Thursday, February 09, 2023

"Aficionado": A tale from EXISTENCE

Okay... let's have a "shut up and just play your guitar" moment...


By David Brin

A stand-alone chapter from EXISTENCE  (2012)

Cameras stared across forbidden desert, monitoring disputed territory in a conflict so bitter, antagonists couldn’t agree what to call it.

One side named the struggle righteous war, with countless innocent lives in peril.

Their opponents claimed there were no victims, at all.

And so, suspicious cameras panned, alert for encroachment. Camouflaged atop hills or under highway culverts or innocuous stones, they probed for a hated adversary. And for some months the guardians succeeded, staving off incursions. Protecting sandy desolation.

Then, technology shifted advantages again.

The enemy’s first move? Take out those guarding eyes.

*   *   *

Infiltrators came at dawn, out of the rising sun—several hundred little machines, skimming low on whispering gusts. Each one, resembling a native hummingbird, followed a carefully scouted path toward its target, landing behind some camera or sensor, in its blind spot. It then unfolded wings that transformed into holo-displays, depicting perfect false images of the same desert scene to the guardian lens, without even a suspicious flicker. Other spy-machines sniffed out camouflaged seismic sensors and embraced them gently—cushioning to mask approaching tremors.

The robotic attack covered a hundred square kilometers. In eight minutes, the desert lay unwatched, undefended.

Now, from over the horizon, large vehicles converged along multiple roadways toward the same open area—seventeen hybrid-electric rigs, disguised as commercial cargo transports, complete with company hologos. But when their paths intersected, crews in dun-colored jumpsuits leaped to unlash cargoes. Generators roared and the air swirled with exotic stench as pungent volatiles gushed from storage tanks to fill pressurized vessels. Consoles sprang to life. Hinged panels fell away, revealing long, tapered cylinders on slanted ramps.

Ponderously, each cigar shape raised its nose skyward while fins popped open at the tail. Shouts grew tense as tightly coordinated countdowns commenced. Soon the enemy—sophisticated and wary—would pick up enough clues. They would realize … and act.

When every missile was aimed, targets acquired, all they lacked were payloads.

A dozen figures emerged from an air-conditioned van, wearing snug suits of shimmering material and garishly painted helmets. Each carried a satchel that hummed and whirred to keep them cool. Several moved with a gait that seemed rubbery with anxious excitement. One skipped a little caper, about every fourth step.

A dour-looking woman awaited them, with badge and uniform. Holding up a databoard, she confronted the first vacuum-suited figure.

“Name and scan,” she demanded. “Then affirm your intent.”

The helmet visor, decorated with gilt swirls, swiveled back, revealing heavily tanned features, about thirty years old, with eyes the color of a cold sea—till the official’s instrument cast a questioning ray. Then, briefly, one pupil flared retinal red.

“Hacker Sander,” the tall man said, in a voice both taut and restrained. “I affirm that I’m doing this of my own free will, according to documents on record.”

His clarity of purpose must have satisfied the ai-clipboard, which uttered an approving beep. The inspector nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Sander. Have a safe trip. Next?”

She indicated another would-be rocketeer, who carried his helmet in the crook of one arm, bearing a motif of flames surrounding a screaming mouth.

“What rubbish,” the blond youth snarled, elbowing Hacker as he tried to loom over the bureaucrat. “Do you have any idea who we are? Who I am?”

“Yes, Lord Smit. Though whether I care or not doesn’t matter.” She held up the scanner. “This matters. It can prevent you from being lasered into tiny fragments by the USSF, while you’re passing through controlled airspace.”

“Is that a threat? Why you little … government … pissant. You had better not be trying to—”

“Government and guild,” Hacker Sander interrupted, suppressing his own hot anger over that elbow in the ribs. “Come on, Smitty. We’re on a tight schedule.”

The baron whirled on him, tension cracking the normally smooth aristocratic accent. “I warned you about nicknames, Sander, you third-generation poser. I had to put up with your seniority during pilot training. But just wait until we get back. I’ll take you apart!”

“Why wait?” Hacker kept eye contact while reaching up to unlatch his air hose. A quick punch ought to lay this blue-blood out, letting the rest of them get on with it. There were good reasons to hurry. Other forces, more formidable than mere government, were converging right now, eager to prevent what was planned here.

Besides, nobody called a Sander a “poser.”

The other rocket jockeys intervened before he could use his fist—probably a good thing, at that—grabbing the two men and separating them. Pushed to the end of the queue, Smits stewed and cast deadly looks toward Hacker. But when his turn came again, the nobleman went through ID check with composure, as cold and brittle as some glacier.

“Your permits are in order,” the functionary concluded, unhurriedly addressing Hacker, because he was most experienced. “Your liability bonds and Rocket Racing League waivers have been accepted. The government won’t stand in your way.”

Hacker shrugged, as if the statement was both expected and irrelevant. He flung his visor back down and gave a sign to the other suited figures, who rushed to the ladders that launch personnel braced against each rocket, clambering awkwardly, then squirming into cramped couches and strapping in. Even the novices had practiced countless times.

Hatches slammed, hissing as they sealed. Muffled shouts told of final preparations. Then came a distant chant, familiar, yet always thrilling, counting backward at a steady cadence. A rhythm more than a century old.

Is it really that long, since Robert Goddard came to this same desert? Hacker pondered. To experiment with the first controllable rockets? Would he be surprised at what we’ve done with the thing he started? Turning them into weapons of war … then giant exploration vessels … and finally playthings of the superrich?

Oh, there were alternatives, like commercial space tourism. One Japanese orbital hotel and another under construction. Hacker owned stock. There were even multipassenger suborbital jaunts, available to the merely well-off. For the price of maybe twenty college educations.

Hacker felt no shame or regret. If it weren’t for us, there’d be almost nothing left of the dream.

Countdown approached zero for the first missile.


“Yeeeee-haw!” Hacker Sander shouted …

… before a violent kick flattened him against the airbed. A mammoth hand seemed to plant itself on his chest and shoved, expelling half the contents of his lungs in a moan of sweet agony. Like every other time, the sudden shock brought physical surprise and visceral dread—followed by a sheer ecstatic rush, like nothing else on Earth.

Hell … he wasn’t even part of the Earth! For a little while, at least.

Seconds passed amid brutal shaking as the rocket clawed its way skyward. Friction heat and ionization licked the transparent nose cone only centimeters from his face. Shooting toward heaven at Mach ten, he felt pinned, helplessly immobile …

… and completely omnipotent.

I’m a freaking god!

At Mach fifteen somehow he drew enough breath for another cry—this time a shout of elated greeting as black space spread before the missile’s bubble nose, flecked by a million glittering stars.

*   *   *

Back on the ground, cleanup efforts were even more frenetic than setup. With all rockets away, men and women sprinted across the scorched desert, packing to depart before the enemy arrived. Warning posts had already spotted flying machines, racing this way at high speed.

But the government official moved languidly, tallying damage to vegetation, erodible soils, and tiny animals—all of it localized, without appreciable effect on endangered species. A commercial reconditioning service had already been summoned. Atmospheric pollution was easier to calculate, of course. Harder to ameliorate.

She knew these people had plenty to spend. And nowadays, soaking up excess accumulated wealth was as important as any other process of recycling. Her ai-board printed a bill, which she handed over as the last team member revved his engine, impatient to be off.

“Aw, man!” he complained, reading the total. “Our club will barely break even on this launch!”

“Then pick a less expensive hobby,” she replied, and stepped back as the driver gunned his truck, roaring away in clouds of dust, incidentally crushing one more barrel cactus en route to the highway. Her vigilant clipboard noted this, adjusting the final tally.

Sitting on the hood of her jeep, she waited for another “club” whose members were as passionate as the rocketeers. Equally skilled and dedicated, though both groups despised each other. Sensors showed them coming fast, from the west—radical environmentalists. The official knew what to expect when they arrived. Frustrated to find their opponents gone and two acres of desert singed, they’d give her a tongue-lashing for being “evenhanded” in a situation where—obviously—you could only choose sides.

Well, she thought. It takes a thick skin to work in government nowadays. No one thinks you matter much.

Overhead the contrails were starting to shear, ripped by stratospheric winds, a sight that always tugged the heart. And while her intellectual sympathies lay closer to the eco-activists, not the spoiled rocket jockeys …

… a part of her still thrilled, whenever she witnessed a launch. So ecstatic—almost orgiastic.

“Go!” she whispered with a touch of secret envy toward those distant glitters, already arcing toward the pinnacle of their brief climb, before starting their long plummet to the Gulf of Mexico.


Depending on votes in the comments section, I could post the 2nd half of this stand alone story from EXISTENCE - just re-released on Kindle.

See the vivid, 3-minute video trailer! (Images by Patrick Farley.)



John said...

It's been a couple years since I read the book so this was a nice refresher. Great stuff.

Tony Fisk said...

From memory, the ecological benefit of the Florida Everglades was valued at 100 trillion about 10 years ago (based on a simplistic model of what would be needed to offset turning it all into condominiums and golf courses). The figure is probably conservative, and meaningless. It does serve to show that economic costings can be scaled only so far. (The rocketeers' little event is probably within the envelope)

It would be more win-win interesting to discuss how space flight can be made less environmentally destructive

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin under the last post:

"Who would you like a portable AI version of?"
-->'No question for me. Kurt Vonnegut.'

Better wiriter than me. Better war stories. Less topic range!

I actually thought of explicitly adding, "I would say Dr Brin as well, but the real version is still alive and accessible." Then I figured that went without saying.

Larry Hart said...

On Existence,

The trailer is cool, but I'm glad I didn't see it before I read the book. I liked absolutely not knowing what the plot was going to be about.

Before watching it now, I had forgotten about the "millions seek hope or wisdom in a nostalgic past" part of the story.

While I was dense enough to not notice when I read the book, I can't believe you named that character "Living-stone". :)

And trying not to spoil anything for new readers, my absolute favorite segment of the book is the one that ends with the penultimate word being "Mickey".

Lena said...

Dr. Brin,

Now you're making me want to read it again, but I don't get a lot of time for reading these days, and I can't justify the expense of the audiobook when I have that nice, big, autographed copy on my shelf.

But on a more serious subject, there is a question of what we consider merit to consist of, and how that plays out between mainstream culture and subcultures. This is especially problematic now, when economic inequality is reaching extremes. The mainstream culture mostly sees merit in wealth - you are a good person if you are rich. The richer you are, the more valuable a human being you are. And of course, those who are rich will mostly behave exactly as Veblen described. But because wealth is merit, and most people are not wealthy, and realistically have little chance of becoming wealthy, there are a whole lot of unintended consequences. For example, the conservative people I grew up with often told me that black people must be dumb and lazy because they are all poor, so the concept feeds racial bigotry. Then you have the idea that huge numbers of people are simply put down emotionally by the arrogant assertions of the wealthy of their innate superiority. It's little wonder that 20% of the American people are being treated for a mood disorder at any given moment, when all of society is telling them that they suck.

One way for marginalized people to react to such a status is to come together as a group (eg. Evans-Pritchard) and form a subculture. They create their own symbols of separation and their own ideas about what constitutes merit. And they are constantly at war with mainstream memes, because if they aren't then they internalize inferiority and despair. These subcultures can get pretty insular, and that works counter to the needs of the society itself. It sets up internal conflict. Mostly that conflict serves the purposes of the wealthy, by keeping the lower classes fighting against each other (the social function of racism). Not good news if you want to live in peaceful society. On the World Index of Peace America rates 122 out of 198 countries. Yes, America is exceptional - it's an exceptionally violent society. As long as we place so much value on wealth and som little value on any other element of human existence, we set ourselves up never-ending internal warfare. We get the Buffalo shooting and the El Paso shooting and January 6, because so many poor and middle-class whites feel denigrated by their low social status, and they fall for the propaganda of those rich nepobabies. They think the reason they aren't rich is because ethnic minorities are stealing the wealth they deserve. They see Vietnamese ladies who have cornered the market on the nail business and hate them, they see other people get scholarships and hate them. Yes, some people do deserve more than others, some people do merit success, but as long as we treat it the way every civilization in history has, we will have huge, potentially society-destroying problems.

It might be a good time to reevaluate what constitutes merit.


David Brin said...

I don't disagree with what you cogently say, Paul. But my role is to say "Yes, but..."

The values that YOU push and represent in your posting were very rare across time. Taught to you by American mythology all your life, they include DISAPPOINTMENT that we aren't yet living up to theose values.

That disappointment is the very ENGINE by which forward motion is propelled. And there HAS been forward motion, as evidenced by... you.

Unknown said...

Kurt Vonnegut sure got his war stories the hard way.

Re: merit

In Imperial China, the civil service examinations were supposed to allow merit-based advancement, but if there were 15 minutes during its existence that were not corrupt and skewed towards the sons of the already wealthy. I'd be astounded.


P.S. I do wonder why classical Marxism seems color-blind* - PSB's point about racism being a class subjugation tool is spot on, backed up by the supremely astute politician LBJ, and can be applied to all sorts of societies, not just the US. The overseas Chinese populations in SE Asia filled much the same niche in local racism that Jewish communities did (and still do) in Europe and the States.

*in my limited reading - quite willing to listen to dispute here

Alan Brooks said...

Exceptionalism has been misunderstood as being necessarily positive.
Take the charge of America having been “the world’s policeman” in foreign affairs. Such was considered negative—when at times it wasn’t.
Though America is an exceptionally violent nation, all superpowers have been violent and are violent today.
I don’t say that the naysayers who visit CB are mistaken; yet they are axe-grindingly unconvincing. The trio of ‘evil Ukrainian’, dirtnapninja, and the exceptionally exceptional LoCum do not convince me at all regarding Ukraine.
Are we to believe that because of fear of NATO, Russia kills, tortures and torments Ukrainian civilians?
As for LoCum’s ever-present charge that every problem we solve causes other problems, one might write how the disappointment resulting is—echoing DB—an engine of creation as well as destruction.
The trio mentioned above think or at least write (we can’t know what is they are thinking) in Manichean ways: black and white rather than shades of grey.
They are correct, we are mistaken; NATO is a threat, whereas if left alone, Russia and China would [Not] cease their own imperialisms. Do we postulate that Russia and China are merely being reactive??
Wealth versus racism is a hard one to figure—these discussions were being had fifty years ago. You could hypothetically travel back to 1973 and feel quite at home. Fifty yrs from now, 2073, will the same discussions be ongoing?
Will have to read more about the astute LBJ, for now it does strike me that he was as destructive as he was creative. Emblematic of what?: exceptionalism, of everything?
What is an economy? Everything we do, for better and worse. But we are stuck in Manichaean thinking: prisoners allegedly cannot be rehabilitated, so they are warehoused in uncorrective Correctional facilities.
‘The poor will supposedly always be with us, so...let’s..,make it worse than it is! Extremism in defense of extremism is not extreme!

Larry Hart said...

If it were up to me, Alan Brooks would get post of the day. :)

Exceptionalism has been misunderstood as being necessarily positive.

The right-wingers certainly see it that way. They complain endlessly about America being too liberal or too tolerant or (most recently) too woke, but in almost the same breath, they deride liberals for not buying into the concept of American exceptionalism.

The trio ... do not convince me at all regarding Ukraine.
Are we to believe that because of fear of NATO, Russia kills, tortures and torments Ukrainian civilians?

An antidote to the pro-Russian propaganda is the POV of someone who has lived there.

Do we postulate that Russia and China are merely being reactive??

The propaganda would have it that, while America, like all empires throughout history is self-serving and aggressive, Russia and/or China (depending on the conversation) is/are the only global powers in history who just want to be left alone, and would beat their swords into ploughshares if only the west would stop being mean to them.

As to killing and torturing civilians, they're behaving much like the mobs of rampaging Muslims who are so outraged that someone would dare portray Islam as a violent culture that they'll maim and kill the offenders!

But we are stuck in Manichaean thinking: prisoners allegedly cannot be rehabilitated, so they are warehoused in uncorrective Correctional facilities.

In college, a housemate used to think it was funny to say that you can't help the homeless because the only help possible is to get them into a home, at which point they are no longer homeless. Yeah, he had his own brand of humor.

‘The poor will supposedly always be with us, so...let’s..,make it worse than it is!

A perversion of Anselm's ontological argument is that there is always someone richer than anyone else. And likewise, there is always someone poorer than anyone else. And as the children's story of Ping makes clear, there is always a duck who is the last one onto the boat.

Yes, the poor will always be with us. And you might as well mention to those CEOs who think it's a good idea to constantly fire the bottom 20% of their performers that the bottom 20% will always be with us. The homeowners among us know too well that after you fix one thing, there's always something else that breaks.

There's no magical moment when all problems are solved and we live like Adam and Eve before the Fall. You work on one problem, then move on to the next, and hope that you're making the world better than it was. That's what progress is.

Robert said...

From the last post…

meritocracy. How often do you think it actually happens

There was a study some years ago (pre-pandemic) where the researchers gave Monopoly players varying amounts of starting money. As is predictable, the players with the most money won the games. The winning players nearly all attributed their success to their superior strategies and skill, not to starting with an advantage.

This is related to the theme of one of Malcolm Gladwell's books, that small advantages often snowball into game-changing ones. In Canada most professional hockey players are born in certain months — they are the oldest in their first teams, so bigger and more coordinated, and benefit from more coaching and ice-time, and they get into better leagues with better coaches in subsequent years, and so on. Their small initial advantage is amplified by a system that rewards success.

I remember arguing with a colleague that the true measure of success for a high-school sports program wasn't the number of trophies they won, but the number of kids who played sports for fun and so lived healthier more active lives. Which is harder to measure, and contrary to the competition-based ethos of high-school sports. (And I understand it's even worse in America!)

I strongly suspect that "meritocracy" is like "capitalism": it means different things to different people.

Robert said...

In Imperial China, the civil service examinations were supposed to allow merit-based advancement, but if there were 15 minutes during its existence that were not corrupt and skewed towards the sons of the already wealthy. I'd be astounded.

Of course it was skewed. Even with an absolutely impartial exam, the sons of wealthier families had more time to study, and more access to excellent teachers.

The same problem affects the SAT: the factor with the largest correlation to a high SAT score is the family's socio-economic status. Sure there are outliers and exceptions, but generally children of stable households with high incomes who can afford SAT prep courses and coaches do better.

Robert said...

every problem we solve causes other problems

A truism, that.

My grandfather saw London transition from horses to motor lorries. Despite the problems that motor lorries brought, they cut down the rate of tetanus and other infections, meant the roads weren't ankle-deep in horse droppings, etc.

From an engineering perspective, a good engineer tries to anticipate problems and prevent them happening in the first place. Unfortunately this approach suffers from the same issues faced by public health: you can't prove that the problem that didn't happen would have happened, so it it easy to be blamed for wasting money/resources. (Especially when dealing with people who are statistically innumerate and/or determined to externalize the costs of the potential problem on others.)

GMT -5 8032 said...

This news story is very tragic:

My wife and I frequented Chabad of the Virgin Islands regularly. Henya and her husband, Rabbi Asher Federman, were inspirational leaders. They did not harangue us to pray; they encouraged us and welcomed us to be more observant by encouraging us.

Henya and Asher had just returned to the Virgin Islands after spending 18 months on the mainland while one of their many children was being treated for cancer. While they were walking on a boardwalk, their youngest child (IIRC just 4 months old) fell into the water. Henya and Asher dived in to try and rescue the child. They failed and the child drowned. Henya got trapped and by the time they got her to the surface, she had stopped breathing. It took several months for her body to give up and finally die. Asher and their 12 remaining children must live on without her.

scidata said...


I had a son kicked off his kids' baseball team (8 yr olds) for poor performance. The coach was the classic he-man jock. It was my turn the next week to bring drinks for the team, which I did despite no longer having a player on it. The coach was surprised, but I didn't want to disappoint the team, some of which were my son's friends.

Me: good luck today
Coach: thanks, we'll do our best
Me: best isn't good enough - you'd better win

GMT -5 8032 said...

My wife was listening to the top podcast on this list yesterday; I just listened to it today. It deals with a topic that I know better than most anyone (even most lawyers): taxing the ultra-wealthy: How the ultra-rich avoid paying taxes

David has written on this topic. The summary given at the end of the podcast is excellent: there are several kinds of taxes: wealth taxes, transaction taxes, and income (or really, just wage) taxes. We need a discussion on how to get the most money out of our economy and into government to pay for the government services we need and want.

It is best to start with a simple approach and create a strong foundation for complying with the law and enforcing the law. What should be the fair amount that you pay over the course of your life on everything you receive, accumulate, and eventually transfer to your heirs (if anything at all)? I say probably about 1/3rd. Most everyone, even the Grover Norquist anti-tax extremists, would support this. I know this because I am friends with Grover and I asked him this point blank and he gave a simple "yes" answer.

I strongly agree with David's approach to forcing everyone to disclose true ownership of property. I think that a combined 33.33% tax rate would be low enough that even the most wealthy people would find it cheaper to just pay the tax rather than try to avoid (or evade) it. Remember, one of the great problems with tax avoidance planning is that people make investments based on how much tax they can avoid, not on whether the underlying business makes sense.

What do you think the fair rate should be? 33.33% 50.00%? Higher? Lower? Just remember that as the rate goes higher, the increase in taxes received does not change in a proportionate amount. If the tax is 33.33%, the total amount collected is probably 28%. If the tax is 50.00%, the total amount is probably 35%...and it is 35% of an economy distorted because business transactions are done based more on tax savings than on business sense.

Larry Hart said...

OMG. This was exactly what my dad went through during several separate periods before he died.

My friend Mike Gerson, a Washington Post columnist, had been hospitalized with depression in early 2019. He had delivered a beautiful sermon at the Washington National Cathedral about his experience before he died of complications of cancer last November. Depression, he said, was a “malfunction of the instrument we use to determine reality.” Then he talked about the lying voices that had taken up residence in his mind, spewing out their vicious clich├ęs: You are a burden to your friends, you have no future, no one would miss you.

Robert said...

I had a son kicked off his kids' baseball team (8 yr olds) for poor performance.

When I coached cricket there was only one way to get kicked off the team: repeatedly skip practices. Cut only one player that year. He was our best player, but couldn't be bothered to show up to practices. If you showed up to practice, you got to play — how else would you ever get better?

We were also a co-ed team, because the sexists running school cricket hadn't bothered to say that it was boys only, so I saw no reason to turn girls away. Had some nasty behaviour from opposing teams which the umpires ignored, but my girls insisted I let it slide and got their own back by absolutely owning the sexist rectal orifices who were taunting them. It was all a bit surprising to me, but apparently cricket in the Caribbean and south Asia is very different to English public school cricket. (Eg. I was taught to applaud good plays no matter who made them, and to never be rude — neither of which applied in this league.)

Needless to say I did not coach for more than that season. Left a bad taste in my mouth, and I had no stomach for the league politics which were mostly about ensuring that certain schools maintained their winning positions rather than ensuring that all students had fun.

Lena said...

Dr. Brin,

Forgive me if I am misinterpreting you, but it sounds like what you are saying is: Stay the course. But ... conflating wealth with merit is a course followed by every civilization that has crashed and burned a fiery death. It's not hard to see why. Did you hear it when Richard Sackler said, "Why does anybody care? They're just a bunch of druggies!" Never mind that his product made them into druggies. That Sackler of excrement lives like a king, and everybody knows it. On the other side of the coin, in Los Angeles there is a group of vigilantes who sneak around at night with buckets of white paint. They paint crosswalks at dangerous intersections, mostly in poor, neglected areas. These DIY sidewalks are illegal, but in some cases at least, they shamed the city into making official crosswalks where they did. These crosswalk commandoes deserve medals. They should be on the local news, and we should all know their names, instead of birth-lottery winners like Musk or Trump.

I appreciate the compliment, but if this society made me, the process is likely too slow to avoid flaming out. For every one of me there are probably 100 big, burly, bearded boneheads with big guns who are actively trying to turn us into a fascist dictatorship. (And I think my Dutch mother has a lot to do with my ability to see right from wrong.) I might be wrong in my estimate by a couple orders of magnitude. It seems that I'm more rare a bird than even I thought, and this is no boast. A few years ago my doctor told me that I'm borderline for OCD. I have the O, but not the C, so the D doesn't count. Contra what the TV industry has fed us, OCD does not always mean neat freak, as my wife will attest. In my case it all centers on morals, which is why I was never tempted by conservatives. They don't have moral values, they just have rigid demands for conformity which they pretend are moral values. It makes me compulsively honest, which is also why I would never make it in the business world.

You are a master of science fiction. Surely you can imagine a future where merit has nothing to do with wealth, and people are honored for their kindness.


Alan Brooks said...

The far-Right was anti-Russian when Russia was Communist, but now share a far-Left apologetic of Russia being merely reactive. Some far-Rightists think China is also only basically reacting to US imperialism.
That would assume that Russians and Chinese are passive actors and possess only the national willpower to barely survive! The old standby Hitler is illustrative. It was and frequently is still said that Nazism was a reaction to Stalinism in particular and Communism in general. And it is true that without Stalin—whose reign preceded Hitler’s—Nazism would not have been the same. But Hitler was his own mensch, a prime instigator, not a reactor-actor.
At any rate, I leave open all possibilities: even all problems being *solved*. Being a layman, couldn’t go into the possibilities/probabilities of AI and so forth; the prospect of creating artificial realities (that would no longer be artificial.)
Even Adam and Eve redux. I recall the pilot episode of Star Trek 1.0: a first glimpse into AI. Its broadcast was delayed because it was felt at the time that it was too cerebral for the general public. Will have to re-view it for nostalgia’s sake.

Larry Hart said...


I was never tempted by conservatives. They don't have moral values, they just have rigid demands for conformity which they pretend are moral values.

Moral values for the masses. They're special enough that those values don't apply to themselves. Look at Saudi princes--supposed defenders of Islam--who openly womanize and imbibe as much as Republicans do.

It makes me compulsively honest, which is also why I would never make it in the business world.

I think I have a similar quirk. Not so much "compulsively honest" as compulsively unable to suffer being openly played. If someone wants to con me, he had better be very good at not giving away tells that he knows darned well he's conning me.

You are a master of science fiction. Surely you can imagine a future where merit has nothing to do with wealth, and people are honored for their kindness.

Be careful with that first part. We don't want "merit" to derive from wealth, but don't we (to some extent) wish for wealth to derive from merit?

Larry Hart said...

Alan Brooks:

I recall the pilot episode of Star Trek 1.0: a first glimpse into AI. Its broadcast was delayed because it was felt at the time that it was too cerebral for the general public. Will have to re-view it for nostalgia’s sake.

It was a kind of virtual reality, but the mechanism creating it was telepathy, not AI.

And I think "too cerebral" was a euphemism for "not enough battle scenes". A work colleague of mine had much the same complaint about the ST:TNG episode with Spock on Romulus. "Too much talking." Of course, I disagree, because that was pretty much my favorite episode of any Star Trek series.

David Brin said...

Pappenheimer, I agree that civil service exams were skewed. At minimum by the emphasis on ‘classics’ that meant only top 0.1% boys could be taught them in order to try.

One thing though. The Chinese authority pyramid consisted (as today) of thousands of embedded mini pyramids where the top guy wanted to rise, and showing good governance outcomes would help their rise. Hence filling his OWN pyramid with talented people was in his best interest. This meant that talented administrators would rise ALONG with the privileged mandarin they helped to look good. Very inefficient. But it made Chinese feudalism among the LEAST BAD forms. And we see that today,

If they win, there will be some meritocracy. Indeed, in EXISTENCE I portray a meeting of top western trillionaires pondering how to breed -in talent into their inbred family lines. (No sign of such sapience in oligarchy, alas.)

Even so, that model of feudalism is still gonna suppress human potential and prevent us from rescuing the galaxy/

AB - good questions! One reason Marxian class seems more plausible than embedded racism - besides the desperate efforts of the GOP to fill their ranks with “good ones” - is that the whole picture of US Black History needs to include the wars WITHIN Africa that brought shuffling lines of enslaved people to the docks to be sold to (rot-in-hell) European slave traders. Marx’s historical insights were major contributions. His pretenses at prediction were based upon the notion that humans could not lift their gaze to see his processes and come up with non Marxian paths.

He assumed no opponent would ever read Marx.

“Fifty yrs from now, 2073, will the same discussions be ongoing?”

Humans are addicts to sanctimony. Hence if we DO make progress, reformers will focus on ever-smaller injustices to denounce at the top of their lungs. The marginalized segments now being avidly promoted are (many of them) much smaller. THe rancor is not. MIND YOU I think this insatiability of reform is NECESSARY! Keep up the momentum!

My complaint is that is lacks TACTICAL perspective when you fail to reward society for past successes.

Homelessness could be solved if the LEFT were to tactically accept partial solutions. Demanding full apartments for all is stupid. We can build dormitories at a fraction of the cost, allowing house mother supervision on each floor for those who have marginal skills. FROM those, many could then pick up their lives.

COuld not get to the last pair of comments.... sorry

David Brin said...

"You are a master of science fiction. Surely you can imagine a future where merit has nothing to do with wealth, and people are honored for their kindness."

I am good with preaching love & kindness. A majority of religions and philosophies have been repeating that prescription for thousands of years and they did some good. A bit, by encouraging kindness among those who were already at all so inclined...

...and never from the predators who dominated societies with their rapacious male reproductive strategies and who thought kindness for suckers.

One thing ever... ever... palliated that behavior flaw. Competitive reci[procal accuntability, under rules that were cooperatively negotiated to prevent cheating by those on top. It has been almost-impossibly hard to achieve... and we've done it to a (historically) astonishing degree, with results that...

... well, this enlightenment experiment in flat-fair competitive creativity has achieved VASTLY more for the poor than all the kindness ever did. Especially when you blend the two.

locumranch said...

As a medical generalist who knows a little bit about everything, I've railed against the sanctification of expertism for 30+ years, as an expert (by functional definition) is one who narrows his focus to such an extent that he knows literally everything about nothing.

And, so I linger here, incredibly amused by an expert astrophysicist, an academic elitist, a champion of exceptionalism & a staunch defender of expertism, who pontificates so eloquently about everything, from public morality to monetary theory, which has literally nothing to do with his area of expertise.

O, the delicious irony!!

Ever since I read "Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare", lo these many years ago, I have found my place here at this Garden of Generalism, this Arcadia of Amateurism and this Monument to Mediocrity, though it be disguised as an elite bastion of intellectualism.

'Meta' doesn't even begin to describe today's (manipulative) offering:

A short tale about environmental criminals who squander irreplaceable volatiles, spew toxic gases, despoil an endangered desert & exacerbate climate change, all in order to cater to the space-faring dreams of a few spoiled oligarchs at the expense of the greater social collective.


Larry Hart said...

Alan Brooks:

The far-Right was anti-Russian when Russia was Communist, but now share a far-Left apologetic of Russia being merely reactive.

It seems more like they're ok with Russian belligerence because they like the cut of Russia's jib, but they know it is impolitic to say that out loud. So they insist that Russia is the good guy and therefore can't possibly do any wrong.

Bizarrely, their anti-Western argument is that it is impossible that the West are the good guys and of course the West is expansionist and belligerent. But Russia is just a poor, innocent victim.

Some far-Rightists think China is also only basically reacting to US imperialism.

They can't even keep their own story straight. I guess with followers who have the attention span of a flea, they don't have to.

matthew said...

GMT, your "friend" Grover Norquist is one of the most evil of Americans. His legacy is crippling our nation and pissing on our people.
I would suggest that you chose better friends, but then I remember you bragging about being a Federalist Society member. Lots of evil there too.

David said...

It is unfortunate that the last 30 years of the Newt Gingrich style of politics has become so entrenched that the right has failen into the intellectually lazy habit of "Everything the democrats do, no matter how good, must be actually bad!" And then twisting into pretzel knots ensues.

I had a discussion with an old friend deep in the MIC, about Russia. He denied that Putin was a communist, saying that the oligarchs in Russia were accumulating staggering amounts of wealth, and that's not communism.

My reply was that under Stalin, the inner Party Elite lived like gods in their dachas, whilst the Soviet conquered people starved. Same with Mao. Communism as practiced by the Soviets, Chinese, Venezuelans, etc., basically is a thin veneer of ideology atop a massive corrupt kleptocracy.

And yes, I know: communism itself is a fatally flawed system, based as it is on the assumption that everyone shares an appreciation for self-sacrifice for the common good, and a drive to work hard to achieve a society-wide benefit. Human nature disproves that.

Anyway - this construct proved helpful: at the heart of Soviet Russia was the communist party.
At the heart of the party was the KGB.
Deep within the KGB was Putin.
He spent his entire life in service to the ideals of spreading communism around the world, bringing it all under the heel of Soviet Russia, so the elite could better extract wealth and crush dissent.

What about him now demonstrates that he has in any way changed his worldview? When Putin openly says that the collapse of Communist Soviet Russia is the biggest tragedy of the last century, and that he will give his life to reconstitute the USSR?

duncan cairncross said...

instead of birth-lottery winners like Musk or Trump.

Trump - YES - inherited a $430million fortune

Musk - not on your life - inherited a middle class lifestyle - just like most of us - I keep hearing about his dad's "Emerald Mine" - which was about as valuable as my dad's Sub Post Office

Sport in School
In America School Sport has become a monster that eats the souls of everybody involved!!
And produces the Jock v Nerd culture that hamstrings the nation

Sport - Sport teaches a Zero Sum lesson - winners and losers - That is a BAD BAD BAD lesson to teach people especially kids

I get the idea of physical training and health - but we need to build "sports" or fun activities that are not zero sum

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

the intellectually lazy habit of "Everything the democrats do, no matter how good, must be actually bad!"

I think it's more than that. They're not just saying "Shoot the duck" because Democrats say "Shoot the bunny." Rather, the attitude is that if they allow and credit for good outcomes to be granted to Democrats, then the Democrats will benefit politically. And that must not happen.

In a rational democracy, if party X advances policies which solve people's problems or improve people's well being, then almost everybody should be happy about that, even if grudgingly. But today's Republicans are not concerned with solving problems or improving lives. They don't want power because they believe they can do those things better than the opposition can. They want power, full stop. And if solving problems or improving lives is a threat to that power, then that must not be permitted. People must suffer and blame Democrats for that suffering so that they'll vote Republican.

Tim H. said...

LH, any republican who had suggested a constructive course of action in recent years has been declared "RINO" and purged.

Alan Brooks said...

Good news and bad news for next year. Good news is that ‘24 will be the year things change—bad news is it won’t be the change we want. ‘68 saw great change; yet the year ended with Tricky Dick moving his gear into the White House.
When do things ever change the way we want? It’s like nailing Jello to the wall.
The religious ask me what might be in store for the future. The reply is:
not goodness.
‘Good’ brings to mind the ‘50s. How could anyone find such goodness without living a simple life like, just say, something akin to the way the Amish live? I tell the religious that the words Interesting and Exciting come to mind when looking forward to the future. Not Goodness.
Expediency and situational ethics come to mind—not virtue and morality.

Lena said...


Clinical depression is a huge problem that is only just getting some of the attention it deserves, due to the pandemic. I have a book on my shelf that was recommended by Dr. Brin right here that makes the point that rates of depression are substantially lower in countries that have socialized medicine and less of a compete-or-die vibe than the US does. Of course, the majority of Americans still seem to think that clinical depression is just an excuse to be lazy (Reagan gave us a huge collective blow to the head with all his "welfare queen" bull, a tactic he knew would work because it worked for Hitler - see Mein Kampf chapter 2), and if a person has a therapist people laugh at them. Culture is a real bitch, isn't it?

"We don't want "merit" to derive from wealth, but don't we (to some extent) wish for wealth to derive from merit?"
I think that is exactly the point.

or as Adam Smith put it:

"The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise, or, at least, neglect persons of poor or mean conditions... is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."


Lena said...

Dr. Brin,

Your response makes me think that you might think that I think something that I don't think at all (I think). And that immediately makes me think that I am not communicating my meaning very well. Often that's a result of different people having different assumption sets, which they naturally don't come out and say because they seem so normal they don't think they need to say them.

To be clear, I am not suggesting some government intervention in the financial deeds of the filthy rich. The harder government tries to reign them in, the harder they try to corrupt the government. What I am talking about is norms and values. The government could play a role here. If the mayor of every town and city gave out a medal to citizens they catch in the act of doing good, and plaster their names and faces all over, that would help to attach merit to goodness. Sure, the slime would still laugh, but they can laugh in prison all they like, if only governments would be more consistent about prosecuting white-collar crimes. That, too, would counter some of the prestige people grant to the wealthy, however dishonestly they acquired it.

In the words of Adam Smith: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices" Those who maximize money often do so at the expense of the very society which made their wealth possible.

Religion has immense power, but history has shown it to not be an unequivocal force for good. All the major religions either derived from the need of the state to control the people (as in the Divine Right of Kings) or derived second-hand from some state-sponsored official religion. They are all corrupted by power, and their texts are so long and convoluted that the followers could go on and on about peace and love one day, then use their holy texts to justify murder and war the next.

Unfortunately, cultural norms and values rarely change quickly or consistently. We might be in a better place if we understood exactly what happened between 50 and 100 kilo years ago that nearly caused human extinction, and left the survivors with dramatically lower testosterone levels. It looks as though the past few million years of human evolution has been about making humans less competitive and more equal overall. But no adaptation, however good, will be right for all times and places. Veblen-style conspicuous consumption may have done much to spur industrialization, draw people off the farms, and, with sufficient government regulation to reign in the excesses of those highly competitive capitalists, done much to raise the lives of the masses, there may come a time when it turns from blessing to maladaptation. Most complex societies that have collapsed were brought down by the very system which caused them to rise in the first place. Adapt or die is the rule.


David Brin said...

1. Sorry I bewilder you, locu, Since I have a long record of BOTH appreciating deeply expert fact and exploration professionals AND extolling breadth and positive sum participation by amateurs, any cognitive inability to understand is not my fault, but rather an epiphenomenon of your 2-D absolute inability to grasp anything that’s not zero sum. It’s all your perceptions, son.

2. LH in fact, it was only under Reagan that the GOP was (in balance) more anti Moscow than Democrats. The most vigorous proponents of containing stalinism were the AFL-CIO and US labor, while there’s always been a segment of the right eager to ‘do business’ with Moscow.

3. David… what you said. Today’s Foxites worship Putin’s 500 “ex” commissars who grew up reciting Leninist catechisms 5x per day but changed a few symbols and instantly snared the US right.

4. Well, Elon was at least upper middle, maybe even bottom upper class.

5. AB: That’s why I wrote Polemical Judo, by David Brin:

6. PSB feudalism for 6000 years has rewarded the bulliest males with harems. In any event, no symbolic reward system will ever stave off feudalism for long. I favor capitalism as Smith prescribed, rewarding those who improve goods/services! But each billion$ should be HARDER than the previous one, not much much easier. And the children of the rich are already hugely advantaged! A house and a grocery trust and maybe… maybe… a $5million investment fund… or a genuinely legacy family farm… are all anyone should inherit.

Lena said...

I remember one high school teacher I had who insisted that if we were really capitalist we would have a 100% inheritance tax. But since then I've learned a whole lot more. Even if you tax away all inheritance, the children still have all the advantages of upper-crust education and connections in the business world, so they will still have huge unfair advantages.

I still think you missed my point. Any strategy that works now cannot be counted on to work forever. Diachronic variation happens, and if we fail to adapt, we die. That's why I favor a few general principals over any -ism. 6000 years is a blip in time, even for a species that has only been around a quarter of a million.


David Brin said...

"I still think you missed my point. Any strategy that works now cannot be counted on to work forever."

Yes. So? Every generation must discover and stanch the new cheats that are innovated to get around previous reforms.

Alfred Differ said...


Any strategy that works now cannot be counted on to work forever.

For anything alive, that's a given.

That's why I favor a few general principals over any -ism.

Wouldn't that mean you favor generalisms?

I'm not trying to be too snarky here. I AM going to point out that I doubt anyone here would disagree that adaptation is a must. If our adversaries do it, so must we.


The problem is older than 6,000 years, but it's not documented anywhere except in our genomes and archeological sites.

Feudalism is an attractor state and The West is trying to avoid falling back to it. So far so good.

Alan Brooks said...

LoCum is challenging, will grant him that. He critiques the main post not on literary grounds but, rather, from an environmental perspective.
But naturally, not all our threats are man-made. Earthquakes, volcanoes, solar flares, tsunamis, floods, typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes, pandemics, cancer... Even asteroids. A statistician once told me “Earth is outside the asteroid belt”—yet somehow his statement was not entirely reassuring.

Actually, I think in the zero-sum manner in which LiCum thinks; difference is, I consider such thinking a liability, not asset. Am not ready to throw in the towel.
Reason I became interested in futurism: having traveled to California after HS. Was reading a futurist book which said Newport Beach (at the time) was a futurist place—then it flashed that I was in Newport Beach. Synchronicity.

Alan Brooks said...

*forgot to include drought. All the factors (as you know) can be exacerbated by us but, save for pandemics and cancer, predate us by billions of yrs.
Of course there’re other factors—but the short it’s will suffice.

scidata said...

I've watched all sorts of launches (on TV), while in the company of all sorts of people, from all sorts of countries and states. It's revealing that we each and all whispered "GO!"

OCTOBER SKY captured this instinct nicely too. Not all attractor states are bad.

Larry Hart said...

Alan Brooks:

He critiques the main post not on literary grounds but, rather, from an environmental perspective.

He critiques the main post as if the author's intent is to cheer for the rich dudes and hiss at the environmentalists. As if we, the readers, need to have it pointed out that the environmentalists have a point. As if the author missed that point instead of presenting a complex situation where both sides have an understandable POV and act accordingly.

Reason I became interested in futurism: having traveled to California after HS. Was reading a futurist book which said Newport Beach (at the time) was a futurist place—then it flashed that I was in Newport Beach. Synchronicity.

Heh. I've had flashes of that sort. The only specific one I can think of is very esoteric in nature. Long before I began reading the Cerebus comic, I knew that the writer intended to keep the series going until issue #300. He even broadcast the month when that episode would appear, assuming the book stayed on its monthly course for decades, March 2004.

It wasn't until 1993 that I became interested enough to start collecting back issues in order to read the entire series as a novel. I had determined that I would not start reading until I had the entire story (up to the then-present month) in my hands, which happened some time in 1994. Meanwhile, I kept buying each new issue, even though I had not caught up to them yet.

It was in November 1995 when the newest issue was #200 that I began a run-for-the-roses attempt to read something like 50 issues in a mad rush to the present. And in one of the intervening books, Dave Sim plays mind games with the reader, intending to induce a feeling of disorientation. He does so by (as himself within the story) mentioning offhand that after John Lennon's death in 1980, he kept a secret that he was only now revealing, that he would not go 300 issues, but would end "with issue #200 in November 1995".

Somehow, I garbled the text in my head, and I read that as if he intended to reveal the secret in November 1995, which was some two years later than the month the issue with the statement was published. So I was left to ponder, "How the heck did he know that I'd be reading this for the first time in November 1995?"

I know, you had to be there. :)

Larry Hart said...

Alfred Differ:

I AM going to point out that I doubt anyone here would disagree that adaptation is a must.

Maybe you're on solid ground with "anyone here", but remember whoever it was on tv who insisted on a Constitutional right not to have things change.

Larry Hart said...


It's revealing that we each and all whispered "GO!"

Since it's you, I'll mention that this was the theme of Asimov's The End of Eternity, which was about time travelers who interfered in history to protect humanity from catastrophes, but then also kept us from any sort of advancement, such that when we finally did make it into space, other species had filled it with metaphorical "No Trespassing" signs.

The time travelers themselves always had a wistful nostalgia for the alternate histories which had space travel, even though they themselves were preventing those timelines from being realized.

Robert said...

It’s like nailing Jello to the wall.

Not that hard, actually. You just need to freeze the jello first.

Unknown said...

Is feudalism an attractor state? The SCA certainly suggests that. I tend to think of it as a default, low-energy state, a patchwork of local power centers that emerge when a larger state fails or falls. The inhabitants of medieval Europe or Japan did not perceive themselves as being in a feudal "system" the way they recognized the existence of an empire or shogunate, but this may be just a battle of definitions. I also suspect I'm deliberately misusing the term "attractor". :)


P.S. "..feudalism for 6000 years has rewarded the bulliest males with harems." True, but there are ALWAYS sneaker males. It's even encoded into the troubador oeuvre, though the love was always "chaste". It's hard to categorize Lancelot and Tristan as sneaker males, though...

Lena said...

Dr. Brin,

Human nature is not a static thing, though it changes extremely slowly. The past 4 million years have seen a decrease in the testosterone levels (the competition instinct) as evidenced by the reduction in hominid robustness (more testosterone = more muscle mass = more robust bones, the reverse is where hominids are headed). The much more sudden reduction in T-levels that happened between 100 and 50 tya suggests that competition had become maladaptive and likely has something to do with why the species nearly went extinct. At the same time, the fossil evidence shows that sexual dimorphism has been shrinking, making the species decreasingly "masculine." Now look at technology, which changed very, very slowly at first, but began to take off after 50 tya, a major punctuation in the ratio of competitiveness to cooperativeness in the species. Then, around 8000 tya, technology changed quite dramatically with the shift to agriculture and storable crops. This is a condition which shifts the balance more toward competition, and that is where the hominids have been since. However, technology has been changing at an increasing, nigh on exponential, rate. At some point human technology will allow them to start tinkering with their instincts, directing changes in human nature at a fundamental level.

When that happens, do you want people who believe in ruthless competition to be running the show? You probably remember the "meet the meat" scene in "Restaurant at the End of the Universe." What do you think people who have the attitudes of the Sacklers would do? Create a workforce of humans who are quite content being slaves to those "genetically superior" winners in the competitive market, no doubt. Forget human rights. Human rights are reserved for the "winners." As long as we believe that we are competitive by nature, and that competition is a universal good, we will create oligarchy. It's a constant fight as it is. If humans reach this point, the fight will be over, and dictatorship will become universal for that species.

I would rather we spent less emphasis on glorifying those who are most likely to betray us, and more emphasis on those elements of human flexibility that promote equality and basic human rights.

And maybe that explains the Fermi Paradox. Any species that is cooperative enough by nature to avoid this trap will probably see what's coming on Earth and quarantine the planet.


Lena said...


Generalism? I suppose you could add the -ism suffix to just about anything. My kids have guinea pigs, which are cute and fluffy, so I must be a GuineaPigist. But then, I love my daughter's 10-year old bearded dragon (that's 100 in lizard years), so I'm a Dragonist, too. What I am not is a Capitalist, Communist, Socialist, or any of the -ists people so often and so blindly hurl at one another.

I am somewhat fond of General Systems Theory, with its feedback loops, but that's only because it works in nature all over the place. If I am ever shown that feedbacks loops are really something else, then I'll change my mind. Would that make me a scientist?


Robert said...

Is feudalism an attractor state? The SCA certainly suggests that.

Also the well-known American fascination with British Royalty. Not to mention the way you treat the family of your country's leader (to the extent of giving them ceremonial duties…).

We are hierarchical primates. The trick is to rise above our instincts, as Darwin noted.

Alan Brooks said...

Someone said on tv there’s a Constitutional right to not change? There might be a way to do it:
living in an AI Eden.
In the meantime, there could be robotic clergymen and women, whose sermons never change, and don’t ask for anything to be placed in offering baskets. After the sermon ends, a bot clergy‘person’ is shut off and locked in a safe.

Lena said...


"We are hierarchical primates. The trick is to rise above our instincts, as Darwin noted"

Darwin was not right about everything, and more and more evidence out there is revealing another side to humans, a side that is more about cooperation and working together. Biologists, for instance, have been telling us about "fight or flight" for a century now, so we think that's our instinct. Then we started seeing women in biology, and lo and behold! They discover that "tend and befriend" is instinct, too.

Hierarchy is a crime of opportunity, like most crimes. And it is completely contradictory to universal rights and freedom.


Larry Hart said...

Alan Brooks:

Someone said on tv there’s a Constitutional right to not change?
In the meantime, there could be robotic clergymen and women, whose sermons never change,

My reaction was that I wanted the right not to grow older than 29. The political demand is ridiculous for the same reason.

Alan Brooks said...

Religionists always complain about clergymen who come out of the closet.
However, a bot clergyman can be locked IN the closet.

Larry Hart said...

Alan Brooks:

However, a bot clergyman can be locked IN the closet.

You don't happen to be familiar with Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage album, do you?

Google "Sy Borg" to see what I'm talking about. Also one of the preceding songs, "A Token of My Extreme"

Robert said...

Darwin was not right about everything

True, but he was explicit that as reasoning beings we are not bound by instincts, but can use our intellect to rise above them. Something that many evolutionary psychologists forget…

I think to many people Darwin is like Smith — someone they know about but have never read in the original, other than a few text-proofed phrases taken out-of-context.

David Brin said...

okay guys



Alan Brooks said...

Yes. But Sy wasn’t a clergy-bot.