accidents" in 1913, Adolph would've become a minor animation frame painter in Disney's 1930s Star Wars studio.

This is exactly what the Age of Amateurs should and will be about. A woman who is a professional hairdresser became fascinated with images of Roman and Greek women in complex tresses.  She recreated scores of them for an archaeological journal, proving that they had been real, held by needle and thread, rather than wigs. There was no guild opposition to her contribution, only enthusiastic help... as I have found when I published papers about Neoteny, anthropology, addiction and so on.

== And a final sweep of coolstuff ==

Askimo TV is an interesting concept... a collation of pod video interviews with experts on a wide array of curiosity topics. What do you think of it?

ouch... The website "SSRI Stories: Antidepressant Nightmares" offers a sortable database of more than 4,800 newspaper articles, scientific journal reports, and TV news items linking antidepressant use to cases of extreme violence. Not taking sides.  Just so you know.

Petra Haden's amazing a capella renditions of movie scores... scroll down and play the whole thing!

51NMMLsw6XL._SL500_AA300_Raspberry Pi is a palm-sized full computer - announced in 2012 (here among other places) selling for under $50 --  for a bare circuit board that runs free linux on a 700Mhz processor using an SD card instead of hard drive, but with two USB and one ethernet ports to let you link in your stuff. According to tech-biz guru Doug Hornig: "Interest ran so high in the first days that it stalled the sites of the shops selling the computers. Moreover, that demand has proven durable. Premier Farnell, one of the two authorized manufacturers of the product (RS Components is the other), announced in January that it has sold more than a half-million units. RS Components, which took 100,000 pre-orders on day one, is apparently selling them equally briskly, so it's likely that there are now a million of the devices out there."

A whole amateur maker trend is finding uses for the things and they have abounded with an app store and "Raspberry Jams" - meetups of enthusiasts.  Google is giving 15,000 to schools in the UK.  Competitors in the under $100 space to lookup: Mini X, Oval Elephant, Cubieboard, and Olimex.  Hornig adds: "It just might be that manufacturers of these microdevices are sowing the seeds for the next crop of young hackers (who will increasingly come from the developing world, as all of its nascent talents are released)."

Land Without Evil coverMy friend and Colleague Matt Pallamary has written some wonderful things.  Now it seems that this year’s production from Austin based aerialist group Sky Candy is based on Matt's novel Land Without Evil, which tells the tale of the physical and spiritual journey a Guarani Indian man undertakes in order to lead his people to a mythical place of peace.  Austin Public television also offers a cool peek at the performance.

Want to see the effects of Twitter on the dumbing down of people?  Go to Google and type in "How can u" and see their suggested continuations.  Then type in "How can an individual"  'nuff said.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Exciting possibilities in (and about) space!

First some exciting news about space-flight.  Then I'll finish with a followup (and speculative) reflection on our recent multiple encounters with space rocks.

== NASA's NIAC: New and Innovative Advance Concepts ==

Soon I will be off to participate as an advisor in the Spring meeting of NASA-NIAC in Chicago.  NIAC is a far-out, little research program at NASA, trying to enable big things. NIAC stands for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. Its budget last year was $5.5M, or about 3/100ths of 1% of the $18 billion NASA budget. Its charter is to Change the Possible in aerospace. NIAC studies exciting, unexplored missions that won't be "ready for prime time" for a decade or more. Here are a few projects they funded last year, chosen at random:

681397main_lunar_construction_astronauts_226   •    A  researcher at USC is trying to "3-d print" whole buildings with quick drying concrete. Behrokh Khoshnevis is working with NIAC to see if it's possible to do this on the Moon or on Mars, using local soil, to build infrastructure in preparation for a future NASA mission.

•    NIAC has a researcher at Draper Labs, Kevin Duda, who is working on a space suit that would help astronauts feel a sense of "down" while in space for a long time. It might also help them exercise just by doing their regular movements. The suit has gyros on it that resist motion intelligently for that sense of "down".

•    Kendra Short at JPL is trying to print small spacecraft. Not 3-D printing, but rather flexible printed electronics, batteries, sensors, everything on a sheet of mylar or even paper. This could be used anywhere in the solar system to rapidly design and print useful electronics.

•    An interesting robotic rover is being designed with Mars in mind. Adrian Agogino is adapting tensegrity structures to make an inexpensive and durable rover, the Super Ball Bot, that you could simply drop down to Mars — no a parachute or airbags needed.

•    Here's an example of something NIAC is funding on life support systems: Michael Flynn is developing Water Walls, Redundant Life Support Architecture, a concept to put the waste water processing into the walls of a spacecraft so that the water and waste would protect against radiation, too.

RAP•    NIAC is funding a small asteroid mining study. With the Robotic Asteroid Explorer, Mark M. Cohen is trying to figure out if mining an asteroid could ever make real business sense. If so, what might be valuable to mine in space, and how could it be accomplished?

One of the coolest parts of NIAC is how open it is: info about all their studies is freely available at Also, they have their projects report out to the program office at public meetings, the NIAC Symposiums. The next is in Chicago from March 12-14th. See their website for details on the Spring Symposium.

== More Exciting space news == 

The next three years will feature truly astounding announcements regarding human spaceflight: half a dozen new commercial and potentially human-crewed space vehicles, including:

--XCOR Aerospace's Lynx suborbital space plane
--Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
--Armadillo Aerospace's Vertical Lander
--Stratolaunch's Air-Launched Rocket
--Blue Origin's Space Vehicle
--Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser Space Plane

HedgehogA way cool concept that emerged from MIT, JPL and NASA NIAC... a Phobos mission (to replace the doomed Russian one) would start with an orbiter that then deploys several small "hedgehog" landers that fling themselves across the microgravity surface by sudden tilts driven by gyros and flywheels. I have long pushed for Phobos as a target.  It could very well be one of the most valuable sites in the solar system.

An electric sail produces propulsion power for a spacecraft by utilizing the solar wind (charged particles) instead of light. The sail features electrically charged long and thin metal tethers that interact with the solar wind. As illustrated in EXISTENCE. Now see plans for the real thing.

EmDrive, China's radical new space drive using microwaves that seems to violate Newton's laws by requiring no propellant mass?Professor William Napier and Dr. Janaki Wickramasinghe have completed computer simulations of our sun’s movements in its outer spiral location in the Milky Way, and determined that we are now entering a danger zone where molecular clouds might perturb the solar system -- the odds of asteroid impact on Earth go up by a factor of ten.

Watch a great (and personal) tour of the International Space Station given by Sunny Williams just immediately prior to her departure from the ISS a month or so ago.  She literally gave it the day of her return to Earth… after commanding the ISS for the prior 3 months.

Not to be missed! Google has created a visualization of the 100,000 stars nearest to the solar system, based on actual astronomical data. You can zoom in all the way to the solar system to see how small Neptune's orbit is relative to the Oort Cloud, or zoom right out to see how puny 100,000 stars is in just our quarter of the Milky Way galaxy.
Scientists spin carbon nanotube threads on an industrial scale. This is huge - not just for a Space Elevator  but for construction in general. There's a cool video showing how they do it - they're not keeping it all secret...

And finally, a gorgeous false-color image of Mercury. NASA's Messenger space probe has been mapping the surface, and has detected evidence of water ice and volatiles at the permanently shaded poles of Mercury.

== Finally: space rocks redux ==

To recap: one asteroid - about 50 meters across - zipped by Earth from the south, closer than our communication satellites, just hours after another - perhaps 15 meters across - plummeted in from the north and gave up more energy than a hydrogen bomb as it broke apart high over over Chelyabinsk, in the Russian Urals, briefly outshining the sun and shattering hundreds of windows.  Soon reports came in of lesser bolides over Cuba and San Francisco, leading one of you to write in that February 16 began featuring regular meteor showers a few years ago.  (The "Febrids"?)  So mark your calendars for next year, you northern hemisphere folks.

All this ruckus led to my serving another stint as astronomy pundit on BBC. My job on-air was to reassure that there would be no radiation… that in fact, bolides like this one seem to strike our planet once a decade or so, but always till now over open ocean or deserts or countryside. (In the 1970s one such event, off Japan, almost triggered a rise in DEFCON alert level at the US NORAD!)  This was the first ever to perturb a city.

Only now another quirky insight, offered by amateur astronomer Charles Smarr, who wrote to me in order to comment that the Russian bolide seems to have crossed the sky in a glancing path.  This, plus the fact that so little meteoritic material appears to have been collected on the ground, suggests a possibility… just a thought, till disproved (and I expect it will be!)… that a large portion or two of the shattering chondrite might have skipped back out again, re-entering space.  Indeed, since this path might emulate that of an aerobraking spacecraft, is it worth pondering whether any chunks might have entered Earth orbit? Or Earth-accompanying solar orbit.

Again, seems unlikely... or that we'd have heard about it by now.  Still. Any of you brainy CONTRARY BRIN sophonts out there care to look into this for us?  Report back under Comments, below.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Things only a zillionaire could do to save America

Mention George Soros anywhere on the far-right and you’ll get fulminations.  To Republicans, Soros is an aristocratic mastermind who swore to “spend whatever it takes” to end the Bush-Neocons’ grip on political power in America... a vile plutocrat, striving to trample the will of plain-folks, along with the populist GOP that protects them. Glenn Beck railed to his audience, calling Soros the "Great Oligarch" and a master manipulator "who toppled eight foreign governments." (The one thing Beck never mentioned, and that - tellingly and symptomatically - not one member of Beck's vast following ever asked, was "which eight foreign governments did George Soros help to topple?" Tune in at the very end for the amazing answer.)

1101970901_400Okay, after wiping away tears of ironic laughter, one is left wondering.  If George Soros - and other rich liberals - are so potent and determined, why have they accomplished so little?

On the right, you see plenty of men and women who have proved ruthlessly effective at translating money into power, directing vast resources toward politically effective ends. There’s Rupert Murdoch, controlling -- along with his Saudi co-owners -- much of the world’s mass media, from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal. His deep-pocket interests have been highly effective, funding everything from "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" (remember them?), to Carl Rove's Super-PAC empire, to the war on science.

Forbes_cover122412David and Charles Koch, a pair of wealthy and politically radical brothers have leveraged millions from likeminded investors, to wrest control over most of the nation’s voting machines and funded (with several hundred million dollars) the campaign to delay, obfuscate and render impotent any determined action to mitigate global climate change.  Not to mention foreign commodities moguls who have used deep fingers of influence to fare best of all, in recent years.  The list goes on and on.

Now, mind you, I am less enraged by all of this than you might think, simply because I view such behavior as the most natural thing imaginable!  We've had at least a million years in which human reproductive success was partly determined by males jockeying for status in tribal settings... followed by 6000 years in which 99% of all agricultural societies wound up being dominated by inheritance oligarchies, who strove above all to keep the masses in their place, ensuring that their sons would own other peoples' daughters and sons.  The chief outcome -- suppression of competition and free-flowing criticism -- resulted in the litany of horrifically awful statecraft that we call "history." 

Adam Smith and the American founders decried the toxic effects of oligarchyoligarchy, which has always been the chief enemy of markets, enterprise, science, truly-competitive capitalism and freedom. Populist or elected "government" - in sharp contrast - has almost no track record at actually harming those things.

Nevertheless, it is easy to see why we're attracted to tales about kings and wizards and such, and why so many of the rich strive to re-create feudalism. Isn't it what you'd do?

We are, indeed, all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off that trick.  We carry their genes. Wanting all of that is the most natural thing in the world.

No, to me the amazing thing is what a high fraction of the new billionaires actually "get" the enlightenment... the modern civilization that gave them all of their opportunities and to which they owe absolutely everything.  Maybe 50% of them -- the Musk-Gates-Buffett-Bezos-Page-Brin-Soros-types -- grasp the enormous goodness and clever dynamics, based upon relative-equality of opportunity, that brought them their great fortune! Half of them seem to get it; this is wonderful.  It gives me hope there'll be an ambitiously accomplished and exciting civilization for our grand-kids.

Can the Good Billionaires be as effective as the would-be lords? 

I explore this on the pages of Existence, wherein you attend a gathering of rich clans in the year 2048 and view them weighing how much of their gratification to defer, in order not to kill the golden-egg-laying goose.

All right, it’s hard to envision Steven Spielberg pulling shenanigans anywhere as effective -- in the short term -- as the Foxite war on science.  His films are designed to provoke thoughtful conversations, not reinforce bilious hatred of your neighbors.  It's a more wholesome endeavor, but those seeds take time to germinate. The Fox-approach is quicker.

Of course, the top endeavor for a rich person who wants to change the world for the better is simple.  Keep getting rich by delivering excellent goods and services. And when you've reached a certain, sane level of satiability with wealth itself, you can either give a lot of it away (your kids will never starve) -- or else start investing in new endeavors that are risky!  Then riskier still.

givingpledgeFor example, several of the tech-wave billionaires have invested heavily in the privatization of space exploration. Prime examples include Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos's mysterious Blue Origin project, Paul Allen's Stratolaunch System, and Sergey Brin's Space Adventures. Recently, Peter Diamandis, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and others have teamed up to launch Planetary Resources aiming to mine resources from asteroids... a topic I happen to know a thing or two about.

Yes, that's the top thing they can do. Innovation.  Risky entrepreneurship.  That and setting an example with real philanthropy, by signing the Gates Pledge.  Nevertheless, given that so much of our future depends upon the political process, can we afford to leave that arena to be meddled in by just the New Feudalists?

Do Friendly Billionaires Matter in Politics?

Let’s be clear.  Our present electoral divide won’t depend on the whim of a few  moguls.  Nor is Culture War all about “rich vs poor” - not yet. Historically, most nations were wracked by class struggle - and we may yet revert to that age-old pattern - which could become an especially dangerous schism, when the poor will be technologically empowered.  (It's an IQ test for the uber-wealthy: do you actually believe you can rebuild lordship in the coming era, when the prols will have smart drones and desktop bio labs and all that stuff? Really?) But such times may be averted.  Indeed, many of today’s affluent are loyal to the mobile, competitive, egalitarian and rather-flat society our parents made, after World War II.  One that rewarded innovative commerce, without entrenching permanent castes.

So, let’s suppose there are a lot of wealthy, frustrated enlightenment fans out there.  With so much hanging in the balance, what’s a rich dude to do? Heck one great option would be to start a competing company to, say, make honest voting machines. Surely you can get that ready in time to win some contracts for 2016? Or else, organizations that perform poll watching and electoral process-checking could absorb large donations, in time to do a lot of good.  Though these groups are officially neutral, we know who would benefit, if elections proceed transparently and fair.

Likewise, the political caste will never rouse itself to do anything about gerrymandering. But a privately funded campaign against that foul practice, even as little as 20 million dollars, could start an avalanche of public anger over this blatant crime. In the short term, this would help both parties to back away from radicalization and elect more rational pragmatists. Kill gerrymandering and you will be well-remembered as a dragon-slayer.

philanthropyBut it's my role to look in directions that are more, well, unconventional.  So let me bring up one idea, from a general compilation of Concepts for Billionaires: Horizons and Hope: The Future of Philanthropy, that's been in circulation for some time.

Obliquely political: Defend Science

Nothing more perfectly manifests the Crisis of the West more than the current "war on science." As President Obama clearly and repeatedly emphasized during his 2013 State of the Union address,  research and technological advancement have been responsible for much of the skyrocketing wealth that then empowered America and other nations to attack ancient evils of poverty, racism and ignorance. Indeed, one thing a mere millionaire could do, that would transform attitudes, would be to set up a second National Debt Clock,  next to the first one Only let this one show what the debt would be if the USG had charged a minimal 5% royalty for inventions we all paid for. Rockets, jets, communications satellites, the Internet, pharmaceuticals, Telecom, boomed... Do you doubt we'd be in the black? An unbeatable polemical zinger that would cost less than a million dollars to erect. 

A more expensive and enduring effort is being set up by veteran lobbyist Jim Lantry -- First in Science -- a new pro-science super-pac that aims to raise $100M in order to support candidates who are enthusiastic about scientific research. It is regrettable that such an unseemly measure should be necessary.  But the war on science - propelled largely by Fox HQ but also by science-hostile elements of the Left - has made it necessary.  Arnold Toynbee said that civilizations collapse when they fail to support their "creative minority." If you are a wealthy person who does not want to see that collapse, consider taking part.

A Henchman's Prize

Here's another item from my big list of possible projects:  Horizons and Hope: The Future of Philanthropy

I've long wondered why some billionaire who is worried about our open society doesn't pony-up and offer truly substantial  whistleblower rewards. One action that could be especially well-targeted, during the next month or so -- while having immense publicity value -- would be to announce a great big prize for proof of massive cheating or dirty tricks, in time for the evidence to matter, before the next round of elections.

For best effectiveness, one would couch the idea in nonpartisan terms.  Offer a million dollars to any conspirator who turns coat and steps forward with - say - solid evidence that either party has engaged in a systematic effort to deny the vote to a thousand or more people in any political constituency.  Plus five million if the evidence leads to rapid, public plea bargains or convictions.
Yes, five million dollars is a lot of money.  But note that the larger sum is paid upon conviction, in which case it's a small amout to buy a scandal-tumult of huge proportions. Perhaps big enough to transform politics in America.
Sure, people will see through couching it in nonpartisan terms.  (Though a Republican co-sponsor could be found.)  But even that implication would be useful, highlighting what everybody knows -- where that kind of cheating is coming from.

Why emphasize "conspirator"?

HENCHMENThis is where the word henchman comes in.  Those most likely to have the goods -- real evidence -- will be people already deep inside.  Ironically, a henchman is probably venal and psychologically primed to jump ship, if offered the right combination of inducements -- both cash and introduction to people who can offer some immunity.  (Rep. Henry Waxman has been responsible for recent strengthening of whistleblower protections, for example.)  This qualifier also keeps out a flood of mere rumor-mongers, who have other places to go.

There are many other possible whistleblower prizes.

But there’s a catch.  Any such program must be carefully phrased. A billionaire will have to fight past his or her own attorneys, in order to do something like this.  One doesn’t want to be held liable for enticing unproved or false allegations, or slander.  (There might be a discreet application process and a committee to vet claims, while police and prosecutors are given their full due.)

Still this sort of thing has one advantage -- it could be set up and unleashed quickly.  And it appeals to the avaricious spirit that has driven so many dirty tricks operatives, ever since the days of Nixon and Donald Segretti.  Remember, tempting rats to betray each other ought to be easy, if you use the right cheese.

And all it might take is just one.


FOLLOWUP:  Have you guessed yet (or looked up) the eight foreign governments that master-mogul-manipulator George Soros "toppled"? How telling that (to my knowledge) none of Glenn Beck's viewers or listeners even roused themselves with God's greatest gift - curiosity - to ask which governments those were.  But you know, by now, what those toppled governments were, right? They were...

... the communist dictatorship of Poland ... the communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia ... the communist dictatorship of Soros's birthplace Hungary ... the communist dictatorship of Lithuania ... the communist dictatorship of  Estonia ... the communist dictatorship of  Latvia ... the communist dictatorship of Romania ... the communist dictatorship of  Bulgaria...

... and that's erring on the low side. Some credit Soros with having major effects in Yugoslavia, Belarus, Ukraine....  Yep.  It is pretty clear why Glenn Beck never likes to get specific.  Facts kind of interfere with the narrative.

This is a heavily revised version of a posting from  roughly 2004.