Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Lethally infectious! Was this virus man-made in Wuhan? And even worse viral memes

Some added information about the disease now labeled SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19. 

First let's have some background. “Gain-of-Function” or GoF is a type of virus research in which experimenters augment a pathogen’s abilities to better understand infection processes. According to Strategic News Service, the NIH stopped funding for GoF studies in 2014, given the danger, before lifting the pause under the new administration in 2017and publishing guidelines to avoid creating dangerous pathogens. One GoF project already underway was a collaboration between the University of North Carolina and 15 researchers from various institutions, including  the Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology where they  have worked actively on bat coronaviruses. 

Yes, in Wuhan.

Now dig this: “The novel coronavirus is genomically most similar to  bat coronaviruses, excepting that “the receptor-binding domain of 2019-nCoV was closer to that of SARS-CoV.” In other words, somehow this bat virus acquired the binding surface traits that allowed SARS to attach to human cells. Now there are natural ways this can happen! Generally slowly and at low odds, and at first with low human-to-human spreading…

… but those odds can be augmented hugely — in a lab. SNS points out that virulent strains have escaped from Wuhan and Beijing labs before. Moreover, the Chinese government delayed access to the country by outside WHO and CDC teams for no stated reason.

Note also that the bat virus that SARS-CoV-2 is based upon is not endemic to the Wuhan area; it came from elsewhere and hence likely was not a natural infection at the Wuhan animal market.

As SNS summarizes: “If the PRC government insists that any concerns regarding manufactured pathogens are nonsense, it must back up those bold claims with transparent data, granting the WHO and the CDC full access, and it must cease any further obstructionism in the investigation.”

And now the other kind of viral disease, likely far more lethal to civilization.

== Infectious memes feed dictatorship ==

In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews two books (including How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Centuryabout how foolish it is to under-rate despots as merely cruel ogres. More often than not, there is canniness, a feral cunning and brilliance at manipulative use of language. And in many cases — Lenin, Mao, Stalin — a real proclivity for language and articulate writing.  In other cases, the cunning persuasiveness was more direct and visceral, via spoken words.

“Hitler was always unhappy with the slowness of reading and writing, compared with the vivid electricity of his rallies. Where the Marxist heritage - being theory-minded and principle-bound - involves the primacy of the text, right-wing despotism, being romantic and charismatic, is buoyed by the shared spell cast between an orator and his mob. One depends on a set of abstract rules; the other on a sequence of mutual bewitchments.”

And yes, I have said it for years. The deep underlayer of the confederacy - now trying for an 8th time to crush our American Enlightenment Experiment - is romanticism. 

Gopnik should have referred, at least in passing, to Hannah Arendt’s classic ruminations on despotism. But his first paragraph is noteworthy, even if that’s all you peruse. 

We are indeed, amid a rare glimmer of light across millennia of brutal darkness imposed by our worst (if Darwin-explicable) male drives. We must fight for this enlightenment experiment not just because the alternative has proved relentlessly stupid and cruel, but because our way is so vastly more productive of all things — science, art, wealth, and diversely accountable progress. 

Indeed, those traits are why today’s would be tyrants have only one way forward. Encouraging hatred of every single thing that makes us smart or good.

== Overlooking flaws ==

The evangelical community is riven apart over whether to condemn or to worship the most opposite-to-Jesus liar-narcissist-bully-traitor imaginable. What I’m looking for is how this falls out along denomination lines! Whether Methodists and Presbyterians align with Episcopalians Buttigieg and Biden...

... while it’s mostly Southern Baptists and correlated “independent ministries” who support Trump-Putin-Fox, the way similar sects supported the slaveholding plantation aristocracy.

“We’re all flawed humans and sinners,” they proclaim, shrugging off DT’s daily spasms of bile, hate, theft, abuse and schoolyard bullying, an excuse they never allowed for Clintons or Obamas, who – unlike all Trumps - attend church and can recite the Apostle’s Creed from memory. Theirs is a grudge that can never be quenched, despite 25 years searching in vain for substantial and verified sins by either the Clintons or Obamas.

Might one demand some contrition from the Russian mafia-oligarchs who used to be deemed satanic (deservedly so) when they oppressed and murdered and conspired against us as communists, but who now get a complete pass from our right-wingers because they claim to be  “Christian traditionalist”? The very same guys! Might our redders at least demand a surface show of penitence, before handing our country over to them, or denouncing our own “deep state” professionals who are blocking Putin’s perfect putsch?

Now news that the number of Southern Baptist and correlated ministers accused of sexual crimes is approaching 1000 and accelerating as victims come out. And 263 have been convicted. And leaders of the GOP party-of-turpitude lead dems in every category of sin, by far. It didn’t start with Trump. Look up Dennis Hastert. Look up the marriages of Newt Gingrich or recall who was the first divorced man in the White House. Or which states lead in teen sex, STDs, domestic violence, gambling and so on.

Demand wagers on all of the above! Watch how quickly the yattering moralists flee, just like those schoolyard bullies.

== The crux challenge to your decent conservative neighbors ==

When folks ask how anyone would support a thieving, treasonous, infantile, nasty, narcissistic playground bully who is the most opposite-to-Jesus human on the planet, you have only to picture who would deem those traits to be positive things.

The first two words – “thieving” & “treasonous” - are the ones of interest to “ex” communist KGB agents, Saudi murder-princes, carbon lords, gambling moguls, monopolists, Mafiosi and inheritance brats who think they can “control” this populist madness… the way Prussian barons thought they controlled Hitler. They think they can guide their blackmailed assets – Trump and the GOP - into “taxes and judges” while dismantling our sciences, alliances, rule-of-law and other enlightenment strengths, eliminating the “fact elites” that block their oligarchic power…

… all while still maintaining the modern systems that keep them rich and safe from genuine populist revolt. Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, their billions spent on propaganda encourage white working class “populist” resentment of fact elites and law, by portraying both as weaknesses. Ponder that. When we complain about all this – especially when offended by Trump – we are nerds on a playground, whimpering “that’s not fair!”

If any of you who recall what that jungle-feudal playground culture was like – way back in 8th grade – then you remember that whining “That’s not fair!” was mother’s milk for the bullies. They loved it! As today’s MAGA fools adore every single thing ol’ Two Scoops does to upset or enrage us. (George Lakoff laid all of this out more clearly than I can.) Take for example the quintessential bully moment that distilled everything loathsome about Trumpism, when he mocked the disabilities of a reporter, in order to deflect serious questions.

Any person possessed of minimal human decency would have then-and-there declared anathema such a wretched person along with all who cheered him. And yes, there are decent Americans who cringe at the meanness and fact-hating and stupidity and enabling of foreign despots. I reiterate, we must reach out to otherwise-conservative folks like military officers and citizens of Utah, who hate that shit!

Yet so many of them hug Fox, suckling straight from the flickering pixels, desperately swallowing the only rationalization that’s left: “Liberals are worse… liberals are worse… liberals are worse…”

We need to make clear that we are not seeking an extinction of American conservatism, but resurrection of earlier versions that admitted the primacy of decency, logic, empathy, courtesy and facts. That decent American conservatives throw off the movement’s lunatic, plutocrat and Muscovite and Salafist hijackers, before coming back to rejoin us at the negotiation table. We must promise to listen, if they’ll do that. But first they must end – decisively – their affiliation with evil and treason.

Friday, February 21, 2020

David Brin's 2020 Newsletter & Updates

Our first newsletter in three years has gone out! Here’s the web version. Lots to report and new books to enjoy!
First, alas, I must report that Escape From Kithrup - the awaited next chapter of the Uplift Saga isn’t ready! (By a fair amount, alack.) But meanwhile, here’s good stuff to (star)tide you over! Starting with...
The Ancient Ones: My very new novel - a light-hearted space comedy - will feed your under-nourished guffaw-neurons! Kindle and POD editions go live on the equinox (3/19/20). Star Trek meets Hokas & vampires. 

Is comedy hard? Groan and laugh at sample chapters, then pre-order! 
Demmies aren’t so bad. They mean well. Impulsive and exasperating, sure. Often brilliant, cheeky, moronic, volatile, always astonishing... did I mention exasperating? The Alliance of Worlds wouldn’t be the same without them. Some would prefer it!
With a lovely-fun cover by Patrick Farley!

== And more 'items' of interest! ==
* Veering from the comically absurd to the seriously insane, I skewer today’s crazy politics in Polemical Judo. Our current crisis needs fresh perspectives! 100+ tactics may help our struggle for civilization. Sample chapters here - then help fight for a better future.

* A Need for Heroes: a stand-alone story about courage - and saving the world, now on my website (Excerpted from Earth).

Sundiver, my first novel, came back into our hands after 38 years. We made corrections, gave it a new cover and introduction. Now available as an ebook and paperback versions on Kindle/POD. But - Shout if you want that long-awaited, collectable hardcover! 

All my short story collections - including The River of Time, and Otherness as well as Insistence of Vision - are back! (My best work.) We've also re-released Heart of the Comet ( my collaboration with Gregory Benford)

* The video for Existence, by web artist Patrick Farley, is 3 minutes of sheer, chilling beauty. 

* In the recently released volume After Shock: Reflecting on 50 Years of Future Shock - a hundred futurists explore bold ideas about the human future; I have an essay debating the ideas of Yuval Harari. A volume with some Big Thinkers!

 * Chasing Shadows was called “the decade's best theme anthology.” Stories by Cat Rambo, Rob Sawyer, James Morrow and other masters — plus William Gibson & Damon Knight classics —  examine benefits and pitfalls of our coming transparent world. Co-edited by Stephen Potts.

== And we need you... yes, YOU! ==

Sci-fi-nerds save the world? Picture some weird event. Starships fulla inky squids. Trees walk or cyber-newborns talk! A commission (I’m on some) hurriedly advises governments. Might 80 years of thoughtful SF tales prove useful? With UCSD's Arthur Clarke Center, I set up TASAT - There’s a Story About That - to host discussion of wide-ranging what-if scenarios - and maybe someday save us all. Subscribe. Join the Group Mind! (Web-admin folks needed.) 

* Speeches and consulting: See over 300 NGOs, companies, activist groups and agencies I’ve consulted or given keynotes about a future that slams into us with wave after wave of onrushing change, both down here and in space.
* Cool watchables!
Project Neo.”  
Want more? Find frequent news and views on the always-provocative Contrary Brin blog.

Or follow me on Twitter / FaceBook or Quora.

The David Brin website offers free stories, samples, favorite books, videos, nonfiction, ideas and more.

I may speak in your area. So check my calendar. This summer, I'll be in D.C. as well as in Seattle in July - for Westercon: The 73rd West Coast SF& F convention.) See you in the future!

Finally: Okay it's been a Sci-Fi'ish year, even Twilight Zonish! But there's hope for an ambitious future and worthy civilization. Make it so!


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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Face-Recog is loose. Adapt to this new world (You can!)

For years - ever since The Transparent Society (1997) - I've urged awareness of how new vision technologies will expose our lives, as never before. On the very first page, I compare two cities where citizens are under equal amounts of light and observation… only in one city they are free and safe from oppression or harm, while City #2 has descended into Orwellian hell, without adding any extra surveillance. We are seeing these two cities take shape now, before our very eyes. What makes the difference?

In China, Russia and other state monoliths, light flows upward to those in power, as control then stretches its talons downward. That condition - normal in almost every society for 6000 years - could be our fate, if we make mistakes. But not yet. So far, the opposite trend is in the lead. Why?

I relentlessly urge folks to join NGOs like the ACLU and EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) - our paladins in opposing Big Brother. Alas, though, they waste fully half of their efforts in a futile belief they can safeguard freedom by blinding elites, something that has never been accomplished on any major scale across those 60 centuries. It is the other half of their efforts that actually accomplishes good things — stripping elites naked, so that we can look back at power. Answering surveillance with sousveillance.

Here’s the recent NPR podcast of "To the Point" featuring me and a brilliant, heroic and (in this one case) misguided ACLU attorney, in a debate over privacy matters and whether we should deal with a tsunami of new technologies by shouting “stop!”… or else by learning to surf.

== The counter-intuitive secret of our success ==

Now comes the latest example, in the news, from The New York Times:
“Clearview AI, devised a groundbreaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.”

Oh, there are dangers and reasons for hand-wringing: “The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. “Imagine a rogue law enforcement officer who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, or a foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”

Very real dangers! But the answer is not to scream for the technological tide to stay back. This new app only does what I predicted three years ago, when well-meaning privacy mavens strove to ban governments and Facebook from using face recognition. The genie - out of the bottle - would only go elsewhere.

The answer to Eric Goldman and others should be obvious. You prevent abuses - like those he describes - by ensuring stalkers and 'rogue' abusers will get caught! Is that so hard to imagine? Or what must be done, in order to catch the mighty - of government, wealth, criminality or tech-elites - if they abuse these new and inevitable powers? Is it truly, truly so hard?

Yes. Apparently it is. After 25 years talking till I am blue in the face, I will testify, it’s very hard. Nothing seems more counter intuitive than the exact tool - reciprocal accountability - that gave us the enlightenment and every tool and joy of freedom.

== From the ridiculous to the obstinate... ==

Now selling: bizarre-looking masks that are printed to resemble the face of the wearer underneath it. “The idea is to protect users from infection, while still allowing them to unlock their iPhones using FaceID — or be recognized by Big Brother facial recognition systems in public.” Oh, but what if you swap masks?

Alas, the wave of myopic foolishness continues. This one in the New York Times also misses the point, top to bottom. Read it. Then ask what all the whining and hand-wringing accomplished? Not addressed at all:

1. The writer only knows about the flaws in Face Recognition (FR) precisely because it is being done in the open and subject to rapid critical discovery of those flaws, which - by the way - are being addressed with stunning speed, because of that transparent discovery process.

2. Of course laws against such tech are utterly futile, since they only drive the tech underground, where flaws will not be discovered and where elites can use those techs, but we can't. As Heinlein said, "Privacy laws mostly make the spy bugs smaller." Whereas we can safeguard some privacy - an essential human want - by empowering folks to catch the voyeurs and peeping toms and even elites, in the act.

3. Banning FR "systems" is like banning buggy whips, because it won't be resident in isolated "systems" at all. The rate of tech advancement means we'll all have FR in apps and these well-meaning folks will have wasted their anti-Orwell energies screaming at the wrong targets.

4. Again, in all of human history, no restrictions on elite access to any type of information has ever been successfully blocked for more than a short time. Especially by a "law."  Show me one example. These guys are worried about important things! Big Brother. Asymetires of power. And their prescriptions of obscurity and hiding are always insane.

== Well meant plans need careful followup ==

An Obama program to create and sell cheap android phones for the poor has done a lot of good. But always be alert for predators and parasites who lurk near any good deed, eager for a chance to bite and suck. Over the years, preinstalled malware has been found on a raft of these low-cost Android phones from a variety of providers and manufacturers. 

In fact, subsidizing the development of super-cheap and reliable phones can be of tremendous strategic importance, beyond just helping the poor. Way back in 1991, before the modern cell era, I spoke at a couple of security agencies proposing a cheaper, better way to deal with brutal tyrants like Saddam Hussein. A “volks-radio” might be mass produced capable of basic peer-to-peer messaging or voice, and dropped en-masse into (say) Saddam’s Iraq. An act of war? What? Giving away free stuff is an act of war? Oh, there’d be a button that folks could use (or not) that would send messages to overhead satellites, if any Iraqi wanted to – say – tell the CIA something – say – about movements to Baathist officials. Only if they want to, of course…  Now squint and imagine the same principle applied to the new Starlink System….

In a more general sense, this is just one more way to apply the great advantage of the West… that we generally do well with increases in light flow and transparency around the world and nearly all of our deadly foes are lethally allergic to light.

Alas, I never imagined that paramount among those light-allergic enemies of the American Enlightenment Experiment would turn out to be the Republican Party.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The 'sane right' makes some tepid moves... International concerns - and historical parallels

The Lincoln Project aims to encourage a rising-up by American conservatives who are embarrassed by Putin-Trumpism and who are determined not to let their movement sink into treason and turpitude, without a fight. The most-famous founders are Gov. John Kasich and George Conway – yes, he of the bizarrely fascinating marriage to Trump factotum Kellyanne. They are exemplars of those whom I call RASRs – Residually Adult-Sane Republicans. Although punctuated by a strange and only marginally relevant anecdote about Civil War General Dan Sickles, their manifesto is worth a glance, especially in light of the same week’s editorial in Christianity Today denouncing evangelicals’ slavish devotion to Trump.

Of course these gestures matter little – nor do the imprecations of George F. Will and all the 1990s neocons against the Munich Putsch that’s taken over the U.S. right. I expect another front to open up when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan see their chance to make a play. 

 I have long opined that top Democrats should also reach out to the citizens of Utah, whose version of American Conservatism quaintly disapproves of drunkenness, lying, bribery, gambling, cheating, blackmail, treason and every other modern Fox-Republican attribute.

All of them, of course, are reaping the bitter fruit that German conservatives choked upon, in the 1930s, when the Prussian "Junkers" elites thought they could 'control' a populist fascism to suppress the left, without conseuences. In our case, cheat-gerrymandering meant that nearly all GOP politicians had more to fear from primaries than general elections, ensuring they’d be terrorized by the most radical brownshirt-types, who today threaten extinction (political and real) to any Republican with spine or a glimmer of patriotism. 

They should have seen this coming when Dennis “friend to boys” Hastert became head of their party. (Look him up, and make sure your cousins confront what he means.) 

Now? Very likely, it is too late for residually-sane "Schindler" Republicans to do anything more that beg the ghost of Barry Goldwater for help against monsters of their own creation. And pray that seeds for something better - a phoenix version of fact and science-loving, lie-hating, non-cheating and not-run-by-the-KGB conservatism can arise from these ashes. Maybe in Utah.

== Is there an International Conspiracy? ==

Of course there is, though some are imaginary, like 99% of the howls about an American cabal of scientists, teachers and journalists plus a million dedicated civil servants in the FBI, law, intel, foreign and military officer corps who saved us from Hitler, Stalin and bin Laden, but who fools now dismiss as “deep state” traitors, without one scintilla of real evidence.

As you know, I see something else with a lot more backing and proof – an arrangement among “ex” KGB agents, Saudi princes, gambling moguls, inheritance brats, monopolists and finance parasites, every one of whom benefits from destroying transparency and competitive accountability, the foundations of the Western Enlightenment.

I make much of that case in Polemical Judo. But there are other collections of evidence, more thorough than mine. 

Take for example Seth Abramson's “Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump's International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy.” It’s a followup to his earlier “Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America.” Both of which can provide plenty of ammo when you demand wagers from your redder friends and cousins.

== Eerie parallels ==

Stunningly consistent parallels between Trump and Kaiser Wilhelm II, who led one of history’s great nations into utter calamity while ranting and raving all the way. 

In The New Yorker, Miranda Carter writes, Trump’s tweets were what first reminded me of the Kaiser. Wilhelm was a compulsive speechmaker who constantly strayed off script. Even his staff couldn’t stop him, though it tried, distributing copies of speeches to the German press before he’d actually given them. Unfortunately, the Austrian press printed the speeches as they were delivered, and the gaffes and insults soon circulated around Europe. 

“There is only one person who is master in this empire and I am not going to tolerate any other,” Wilhelm liked to say, even though Germany had a democratic assembly and political parties. (“I’m the only one that matters,” Trump has said.) The Kaiser reserved particular abuse for political parties that voted against his policies. “I regard every Social Democrat as an enemy of the Fatherland,” he said, and he denounced the German Socialist party as a “gang of traitors.” The Kaiser’s entourage compiled press cuttings for him, mostly about himself, which he read as obsessively as Trump watches television. A critical story would send him into paroxysms of fury.

“More sinisterly, Wilhelm’s patronage of the aggressive, nationalistic right left him surrounded by ministers who held a collective conviction that a European war was inevitable and even desirable. ”

At the opposite end of intelligence, but illustrating the very same calamitous human tendency and flaw… In Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria offers another of his lengthy and mostly-wise missives, this one urging the U.S. to exercise more thoughtful patience with China. There’s much to ponder. Recommended. 

Yet, despite that, I find some desperately important matters missing. Foremost: the reasons why PRC leaders chose to repress the life-liberalizations we expected to see accompany economic advancement. That leadership clade is very smart — for example, they deem an MBA to be nothing more than frosting on the engineering degree that actually trains you for useful things, a lesson that Boeing managers and all of Wall Street long ago forgot. 

Still, the Beijing Politburo fellows are also trapped by some classic imperatives of human nature.

Across 6000 years, nearly all leader castes prioritized their own position atop a pyramid of command and authority, then hired priesthoods to justify that arrangement. Step back and you see that Xi & co. are following an ancient pattern that did humanity no good across those sixty+ centuries. I describe and analyze these rationalizations here, including why they claim only a central command communist bureaucracy can ever control malignant AI!  

== Superpower comparisons ==

An important article in The New York Times makes clear that it’s been a very good decade for China and especially the ruling caste. In part by dint of their own efforts … but also because of the comparative plummet of their chief rival the U.S. 

Incomeswealth and life expectancy in the United States have stagnated for much of the population, contributing to an angry national mood and exacerbating political divisions. The result is a semi-dysfunctional government that is eroding many of the country’s largest advantages over China. The United States is skimping on the investments like education, science and infrastructure that helped make it the world’s great power. It is also forfeiting the soft power that has been a core part of American pre-eminence.”

That soft power resides not only in our system of alliances – which was due to augment under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but has instead been systematically demolished by Republican rule – but also by destruction the biggest American advantage across the last 75 years… the appearance of the high moral ground.

The author also points out how relentless promises to invest in U.S. infrastructure have all been hot air, even though it is the one thing we could do that would benefit us in all ways, from present to future, from the jobless to well-off, and certainly transform our cities.

One more reason the US military officer corps is not following the Fox-Putin Party down a rabbit hole of treason? “China, Russia and Iran to hold joint naval drills.” 

Of course there’s also… everything else. Every blessed thing, from the Fox-led war on science and every fact-using profession to skyrocketing deficits to gerrymandering and other cheats, to Putin and his fellow “ex” communists giggling over how easy it was to suborn the U.S. right, by changing a few symbols. To the cowardly refusal of nearly all current republicans to actually put money-stakes down on wagers. But worst of all? The inability of stupid democrats to leverage on any of this. I wrote Polemical Judo in vain hope that some general on the “union” side in this phase of civil war might actually try some new tactics. But we seem stuck in 1862, waiting for our Grant.

== More danger signs ==

See an important article and associated maps in the New York Times showing where today's military recruits come from. "More and more, new recruits come from the same small number of counties and are the children of old recruits. ... The men and women who sign up overwhelmingly come from counties in the South and a scattering of communities at the gates of military bases like Colorado Springs, which sits next to Fort Carson and several Air Force installations, and where the tradition of military service is deeply ingrained."

== Alternatives to consider ==

Help Amy McGrath defeat Mitch McConnell and his backers-blackmailers in the KGB. And astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona. And in South Carolina a  new poll shows Democrat Jaime Harrison ONLY DOWN 2% against Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.