Monday, April 29, 2013

Sensible Tax Reform, Wealth disparities.. and Gun Control

I haven't opined on politics for a while, but recent events compel me to go back to that blather-well.  Some time soon I expect to comment on the Boston Bombing and the myriad implications for our looming transparent society.  But for now…

1) Sensible Tax Reform?

It appears that Republicans in the U.S. Congress are veering away from the (politically) dangerous ground of entitlement reform, even though President Obama has put on the table an offer to let them have something they long demanded -- a reduction in the inflation adjustment for Social Security and Medicare, plus possible even the Bowles-Simpson age-adjustments.  It seems that (as happened with Obama Care) the GOP finds nothing more loathsome than when the opposition says, "Okay, we'll do it your way. So let's make a deal."

Instead, reports suggest that the GOP leadership in the House is leaning toward attempting Tax Reform, with the aim of eliminating almost all deductions, in exchange for a dramatic lowering of tax rates.  Read up on this, because it will raise a firestorm!  And the attempt will run into the same forces that stymied tax simplification for 60 years… a coalition of powerful interests who -- though hating each other -- will join forces to protect their sacred cows.

NoLosersTAxAs it turns out, I have long suggested an extremely simple approach that would avoid this pitfall, by simplifying first and then  dealing with political matters second.  It sounds impossible, but it is actually rather straightforward, if only we tried the method called "No Losers Simplification."

Easy, logical and blatantly sensible… and do-able because it has a trick to keep everyone calm from the git-go. So, what d'you think are the chances?

Oh, a final note on U.S. taxes. How the Maker of TurboTax Fought Free, Simple Tax Filing. Intuit has spent millions lobbying to keep tax season miserable.

2) Are things getting better?

Optimism is so out of fashion these days, on both the left and the right, that  - ironically -  a guarded optimism has become the natural state for any genuine contrarian. I could try to ignore that reflex and stay true to my natural dour cynicism.  But facts are lining up with those who see light at the end of the tunnel. For example, I often cite Professor Steven Pinker's proof (The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined) that on average, per capita levels of violence have declined steeply (if unevenly) around the world every decade since 1945.

Now Oxford University has released  a study that breaks down human well-being into a ten-factor "Multidimensional Poverty Index" that encompasses nutrition, school attendance, access to clean water and electricity and so on. While there are many laggard zones of misery (e.g. Ethiopia and Malawi), there are also zones where recent good news has been  very strong. For example, if the study’s 'star' countries, Nepal, Rwanda, and Bangladesh, continue to reduce poverty at the current rate, they will halve MPI in less than 10 years and eradicate it in 20. These leaders are followed by Ghana, Tanzania, Cambodia and Bolivia.

In truth, I have my doubts in some ways.  There is a certain level of "take-off" development that is fairly easy to get rolling when dynamic people are allowed to strive effectively for their families under honest government that  blends top-down investment, infrastructure and care with a looseness that encourages enterprise, under predictable and reliable law. Hernando de Soto's reforms in Peru showed that a mix of liberal and libertarian measures can have stunning positive effects that neither could achieve alone.  (Defying simplistic fools who demand we choose only one wing of the lobotomizing "left-right axis.")

Still, there are many pitfalls, like endemic corruption, plus the fact that every phase presents new problems, as China is finding out. As we found out.

hopeBut that's just me, trying hard to remain cynical... and yet forced -- as I was while writing Existence -- to conclude that we are a bright species.  And our natural condition is a brilliant insanity called hope.

3) The New Great Divide

Oh, but then I turn and see trends that threaten to wreck it all!  Like the ongoing train-wreck demolition of the egalitarian "American Dream."

Wealth disparity in the US hit its lowest levels during the generation after Franklin Roosevelt, with the booming of a healthy middle class and the flattest society ever seen (when it came to matters like social class)… all of it during the healthiest market entrepreneurial economy in history, amid unmatched economic growth that lifted nearly all boats and enabled us to finance bold new projects like space, science and civil rights.

Alas, since 1980 we have seen a trend back toward the steeply pyramidal social structure that dominated in 99% of societies that had agriculture and metals. Now the trend is accelerating. It took off since 2001 and continued in the first two years of recovery.

SDT-2013-04-wealth-recovery-0-1"From 2009 to 2011, the mean wealth of the 8 million households in the more affluent group rose to an estimated $3,173,895 from an estimated $2,476,244, while the mean wealth of the 111 million households in the less affluent group fell to an estimated $133,817 from an estimated $139,896.

"The upper 7% of households saw their aggregate share of the nation’s overall household wealth pie rise to 63% in 2011, up from 56% in 2009. On an individual household basis, the mean wealth of households in this more affluent group was almost 24 times that of those in the less affluent group in 2011. At the start of the recovery in 2009, that ratio had been less than 18-to-1."

Which raises a pertinent question to ask our conservative friends. Is there ANY wealth disparity that would cause some of you to admit that "Class Warfare" has historically been waged top-down, and that pattern always tries to return? Our parents' generation knew the answer. President Obama spoke of his love for his Kansas grandparents who both served in World War II and who pretty much raised him.  The "Greatest Generation" that defeated Hitler and overcame the Great Depression -- they adored FDR and re-elected him by huge margins. Not in order to destroy capitalism, but to save it. From the enemy that always, reliably ruined free and fair competitive enterprise -- and freedom -- in 99% of all human societies.

Those who today have one supreme goal... to portray FDR as satan ... they stand with the oldest and most pervasive enemy of freedom and yes, the foe of market capitalism that Adam Smith denounced and against whom the American Founders rebelled.  Is there some point when you would recognize that old foe?

Hint: it is not a dogma or doctrine, or any particular group of people.  It is a drive that fizzes out of most of us, when we find ourselves atop a pyramid. A drive to thereupon grab the power to stay up there. By cheating.

WhoControlsBut it gets worse when 40% of the world's wealth is controlled by less than 150 people. How does competition happen when our lords own a higher percentage of the wealth than the French aristocracy did, in 1789?

4) Interesting political miscellany

Have any doubts about my comparison with the French Revolution? Read about the most expensive real estate on Earth - One Hyde Park, in London - where apartments sell for almost a quarter of a Billion dollars, to secret shell corporations that disguise the owners from the nosy masses. That's a "B" in "billion."


And shifting over to provocative potpourri... The most religious states show highest rates of anti-depressant use.

merchants-of-doubt1Does this really surprise you?  The origins of the Tea Party - and climate denialism - in the  tobacco industry. (See also Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway, as well as my article: Distinguishing Climate "Deniers" from "Skeptics.")

Lipstick on a pig? Reince Priebus gives GOP prescription for the future.  Sorry. I miss Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, true conservative intellects who enjoyed high-level argument and science, who reacted to bad outcomes by changing their minds, and who above all believed in negotiation.  Even, occasionally compromise. If Mr. Priebus and his colleagues ever decide to get serious, the great result will be to stop Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave.

Oh, but then - when you least expect it - sanity appears to be flowering in one area, at least, and some Republicans are leading the way!  California GOP Representative Dana Rohrabacher's Respect State Marijuana Laws Act (H.R. 1253) is far from the only bill in Congress that would wind down the federal war on weed.  But unlike the efforts of liberal Democrats who want to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, this bill or something like it may have a decent shot at passing in the not-too-distant future.  I can't believe it.  This madness seems finally to be ebbing. And if that insanity can ebb, let's work on others?

5) And finally, regarding gun control...

Did you notice that for a decade liberals were quiet about this issue?  And even now,  spurred by stunning tragedies, all most of them are asking for is background checks and a restored limit on assault weapons.  Why so little?  Simple.  Under Bush, many liberals started quietly arming themselves. Despite noise from some irredentist lefties, many liberals (a totally different species) are fine with responsible and accountable weapon ownership. Like their own.

If we are going to debate an issue, let's start with clean facts.  Yes, Mother Jones has a left-ish perspective.  But this set of graphics (Challenging the Myth that Guns Stop Crime) is effective when they take on some of the fibs being told by the NRA.

JEFFERSONRIFLEAgain, I claim the middle ground. Frankly, I am more sympathetic with moderate gun owners than Mother Jones is. In fact, many liberals and moderates understand the undercurrent motive that makes the gun folk dig in their heels… a fear of eventual confiscation of all personal weapons.

A fear that I go into, with some evenhandedness and detail, in my article, The Jefferson Rifle: Guns and the Insurrection Myth.

I've said it before.  Simply screaming aloud the second half of the Second Amendment will not make the first half go away.  And that first half (twelve words) will serve as a loophole wide enough to drive a bulldozer through, if some future panicking public and a new Court decide to "well-regulate" the "militia." You guys need another, better amendment. And I am offering one that liberals would help you to pass.

Again, most Americans don't wish to eliminate personal gun ownership, and would join in rising up, if it were ever tried. They simply want more responsibility and accountability, the very thing that we achieved with motor vehicles....

But the Slippery Slope Syndrome poisons so many issues on the national agenda. Look at it.  Face it.  Then do the unexpected.  Negotiate.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A potpourri of ironies for the weekend

Baseball fans, here's a unique (true?) tale of how - just after World War II - a baseball team consisting of Stratford-on-Avon actors and ex-POWs would dress in Elizabethan blouses and crush teams from nearby US air bases. "A dream team "with Paul Robeson (Othello) on first base, Sam Wanamaker (Iago) on second, Laurence Olivier (Coriolanus) on third and Peter O'Toole (Shylock) at shortstop. Albert Finney (a utility player) used to catch for me while Charles Laughton (King Lear) was the plate umpire. When Laughton said, 'Strike three, you're out!' nobody argued."  How I hope some time traveler secretly recorded their baseline trash talk and banter.  What a cute moment for a short story setting. Read: The Strangest Baseball Team in History.

And while we're on the Bard… Ah, consistency. Here is a hilarious moment of aha! realization… something we always knew, but without ever putting the pieces together. You will slap your forehead and cry "d'oh!"

== Inspirational ==

JohnCleaseJohn Cleese has a very large brain! This speech about "how creativity works" is incisive and brilliant! "Telling people how to be creative is easy. It's only being it that's difficult."

Also watch Richard Turure on TED: My invention that made peace with lions. An inspiring young fellow.

One public servant I very much admire… retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates… talking about another who I deemed (elsewhere) to have been the "Man of the 20th Century," George C Marshall. There are grownups in this world. Amid all the preening and posturing, take solace in that fact.

Okay, name for me another species that can do this sort of stuff.  All right, I can't do any of it either… still…

InternetWarningBritish humor site The Poke presents The Internet: A Warning from History -- an optimistic vision of the future in which humankind has managed (by 2068) to break free from the shackles of YouTube, Flash plug-in crashes, and even, somehow,  cat videos.

== And disturbing ==

Great big conspiracy flow chart.  It covers almost 15% of the crazy space!

== And scientific ==

DNAAn auspicious anniversary? On 25 April, 1953, Nature published "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid" by J.D.Watson and F.H.C.Crick, setting out the double helix structure of the molecule of heredity. This year is DNA@60.   Now watch the estimable Roger Bingham interview James Watson in an enlightening Science Channel Show. Or read Watson's The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.

As the world’s first building powered by algae, the 15-unit Bio Intelligent Quotient (BIQ) House generates biomass and heat with the assistance of 129 integrated glass bioreactor panels (read: micro-algae harvesters). The algae flourish and multiply in a regular cycle until they can be harvested. They are then separated from the rest of the algae and transferred as a thick pulp to the technical room of the BIQ. The little plants are then fermented in an external biogas plant, so that they can be used again to generate biogas.

A stunt, you say?  I know the folks at Heliae, who have announced the launch of their patent pending micro-algae production platform, using sunlight and waste carbon to produce high-value products from algae.

The "Grasshopper" reusable rocket prototype shattered its own record, reaching a height of 820 feet. That's more than triple its previous record.  Oh, and ain't this the way a rocket ship s'pzed ta be?

== Sci fi items ==

DanielWilsonDaniel H. Wilson, the young scientist author of engaging novels such as Amped and Robopocalypse gives a talk at Carnegie-Mellon about robotics in science fiction and how it relates to both real technology and our visions of the future.  Bright and funny.  Also,  he reminds me SO much of myself at that hot new author phase… including the hat!

…and miscellaneous…

Seven billion people on one browser page (one mile long). Don't send this to your printer...

TheGiftAnd finally, compiled by Five excellent Sci Fi short films worth watching.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Science-Fictional News -- some dark and some hopeful

Shall we start with something positive?  In a world of media flattened by cowardly sameness and copycat repetition, the Syfy Channel  apparently intends to keep the faith and offer us some challenging material, next year. Two 
ringworldminiseries will join the previously-announced adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle"-- Larry Niven's "Ringworld" and Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End."  Some other projects sound above-average, as well.  Will a renaissance of creative boldness arise out of …SyFy?

I'll give this to SyFy. They produce a lot of schlock but they also have guts! One result is a ratio of good (and sometimes great) stuff compared to fails that is way above Sturgeon's law.

But our field has also suffered blows, of late. Awful news: the plight and fight of my colleague, the brilliant science fiction author Iain Banks against cancer.  This, piled onto the similar battle of Jay Lake, reminds me of how I felt when we lost -- so prematurely -- Charles Sheffield… and Octavia Butler and Robert Forward and others who have passed beyond our view in this strange, transitional age, when possibilities can seem so bright but the grinding fate of our cave ancestors still rules our path.

== Sci fi miscellany ==

Book People - Austin's best book store - tallied their top ten list for this year's Hugos. Ah well. Late, but flattering. Thanks!  "In his usual fashion David Brin has written an understated masterpiece that is a truly amazing complex piece of literature.  Brin is a fantastic writer who has gone back to the well and delivered an absolute gem..."  Ah well, it is a year crowded with wonders!  Nominees for the 2013 Hugo Award for best in science fiction include novels by John Scalzi, Kim Stanley Robinson, Mira Grant, Lois McMaster Bujold and Saladin Ahmed -- to be awarded at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio in August.

Back to indie media… "New" looks like it could be a terrific short sci fi film with tons of heart. Indie screenwriter and producer John Harden is trying to finance it kickstarter style and has created a really sweet intro-preview-pitch you may enjoy.  This is the path that may take us to a realm of bold new (even sometimes optimistic) stories that aren't tired rehashes.

StandOnZanzibarA terrific retrospective review of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1969) re-introduces that epochal and stunning science fiction novel to new clades of younger sf readers.  Without question, it is one of the great literary achievements of our field and possibly of any and all genres.  I deliberately modeled both EARTH and EXISTENCE after Brunner's masterpiece, emulating his vividly broad-canvas approach and his ethos, while avoiding a few small mistakes… (and inventing my own, I am sure.) Lately, similar credit was acknowledged by Kim Stanley Robinson. If you haven't read Stand on Zanzibar, do so.  Put aside any other recreational reading.  You will thank me.

The conspiracy theory behind the destruction of the Death Star. Was it an inside job? Watch a hilarious (and incredibly on-target) satire of conspiracy theory videos in general… that also skewers the childish illogic of the Lucas universe, with its chain of self-indulgent coincidences.  Of course, every point in the video is lifted from one of my riffs in STAR WARS ON TRIAL. (Which is even more on-target and funny, Brin assures you, with a perfectly straight face.)

Confused by the state of publishing, with the last major national bookstore chain in decline and e-books rapidly taking over?  Have a look at a fascinating article about our new world by the bright young SF author (and my sometime collaborator) Jeff Carlson.  Insights galore.

empireAnother bright young SF writer, Adrian Tchaikovsky has a series of quasi-fantasy novels set in a world containing a huge diversity of  societies, both insect and human. His essay about this diversity of social experiments (on the Tor site) is fascinating.  He also addresses the perennial question: why do so many fantasy tales obsess on inherited oligarchy and kingdoms as a model of governance, which history shows to have been an extremely dumb and unsuccessful pattern, ruining freedom and hopes for most of our ancestors, most of the time. Till we wised up. Very interesting.  Give Adrian a try!  

Then ponder news about Chinese Science Fiction: The Political Schism between Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy. It's important, get used to it.  Especially, get ready for the debut, next year, of "The Three Body Problem," a huge science fiction hit in China, by the towering new talent over there, Liu Cixin. I am reading the English translation by our own Ken Liu and enjoying it immensely. No... I mean seriously-immensely. I consider Liu Cixin to be much more than the top science fiction author in China.  When you read him, you'll agree he's one of the best in the world.

smith-people-fell3Meanwhile, is SF finally getting respect in its heartland?  Astonishing. this is the second time in a year that Atlantic has published an essay that is at  least somewhat favorably inclined toward science fiction.  For decades they ran a vendetta against SF, commissioning execrable hit pieces like clockwork.  But this article about the great stylist Cordwainer Smith -- one of my favorite short story writers -- is insightful and should lead many curious minds to our field.  

An added note: Smith (aka Paul Linebarger) was among those who - along with Pierre Boulle and H.G. Wells) pioneered tales about what I have called the "uplift" of higher animals, bestowing upon them the mixed-promethean-mephistofelian gifts of speech and logical thought. My main innovation was not to portray humanity doing this stupidly and cruelly. But I stand on giant shoulders.

== And more sci fi miscellany ==

Language derivation, the tracing of linguistic roots, has finally entered the 21st Century. Computer program finds root words of modern languages.

According to newflashes popping up around the web, the Washington Academy of Sciences has created a seal of approval for the scientific accuracy of novels. Alas, as my colleague - the sharp Nancy Fulda - points out, there is less here than meets the eye. Kinda disappointing execution of what I (naturally) took to be a very good idea.

Despite being harried by fans of the Most Interesting Man in the World -- (Hey guys, I am the BALD interesting guy) -- I really love that ad campaign.  Now it turns out that the actor who plays the MIMITW - Jonathan Goldsmith - played a red shirt in the original Star Trek series… and lived!  You can imagine the lines.  Or read them on iO9.  My favorite? The Borg want to be assimilated by HIM.

BraveNewWorldThe 1950s radio dramatization of BRAVE NEW WORLD, introduced by Aldous Huxley, is available online.

The High Frontier, Human Colonies in Space, by Gerald K. O'Neill, now free on Kindle.

Choose your next author based on the genre and how he or she looks?  I wish they chose a better picture of me!  The URL seems to say Find...MEAN... author!

How to porpoise like a dolphin...  Water-jet booties that solve all the jet-pack problems. What a great idea... and like the best - obvious in retrospect.

Eric S. Raymond is a personality of some note in the hacker community. His essay on the political movements in science fiction -- while incomplete and two-dimensional - nevertheless is well-balanced and thoughtful.  I went "huh!" a couple of times.

Finally, Bruce Sterling talks a lot about how new media and methods kill older ones: e.g. the death of both bookstores and the personal computer, and he makes some interesting metaphor-parallels with the cliff dwellers in the eleventh century American southwest.  He does this sort of thing very well and I'm glad he is in the world.  I agree with most of it and find the rest interesting, and can shrug aside the preening.  In the end, however, after a very long Chautauqua meal, I think back upon what I had read and ask: what do I know now that I did not know before reading Bruce's speech? That Sergey Brin is brilliant and useful?

I knew that already.

==Looking to the Future==

starshipcentury-300x297Want to spent a few days contemplating the our future in space? Attend the StarShip Century Symposium May 21 and 22 at UCSD. Speakers include Gregory Benford, Neal Stephenson, Freeman Dyson, Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Geoffrey Landis, Allen Steele, Paul Davies, John Cramer, Jill Tarter, Robert Zubrin, Joe Haldeman, and others, as part of the opening ceremonies for the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Be sure to register to attend.

The ideas of a 100 year program to create a starship will be explored – from the development of an interplanetary economic infrastructure, to the structural requirements, the human factors and speculations on what we might find.

Come, contribute...and find inspiration!

Friday, April 19, 2013

See-it, believe-it proof… plus smart mobs and cool science

We'll start this time with CHASING ICE -- a documentary by and about one of the world's greatest adventurers, who spent years with his brave & hardy team designing, building and setting up some of the world's toughest cameras to endure the planet's harshest environments, all to track by time-lapse whether glaciers are growing or shrinking.  It's spectacular to watch, long before you finally get to see the hard-won footage.

chasing_ice_xlgThis nature show is a game-changer. Watch it and make everyone you know watch it.  I saw an early version and it left everyone speechless in awe. Check local listings or find it on Amazon).  And yes, your  denialist uncle will find any excuse to avoid watching, because he will know in advance where this goes, where it has to go, where undeniable, bald-faced video footage takes anyone who has the basic curiosity and honesty to watch.

Oh… you have never seen anything till you've watched a chunk of glacier the SIZE OF MANHATTAN break off of Greenland and go belly up in a spectacular roar. Watch it 95% just to know there are still adventurers in the world who can bring home to us tales of wonder, worthy of Amundsen.  

== Tracing back the clock of life… TEN billion years? ==

Has the complexity of life been increasing along a path similar to Moore's Law?  If you trace-back the doublings of integrated circuit complexity, halving the number of transistors per chip every 18 months (Moore's Law) you get to zero around 1970… pretty much when it all started.  A similar back extrapolation was done with Hubble's Law, way back in the 1930s when the expansion of the universe was discovered, giving an early estimate for the Big Bang that was correct within an order of magnitude.  Now scientists have done the same thing with the expansion of the genome. And although this is only one possible measure of life-complexity, this particular trace-back yields shocking results. See: Moore's Law and the Complexity of Life in Technology Review.

If you discount the vast tracts of "redundant" DNA in mammalian chromosomes, then the log curve plots straight back in time, past eukaryotes and prokaryotes, to suggest that life had its origins… almost ten billion years ago.  Since the Earth itself is less than five billion years old, this suggests that either:

(TimeReborn1) life began de novo on Earth (the standard model) and then had a phase of exceptionally rapid genome growth (akin to the inflationary phase of expansion that some say followed the Big Bang), or

(2)  life began elsewhere and was seeded on the early Earth, in accordance with the Panspermia Theory of Arrhenius, and later Hoyle and Wickramasinghe. (As well as Heart of the Comet.)

An altogether fascinating prospect, either way.

== Science and the Spirit of Innovation ==

See 27 sci fi things that are coming true.  Such as a robot that can navigate an obstacle course, spray on skin, invisibility cloaks, 3-D printing of houses, chimera monkeys made from several embryos, artificial leaves, new, cheaper solar cells, and  exoskeletons!

Yet, are any of these advances as epochal as breakthroughs of the past? Has the engine of our innovation broken down? The incredible stodginess of Hollywood, these days, with remakes of remakes, is only matched by the stunning "me-too" notions seen in most net-web startups.  I run into it all the time.

HowAmericansEvery decade since 1940 has seen the United states and its economy swayed by two major forces - a vast trade deficit that wound up being the great driver of world development, raising billions out of poverty around the world... and a wave of made-in-america innovative products and services that generated enough wealth to pay for it all.  From jet planes to rockets and satellites; from telecom and pharmaceuticals and fiber optics to xerography, CCDs and the internet, these breakthroughs came in rapid succession and enabled us to buy trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed, thus uplifting the world.

That is, till the first decade of the 21st Century, when much of this engine stalled.  Is it simplistic to blame it on social matters like the culture war against science, waged especially hard during the Bush Administration? Of course that was a factor, at a time when extremes of both right and left preach cynical disbelief in the possibility of technology serving us in its traditional, problem-solving role.

That attitude is opposed by (among others) President Obama, who mentions sci-tech more often in speeches than any two other presidents, combined.  But there has to be more to it than that. A component that drives deeper than politics.

This article in the Economist, Has the ideas machine broken down? tries for perspective… and at least succeeds in offering background.

One thing you can do: Sign a petition to increase NASA's budget -- and support cutting edge developments in space and technology.  But above all, think about it!  Talk to others about re-igniting the can-do spirit.

==Bio-Science Miscellany==

A thoughtful, brief article  about the prospect of uplifting animal intelligence appeared recently in the Boston Globe, By Emily Anthes.

uBiomeAn absolute must-read about  the importance of the next frontier in biology and medicine, the Micro-Biome  ecosystem of bacteria and microbes who inhabit the human gut, skin, mouth etc.  Aldous Huxley wrote about this in a great novel 80 years ago. Today, both doctors and quacks are touting both real and fantasy cures that might arise from tailoring or re-building these symbiotic networks that are often wiped out or thrown into imbalance by excessive use of antibiotics.  Reinforcing the old saw that one generation's brilliant "solution" winds up creating new problems that the next generation must deal with.  So it goes.  (Get your own personal microbiome analyzed at

Brain Scan Predicts Whether Convicts Will Re-Offend: Welcome To The Sci-Fi Future.  Activity in one very particular part of the brain shows a high correlation with recidivism. Men in the bottom half of anterior cingulate cortex activity were 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes and 4.3 times more likely to be arrested for nonviolent crimes. Should this become a factor in parole hearings?  The future is arriving.

Graphic shows how vaccines have changed our world.  And now yet more studies provide overwhelming refutation of the loony notion that vaccines cause autism. An area where the "left" is bona fide easily as cloud cuckoo as the right.

Researchers at Stanford University have developed a way to make genetic parts that can perform logic calculations.

Laser light to the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex apparently zaps away cocaine addiction – or conversely turned non-addicted rats into compulsive cocaine seekers. The effects were seen in rats gene-spliced to have light-sensitive neurons that can be turned on-ff by laser, hence, a different approach must be used for human therapies. Still, knowing which neurons are active in inhibition/addiction control could be of great value and there are other (e.g. magnetic) ways to have similar effects.

==Science and Society==

SavoyOne of the latest TED talk sensations is Allan Savory, who has spent his life combatting desertification, and who now believes we've had it all wrong for two generations.  He claims that deserts are prevented, rather than created, by large herds of grazing animals.  His presentation is worth watching and the re-evaluation that he triggers is delicious to my contrarian mind!  On the other hand, it isn't hard for me to do a second, ornery veer and say "yes… but!"

Oh so many buts.  Like the fact that vast deserts clearly grew as human pastoralists were able to protect their herds from predators. Overgrazing is just as much a threat as undergrazing and Savory's technique requires the transient passage of large/dense herds of grazers, who stomp and fertilize an area without denuding it. A cavil that will require either intense supervision and daily management… or a return to predator-dense situations that keep the herds packed and moving.  Moreover the grasslands that he has restored are anything but "healthy" ecosystems in their own right.  Improved, but still denuded of trees by the very herbivore herds that Savory extolls. For true health you need at least partial coverage by trees, and that takes active management too, in order to protect them from the herbivores, like cattle, elephants and giraffes.

Finally, Savory's method emphasizes vast herds of cattle that are burdensome in their own right.  One of the hopeful prospects on our horizon will be vat grown meat.  If it can satisfy our appetites at three pounds of grain per pound of meat, then there will be more food and hope in the world, at far lower Karmic cost.   I will not let go of that hope… though I appreciate Savory's input of an eye-opening realization.  One that will do good!  Just let's not get carried away.


Read about one man's lifelong wrestling match with his atheism against religious heritage in the context of a scientific world. Sample an excerpt from The God Problem, by Howard Bloom, in Utne Reader.

Ever read a blog on chemistry that was hilarious? See this one about di-oxygen di-flouride… or FOOF.  Yes, it is as horrible a substance as it sounds!  And the blog is gut-busting… if your funny bone is tickled by something that makes water ice explode at minus two hundred celsius.

io9 offers you one of their great lists:  "Want to get smarter during your commute? There are a lot of fantastic podcasts that will teach you new things in a thoroughly entertaining way. Here are 13 podcasts that will expand your brain with cutting-edge science and cultural analysis."

== Smart Mobs and the Boston Bombings ==

Just one quick comment amid the mid-April terror crisis that has become all-too familiar in recent years. Evidently the FBI gets it and has called out a "smart mob"… or at least asked for public help identifying potential culprits in the Boston bombing from street video footage.  All may change, by the time this blog is posted, so I am putting off making my own appraisal.  But this could be a seminal moment, when all of society came to realize… we'll be better off when all citizens share in the power to see.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hidden Offshore Money Hoards Revealed...and Other Transparency News

You may have heard that a consortium of journalists, working on a cache of 2.5 million recently spilled files, has cracked open the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con men and mega-rich the world over. If preliminary reports prove to be true, it would be a revelation ten times larger than last year's WikiLeaks Affair and vastly more important. Indeed, it could portend the start of a worldwide radical movement for transparency that I forecast (including - for dramatic effect - a world war on Switzerland) in my 1989 novel Earth.   

For starters, see a chart detailing ongoing investigations into banking havens worldwide. Scan a wide range of reactions, from Russian officials, Europeans and others: 

--Tax Haven Data Leak Reverberates around the Globe

--Tax Havens Cause Poverty

--Release of Off-Shore Records draws Worldwide Response

This event appears to prove the contention I made back in 1989, in Earth -- that even world elites will have to adapt to a world much more filled with light. Specifically, these revelations may have short, intermediate and long term consequences.  In the near term, some cheaters and kleptocrats will be caught and some laws tightened, some cheat-havens hemmed in, public awareness and anger incrementally raised.  

The intermediate effect will be to cause the kleptos and New Oligarchs to pay more for increasingly clever methods of concealment, evasion and manipulation. Remain cynical, it will take a lot more than this. A whole lot more.

But over the longer term, a whole lot more is simply inevitable. We will see cascades of sudden revelation as these skulking methods prove inherently unreliable. They will be undermined by defections-of-conscience and by self-serving whistle blowers. By the fallibility of software and by the venality of henchmen. They will crack and leak, in any world that is short of Orwellian. At which point the world will choose. Shall we endure a return to the long, 6000 year era of law-protected oligarchy? Or will this signal the return to vigor of a civilization that is kept healthy by openness and accountability and light?

Yes, I am putting it in dramatic - even manichean - terms.  And I have probably understated the importance of the coming series of confrontations. In fact, let's make the prediction even more explicit than I made in Earth

FORECAST: This movement may be propelled - soon - by one or more radicalized nations in the developing world. Not radicalized by socialism or religion or dogmatic frenzy, but by the appearance of a new class of honest, grownup leaders at their helms. Imagine the fury that those leaders and their people will feel, when they suddenly realize just how much of their national wealth wealth was siphoned away by their own former kleptocrat lords. 

Vast amounts that those thieves took with them into exile.  Example: The Philippine Presidential Commission on Good Government probe into the disclosure that Maria Imelda Marcos Manotoc, the eldest daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was a beneficiary of a secret offshore trust of prodigious proportions, in the British Virgin Islands… 

Now extrapolate this and you start to understand why the Swiss and other haven bankers have recently seemed willing - even eager - to strike semi-transparency deals with tax authorities in Europe and North America.  (1) Because those big countries have dangerous klout that must be placated by tossing overboard some merely-rich, sub-billionaire clients. But far more likely - (2) because the real business of lucrative banking secrecy lies in that mountain of klepto-hoards looted from much poorer nations. By striking deals with the IRS and EU tax boards, they hope to prevent alliances between developed and developing nations, in a grand consortium for transparency.

Only it won't work. Eventually, some nation like the Phillipines, or Indonesia or the former Zaire will be led by people graced with honesty, imagination and courage. Leaders who figured out, in advance, the pitfall traps such as blackmail

There are things that such nations and peoples can do -- exceptional, dramatic and boldly effective things -- that could transform the world. There are ways. And when it happens, remember where you first heard this.*

==  Pay attention… this is important ==

You Americans out there who actually want a return to a vigorous, problem solving nation, where politics is about negotiation and the Peoples' will and not regression into feudalism, you must pay attention to this. There is really nothing more urgent you will watch, probably ever! Because the ability of the American Experiment to remain healthy and solve every problem hangs in the balance.

I mean it.  Watch:  Lawrence Lessig: We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim.  

But this next matter is paramount, as well. One issue where I am a flaming, no-compromise radical, is a citizen's right to record encounters with authority, especially the police. Now the Obama Justice Department has made things starkly and abundantly clear.  It is now “settled law” that anyone is allowed to record or photograph police officers in public.  

A statement of interest – a legal term for when an agency or organization has a stake in the outcome of a trial, but not direct involvement – filed in the case of Mannie Garcia v. Montgomery County, Md., upholds the right of individuals to photograph police under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This is more important than it may seem. Most cops are hardworking and well-intentioned men and women. Their instincts - inherited from ancient eras - are understandable... and must not be allowed to prevail in this matter.

But even as "settled law" it will be very very hard.  Note these cases: 

The NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg oppose surveillance of police.  See? Even "openness" democrats can't be trusted in this issue.

San Diego police attack, arrest man video recording them, claiming his phone could be weapon. 

Dinosaurs. In fact, this new era of omni-veillance will be essential and will help make policing easier! Especially if citizens feel they are partners and not victims. Take this example. NYPD fails to catch mugger for three weeks, but internet commenters catch him in one hour.  My "smart mobs" from Existence, taking form already.

Then it all moves to a new front. “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” prohibits filming or taking pictures on livestock farms to “defame the facility or its owner.” Violators would be placed on a “terrorist registry.”  Terrorism?  This was prompted by animal rights groups video-recording scenes of horrific sadism and cruelty on farms and in slaughterhouses… going far beyond the normal bloody business necessitated by the carnivorality industry. This was exactly the sort of transparency that the industry ought to want, in order to rid themselves of vicious monsters, the way pedophiles are kept out of schools. When they get used to this and embrace it, the owners will have a cleaner and more efficient - and less Karma-burdened - business. 

And related news --  A judge has blocked Iowa State University from releasing documents about food safety research conducted for the beef-processing company that makes the product dubbed "pink slime" by critics. At the level of details, there are actually reasons for compromise in this case.  At the level of principle, none at all.  
This is not as crucial a situation as the taping of citizen contacts with police.  But it matters and light must be allowed to shine.

Oh, but sinking lower than slaughterhouses… on a secretly-recorded tape, GOP Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and his advisors are heard laughing and joking about opposition research they had on actress Ashley Judd, who had been considering running against McConnell next year. Many Democratic groups blasted McConnell for the remarks, disgusted by the fact McConnell would potentially use Judd's suicidal thoughts as a child against her. In reactionn came a firestorm or protest against eavesdropping by "leftist agitators."  Um, get used to it. Stop being led by crude people. Go back to choosing grownups. It really is that simple.

Interesting times indeed.

==  Augmented reality... and catching liars ==

Compare these two images of Rome during the election of the last pope in 2005 and more recently in 2013.  Then contrast the images to my descriptions of "tru-vu goggles" in EARTH (1989) and the gel-lens stalks people wear in 2048, portrayed in EXISTENCE
How quickly are we moving toward the world of Augmented Reality (AR)?

Get used to expanded power of video to appraise tiny changes, measure your pulse at a distance and enhance our already tremendous ability to pick patterns out of backgrounds.  These methods developed at MIT will help us all thrive in Augmented Reality… or else prove powerful tools for tyranny.  We'll get best outcomes from them if we all embrace them.  Openly. 

Indeed, after reading that article, ponder my 1980 novel Sundiver in which vision-based lie-detectors (inescapable, wherever there is light) utterly transform politics. 

I predict that by 2016 there will be lurid claims from "experts" on all sides, claiming to catch fibs by opponents talking in public or on TV... experts who are then "shown" to be lyingI It will be chaos, at first.  Then this stuff will become an App. And by 2020 or 2024? A useful tool> Possibly a sieve for psychopaths and monsters? Can you see yet why - for so many reasons - the clade of already-powerful psychopaths is growing desperate?

== And more transparency crux-points ==

Perching: Video, released by the Air Vehicle Directorate, shows a pigeon-like drone that can draw power from an electrical wire while its camera watches a target. These and other new-style drones are part of a fascinating and problematic future. Stay alert. 

In a fascinating article, Technology Review explains how a huge black market has developed for "zero-day" systemic flaws in programs and operating systems, especially in mobile devices.  These can be exploited by governments or corporations of criminal gangs, especially in mobiles, that get infrequent security updates.  A cottage industry of hackers now swops in to find flaws and back doors and chinks in security and then sells them at high prices.  The article raises this as a scary scenario… but in fact I am not so sure.  Isn't this how an immune system functions? T Cells that discover an invader and ways to neutralize it are rewarded within your own body; they are given resources to reproduce.  Is that any different from a government agency saying: "Come to us with your clever discovery of a flaw.  We'll pay better than the criminals do… and you won't risk jail."  See: the Malware industrial complex and the trade in zero-day vulnerabilities.

A multinational security firm has secretly developed software called RIOT capable of tracking people's movements and predicting future behavior by mining data from social networking websites. Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.  

Curious whether a prescription or medical device your doctor is recommending comes from a manufacturer who has been paying your doctor? Good news, then: The federal government has finally developed a plan for how the Physician Payments Sunshine Act will work. The Sunshine Act, made federal law as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, was designed to allow anyone -- patients, doctors, journal editors -- to look up which doctors are getting how much from which companies.  

== And yet MORE transparency news… ==

See the stunningly huge number of new top level domains that are under consideration by ICANN

These guys consulted me. Koozoo envisions a world where a network of smartphone cameras will anticipate your needs and offer streaming video that fills them. But that's future talk. For now, it will just put up cameras anywhere it can.

wi01_logoIn the wake of the famous WikiLeaks events, a large number of emulation sites popped up around the world, aiming to blow the whistle on corruption from Bulgaria to India to Nicaragua. Most of these clones never got very far and appear to have all but shut down. Balkanleaks seems to be just one of a handful still actively receiving and publishing new documents. (Note, I long supported Witness since 1990 or so, a more robust model that does not rely on inherently fragile encryption methods.) As I described in The Transparent Society, maintaining methods of aggressive accountability, threatening the dark secrets of powerful men, is a dangerous game and secret codes are only the tip of what's required. 

States are pondering or passing laws to restrict the use of drones for camera use in the skies over public realms like highways. This is not where we should be concentrating our freedom and privacy protecting efforts.  All such laws will do is hamper the good aspects of drone use while compelling elites of government and wealth to make their surreptitious drones smaller.  More like birds and insects and harder to detect. The failure of imagination of these people…. 

The thing we need is not to try to blind elites… that has never ever worked. (Show me one historical example. One.)  What we must pursue is sousveillance, our ability to look back at power. to see with our own drones etc.  And, above all, to make fresh, agile deals every time an issue like this comes up. 

"You say that you, our protectors, need more vision to better protect the public?  Fine.  But in return you must undergo more supervision.  Citizens in the control rooms.  Citizens on the panels that issue licenses. Webcams in boardrooms.  You may see better, in order to serve us better.  But you are a watchdog, not a wolf! And here is your choke chain. Accept it - and your role as a public servant - or else we will hire others."

== And more! ==

Brad Foster puts into perspective the ever-rising tsunami of information and how crushing is the hypersonic waves of… bullshit. Just a few small examples:  Netflix consumes a THIRD of all internet traffic. Four billion shares on Facebook every day.  Eric Schmidt of Google says 5 exabytes of information were created by humanity till 1980.  We now create that much every two days.  Frost goes a bit over the top in his denunciations and diagnoses, but he concludes there has never been a better time for people to find ways around the BS and slim down, in order to be creative, or useful, or focus on what you can do that does (or is) some good. 

Political note: The FCC and Obama Department of Justice appear to be leaning toward favoring smaller mobile phone companies in releasing more cell tower spectrum, in order to encourage more competition with Verizon and AT&T. This may be a crucial sign of sentiment as the FCC also decides whether to release spectrum for major citizen-access use of WiFi type systems anywhere in the continent. 

== Brin on Beck? Via Penn Jillette? The strange world of Transparency ==

I was mentioned on Glenn Beck! In a "surprisingly cordial discussion" between Glenn Beck and Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller). Penn mentioned me twice, citing The Transparent Society (about 34 and 41 minutes in). I consider Penn to be a true paladin of freedom, worthy of my greatest compliment… that he and I would both have been quickly burned at the stake under any tyranny. (You, too, should strive to be burnable!) But in this wondrous civilization he and I are instead well paid to provoke and stir the pile, joyously yelling at each other and in all directions. Progress indeed. 

Beck? Well, he was courteous and calm on this occasion.  Go watch a discussion between a sane-openminded (though rambunctiously provocative) true-libertarian and a tendentiously delusional faux-libertarian shill for the new lords… but still a good mind-stretch for those of you who need to wallow now and then, in smart perspectives that challenge you. 

== Coda ==

Million-Dollar-Outlines-450x680A final set of sad notes. I have spoken elsewhere of the terrible news that both Jay Lake and Iain Banks are in desperate fights against cancer. I will speak more of that later. (They are great writers and let's all send our best vibes.) Now comes news that the son of eminent science fiction author Dave Wolverton - AKA David Farland - suffered a terrible accident recently. Past fans of Dave's work - or folks interested in trying something new - might have a look at his novel Nightingale… or else, if you are a would be writer, consider Million Dollar Outlines, in which Dave offers would-be best-sellers advice how to analyze an audience and outline a novel so that it can appeal to a wide readership. Or make a donation:
Help Ben Walk.

* Oh, but by then I may have been bribed into denying it all! No serious offers so far.  You - the smart public - should feel insulted by that! Think about it.

David Brin