Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Ritual of the Street Corner -- a "tonic" exercise in humility

As time passes, many of us are coming to realize that our current political and social struggles - especially within the United States - have much less to do with "left versus right" in any classic sense, than they are about future versus past, optimism versus pessimistic cynicism, and confident pragmatism against varied dogmatisms that preach despair.  

You can see this not only in the fanaticisms of far-lefist and pan-rightist politics, but also in culture. Take the way novels and films of fantasy and so much science fiction -- filled with dystopias, apocalypses and lavish feudal settings -- today push notions of nostaligia and rejection of the modern world.  A world that gave the authors and directors and screenwriters  lives that any king of old would have envied. Indeed, very much like the lives of gods.

FavoriteCliche copyElsewhere, I talk about some of the economic drivers and lazy plotting temptations that too-often cause storytellers to choose this path.  A cheat that can make money, for sure! But one also spreading poison through the blood and heart and brain of a society that badly needs confidence. A society that has earned confidence, after beating down so many ancient evils, like racism, sexism and our ancestors' blithe contempt for nature.  In that essay, I reflect upon how some dour tales are truly great!  When they warn of a danger we might thereupon be inspired to solve -- making those stories self-preventing prophecies. We don't need happy endings... but neither do we need dull-repetitive propaganda for hopelessness.

Project Hieroglyph is one effort by a coterie of science fiction authors to reverse this trend and challenge readers with an impudent notion... that the future might be better, if we seek it with vigor, courage, goodwill, a spirit of negotiation... and adventure.  Lots of great drama and adventure! I helped establish Reading for the Future with that goal in mind.  It underlies the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD.

(Note: there will be an RFF meeting among the great activities at next weekend's World Science Fiction Convention, in San Antonio Texas.  I hope to see some of you there!)

== An Exercise for Cynics ==

Here I'd like to challenge readers to try a little experiment, one that is sure to chip at the stylish cynicism we absorb from both media and our own sanctimonious egotism.  Are you honest and willing to reconsider?  Most people who do as I recommend (below) come away at least a bit inspired, less sure that their fellow citizens are complete sheep, and possibly stoked with just a little more confidence that we can do it - cross the next 50 years of minefields and quicksand pits, so that our children will get to something better. 

For starters, have you heard one of the oldest arguments for cynicism? Some variant on:

“A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are.”

Yep, it's one of the great smug-cliches of all time. And I can only respond with --

”What is a cynic who snaps out of it even FARTHER? Enough to realize that, despite the gruesomely stupid, self-delusional and abysmally corrupt aspects of human nature... things are getting phenomenally better? And have been for quite some time?

I mean, which is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic -- and a macro-civilization -- that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature?

156209451So here is Brin’s Exercise... I command you to go forth and do this!

Go to a street corner, preferably one with a very busy four-way -- or eight or twelve (via multiple lanes) -- traffic not controlled by electronic lights, but simple stop-signs -- where people and cars and bicycles must balance traffic rules every second, negotiating  right-of-way and movement with quick eye contact, lazy little hand-flicks and brief nods. Watch for a while until it all sinks in. Allow yourself to be amazed at how easy it seems. How relaxed and bored everyone is, with this libertarian miracle of self-regulation.

Yes, if you stand there long enough, you'll spot someone doing something stupid or rude. Fine. Tally it up. Get a ratio.

Then do a slow 360. Notice all the other things that are working! The quiet and efficient courtesies, the technologies, the tiny acts of honesty and cooperation. That person over there could have stolen from that shop, but didn't. Those telephone lines and power cables have been working, nonstop, for at least a decade... and so on. Parse it smaller and smaller.

Notice all the hidden competence of a myriad professionals that make all the switches turn on time and fill the restaurants with food. Do not let a patch of one square degree pass your view without comment, or noticing something that you took for granted! If you finish the turn having counted less than a hundred bona fide miracles, start over!  Better yet, ponder what any of your ancestors would have seen, doing a similar slow turn, at any point across the last 6000 years.

People accuse me of being a flaming optimist, because I have a naively positive view of human nature.  How absurd! No, friend. I am a flaming optimist because I understand just how wretched human nature is! I am uniquely qualified, as a student of all sciences, of history... and a licensed professional alternate world builder in the mighty genre of Speculative History (also clled science fiction)... and a person whose third and fourth cousins were all murdered by unprecedented rationalization and unspeakable human savagery...

... as one who awakens every morning surprised that Cossacks have not yet burned my home, taken my wife and kids, burnt me at a stake and ruined my proud civilization.

Not yet.

Hence the ferocity of my optimism, oh my friends and co-rebels against any chance that the bad old days might return. (A possibility that I portrayed in The Postman.) Hence my deep and abiding disdain for cynicism. Because it isn’t helpful. And if it isn’t helpful in this fight, I have no time for it.

We have one hope. The Modernist Agenda -- combined with a little faith. It’s a program that’s worked so far. Indeed, we cannot properly fight for it without conceding -- indeed, AVOWING! -- that it has worked. Fantastically. Epochally. Better than any other program for living and working together ever devised.  Because no other system even tried to eliminate racism, sexism, feudalism and every other noxious ism that limited human potential.

== Must I also like... my neighbors? ==

Like everyone else, I am drawn to cynical contempt-for-the-masses around me. Masses who seem so dimwitted... who support imbecile politicians... who don’t know where Rwanda is or what happened there... who actually think we are at “war”... who raise such dopey, X-Box-addicted brats...

RitualStreetCorner...only then I do the exercise. I go to that street corner and start turning. And every time I finish one of those 360 degree rotations, noticing the myriad marvels all around me, the incredible courtesy and skill and competence that it takes to (ironically) make a civilization that is proof against the individual incompetence of countless fools...

... I find myself forced to make a concession. To grasp that (as the best scientists say)... I might be wrong.

And that is when I mutter, grudgingly --

”My neighbors simply... cannot be as stupid as they look.”

Yes, they look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. Together, we get smarter than we ever deserved to be.

It is called an Emergent Property. And, friends, you live in comfort and wallow in information and freedom because of it. Moreover, the shortsighted dogmatists who hate complexity have no idea what it is that they are prescribing, when they offer their simplifying nostrums:

"All government is vile, all the time," or -

"All competitive capitalism is vile, all the time," or -

"Anything western or american is automatically better," 

...or the recently more pervasive poison see in nearly all Hollywood films:

"Anything western or american is automatically evil and disgusting, without any redeeming properties!"

Pay no attention to the simplistic prescribers of right or left.  What they are offering is to take it away -- all the marvelous complexity -- and replace this marvel with rule by philosopher kings. By platonist prescribers of left, right, libertarian or religious or weird. Dig deep and it's all the same thing. Dolts and ingrates who despise while wallowing in the fruits of the very civilization they hate. Who would end the complexity in favor of a theory. Who would kill the goose that gives a flood of golden eggs.

Oh, yes, some of our neighbors are fools, after all.


Birrell Walsh said...

OK, often I disagree with you. In this case I agree with you strongly. We simply do not notice the competence and collaboration that make up our environment.

Forgive me Dr Brin, but I think you have a spiritual exercise here.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Scott Adams (Dilbert) had it right a while ago
(He seems to have lost the plot since then)
We are all numbskulls sometimes,
We will go through the day making good decisions and doing good work - then once a day we will do something dopey
But at the core 90%+ of people are competent

Which is what we should expect
If competency is a physical measure it will form a skew normal distribution
Like height
Most of us will have a competence of about 1 (5ft 9)
A very small number of people may have competence up to 1.5 - (8ft)
Or down to 0.5 - (3ft)
Nobody will have a competence of 2 (11ft 6)

In the USA you seem to have allowed a small percentage of loonies to dominate politics so you appear insane

My theory is
In the beginning when your republic was being created some smart reactionary muttered into his beard
"If they want democracy - we will give them so much democracy that they get sick of it"
So where we elect a Parliament which uses professional civil servants to do the work you elect clerks, sheriffs, judges
So many people that the electorate cannot make meaningful choices

Myles F. Corcoran said...

Amen brother!

I am so glad you put so well what is so obvious here in the not quite overwhelming miasma of chicken littles on every street corner ignoring the beauty we have crawled, fought, thought and bravely gotten to - so far.

I will pass your fine words on.

I use beauty here for the civilization.

Sojka's Call said...

This article hits several talking points I have had with a group of friends recently. Four or five of them are so ginned up on Fox, Limbaugh, Beck, etc I am wondering if they will be able to read this to the end when I send it to them before the fear swirling around inside their head stops them. Hopefully, they can make it to the four-corners experiment! They equate optimism with being economically secure, a blinded Obama lover, living on the dole, or being apathetic. That someone could deduce from the facts in front of them that life is good - well, that is an impossible conclusion to them (hopefully until they read your article).

David Brin said...

Sojka, the one thing such people never do is ponder history. Ask them to name a random time and place across the last 6000 years and (1) say if it was better and (2) tell who it was that crushed freedom and enterprise in that time and place.

It was nearly always the owner-lords who crushed any chance of freedom or market competition. The same owner lords who now have their sock-puppets (your friends) screaming hate of their own government, all the time.

Tony Fisk said...

"Great Southern Land" is a rather epic serial on Australia's infrastructures. Worth hiring the DVD.

I think the street corner exercise could make a good tee design.

gord said...

The street corner exercise does open ones eyes to what we humans have navigated throughout history together as one. This does give one hope.

Tony Fisk said...

I've only just realised that you stipulate an *uncontrolled* street intersection, and emphasize the emergent properties of humanity en masse rather than just the supporting infrastructure.

Well, duh!

I am rather hard-pressed to think of a nearby busy street intersection that does not have traffic lights. However, I do observe this 'emergent' behaviour on a daily basis. In the way merging lanes of vehicles take it in turns to go, or how people on an escalator stand on one side to create a clearway for those wishing to walk past.

Alex Tolley said...

I don't find the street corner exercise convincing. Emergent behavior is ubiquitous and occurs at many levels. To take a well known example using thinking beings, birds can effortlessly flock in flight. We know this doesn't require anything more than a few rules. Similarly, we humans can walk easily in crowded streets with minimal errors, all without conscious thought.

Conversely, as a counterfactual exercise, watch how frequently drivers will engage in dangerous behavior at freeway exits, most notably accelerating from behind to exit in front of your vehicle. I have also become quite attuned to the fact that drivers are increasingly running red lights.

While I don't think you are suggesting a Panglossian world, the idea that everything keeps getting better is falsified by history, and especially the idea that key players like Genghis Khan make it worse. While the great sweep of history suggests improvement, for individual timescales it does regress at times.

Of course we really don't need to look at the great sweep of history. Almost all the improvements of modern life are a result of the industrial revolution. The question is will this be sustainable? I hope so, but we cannot assume that this is true. At the moment we are just extrapolating from the past and hoping the growth continues. I tend to be optimistic that the sheer diversity of artifacts and knowledge will lead to ever larger combinations of new artifacts, much like life continues to explore new forms.

Tim H. said...

This cynic doesn't mind being pleasantly surprised by things going well.

Louis Shalako said...

The street-corner, stop sign analogy is a good one. It is in our own enlightened self-interest to cooperate, and nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in traffic, which is arguably composed of cynics and optimists. The thing is, we remember the unusual, and the routine fails to make an impression. Things going wrong are out of routine, and so we focus on them.

Myles F. Corcoran said...

Mr. Tolley,

From remembering my mom, in the 1950's, extolling the virtues of technology, from horses to autos, tv's & etc., to me now thrilled with all the ever better technology around me I do not forget, from my mother knowing and saying so, through a life review of history (big & small), that our general quality of life, our degree of freedom and what we think freedom is, springs most from what we now refer to as the Age of Enlightenment - which led, I would say inevitably, to the technological advances we extoll David is, I believe, talking about social behavior.

As we better understand the real, I believe, the possibilities for good multiply. As I open my eyes the way becomes more clear.

I do see the rude, the brutes, the cruel, and the masses of the self serving humans. They say Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. I say - so it is with these.

BUT we have, amazingly, managed to greatly curtail their once nearly universal control of society - they are with us and, sadly, in us, all humans. The enlightened can focus on education - it may be the best medicine for further quelling of these pre-dispositions.

I look at a larger picture.

In "Constant Battles" LeBlank, if I recall correctly, states that 25% of male aboriginal peoples died violently while 7% of woman did also. I do not know if that is accurate but I do know that my ancient ones prayed that their sons would die in battle.

No end to social progress is necessary (or possible - in the long run, I believe). We can flounder plenty and still move forward.


Jonathan S. said...

Currently, our family lives just below the poverty line.

Yet I carry in my pocket a slab of glass and brushed aluminum that is capable, when within range of an unsecured wifi signal (or my home network, set up when times were better), of accessing the sum total of available human knowledge. It can also keep me entertained by helping me play a wide variety of games (a service it also performs for my son, which is a godsend when we have to wait long for anything - he has ADD and high-functioning autism). And in a pinch, I can even use it to make a phone call! :-)

When my joints ache, which is increasingly frequently as I approach 50, I can go into my kitchen, get some clean, potable water from a handy tap, and use it to help swallow a cheap, readily available over-the-counter medication to keep the pain at a tolerable level.

Every night, I sleep under a solid roof that never leaks, on a soft bed, protected by professional public servants who keep the rate of crime fairly low.

I dwell in riches unimagined by the kings and emperors of old. So go ahead, try to convince me the world isn't improving. I'll just smirk at you over the rim of my coffee cup, filled with a brew whose grounds grow on another continent and which is sweetened with readily-available sugar, brewed by another electrically-powered miracle in the kitchen.

David Brin said...

Jonathan S... you humble us all. Good luck.

Anonymous said...


*slow clap*

Dr. Brin, I've already copy-pasted your exercise to another forum where that kind of fashionable contempt for humanity is common, citing you by name and linking back here. I hope you don't mind. :)

This Street Corner Exercise does bring to mind an issue I've been wanting to bring up here for awhile:

For all its many wonders and achievements, industrial modernity does have one big flaw which, IMO, gives the various "Romantic" portrayals of pre-Enlightenment societies a powerful advantage: it is profoundly, pervasively ugly. Take another look at that street corner, only this time focus attention on the aesthetics of the built environment itself. Then look at the artifacts--the cars, the people's style of dress (especially the men; some women still have style).

When people compare our world to, say, Middle Earth or Pandora (Avatar), the "Romantic" society seems so beautiful in comparison that it's no wonder so many of us end up with a civlization-inferiority complex. Of course this is deceptive: we are not shown the peasants who toil in squalor so that the Elves can dwell in grace and splendor. What, did you think that Eowyn ever plows the fields behind oxen or spends endless hours at the treadle spinning the thread of which her lovely Elven cloak is made? ;) James Cameron did not show us Na'vi parents wailing in misery because their child was killed trying to tame an Ikran (the bluish pterodactyl critters they rode). So one would be foolish to emigrate to either place, if somehow given the option.

Nonetheless, our civilization's "ugliness problem" lends a subconscious impression that fantasy "Romantic" fictional cultures and real pre-modern societies are/were lovelier and better than ours. The same factors that insure that no one will ever fight to preserve a defunct K-Mart from being bulldozed to put in a T.J. Maxx also (IMO) go a long way toward weakening our resolve to defend our civilization as a whole.

America doesn't have to be ugly. Just look at the art, architecture, dress, and artifacts of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras. We could probably create new kinds of beauty and style, if our art, design and architecture communities were not captured by the sort of sneering cynics you're talking about here, whose creations are deliberately ugly and incoherent--and, in the case of "starchitect" stunts in the Frank Gehry mold, often can't even keep the rain out.

Your thoughts?

Alex Tolley said...

@Jonathan: I'll just smirk at you over the rim of my coffee cup, filled with a brew whose grounds grow on another continent and which is sweetened with readily-available sugar, brewed by another electrically-powered miracle in the kitchen.

You do know that Europeans have been drinking coffee for hundreds of years and that we made coffee in very much the same way a century ago?

Alex Tolley said...

Perhaps a better test is this: "Would you prefer to live at a time earlier in your life?" While some have nostalgia for the 1950's and 1960's, I don't personally see it as a better time to live than today. In the US particularly, one had the omnipresent worry of nuclear annihilation.

But that doesn't mean that everything has improved. It has been swings and roundabouts, with some things improving, and others deteriorating.

How you view the balance is going to be a personal values judgement.

Alex Tolley said...

@KevinC - ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. I well recall how my English hometown was described as beautiful, while I found it dreary and monotonous. That is not to say that KMart is beautiful, but I find the well lit modern city more eye pleasing than the architecture of the past.

IMO, nowhere is this more clear than Venice. The romantics see it as beautiful decay, while I just see the decay and compare it to its heyday as a renaissance Hong Kong.

Richard said...

There is so much inspiring truth in what you say that I hesitate to disagree with anything. But you say, oops, no it was Duncan Cairncross who said "If competency is a physical measure it will form a skew normal distribution Like height Most of us will have a competence of about 1 (5ft 9) A very small number of people may have competence up to 1.5 - (8ft) Or down to 0.5 - (3ft) Nobody will have a competence of 2 (11ft 6)"

But in computer programming, the rare "genius" can be shown to have a competence of around 5 or even 12 or 20. On very rare occasions, I've gotten well over 3 myself for hours or days at a time.

Duncan Cairncross said...

But in computer programming, the rare "genius" can be shown to have a competence of around 5 or even 12 or 20. On very rare occasions, I've gotten well over 3 myself for hours or days at a time.

But have you?
An extra few inches of height can mean that you reach things your shorter cousin can't
Does not mean you are twice as tall

As an engineer I have had ideas - solutions to problems have come to me
Several times I have in minutes shown the path to a problem fix that it's owner has been working on for weeks
Does this mean that I was a hundred times as competent or that I just knew a couple of things he didn't?
Or saw something he didn't?

And the next time he may help me

You computer genius - may get something done in 1/20th of the time but that is because he sees the shortcut - not because he is 20 times faster

Andrew said...

Strange, I am having these sorts of thoughts all the time (about people competently running things, I mean). Maybe it's because I live in New York City. I've been here 13 years and I never once fail to appreciate the miracle of riding the subway. Yes, miracle. And I'm not just talking about the fact that it usually shows up when its supposed to. The best part is that, in any one subway car, at any time of day, there are dozens of nationalities, ethnicities, and occupations represented within mere feet of me as I stand. Bankers and attorneys sit next to plumbers and chefs. Professors next to fast-food workers. I hear languages from every corner of the planet banter, complain, flirt. I see newspapers with lettering so strange I can barely place it, always neatly folded so that the reader does not disturb the person sitting next to them. I see thousands of years cultural rivalry and conflict somehow converging to put these people in the same subway car every morning and evening -- where they behave with almost universal courtesy and respect (yes, really), not even stepping on each other's toes, letting each other on and off the crowded platform, smiling at the baby in a mother's arms. I have seen men of every conceivable ethnicity help women of every conceivable different ethnicity carry baby strollers up the steps to street level.

One thing I haven't seen in 13 years of riding the NYC Subway: one person performing a violent act against another person. Not once.

Go anywhere into the past, anywhere in the world, and describe this scenario written above -- you will be laughed at as a delusional fantasist, a utopian dreamer. But it's real, completely real, and I'll be there again tomorrow morning on the way to work.

Whenever I get angry at our politicians -- which these days is pretty much always -- I find that riding the NYC subway cures my anger and frustration in minutes. Our leaders may be clowns who don't deserve us, but we, the people, are learning to cooperate as never before.

David Brin said...

Kevin C Interesting riff. Just wait till I publish my essay on Avatar! I cover all of those matters, including when romance should rule our lives… and when it mustn’t.

Speaking of which… do any of you have suggestions for a (ideally paying) zine or journal that might want to publish my now-ready lengthy appraisal of the deeper faults of Avatar? And of Orson Scott Card’s fiction?

Andrew your deeply moving paean to New York subways is the answer to my cultural bias re auto intersections. The lesson is the same though. Right arm! Farm out!

Anonymous said...

Now, compare to the street corner outside my window. I don't live in the West, I live in a developing country in Africa. One where dictatorship was in place as recently as 15 years ago.

The corner doesn't work. It is jammed all the time. We don't give way. We have bad traffic all over the city. And there are a thousand other little things like this that don't work.

Yes, the Western democracies are special, they are remarkable and, for all their flaws, they are worth promoting.

Paul451 said...

Re: Doing the street corner experiment, when all the streets are controlled.

Try a "shared-use" road. Cars and pedestrians negotiating passage. Drivers in limited manoeuvrability, tonne-plus boxes, with limited visibility and effectively deaf, negotiating a path through unprotected pedestrians, and not abusing their clear power advantage. Pedestrians with technical right-of-way, and yet, from schoolkids to pensioners, not abusing their privilege to ignorantly or dickishly blocking the much larger path required by cars.


As Louis said, notice how jarring it is when you see someone not graciously negotiating with those around them. Think of the assumptions contained in that jar.

Doug DeJulio said...

I'm not quite sure I understand why this is persuasive for people.

Couldn't this be easily explained by saying that people tend to do what others around them do, regardless of moral value? I have a hard time ascribing virtue to any action that's done "by default" instead of as a consequence of a deliberate conscious decision.

It's easy to believe that I'm missing something here.

Jumper said...

Somehow the blog spammer in the middle of all this seems ironic.

My optimism moment came from listening to the lady talk down the nut at the school with the gun. Listen if you haven't already.

If I had a time machine, I doubt I'd go back to live in the pre-antibiotics era. Unless I could bring along my own, of course!

Paul451 said...

Time Jumper,
"I doubt I'd go back to live in the pre-antibiotics era. Unless I could bring along my own, of course!"

And a small biofactory to produce more. That and anaesthetic. (Then your armies will be vastly more successful against your enemies; infection was a better killer than the sword. And you will be seen as a benevolent and good king in the captured lands when you deign to heal the peasant foot-soldiers of your enemies after their defeat. Or a mothering coward. Depending on the culture.)

Oh, and plans for a multi-era compatible, scalable steel plant. And recipes for optical glass. And for plastics (copper should exist in most eras.) Gunpowder should be easy.

Pawyigh Lee said...

I'd like to see coöperative behavior attributed to Nature, and not to human nature per se. I think it was Beatrix Potter, whose scientific interests centred on mycology, who first affirmed natural behavior is almost always centred on coöperation. For the contrarian view, I recommend Physics World July 2013 free PDF special issue on the Physics of cancer, which is arguably indicative of uncoöperative behavior. Paul Davies, principal investigator of Arizona State University’s Center for Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology, attributes cancer to ancient genetic “sub-routines” dating back to our roots as multicellular creatures. He thereby answers a question that has long been bugging me: What do Conservatives conserve?

Jumper said...

I don't think I'd repeat the mistakes of the guy in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court... I'd rather just live in the '50s and buy IBM stock. I'm too old to be king.

Paul451 said...

David once said that you'll know it's the future when everyone can wear body-hugging lycra uniforms like they do in TV SF. If so, forget the "Tranquillity calendar" or "atomic era". I give you Muscles-in-a-pill Year One...

I mean, year zero... dammit.

matthew said...

Interesting if shallow article about using information theory to gauge complexity of animal communication.

matthew said...

Here is the direct link to the abstract for the paper mentioned in the article. You can get a pdf of the paper from the abstract. Paper title "Complexity in animal communication: Estimating the size of N-Gram structures" by Reginald D. Smith.

Link to abstract:

matthew said...

The Guardian's take on the psychological effects of pervasive government surveillance (note: I am not claiming that The Guardian is an impartial news source).
Some of the links provided are pretty interesting in their own right.
The experiments I'd like to see done (or reported, it they have already been done) are on the effects of reciprocal transparency on pervasive surveillance. Does a voice in the "rules" of surveillance help the surveilled regain creativity and survive the monotony of the wisdom of the crowds? Can it be shown in an experimental capacity that some degree of interaction between the experimental subjects and the experimenter causes a more positive outcome? Can Dr. Brin's basic thesis of The Transparent Society (that souveillance can counterbalance pervasive surveillance) be shown to be empirically supported? Dunno who would pay for such research, but it'd be cool to see done. Even designing a set of experiments to get at the question(s) would be a pretty awesome exercise. Anyone know a psych grad student looking for a research project?

Alfred Differ said...

It doesn't alter David's experiment whether the cooperation at the street corner occurs at the conscious or unconscious levels. Most of us who navigate those corners are indeed copying what other people do if they appear successful and that is the key. How we copy can be examined and I'm sure most of it is unconscious, but we still do it with relative ease and at high speed. The real miracle is that we WANT to do it. Success and desire go together and we've managed to trip across a number of techniques for deliver both.

My experience with street corners is about 20 years old and involves traffic studies where we couldn't just lay out those sensor cords to get the data the customer wanted. If you want to see how much traffic flows on a straight section and at what speeds, a few long pressure sensing cords tied to computers in robust boxes is enough. If you want to see patterns in left and right turn lanes that may also allow traffic to pass straight through an intersection, you used to have to put a person out there with the counters. I've been that person a number of times and got a chance to watch what are normally well-managed intersections with multiple lights, cross-walks, and turn lanes. There is still a great deal of nod-and-wink negotation going on even with lights because of people who roll through reds on a right turn, pedestrians who can't (or won't) cross in the alloted time, and risks associated with low sun angles and limited visibility situations. As far as I'm concerned, the complex intersectons demonstrate David's point better because the rule set in play is MUCH more complex.

My favorite turn-and-scan moment, though, was when I was on the graduation floor at the ceremony for when my grad school 'career' came to an end. Every face on that floor had contributed and there were lots of other floors elsewhere in the world full of imaginative people graduating that year... and other years. There were also people not on the floor who had contributed without the recognition and many of THEM didn't even self-recognize. Epiphany moment. 8)

gmoke said...

_Inherent Vice_ by Thomas Pynchon
NY: Penguin Press. 2009
ISBN 978-1-59420-224-7

pages 367-368: Doc got on the Santa Monica Freeway, and about the time he was making the transition to the San Diego southbound, the fog began its nightly roll inland. He pushed his hair off his face, turned up the radio volume, lit a Kool, sank back in a cruising slouch, and watched everything slowly disappear, the trees and shrubbery along the median, the yellow school-bus pool at Palms, the lights in the hills, the signs above the freeway that told you where you were, the planes descending to the airport. The third dimension grew less and less reliable - a row of four taillights ahead could either belong to two separate cars in adjoining lanes a safe distance away, or be a pair of double lights on the same vehicle, right up your nose, no way to tell. At first the fog blew in in separate sheets, but soon everything grew thick and uniform till all Doc could see were his headlight beams, like eyestalks of an extraterrestrial, aimed into the hushed whiteness ahead, and the lights on his dashboard, where the speedometer was the only way to tell how fast he was going.

He crept along till he finally found another car to settle in behind. After a while in his rearview mirror he saw somebody else fall in behind him. He was in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he'd ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free.

David Brin said...

Matthew, I have begun to despair that I will never get a critical mass of social "thinkers" or pundits to even grasp what it is that I mean by reciprocal accountability. They seem able only to whine about NSA revelations and such. And on rare occasions, when such agencies are beaten down and the program is cancelled, the same pundits express SHOCK 5 years later when the same surveillance powers are revealed to have shifted to some other dark corner in a clear case of whack-a-mole!

I thought, when I wrote The Transparent Society, that the alternative would be obvious. Stop trying to blind elites and SUPERVISE them instead. But some of the "smartest" pundits alive have interviewed me, nodded sagely, even paraphrased… then a month later seem to have forgotten the entire concept. It is as if it is SLIPPERY somehow and cannot stay in peoples' brains!

Like this blog's topic, that our society feature's positive sum, emergent properties of active citizenship that, while frail, are also powerful.

Take Doug DeJulio's interpretation that the Miracle of the Streetcorner is just people moronically mimicking their neighbors. Clearly, he did NOT do as I asked. He has NOT tried the experiment that I asked of him, by standing on the corner and doing a slow turn. If he had, he would be able to tell the difference. Rather, the notion of "my neighbors are sheep" is to strong and satisfying to let go of, or even moderate just a little.

Let me add this. I once approached a HUGE intersection that is normally managed by complex lights… and all power was out. Now, the classic story would be that a cop would arrive and direct traffic… and the classic heartwarming tale would tell of a volunteer citizen doing that. And I was willing!

It wasn't necessary. SIXTEEN LANES (including turns) were converging and everybody was doing the miracle! Treating it as a giant stop sign intersection, taking turns, doing exaggerated versions of the nod and wave. COmpletely self-organized. And traffic flowed. Everyone's self interest was served WHILE they also behaved like decent people.

And maybe that was just middle class California. But I decided then that, whatever it was, it deserved my loyalty… for as long as I live.

locumranch said...

It's hard to argue with David about our current circumstance. We live like kings in a veritable Golden Age, possessing unprecedented comfort, health, nutrition, freedom and opportunity, all of which (as noted frequently on this site) has been purchased with, or created by, unsustainable technologies.

Optimism has little place in our current Utopia (its creation and/or maintenance) because optimism leads only to complacency, carelessness, incaution and disaster. Expecting only the best, optimists run where wise men dare not to tread. They are the hidebound who deny change or causality; they are the fools who expect to win the lottery; they are the drunkards who drive while intoxicated; and, like the infantile innocents they are, their sleep is deep and undisturbed.

Our magnificent society was created by Pessimism as expressed by caution, prudence, forethought and vigilance. Expecting only the worst, pessimists plan for the unlikely and improbable. They are the firemen who defend your home against ignition; they are the physicians respond seriously to your petty complaints; they are the engineers who design your automobiles with seat belts, airbags AND crumple zones; and, like the mature adults they are, their sleep is fitful and unsure.

I, too, have stood at (and driven thru) the crossroads and marveled at the utility of the 4-way stop but, unlike our host, I attribute its functionality to pessimism. Each driver eyes the opposition, trying to establish a dominance hierarchy in relation to one another, appraising the relative reliability of each other, taking into account status, age, gender and vehicular condition, all in order to maximize their individual odds of intersectional survival:

After you, you bastard, I will yield to you since you may kill me. Make your move now or lose it. Or, yield to ME, you bastard, since I have much less to lose than you. I dare you. You go after me and I go after you in the eternal ballet of social dominance & submission.

4 Way Stop Politeness is motivated by Fear.


Duncan Cairncross said...

4 Way Stop Politeness is motivated by Fear.

Speak for yourself - I am NOT often motivated by fear!

And when I am its normally my own doing

Bill Sweeney said...

The street corner exercise provides an interesting micro view of the world and how it is improving. I get the same optimistic view when looking at Hans Rosling's Ted talks ( )

Both are great antidotes to the impact of the media where being extreme and/or divisive is necessary to get coverage. Life today, despite the current set of problems, is better than ever before and will be better in the future.

Andrew - liked your insights about the subway. I experience the same thing when I go to the ball game, to church, to work, or to conferences.

matthew said...

I think that souveillance is hard to maintain. Each time we come up with another method to watch the watchers soon enough the watchers' watchers are having a beer with the folks that they are keeping an eye upon. Then playing golf. Then soon after, defending their new buddies' right to bend the rules a little.

Regulatory capture is a gradual thing. The want to be "on the inside" of things, the desire to keep a project going, even if it has flaws because "we been all working on it for so long" is a very strong human need. Once the regulator becomes part of the team it gets harder and harder to say no.

Sometimes it takes a sociopath or an Aspie or an out-and-out kook to keep an effective eye on things. Our Western emphasis on individualism allows us to have these outside voices. Occasionally,these outsiders make all the difference between Souveillance and system failure. As the programmers would say "It is not a flaw, it is a feature."

An example; the one reporter that would listen to Edward Snowden after Snowden was ignored by the NY Times and the Washington Post was Glenn Greenwald. Well, Mr. Greenwald is a nut. He's an asshole. In interviews he comes off as dangerously ideological and so damn smug about how he is smarter and more right than anyone else. But, since he apparently has no interest in maintaining friendships with the people that he covers he was willing to risk his career, his freedom, his contacts, even his life to publish Mr. Snowden's revelations about what our spy agencies are doing. And by now, pretty much everyone that is not captured by the governmental / national security industry agrees that Mr. Snowden's revelations / Mr. Greenwald's reporting of them is a good thing; starting a national conversation on what is acceptable in terms of surveillance and what oversight is needed.

Sometimes the white blood cells are not sympathetic characters.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred It doesn't alter David's experiment whether the cooperation at the street corner occurs at the conscious or unconscious levels

I disagree because the importance of the outcome is important. Unconscious activity, which is much of days to day activity, does not have the same importance as conscious activity. Indeed, while engaging in David's experiment, we are probably consciously doing something else with more import or gratification. It is our ability to cooperate when we have "skin in the game" that is is the mark of our improving civilization. For example, longitudinal studies of cooperative behavior using the "prisoner's dilemma" game. Even better would be games that require solving problems where the group has all the information, but not individuals. Show me evidence that this type of performance is improving and I will agree that civilization is improving. [The suggested tests shows my bias, even though I am trying to find some mapping to David's street test].

Alex Tolley said...

@matthew = I would further add that regulatory capture is not so unlike the street crossing experiment - minimize disruption and maximize reward. Minimize disruption by discretionary rule following, which in turn grants rewards. IOW, "Go with the flow".

Alex Tolley said...

@DB I thought, when I wrote The Transparent Society, that the alternative would be obvious. Stop trying to blind elites and SUPERVISE them instead.

To be quite blunt "How's that working out for you?" The evidence seems to be quite clear that the elites find ever more creative ways to avoid supervision, including making it illegal. I think Macchiavelli had it more correct in "The Prince".

If "watching the watchers" is a good way to go, then we need an effective system that maintains this dynamic and cannot be usurped. At this point I do not see such a system in place, nor can I draw comfort from any historical precedent that it can be successfully done. Which means for me that the case becomes an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence.

sociotard said...

Dr. Brin, do you mind if I set up a strawman in here? It's not of you, of course. I just want to yell at something.

StrawBama: We're going to launch a strike on Syria.
No! Please! Do not embroil us in another war. This one has even less likelihood of having a 'good' outcome than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

They used chemical weapons.
I don't care. They didn't kill Americans or American allies. Besides, it's just as likely the rebels did it to prompt intervention.

We need to stop the conflict from spreading.
That's right. We don't want the conflict to spread. If the US gets involved, the conflict has spread, by definition.

You know what I mean.
Granted. But we have to wait until it actually spills over before I would feel justified commiting our forces. You don't give a man a bypass just because he's fat and will probably need one eventually.

Just . . . peace? Okay? Just try for a little peace? I voted for you because I figured you were less of a warmonger than McCain, and I still think you are. I know you have that belligerent drone strike policy, and you'll only ever be the lesser of two evils, but could you try to not be more evil than you have so far?

Edit_XYZ said...


Your post translates roughly to ~'I am pretty certain syrians are killed by their so-called president, but I don't really care enough to support doing something to save them; and, in order to appear politically correct, I'll come up with some semantic irrelevancies and conspiracy theories'.

You're entitled to your opinions, sociotard.
What you're not entitled to is believing yourself to be on the side of the angels, on the side of morality when these are your opinions. And calling 'evil' the opposite side.

Acacia H. said...

Dr. Brin, I hope you don't mind but I stole your comment concerning the highway intersection and the traffic light that went out, and posted it on Facebook (attributed to you and with a link to this specific blog discussion).

Sociotard... your viewpoint was shared by a large large number of people before a rather bloody and horrific struggle that ended up involving a large number of nations. This was World War II. When all was set and done, we found that the Nazis had exterminated millions of gays, Gypsies, disabled people, and Jews. They gassed them, they cooked them, they set them out in the snow to watch how long it took them to die and used that "research" in building new boots and the like.

When do you say "enough is enough" - when one person dies? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? A million? Ten million? What price does peace and avoiding armed conflict bring? Do you allow the widescale extermination of people through illegal methods (though let's face it, shooting civilians with sniper rifles and the like isn't "legal" either)? Just for peace elsewhere?

And the conflict has already escalated. The Syrian government has brought in their Hezbollah lackeys to do their fighting for them, and turned the tide of the war. Outside intervention has already happened. It is already too late to prevent escalation.

Rob H.

sociotard said...

Cruise missiles and bombing raids don't save anybody. They actually tend to kill people. As well say, "The Syrian President is killing Syrians. That makes me so mad, I think I'll go kill some Syrians."

Ideally, I want US military power to be used to defend the lives of US citizens. I will begrudgingly accept defending US allies and maaaaaybe socioeconomic interests.

Your mistake is to assume that there is a side of angels to come down on. Both sides are confirmed to have committed atrocities. I want the United States to have no involvement here.

sociotard said...

It isn't too late to prevent the situation from escalating to US involvement.

And the WWII line is absurd. The United States didn't go to war because of the Holocaust. And the United States is better for having not gone into Sudan/Congo/Rwanda and tried to fix things.

Alfred Differ said...

I'm not so sure the reciprocal accountability concept is slippery. It's just that it is hard. Expecting people to supervise is quite a leap. I know we DO supervise to some degree, but I'm pretty sure we don't realize it most of the time. Telling someone to supervise risks them thinking it will be a lot of work to maintain and they might be some of the few willing to do it. There is a risk of thinking others will freeload on my labor. Isn't this what we used to pay the press for? The pay prevented freeloading. Maybe this can be defeated with another argument, but then I'd be tempted to replace slipperyness with early-adopter hurdles.

Alfred Differ said...


>>>I disagree because the importance of the outcome is important. Unconscious activity, which is much of days to day activity, does not have the same importance as conscious activity.

I'd argue that this is an value judgement on your part and that others see it different. I don't much care if the intersection coordination is conscious or unconscious as long as it happens. I strongly suspect that beginner drivers approach the negotions in a conscious manner and then over the years it gets demoted to unconscious activity after they get good at it. I suspect that demotion occurs very rapidly with most of us. I also suspect the entire process from start to end occurs with little awareness of the bigger picture. Drivers are just trying to get through an intersection, right? Heh. No. They are trying to get through it repeatedly, thus it is a learning process.

>>>Indeed, while engaging in David's experiment, we are probably consciously doing something else with more import or gratification. It is our ability to cooperate when we have "skin in the game" that is is the mark of our improving civilization. For example, longitudinal studies of cooperative behavior using the "prisoner's dilemma" game. Even better would be games that require solving problems where the group has all the information, but not individuals. Show me evidence that this type of performance is improving and I will agree that civilization is improving.

You are constraining the nature of what can be considered a successful demonstration and then arguing that we haven't improved because nothing is left to be shown?

We use the term 'improving' for a reason, but it assumes some kind of agreement on the measures used. Absent an agreement, though, we can still agree that innovations are happening. The drivers at the intersection innovate not only a way to pass through safely, but a process that teaches young and foreign drivers. Does that improve my life? It doesn't really matter whether it does or doesn't. All it has to do is improve things for the drivers involved. As long as they perceive success, they will repeat the behaviors involved and onlookers will copy them if possible. Innovation follows the local perception of success even if there is no global definition for success or improvements.

matthew said...

I think the Syrian exercise will be to demonstrate that the US will hurt your infrastructure / military command if you break international conventions (whether your nation signed them or not) against weapons of mass destruction.

It has little to do with saving any Syrian people. We are not happy with any possible outcome to the Syrian conflict. It is setting the stage for the OMG! response we will mete out to any group that threatens to use WMD in the West (and we define an ever increasing chunk of the world as The West). No borders, boundaries, or international pressure will constrain us, except for with nations that have an effective deterrence of their own.

I will bet $100 that within ten years the US (or NATO or a NATO member with US intelligence help) will carry out a Special Forces-type raid on a neutral, sovereign, territory to capture or kill a non-governmental group that possesses some form of WMD, be it a computer model of a virus, a vial of nerve toxin, or a big slug of fissile material. We will not trust locals to do it for us.

This is all about setting the stage for the next big scary thing. And asserting our right to determine that we are willing to break international law, borders, UN resolutions, whatever, in the name of protecting ourselves. I think the US has decided to emulate the Israelis on this one.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred You are constraining the nature of what can be considered a successful demonstration and then arguing that we haven't improved because nothing is left to be shown?

I'm saying that the crossing model is not a good demonstration that humanity/civilization is improving and trying to offer a more convincing [to me at least] one.

For most people, the cross is more about how do I navigate this complexity with minimal effort and cost to get on with what I want to do on the other side. Doing it unconsciously (after practice) is about minimizing cognitive load. Not driving through with a tank is more a proof of civilization, IMO.

Perhaps my opinion is best summed up with: "The greatness of a civilization is measured by the size and difficulty of the problems it successfully solves". We certainly have some big ones, let's see if we can solve them successfully.

Anonymous said...

While it is easy to attribute others' decisions to various fears, such generalizations are as imprecise as other stereotypes.

I personally found hope for the future hidden in the World Science Fiction Convention predictions offered every ten years by Robert Heinlien. Every ten years, he would describe his expectations for the world's future. These predictions were invariably hideously pessimistic. You may legitimately wonder why I consider this so inspiring? This tells me that even a brilliant futurist could be fooled. He could easily anticipate the problems looming on the horizon, but he had no way to anticipate the unexpected solutions that would emerge to meet those problems.

The future will be more splendid than we expect.

Acacia H. said...

Sociotard, your argument is, once more, the argument used by France and Britain for not intervening when Germany started arming itself, went after other nations that were small and "part" of Germany, and so on. It starts small. It doesn't stay small.

Let's look at the current situation in Syria. We currently have four nations involved, not including Jordan (which has a number of refugees): Syria. Lebanon. Iran. Turkey. Now let's say a chemical attack strikes Israel. All at once Israel is involved. Let's say there's an attack by Syrian troops on a refugee camp in Jordan because there are "terrorists" hiding there and going back and forth from the border. Oh hey, there's another nation! And then there's terror attacks against European countries for sending aid to the refugees and "terrorists" - suddenly you have the European Union involved.

These things rarely stay small. This one won't.

Rob H.

Jumper said...

Is it true predator and prey have a truce at the water hole?

rewinn said...

What I find interesting about the street corner exercise is that we have to perform it.
It "should be" obvious that most of our lives are taken up with cooperative behavior of this nature. Whether it's compelled or "merely" our preference, it's what makes life possible in a complex civilization.
Yet many, perhaps most of us have to be reminded of this is the norm, and the shooters/bombers/plundering fund managers/evil dictators are the exception.
I'm sure some wise scientists have studied this phenomenon. Perhaps in a small tribe it's worth paying special attention to the violent a-hole, but it seems pretty pointless to worry too much about a shooting that occurs on the other side of our nation. Pointless, but we do.
About Syria, is it helpful to start with the concept that this is one of the times when no option is good? Reality is not a videogame that's been designed to have a good solution. Decisionmakers have to make decisions, and I'm sure many of us will dislike whatever happens. At the least, we should require that the decision be honestly made and based upon our values ... possibly our own national security, possibly some universal values.

Paul451 said...

"Is it true predator and prey have a truce at the water hole?"

Yes. Now come, step closer...

Tony Fisk said...

David Brin said:
I thought, when I wrote The Transparent Society, that the alternative would be obvious. Stop trying to blind elites and SUPERVISE them instead. But some of the "smartest" pundits alive have interviewed me, nodded sagely, even paraphrased… then a month later seem to have forgotten the entire concept. It is as if it is SLIPPERY somehow and cannot stay in peoples' brains!

I've noticed many people who should know better decrying the extent of the NSA Prism scheme without asking, how do we govern this *effectively*? It leads to unfortunate outcomes like the shutdown of Groklaw. Reading the last post, PJ seems to be just worn out by the whole situation. I can't help wondering that if she had taken the challenge as monitoring the surveillance in progress rather than stopping it, her decision to 'just quit the internet' would have been less draconian.

David, I know you've written about this topic before, but can't find a more concise essay form. I'd like to see if Gavin Aung Than (ZenPencils) wants to do anything with it. I could just use this link, but I consider Gavin's work is to set a quote to artwork, rather than work out what the quote actually is, and the current post does ramble a bit.

Anonymous said...

I'm not certain that I will do the street corner exercise. Almost every day I do instead what Jonathan S. said below. I simply look at how far we've come in 50 years.

For instance, when I was a teenager, we had pocket calculators that could add, subtract, divide and multiply. They cost over $100.00 (and if you were really rich you could get ones that had logarithms or square roots).

Just the other day, I was using my ipad and thinking about how 200 years ago this might have been seen as witchcraft and I might have been ostracized or burned at the stake for such doings.

I can store all of David's books on a tablet and read them at will. I can even check out library books and read them electronically now. I bought the ipad to study for comps -- so that I didn't need to have a stack of papers that I had to carry with me. Fifty years ago, I would have been stuck in a library day and night (if I had been allowed to go for a PhD at all, being an older woman). I would have had to type my dissertation or hire a typist. Today, I make revisions on papers easily on my computer.

No time in history has been so good to be alive if you are female. I can't think of any time in the past when I would rather live. I am thankful I live now.

I do think of these things a lot. But I am a normal person who can be rude or intolerant and lazy and stupid at times. So I suspect that other people are like me with differences.


sociotard said...

Robert: . . . the argument used by France and Britain for not intervening when Germany . . .

Had France and Britain invaded Germany at the invasion of Czechoslovakia, I really doubt the war would have gone that much better for them. Had they invaded when Germany was rearming it might have, but I'd hate for that attitude to be around for the Cold War. Pre-emptive attacks because the other guy is arming himself leads to an ugly place in game theory.

Personally, I think France and Britain should have been even more neutral. Oh, go to full war economy as soon as Poland was invaded, sure. But no ultimatums.

Randy Winn . . . is it helpful to start with the concept that this is one of the times when no option is good?
Exactly! And, no matter what the medical TV shows would have you think, if the disease and the treatment are equally likely to kill the patient, you don't treat the patient. That's medical ethics.

No matter what we do here, Syria will be a bad place for decades to come, and people from Syria and surrounding countries will hate the West and spawn terrorists.

I'd rather be hated for peace than hated for war.

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Paul451 said...

Example of "Elite panic" on a small scale.


And thinking about "science" causes people to be more moral/altruistic.

Paul451 said...

Re: Syria.
The US would be more convincing, and more effective as a deterrent, if they would just act, or not act, but without the prior ritual. One of the mistakes the US makes in foreign policy is looking... incompetently ambitious? I don't think anyone had any doubts that the Bush administration saw itself rewriting a vast swath of the Middle East in a spasm of righteous empire building. And when the dominoes stubbornly failed to drop, the US looked weak, and the US clearly and unequivocally "lost" in spite of achieve every clear objective provided you ignored the language of the empire builders like Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld. And that "loss" reinforced the common belief around the developing world that the US can't actually stomach war. Shooting, yes, being shot at, no. The loud-mouthed bully who cries and cowers when his nose is bloodied. Likewise, the "Arab Spring" mythology similarly reinforced the idea, but now on the left of US politics, that the US is happy to have its puppets do the dirty work for it, and that those puppets are similarly weak.

If the US administration decides to take a role in Syria, then it should simply do so. Quietly, efficiently, and without the language of righteous indignation... from the only nation to use nuclear weapons in anger, the land of napalm and agent orange and cluster bombs, and drone strikes and Gitmo and...

"Perhaps in a small tribe it's worth paying special attention to the violent a-hole, but it seems pretty pointless to worry too much about a shooting that occurs on the other side of our nation. Pointless, but we do."

Paul451 said...

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Tim H. said...

Oh, just RTFM, and buy some tools, if I can do it, how hard can it be?

Tacitus said...

Been busy so no time to post of late. But I had been pondering the question of innate societal cooperation. And the related issue of how often the citizens of a society are "better" than their leaders. Admittedly it is easier to do damage from the throne room than from the turnip patch.

Regards Syria. This would seem to be a fine topic for David to reflect upon, but events may move faster than he can/will.

So to the assembled Contrarians of various philosophical stripe, let's hear from you.

What indications should there be for us to intervene in places like this?

And what approval should our President seek before doing so?

Non partisan answers if possible, your logic should equally apply to Presidents Reagan, Bush (1 and 2), B. Clinton, Obama and (Christie/R.Paul/H.Clinton/player to be named later).


Alex Tolley said...

And just to add to the mix over Syria, is the response a way to push the NSA controversy away from the public's attention?

There was not nearly the same "moral outrage" and threat of invasion when the Kurds were gassed by the Iraqi regime. ( Halabja poison gas attack ).

Let's see if the Russians and Chinese can be persuaded that UN action is called for, and then decide if/what action needs to be taken if that avenue is exhausted.

Tim H. said...

Is Syria a place amenable to a military solution? Will breaking things and killing people help matters? A no-fly zone could reduce the ability of Syria to indulge in mass murder, but there is reportedly a very good AA capability, so expect a butcher's bill with that. Project Thor would be handy just now. If Obama decides on shock & awe let's hope he remembers to extract while the Syrian's heads are still ringing.

David Brin said...

TAcitus, sorry. I saw this too late. Have already posted the next blog which sort of involves you! Onward.

thrig said...

"Go to a street corner"... no thanks, far, far, far too many bad memories. I'm actively avoiding that right now, waiting for the pollution coming off Eastlake Ave and I-5 to get below the my-sinuses-hurt-after-walking-through-it levels. Heck, they don't even have crosswalks along the way (SDOT left those go out to pasture decades ago), and good luck getting a green signal on one of those nice pedestrian walk buttons. I do wear earplugs, kinda important to prevent hearing damage from all the "quiet efficiencies" of I-5. Anyways, University Bridge has seen better days—a "very bad" car crash recently wiped out one of the light poles, they put some duct tape and plastic over that stump, and there's a traffic cone bolted to the (rather narrow-two cannot pass) pedestrian sidewalk where a corner of concrete has chipped off. There was also a ghost bicycle for a while; witnesses said the screams were quite horrible. I did arm-twist SDOT into having a "hey look for bicycles" sign put up next to the stoplight (after a different bicyclist got nailed there by a driver), but drivers still squeeze through that turn well past red.

There is a proven and affordable technology that could improve things, but Americans seem largely reluctant to use it: walking has seen quite the decline over the decades. Self-driving pollution-free cars to the rescue, you say? What, and keep test scores down via the physical activity thus denied? How feeble a race!