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.


David Brin said...

Experts at Mac OS 10.8 (mountain lion) question: I like some windows to open in icon view and some as list. In 10.4 each window remembered its OWN last closing state. Now they all want to open in the way the last-opened window was viewed. Infuriating. Any way top command: "all windows, re-open the way YOU were last time!" ???

Stefan Jones said...

Ah, Raspberry Pi!

I really wish I had a well-developed idea of what to do with one. After a recent house-move, I've come to appreciate not loading up on "toys" bought on a whim.

I still have yet to do anything with my Arduino . . .
* * *
My new kitchen came with four recessed "can" lighting fixtures connected to a dimmer. In a fit of consumerism, I bought four LED lights that imitate an incandescent flood light. 17 watts that imitate 100 watts! If they last as long as advertised, I'll sell them along with the house . . .

Stefan Jones said...

I wouldn't be so quick to blame Twitter for a perceived great endumbening. If anything, I'd point at texting, which encourages abbreviated spellings and acronym-speak.

On the other hand . . .

I don't think it we should be especially surprised about widespread semi-literacy.

I suspect that there has ALWAYS been a large percentage of Americans who didn't read or write especially well.

We think of the past as having more studious students and higher educational standards because, well, that is true . . . but largely because many kids, including most of those with learning difficulties, dropped out of school in their teens.

They have, in the past, been below the radar because they've been consumers of information. Their lack of high literacy was not critical, because they were able to get jobs on farms and factories and as maids and such.

Modern electronic devices like computers and tablets and smart phones have both empowered these folks, and made them (and their difficulties with literacy) visible.

We as a society are going to have to deal with subliteracy at the same time that jobs are becoming more demanding.

Alfred Differ said...

heh. It looks to me more like Twitter encourages gisting. It's weak, I know, but with highlighted account names and hashtags, that what it looks like to me.

These spaghetti-on-a-wall posts are kinda fun. So many links to follow and it is obvious what people like by which ones draw comments.

I'm looking forward to more depth on the notion that the century starts in the 14th year. I'm familiar with other people arguing for roughly 50 year cycles of social motivations (but without the society-is-predictable nonsense), but they usually turn on other years. The primary author at Stratfor tends to argue for 1930 and 1980 and a roughly two generation cycle for political 'breathing.' This should be interesting for comparisons. 8)

Ian said...

A couple of notes:

1. Time Travelers of a less bloody mind might want to go back and prevent the assassination of Nicholas II's grandfather Alexander II.

Alexander II was extremely competent, a liberal and favored constitutional monarchy. His son, Alexander III initially seemed similarly inclined - until his father's murder.

As a young boy, Nicholas II saw his grandfather's death and if it didn't cause his craziness, it sure wouldn't have helped.

2. We've talked about different hypothetical currencies here: here's another.

Airmobs allow people to share their mobile phone connections via wi-fi in dead zones or when they've run out of credit.

Allow someone to use your phone's connection and you get a credit which allows you to use other's connections.

Nnow imagine, if you could buy credits - or redeem them for cash or goods.

(This would also help with the provision of post-disaster phoen communications almost as a side benefit.)

Edit_XYZ said...

"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."

Numerology supported by patternicity or simply by superstition. In order to foretell future, profound events.
Highly unconvincing.

Of course, in many american buildings, the elevator's floor numbers lack the number "13".
The cultural belief is, apparently, that this number carries 'bad mojo'.

Paul451 said...

Re: Dumbing down.
I think we're "upping" dumb people. The people are actually smarter (Mr Flynn's effect) and better educated, better informed, and massively better connected. And the latter makes their words more visible than had they just been shouting across an alley in a slum district.

Uplifting billions of people to full sentience is a slow process, given how recently the very concept of universal education was created. Give us a few more centuries before you write off the effort.

Even if we fail, I prefer this. I can learn to filter.

"A 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."

Can anyone continue the chain? Newton died on March 20, 1727. I had a quick search around, but nothing obvious pops up.

Jim Baca said...

Being a former serious journalist and then a semi successful politician I would love to see you expand on the issue of modern day news media. Our local news now consists of the sex story of the day, four minute stories on police dash cam videos, and the daily cat or dog story. Does this affect society's progress and what does it lead too? I am told that young people only get their information from the internet and ignore newspapers and broadcast news. I think this is true and may not be all bad. Maybe.

locumranch said...

Our optimistic DB expresses misgivings when confronted by an article that declares that the 2012 world has never been better. Never there been less hunger, killing, suffering, disease, racism & sexism. Never has there been more wealth, technology, peace, prosperity, brotherhood & understanding.

Why the misgivings then?

Could it be that he subconsciously recognizes these statistical truths as logical fallacies?

By assuming that more "good things" (people, phones & comforts) and less "bad things" (hunger, violence & suffering) represents progress, the article uses accurate quantitative (numerical) data to arrive at a logically suspect qualitative (value-based) conclusion.

Now I like chocolate cake as much as the next man, but that doesn't mean that I (or anyone) would like an infinite amount of chocolate cake infinitely more, and this same truth applies to everything else that we like or dislike.

"More" of things we like is not always "better"; "less" of things we dislike is not always "good"; and quantitative change does not automatically convey qualitative improvement or "progress".

Just as "less" is (sometimes) more, sometimes things have to get much much worse before they can get even a little bit better:

That's what I call progress.


Tim H. said...

Still on 10.7 but it should still exist in 10.8, in finder from the View drop down "Show View Options" may be what you need, if Apple conserved that option. BTW, if you start taking SoCal weather for granted, we got nearly a foot of snow Thursday in the Kansas City area.

Stefan Jones said...

Paul better states what I was taking a stab at.

I think the term "full sentience" is a bit belittling, though, and we're not talking about "uplift," as though some kind of genetic deficits are to blame.

A few more centuries? How about a generation? Proper prenatal and infant nutrition, enriched early childhood environment, uniformly excellent schools, educational programs informed by our increasing understanding of cognitive and social development . . . that's a start.

locumranch said...

Wow !! A whole foot of snow in Kansas?? What a catastrophe.

In Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter argues that (1) societies become more complex as they try to solve problems, (2) complexity increases risk of collapse, and (3) collapse is not necessarily a bad thing for all concerned.

Could it be that such a snow storm, including the so-called 'extreme weather' attributed to CC, is only a catastrophe in the modern sense because it strains increasingly complex services & supply lines that modernity has come to depend upon?

Who was it that said that "No society is more than three meals away from revolution' ??

See Tainter (above).


Anonymous said...

Danger 5 reminds me of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

(available only in region 2 dvd)

Perhaps it might also be to your taste

David Brin said...

Jim Baca one thing that would help save news media would be an improved system for micro-payments. Everybody has it all wrong. I know how to do it right!

One of my main characters in EXISTENCE is a journalist in 2048
Ian, good offerings.

Locumranch my misgivings were (as stated) a contrarian's response to any zealotry. The insanity of the right is to deny a desperate need for self-society-human improvement or its feasibility. The insanity of the left is to demand such improvement campaigns while denying that any of the previous campaigns ever works. (I several ways, that is more deeply insane than the right!) The loopiness of transcendentalists is to accept that progress has happened - lots of it - and to thus extrapolate a blithe confidence in our fated success. Meanwhile Rothbardian libertarians assume improvement will skyrocket as soon as we dismantle half of the tools that have helped us to improve, so far.

All, all all of them are loony. Scads of progress has happened and things are better than they ought to be, from any reading of human nature. That fills me with creeped out nervousness. Especially since I and liberals and any sane libertarians are forced to side with leftists, a fact that we hate.

But there's no choice.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

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.

And yet, your Foundation novel insists over and over that creative popular movements are toxic. Go figure.

David Brin said...

LarryHart you did not read carefully. in FOUNDATION's TRIUMPH I tried to reconcile the decline of empire and the 20,000 year stupidity of humanity vs human nature. Why did the Spacers AND Earth humans both go crazy? Why was there never even a slight singularity. How could Daneel rationalize the servants turning masters into slaves?

The "chaos" problem, that singularity-type events always go badly - was a PLOT DEVICE to unify all of these things. And it was made very clear that this was NOT the natural human condition but the result of some long past bio warfare that went terribly wrong...

...and that humanity in Hari's time is starting to finally shrug off..

It's too bad you shrug off all of that in order to hurl a hypocrisy snark at me. It does not stick.

Alfred Differ said...

I don't understand how anyone can argue that complexity increases the risk of collapse. Evolution strongly suggests otherwise. Sexual reproduction throws randomness into the mix and makes it difficult to our viral competitors (who reproduce MUCH faster) to reduce us all to copies of themselves.

From where I sit it is the attempt to impose design on a complex system that increases the risk of collapse. Lack of complexity might spontaneously occur in an non-designed system, but diversity lowers the odds. In a designed system, the best defense we have in the imagination of our brightest people. That is better than nothing in some situations, but a poor substitute for an anti-fragile system.

David Brin said...

Is this for real?

Tony Fisk said...

I think a better and more convenient approach would be to transmit the ring's vibration to the metacarpal. The user may then answer the call simply by placing their ring finger in their ear (or the nose might be better for mike pickup.)

So what if the user looks like an idiot? This is why 'fashion' was invented!

Tony Fisk said...

"All, all all of them are loony. Scads of progress has happened and things are better than they ought to be, from any reading of human nature."

Makes you wonder just who is driving this thing?

Ian said...

'Sign up to receive details and updates so you can be one of the first to know when the O.R.B.™ is available."

You know, if you had two rings one on your thumb with a mike and one on your forefinger with a speaker (or vice versa) you could just make the "call me" gesture with your hand to take a call.

Ian said...

Make that the pinky not the index finger.

sociotard said...

This'll set your teeth on edge:

Elizabeth Warner: Tell us about the last time the big banks actually went to trial?

Ian said...

And incorporate them into a glove with the keyboard and screen sitting on the back of your hand.

Ian said...

Other than moral satisfaction what does a trial get you that a consent agreement and a fine for several hundred million dollars doesn't?

Ian said...

A thought experiment:

Some time we talked about the texts you'd store if you wanted to kickstart civilization after some great disaster.

Here's a different thought, inspired by the Youtube series H+

Imagine you had to select a set of tools or artifacts which, without written instructions, could serve to guide the rediscovery of science and technology.

Here's mine:

- An abacus;

- a compass, set square and protractor;

- a prism

- a magnifying glass

- a compass (the other sort)

- a pendulum clock

- a fresnel lens

- a pair of permanent magnets

- a thermoelectric generator based on a bimetallic strip

Acacia H. said...

When banks deal in hundreds of billions of dollars, a fine of a few hundred million or so is a pittance. It's a blip on the profit margin. Thus in order to make bank executives sit up and take notice, you have to hold them directly accountable. And seeing that corporate entities are immune to being tossed in jail due to their nature, the only way to deal with this is to go after the head of the snake: bank executives.

If you hold the people RUNNING the corporate entity liable, then suddenly such things as "accountability" and "corporate responsibility" become things that executives strive for. Because it's their own necks on the line and they know they can lose everything AND face significant jail time if they pull shit like what led up to 2008.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

I can appreciate the faith that drives DB's social optimism but not his reason.

Like people, civilizations grow, mature, stabilize, decay & die; and, like a machine with a multiplex of moving parts, complex social interrelationships (aka 'civilization') increase the likelihood of malfunction & collapse.

All biological organisms are subject to this cycle of life, and civilizations -- which are created by these same biological organisms -- must necessarily follow the same pattern. The same is true for our created technologies.

Like maturity, stability is a good thing... but only up to a point... because too much stability leads to bodily decay & corruption. This is what you've all been complaining about: The growing lack of social, political, financial & industrial accountability which is merely the price we pay for ossifying social stability.

Yet, if a civilization is to persist in any form, then it must make way for the young, vital & immature -- what DB terms "the creative minority' -- or it will die under the weight of its own (stable) inertia.

This youthful social 'correction' is also known (variously) as anarchy, rebellion, revolution, social decompensation and/or 'the collapse of civilization', and it is not only necessary but inevitable.

The old order and/or technology must necessarily make way for the new. This is also known as progress.


Acacia H. said...

Actually, not all biological organisms undergo this. Some are capable of renewal and rejuvenation without death. It is entirely possible some organisms are effectively immortal.

Might not civilization be the same?

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

The "chaos" problem, that singularity-type events always go badly - was a PLOT DEVICE to unify all of these things...

It's too bad you shrug off all of that in order to hurl a hypocrisy snark at me. It does not stick.

Whoa, there. I'm (one of) your biggest fan. I wasn't so much "hurling a hypocricy snark" as pointing out a funny incongruity. At worst, a possible personal blind spot. And I'm GLAD to hear that even so, I was wrong.

And you're probably correct that I missed something while reading the book, because I was indeed under the impression that the authorial voice was AGIN' renaissance worlds, not FER 'em. What I couldn't figure out at the time was why that authorial voice sounded so different from David Brin.

LarryHart said...


You know, if you had two rings one on your thumb with a mike and one on your forefinger with a speaker (or vice versa) you could just make the "call me" gesture with your hand to take a call.

My 11-year-old just figured out that she can text herself on her I-Pod. So she can type "Stop copying me!" and in a few seconds, it will text her back "Stop copying me!" Hours of fun.

David Brin said...

Larryhart you are one of my fave-boys here. So shrug it off! But yes, Hari Seldon is against renaissance worlds. Does that make ME against them? Hari is caught in a bind. He knows he was raised to be both brilliant and conservative. Even so, he is creating a new world (Terminus) that is certain to become a renaissance world, after the initial few centuries of crisis. Daneel plans to bypass the First Foundation so the crisis will never come. But Hari offers a wager that Terminus will finally have what it takes.

Locumranch, alas, there is no historical evidence whatsoever for the nostrum that civilizations have a "natural life cycle." That mythology has led to some awful foolish things like the "Tytler Calumny."

No evidence for it at all.

locumranch said...

There is no historical evidence whatsoever for the nostrum that civilizations have a "natural life cycle."

I disagree: The history of civilization repeats itself like the Sphinx's riddle.

The twentieth century alone saw the collapse of seven great empires – Mandarin China, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Japan, the British empire, and twice over in the case of Tsarist and Soviet Russia.

A little further back, we have the rise of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution & the Renaissance, all preceded by the "fall" of prior social paradigms.

A more extensively historical perspective is available within 'The Dynamics of Ancient Empires : State Power from Assyria to Byzantium ...", by Morris & Scheidel.

Finally, the so-called 'Tytler Calumny' (which only applies to the reputed rise & fall of democracies, btw) is largely supported by the subsequent development of a rich upper class who have voted themselves more and more wealth & power by predominately democratic & legal means.


Acacia H. said...

Okay. Let's put it another way. A nation is no more a living entity than a corporation is. As such it does not "live" and does not "die." It exists. The state of government may be modified over time, but that does not mean that any civilization will "die" or "fall."

There is one other thing to consider: the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you will fail, then you very likely will. You are psyching yourself out to not succeed. And you will find evidence of your failure no matter what your chances of success.

Thus you, who call for the decline and death of America, will see this decline and death, even if it is not real and does not exist. And you will do your best to convince others that your viewpoint is correct because this is the best way for you to ensure your prophecy succeeds.

If you see a portion of this nation in decline, then look at what is in decline and do your best to rectify the problem through your actions instead of your words. If all you do is gripe and say "the end is nigh" then you're no different than those guys walking around with a "The World Will End" sign. And you're no more accurate either.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Nonsense. "Cycles" all have different tempos and rhythms and have to deal with the fact that dynasties and empires all suffer their downfalls after vastly different intervals. Rome and China lasted very long times.

Yes, there were mistakes of statecraft that caused failure. I talk about that all the time. But there was no reliable pattern of rhythm or timetable. Those recent collapses happened because feudal systems were obstinate and refused to show the adaptability and agility needed to face modern times.

As for upper castes voting themselves largesse... um... isn't that what they have ALWAYS done? In all generations?

locumranch said...

A pleasant argument overall, but the truth is neither of us have any unique claim to truthiness.

You may or may not prefer to imagine human civilization as a linear ladder; I may or may not prefer to imagine human civilization as a cycle; and still others may or may not prefer to imagine human civilization as a flowering tree, ascending spiral or chicken pot pie.

Even the entire idea of what constitutes (human) progress and/or 'improvement' is entirely arbitrary (perspective-dependent) as one man's meat is often another man's poison.

On a side note, DB has strong opinions about this so-called "Tytler Calumny". Problem is that he forgets that US constitutional government was founded on the principle of economic & democratic parity.

Then, US citizenry sold out, became inattentive (aka 'the opposite of eternal vigilance'), allowed money & authority to concentrate in fewer & fewer hands until we stuck ourselves with the government that we deserve & a ruling class of our own creation.

Until the wheel turns.


Acacia H. said...

Loc, the U.S. citizenry never "sold out." The voting public was expanded upon instead. Originally, only landowners were allowed to vote, and only landowners who had a sizable amount of land. The thought was that these landowners would be educated because you need education to have and keep wealth. But then next you know renters are allowed to vote and on down the line.

Even the problem of requiring voters to have a certain level of education was deemed unconstitutional. Thus you can't have a specific educated group that does the voting because it was deemed not to be constitutional to have it that way. Nor should a select few have voting rights.

Today's society is building the voting mass that the Founding Fathers undoubtedly wished would exist: self-educated people who study up on what they are voting about before casting the votes. And more and more people are doing just that.

In short: you're wrong and allow your cynicism and disbelief to color your views.

Rob H.

Ian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian said...

Empire =/= civilization

The Chinese, British etc empires may have collapsed but there are more Britons, Chinese etc than at any point in their imperial eras and they're wealthier and healthier.

Contrast that with actual civilizational collapses: the Mohenjo Daro civilization or the Anasazi pueblo dwellers for example.

One reason for the difference is that those ancient civilizations tended to exist in isolation (or near-isolation) and tended to be monolithic in that they had a single form of governance and single mode of economic production.

As Edmund Gibbons pointed out in the 18trh century one big difference between the roman empire and the modern world is that our civilization is divided between multiple different competing/cooperating governments.

To paraphrase his words you could have a Caligula on the throne of France and a Marcus Aurelius on the throne of England.

Paul451 said...

"the so-called 'Tytler Calumny' (which only applies to the reputed rise & fall of democracies, btw) is largely supported by the subsequent development of a rich upper class who have voted themselves more and more wealth & power by predominately democratic & legal means."

Except that is specifically not what is meant when politicians and conservative talking-heads regurgitate some variant of the Tytler/Toynbee/deTocqueville (Prentis) Calumny. It was created, and is only ever used, to refer to the average person, the "47%", voting themselves unlimited welfare; never to mean the rich and powerful hoarding wealth at the expense of their own society.

And it's debunked simply by looking at the political messages that resonate with the "47%". It isn't "free stuff", it's responsibility, and, at the moment, austerity. Republicans lost because a) they were seen as nuts (unstable, irresponsible), and b) they were seen as greedy. But that they got any support at all is because they hammered the message of "belt tightening" and "self-responsibility". And the Democrats are frustratingly weak leaders, and are tarred by being associated with their own insane fringe, and the only reason they won is that they were seen as the least unstable, least irresponsible choice.

Likewise, the masses allowed the rich to hoard wealth not because they weren't vigilant, but because the propaganda for the rich cleverly sold it as being good for the economy, the "job creators". People were willing to sacrifice their own short-term gains (such as increased wages) in order to provide jobs for people who didn't have them; to provide wealth for the country, not just for themselves. Just as they might sacrifice for their children or their town. Because the average person has a strong (however imperfect) sense of fairness and equity. Only when you get into the higher incomes does that sense of fairness seem to be rarer, replaced with true selfishness.

The "47%" can be manipulated, yes, but not by their greed. You almost have to trick them to accept "free stuff", to reassure them that it's good for society if they take the gifts offered. Even the pre-2007 irresponsible credit boom had to be constantly propagandised by the irresponsible lenders as being good for the economy, that it'd be bad for jobs/etc if there were more limits.

Paul451 said...

150MHz radio signal from Neptune-mass exo-planet detected (back in 2009. Follow-up in 2011 failed to replicate the detection.)

Likely a false-positive, if not, then more like unknown natural phenomenon than ET. But it has a nice trigger for the SF-minded: the source off-planet from, but co-orbiting with, the position of the planet.

Anonymous said...

"Me? When it comes to prescriptions, I'll go with Toynbee."

Dr. Brin,

As a fellow fan of Toynbee, I have to ask where you think we are on his historical cycle?

Has America established a true Universal State created after our Time of Troubles (the World Wars and Cold War)?

Is the more peaceful world since the Cold War simply a result of America imposing a Pax?

Has our Creative Minority degenerated into a a Dominant Minority (i.e., is our republic and freedoms in the same sorry state as the late Roman Republic)?

Has our internal Proletariat been completely alientated from the Dominant Minority, turning inward and divorcing itself from civil society?

Is Al Qaeda an example of our External Proletariat (barbarians)?

Since a Universal State serves historically as the womb of a Universal Church (which in turn gives birth to a new civilization once the current Universal State falls) created by the alienated Internal Proletariat, which current religion would you predict would serve this role? IOW, what religion will serve the same role to the American Empire as Christianity served to the Roman Empire?

TheMadLibrarian said...

Ian, let's add in to your list some basic tools that are hard to craft well: needles, a good screwdriver, a hand drill, and a good knife.

I think the case can be made that what we are seeing is something like the Enlightenment 2.0, with more people being better fed and having access to information getting and spreading methods, with some time to use it. Now we need to learn to sort signal from noise, weed out bad information from beneficial.

unegalo: Onward...

Acacia H. said...

Al Qaeda is more akin to the anarchists that helped initiate World War I rather than the barbarian tribes that helped bring about the downfall of Rome. And in fact, they succeeded in their effort: we went to war with two Islamic nations. The problem is, the rest of the Islamic world failed to rise up against us like Al Qaeda thought would happen.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...


It will take a LOT more to rebuild a civilization like ours than a few physical tools used as seeds. Many of the tools you list were available to ancients and they didn't build civilizations like ours.

By far, the most important tools are the social institutions we've built. I don't quite name them the way David does or divide them the same way either, but you've heard of them before. We changed dramatically with the Enlightenment and the bulk of that appears in tools that aren't even remotely tangible. We've evolved them through a combination of trial and error and outright faith in ourselves.

Consider a top 10 list of the bits of our emergent order that would have to be replicated after a collapse and you'll get closer to what would actually be needed. From a space colonization perspective, it is these institutions that must be transplanted to new worlds if a colony is to survive. Some people worry about genetic viability of colonies, but I worry about how many people it takes to replicate the social tools. Genetic replication is relatively easy and this is proven by the out-of-Africa migration and the New-World migration. Not many people were involved. It is the undocumented, distributed social tools that are critical to us being what we are today, though.

Alfred Differ said...

One can easily argue that the Chinese Empire never really went away. There are periods where they have been dominated, but their self-identity survived to be re-born later. In this sense, the Chinese HAVE cycled between central control by some power that impoverishes the coastal regions and decentralized control by coastal powers that become quite wealthy while the interior languishes. That cycle is pretty clear in history, but isn't all that useful in the predictive sense. Will they eventually decentralize again? Probably. Some argue they are doing it right now, but trying for a soft transition. We will see. There is nothing that 'must' happen here. It's just probabilities and historical suggestions.

China is effectively a large island. Look at the geography. The interior is impoverished for understandable geopolical reasons. The coastal cities are the traders and rich for similarly understandable reasons. People on that island fight back and forth over who will control what, but until the wealth reaches far inland or the inland regions find ways to trade across impassible mountains or vast distances they will struggle with the usual issues.

We haven't had to face this kind of island problem in the US. Both our coasts have viable ports and nearby generators of wealth. The East coast easily beats the West coast due to the river systems. Our primary difficulty was bringing the coasts together economically which we tried to tackle early in our history. Shipping, trains, and eventually the most expensive public works project in the history of the country, our interstate highways system. We built our own rivers when we got wealthy enough.

When China paves over enough turf for the interior to participate in the world economy, their cyclical issues will change.

David Brin said...

Incredible wealth has engendered incredible degrees of specialization, which bred incredible wealth. I believe enlightenment "creative competition arenas" were mostly responsible... innovations that could easily fad if the Enlightenment does.

No collapse necessary, just conversion back to oligarchy. There will still be "science" and even "markets" and "democracy."



Unknown said...

About Diamond's "The World Until Yesterday": having read it, it did not strike me as romanticizing "primitive" societies or advocating renunciationism.

Diamond actually got into trouble with some indigenous rights organizations for saying that traditional societies are often very violent...