Privacy vs Omniveillance

Media discussions of privacy, freedom and the information age are starting to get more interesting, as folks finally start to realize a core truth… that everything eventually leaks. That the reflex of whining and demanding shadows to hide-in will never work. The data we entrust to banks and retail chains? The trade secrets that companies rely on for competitive advantage? The cherished spy programs of our governmental professional protector caste (PPC)? If these do not leak because of hackers, or accidents, then would-be (or self-styled) whistle-blowers will see to it, sooner or later.

OMNIVEILLANCE-PRIVACYIt has long been pointed out that information is not like other commodities. It can duplicate itself at virtually zero cost, and those copies can escape even without you noticing it’s happened. That is Fact Number One. Everything eventually leaks.

Fact number two is one I’ve tried to point out for decades. That this is fundamentally a clash of values and civilizations. The Western Enlightenment (WE) has always been the rebel and underdog, versus the 99% standard human (and zero-sum) pattern of top down control by hierarchs. (There was never much functional difference between leftist-communist oligarchies and right-wing wealth-inheritance oligarchies; both hewed to the endlessly-repeated feudal model.) In contrast, the positive-sum WE has many disadvantages and instabilities, though it is also vastly more creative, successful and productive. The one trait that tips the balance, though, is Fact Number Two:

All enemies of the WE are lethally allergic to light. Go ahead and name one. If it is not allergic to light, then it probably is not an “enemy” at all, but a peaceful rival that can easily be incorporated into the diversity-friendly WE. (Indeed, the “western” part is already fading away.)

Which provokes our core question… is the world of information leakage one that we should (at a fundamental level) be fighting against… at all? Or actively encouraging?

Let’s suppose we do decide to support an ongoing secular trend toward a world of accountability and light. Yes, this end-goal will stymie almost all bad guys. But does that mean we must bare ourselves overnight? Or completely? Especially, must we do it before the other guy does?

Suppose we choose a path of moderate-pragmatic, incremental, gradually-increasing transparency… what are our options?

== Fretful oversimplification ==

privacy-commodityLet’s start with an extensive article on : The Death of Privacy in the Guradian, by Alex Preston, on the psychological, social and cultural repercussions of loss of privately secret space:

“While outposts of civilization fight pyrrhic battles, unplugging themselves from the web – “going dark” – the rest of us have come to accept that the majority of our social, financial and even sexual interactions take place over the internet and that someone, somewhere, whether state, press or corporation, is watching.”

Preston continues: “Perhaps the reason people don’t seem to mind that so much of their information is leaking from the private to the public sphere is not, as some would have it, that we are blind and docile, unable to see the complex web of commercial interests that surround us. Maybe it’s that we understand very clearly the transaction. The internet is free and we wish to keep it that way, so corporations have worked out how to make money out of something we are willing to give them in return – our privacy. We have traded our privacy for the wealth of information the web delivers to us, the convenience of online shopping, the global village of social media.”

Death-privacyAll of this is true… and misleading and shrill. Because it buys into zero-sum thinking, which is the fundamental enemy of everything the WE stands for. The dismal (but deeply human) notion that every gain must have a paired loss. That a “trade-off” between security and freedom, or between privacy and all that cool-stuff available online, cannot be evaded, and therefor we must choose the painful righteousness of the writer’s simplistic prescription.

Let me reiterate. The Enlightenment’s fecundity at problem solving came from refusing dichotomies… like the insane “left-right axis” that has lobotomized politics everywhere.Only people who decide that we can have our cake and eat it and share it with the poor and see the cake thereupon grow… only such people will come up with enough innovative approaches to get any cake at all.

Only they will save the world.

==Giving up Privacy==

In one of life’s ironies, I am “Mister Transparency…” yet I believe some privacy can and should be preserved. A whole chapter of The Transparent Society is about how the only way we can preserve a little secluded intimacy or confidential sharing may be if we live in a society where most of the people know most of what’s going on, most of the time. Only such openness will stand a chance of deterring snoops and busybodies and peeping toms.

But some folks are far more transparency-radical! They “get” that all of our enlightenment innovations — like science, democracy, markets, justice, art and personal freedom thrive best in light… so they demand that it ALL be laid bare! As a moderate pragmatist (though perhaps a militant one) I find such zero-sum passion unnerving. But such people merit our attention.

In one extreme example…

Noah Dyer, a professor at Tempe’s University of Advancing Technology, wants to “live without privacy for a full year” by paying a camera crew to film him at all times. “The way I see it is that we’re going to lose our privacy, but that’s going to be awesome. The society that most quickly embraces not having any privacy is going to have the biggest evolutionary advantage. All of their citizens are going to be able to act in their own best interest based on totally accurate information.” ( Why We Care About Privacy.)

Dyer is getting a lot of press for a hackneyed and simplistically predictable stunt that we’ve actually seen before… posting online absolutely everything about his life, from his email passwords to bathroom breaks and sex.

Pardon me for yawning, but if you expect “Mr. Transparency” to get excited about this, either way, sorry about that. Likewise the frantic, “danger, Will Robinson!” hysterics of this reporter who writes about Dyer, in the Atlantic. Please.

== More zero-sum contempt ==

TheCircleMuch attention has also been given to Dave Eggers’s book — The Circle — portraying a future in which Dyer’s view is dominant and the plot-propelling oppressive nosiness comes not from a single Big Brother state but from millions of insatiably nosy little brothers, nagging and judging and chivvying those who seem reluctant to “share everything.” Most people don’t realize that this failure mode… and not an orwellian state … is the scenario taking place in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” In the Eggers book, his heroes desperately seek a little privacy or space to be themselves, to be unique and autonomous human beings.

Of course, this zero-sum, either-or kind of thinking is poisonous. It is just as oversimplifying as any would-be tyrannical system, clothing itself in sanctimony, by portraying an “opposite” that can be nothing but vile. A strawman that Eggers sets up in order to be knocked down.

In fact, We do not have to choose between triplet fangs: Big Brother surveillance or stripped-naked little-brother coveillance, or (heaven forbid) the MYOB (mind your own business) rage of privacy “defenders” who just play into Big Brother’s hands, by denouncing cartoon versions of transparency.

In fact, the society of nosy jerks portrayed in The Circle will not happen, because your neighbors would hate it just as much as you hate the thought of it! Eggers’s portrayal of his fellow humans and citizens is depressing not because it might come true, but because Eggers and the critics who praise him actually seem to believe (in their sanctimony) that their neighbors would put up with such a world… instead of using transparency and openness to catch the voyeurs and say “hey man! Back off.”

Well, well. Perhaps they are members of a different species than you and me.

== More shallow privacy articles ==

Is there anyone out there even slightly interested in probing this important matter with nuance and a positive-sum frame of mind? Maybe suggesting ways we that can win-win?

Jacob Morgan’s rather shallow article in Forbes suggests that “Privacy Is Completely And Utterly Dead, And We Killed It” — without contemplating at all whether there are types of privacy, and whether some kinds might be protected, even enhanced, in a mostly transparent world, wherein we are empowered to watch the watchers and to catch the peeping toms.

As I mentioned, in the Guardian, Alex Preston falls into the same zero-sum thinking: “Google knows what you’re looking for. Facebook knows what you like. Sharing is the norm, and secrecy is out. But what is the psychological and cultural fallout from the end of privacy?”

At least a little better than those dismal jeremiads… read the article: Why We Care About Privacy. And yes, my positive-sum temperament makes me believe we can gain the advantages of a transparent society without going this far, still, it is a refreshing contrast against the usual zero sum reaction to the info-age… railing laments and demands for levels of privacy that only ever existed in our minds, plus shrilly silly-unrealistic demands that the mighty “stop looking at me!”

As if such wailings ever stood the slightest chance of working. We will never blind the eyes above us. But we still have a chance to strip them naked. And look back.

== Can we see what’s watching us? ==

mann-computer-visionTo illustrate how pervasive omni-veillance is becoming…. Computer vision is embedded in toilets, urinals, hand- wash faucets, as well as those domes in the ceilings that monitor you in buildings like banks and casinos (and soon everywhere.) Now, sousveillance maven and Toronto professor Steve Mann has a fascinating paper describing methods to easily reveal the scanning field of such visual sensing systems: The Sightfield: Visualizing Computer Vision, and seeing its capacity to “see:”

“Moving a wand through space, while tracking its exact 3D position, makes visible the otherwise invisible “rays of sight” that emanate from cameras. This capacity to sense, measure, and visualize vision, is useful in liability, insurance, safety, and risk assessment, as well as privacy/priveillance assessment, criminology, urban planning, design, and (sur/sous)veil lance studies.”

Mann concludes, “The device may be used cooperatively, e.g. by a user or owner of a surveillance system to visualize the efficiency of their own cameras, or uncooperatively, as a video “bug sweeper” which uses video feedback to detect a hidden surveillance or sousveillance.”

There is hope. If we insist on a general ability to see, that will include the ability to spot voyeurs. If we start designing systems right, then we will be able to do what assertively brave humans have always been able to do, when some busybody stares. Tell them: “Hey bub…. back off.”
POSTSCRIPT: Following up from last time.

America’s police departments need greater accountability—and it must come from outside the forces.

Yes… though with less sanctimony. Do this progressively, pragmatically, irresistibly, with some sympathy for the 85% of cops who are sincerely trying to do a really, really hard job.

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Citizen Communications and Citizen Power

If you push long and hard enough for something that is logical and needed, a time may come when it finally happens! At which point – pretty often – you may have no idea whether your efforts made a difference. Perhaps other, influential people saw the same facts and drew similar, logical conclusions! Here is the latest example of this happening to me:

CITIZEN-POWER“Qualcomm and other wireless companies have been working on a new cellular standard—a set of technical procedures that ensures devices can “talk” to one another—that will keep the lines open if the network fails. The Proximity Services, or so-called LTE Direct, standard will be approved by the end of the year.”

This technology, which would allow our pocket radios to pass along at-minimum basic text messages, on a peer-to-peer basis (P2P), even when the cell system is down, would seem to be the obvious backup mode that we all might rely upon, in emergencies. Indeed, failure of cell service badly exacerbated the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and Tsunami Fukushima. I have been hectoring folks about this since 1995, when I started writing The Transparent Society, and in annual speeches/consultations with various agencies and companies, back east, ever since.

ua93-terror Indeed, it was access to communications that enabled New Yorkers to show the incredible citizen resilience that Rebecca Solnit portrays so well in her book A Paradise Made in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Communications enabled the brave passengers of flight UA 93 to “win” the War on Terror, the very day that it began.

A few years after brainstorming with some engineers at Qualcomm, I learned that company was charging ahead with LTE direct, installing it in their chip sets, whether or not AT&T and Verizon decided to activate it. In emergencies, phones that use it will be able to connect directly with one another over the same frequency as 4G LTE transmissions. Users will be able to call other users or first responders within about 500 meters. If the target is not nearby, the system can relay a message through multiple phones until it reaches its destination.

When it is fully operational, the benefits will become apparent. A more robust, resilient and agile civilization will be more ready for anything that might come.

== Phones & Protest ==

Last year, largely unheralded by media, saw the most important civil liberties decision in thirty years, when the courts and the Obama Administration separately declared it to be “settled law” that citizens have a right to record their interactions with police, in public places. There will be tussles over the details for years, as discussed here. And here.

EFF-CELL-PHONE-GUIDE-PROTESTThose tussles could be hazardous! The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a guide to using cell phones if you are going to a protest or other zone of potentially tense interaction with police.

Good, practical advice. I have long urge folks to join EFF as one of their dozen or so “proxy power associations.” I do not always agree with them! But that doesn’t matter as much as ensuring that they — and the ACLU, etc — remain out there and untrammeled.

For more on your right and duty to join orgs that give your voice see: Proxy Power…

== and in related news… ==

Taser International (TASR), which makes the most widely used police body cameras, increased its bookings for its video unit almost twofold last quarter, signing deals with the police departments of Winston-Salem, N.C., Spartanburg County, S.C., and San Diego. The company provides both hardware and data services related to the cameras and now works with 20 major cities in one capacity or another.

body-mounted-camera-policeGroups that would normally be skeptical of authorities videotaping everything support the idea of camera-equipped cops. The American Civil Liberties Union published a white paper last year supporting the use of the cameras. “Everybody wishes right now there was a video record of what happened,” says Jay Stanley, the author of the ACLU’s paper, referring to the Ferguson shooting.

“While no technical solution would eliminate misconduct completely, cameras do seem as if they could help reduce the legal bill. A study published last April showed that complaints against police dropped 88 percent in Rialto, Calif., after that city began randomly assigning officers to wear body cameras. At the same time, use-of-force incidents dropped 59 percent,” writes Joshua Brustein: In Ferguson’s Aftermath, Will Police Adopt Body Cameras?

armed-with-camerasSee how this was forecast — pretty much all of it — in The Transparent Society.  What will happen when both cops and the citizens they stop are armed with cameras, all the time?

Better safety, better law, less injustice… but it will also be the dawn of the Golden Age of Sarcasm.

 

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Super space drives? Io volcanoes! Adolescent brains… and more science!

IMPOSSIBLE-SPACE-DRIVEHave you heard the stories about this supposed reactionless drive, “unveiled” at a NASA conference in Ohio? I’ve put in a query to Geoff Landis – NASA scientist and renowned SciFi author, who promised to watch developments and give us the straight dope… or poop.   To be clear, there are some places where we already can do a version of this — turn solar energy directly into motion, without using reaction mass or rocketry — e.g. by applying electrodynamic tethers to leverage against the Earth’s magnetic field…

…but only where there is an electron rich zone like the Van Allen belts to close the circuit loop. Interestingly, electomagnetic tethers work in exactly the realm you must climb through before deploying a solar sail. ( See this process illustrated in both my short story “Tank Farm Dyamo” and in the first chapter of EXISTENCE, which I read aloud for you, here.)

Meanwhile. NASA released high-quality footage of their experiment in near-space in June, deploying the agency’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) and experimental parachute systems that will be helpful in maneuvers and landings near planets, like Mars. Way cool footage!

ioOh but we really need to get out there! Dig this — “Within a two-week period in August 2013, astronomers observed three massive volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io. The grand finale was an eruption they say was one of the brightest volcanic eruptions ever observed in our solar system. These astronomers are speculating that these eruptions on Io – which can send material hundreds of miles above the little moon’s surface – might be much more common than they previously thought.”

We should have a satellite observatory in-residence above Jupiter, permanently.

Meanwhile, researchers have found a microbial menagerie that thrives in tiny water worlds floating in oily tar pits ... perhaps a model for life on Titan?

== Biology R-us ==

 biology-r-usIt seems brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence.

Google and Novartis announced that they’re teaming up to develop smart contact lenses that monitor glucose levels and automatically adjust their focus. Such “prototype lenses contains a device about the size of a speck of glitter that measures glucose in tears. A wireless antenna then transmits the measurements to an external device. It’s designed to ease the burden of diabetics who otherwise have to prick their fingers to test their blood sugar levels.”

Also possible: drug delivery, night vision, glaucoma testing, and later full immersion VR/AR.

You’ve heard about this second hand… now the science of how the adolescent brain differs and grows. This fascinating article, Dude Where’s My Frontal Cortex, by Robert Sapolsky tracks the last part of us to develop, the prefrontal lobes responsible for planning and impulse control. A thorough, insightful, compassionate and well-written piece.

Earth, by David BrinAlso, it seems that the model of “competitive neuron development” that I wrote about in EARTH (1989) is now viewed as standard biological fact. Astrocytes — a type of glial cell traditionally thought to provide more of a support role in the brain are now seen as critical for some forms of memory, such as object recognition. Terrence Sejnowski, head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute, has led this effort. Without astrocyte-driven “gamma waves” mice were unable to recognize that objects are novel in their environment. Even more interesting are the techniques that the Salk folks use to subtly turn these activities on and off, in the brain.

The parts of North America with the greatest diversity of species of birds? Get ready for a shock.

No worries? Fish seem to flourish on anti-anxiety drugs being flushed down to our oceans.

By analyzing the brainwaves of just 16 individuals as they watched mainstream television content, researchers were able to accurately predict the preferences of large TV audiences. 

Um… “Testosterone decreases the ability of the frontal cortex to communicate with and rein in the amygdala.” No kidding?

 

== Tech and Engineering ==

Regarding a longstanding complaint over a lack of reliable-easy access to entry-level (and universal) programming languages… from my famous “Why Can’t Johnny Code?” essay… the makers of Scratch have now come up with ScratchJr, aiming it squarely at kids in the 5-7 year old range. Interesting.

INFRASTRUCTUREA fascinating rumination on future Infrastructure… major projects that might consume (and be well-worth) hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, and returning far, far more in benefits, By Futurist Thomas Frey. Though he left out half a dozen that I mention in EARTH, alone!

 Five “next” technologies. For example: DARPA researchers have fabricated a prototype with three gyroscopes, three accelerometers and a highly accurate master clock on a chip that fits easily on the face of a penny.

NEXT-TECH.JPNow, a new catalytic system for converting carbon dioxide (CO2) to methanol — a key commodity used to create a wide range of industrial chemicals and fuels. You still need a source of hydrogen, so energy must be put in, upstream, by splitting water… another area of developing research.

Researchers at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology, and Pennsylvania State University have developed a 3D printing process that transitions from one metal or alloy to another in a single object.

Sci-Fi-novels-science.jpgAnd finally… here are Ten Sci Fi Novels that will make you more passionate about science! Glad to be included — with my novel, The Practice Effect.

Pessimists are fools.

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Ways to make civilization robust

resilienceThe resilience of our entire civilization is increasingly reliant on a fragile network of cell phone towers, which are the first things to fail in any crisis, e.g. a hurricane or other natural disaster… or else deliberate (e.g. EMP or hacker) sabotage.

I have been nagging about this for almost two decades. My recommendation — offered to national and corporate leaders since 1995? That our pocket phones should have a backup communication mode that is peer-to-peer, that could pass messages from phone to phone through any afflicted area until they reach a zone with cell service, at which point the messages would spill into the continental network.

This would be frightfully easy to accomplish, especially for simple text messages. In fact, the technology has been incorporated in Qualcomm’s latest chip sets. Though the major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc — have all refused to activate it. This despite the fact that they would be perfectly free to bill for any P2P-passed messages — that’s easy. For years I asked national officials to require this backup, as a matter of overall robustness and public safety. Access to working phones made the biggest difference between two disasters… 9/11 – “the Day of the Citizen,” when average folks were able to self-organize and step up – vs the calamitous collapse of civilization during and after Hurricane Katrina.

P2PNow comes terrific news. “Qualcomm and other wireless companies have been working on a new cellular standard—a set of technical procedures that ensures devices can “talk” to one another—that will keep the lines open if the network fails. The Proximity Services, or so-called LTE Direct, standard will be approved by the end of the year.”

I am tempted to proclaim that “nagging eventually pays off!” But of course, there are lots of smart people out there who could see the same things that I did. When I gave a talk at Qualcomm about similar ideas, some years ago, I described how simple it would be to do this with packets, like text messages. The next time I spoke to some of their managers, I was stunned to learn they had not only made great strides in Peer to Peer, but were proposing a version that could even do P2P for real-time voice communication! Now that’s some ingenuity. That’s some company.

== Hey, you, get offa that cloud ==

cloud-dataOh, but trends are far worse on the business side of the Internet. Any company (or person) who tries to be “efficient” by entrusting crown jewel data to the Cloud has got to be crazy. Take this from Mark Anderson, one of the smartest tech-industry pundits:

“There are two chilling trends in Internet security that were underlined this week with the announcement by Hold Security of a Russian crime ring taking around 1.2 billion user names and password combinations from perhaps 420,000 different hacked websites. The first is a ramping of theft success on all scores, from personal IDs to nations stealing crown jewel intellectual property, which simply can no longer be tolerated if innovation and commerce are to continue. 

“The second is a massive movement to cloud computing, driven by financial requirements rather than security requirements, at a time when our internal sources indicate that clouds have already been hacked.”

disparity-transparency-brinThis is related to a another point I’ve made since 1995… and in The Transparent Society… that everything leaks, sooner or later. And we are better off making ourselves and our systems robust, able to shrug off and adapt to this inevitability, than whining and thrashing about, expecting the next “security” measure to work, at last.

It is disparities in transparency that threaten the health of freedom, markets, science and civilization.

Remember this.  Most villains (just like vampires) are fatally allergic to light.  Hence, the trick will be to expose them to it!  Lots of it. The solution is not to cower in the few remaining shadows hoping for concealment.  They are better at that, than you and I are. 

villains-light

== Transparency-related news ==

Here’s an algorithm that could use Facebook Likes alone to reliably determine six million users’ private traits like their sexual orientation, IQ, religious beliefs, life satisfaction, and personality traits—even when the Likes seemingly had nothing to do with the traits in question. Do not get outraged. This is absolutely inevitable! What you can do is shift your passion over to sousveillance.

DRONES-SURVEILLANCEAnother insightful article explores the many potential advantages, when civilians become empowered to fly their own drones. The ability to independently verify events, ensure accountability for public officials and police, provide situational awareness, deliver or fetch important items…. Yes there will be privacy concerns. But how better to catch that neighborhood voyeur than with a drone of your own, so that you can track the peeping tom and tell his mom!

And in the category of how do you plan to stop this? “By 2010, license-plate scanners had become standard equipment for most urban repo firms, and the number of plates stored in national databases was growing by tens of millions a month. … The richer the data gets, the easier it is to make predictions about a driver’s home address, workplace, gym, or favorite restaurant. Digital Recognition Network (DRN) has one of the largest plate-capture databases in the country, with a fleet of more than 2,000 affiliated trucks and upwards of 1.8 billion scans.”

omniveillanceAnswer: Any attempt to repress this – or face recognition – will only ensure that elites still have this power — governments, corporations, criminals — but such laws will make sure you and I have no access.   They will become gods and we will be permanent peasants. If this is inevitable, then let us all see. And then let’s learn – because of that light – to leave each other alone.

Oh, but then… artists are putting into practice my point about rendering surveillance visible to the rest of us. Some very interesting… and pointedly clever… innovations.

And finally, here’s something that’s simultaneously funny and deeply, deeply offensive. But also a clever way for a company to make its point… and that means it is likely they were all actors, after all, invalidating the whole thing. All told, a clever META view of where we are heading in the VR/AR holodeck world. Faked nuclear war….

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Glimpses of a rapidly changing world

== An alternative to both Bicoin and fiat money ==

DIGITAL-CURRENCY-REPUTATIONA Digital Currency Based on a Person’s Reputation - J. Chris Anderson wants to create a new kind of digital coin that could replace government “fiat” money or nerd-crypto money like Bitcoin, by going to the most human fundamental — reputation.

I admit, I’ve toyed with that concept for a very long time. In both fiction and some of my patents, I have suggested ways that reputation management might move up from the stone and middle ages. In this case, Anderson’s Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order. And each unit of currency created using Document Coin could have different values in different situations. “‘For example, the coin my disco singer friend created and gave me at my barbeque might be what gets me past the rope at the club,’ Anderson says. A coin minted by tech pundit Tim O’Reilly might be highly prized in Silicon Valley circles, but of little interest to musicians. ‘It’s a bit like a combination of a social network with baseball trading.’”

Indeed, very interesting.  The article is rather vague on many points.  It appears as if the coin is based on only upon the original issuers reputation but –like a gold-backed currency — something of real value.  The issuer’s promise to let you into the club, for example. Or my promise to name a character after you in a book.

great-explosionThis makes the coin like an “ob” or an “obligation” from an Eric Frank Russell novel, in which person A owes person B a favor, but person Be owes person C, so B hands the Ob over to C and now person A must help C in some way.  If the coin system were truly massive, some farmer who is paid with a pile of these Ob-Reputation coins would let his computer find the folks out there who most want to be named in my book and who most want to attend a gig at the club, and the ons would finally come around, full circle and be paid in something tangible (or in fiat-money).

With sufficiently smart web computing, such a system might work, if the reputation system were VERY good so that I could issue naming right as currency to pay any debt, even my gas bill, because the gas company would know that the circle will eventually close.

It is something being tried in reality… that is the stuff of a sci fi novel.

On the other hand… this may be the dawning of the Age of….

The DEA is now asking the Food and Drug Administration to remove marijuana from its list of the most dangerous and harmful drugs. And early tentative outcomes from Colorado’s legalization of MJ seem positive. An important trend, which is happening (so far) only in Blue States. The greatest benefit of all will be the undermining of the prohibition-driven underground economy in illegal cannabis. We need to get the same effect – though more carefully and with calibrated innovations – to wipe out illicit markets for other, far worse drugs. (See one reason: Pablo Escobar’s hippos are now running wild in Colombia.

While any tapering if the insane Drug War is welcome, this glowing article may be overlooking the one problem that I forecast long ago. There is one unambiguously well-proved harmful effect of marijuana. It should be on our minds and on our lips, when we talk to our kids. Except in very controlled moderation… it is an antidote to ambition.

== Fun Cinema == 

Lego-movieI liked the LEGO Movie. It seemed time to finally see it, since our son now works (for the summer) at Legoland. Many rave about the snappy dialogue, which I found amusing and above average… though not epochal. The visuals were cool and cute, of course, and the story diverting enough to hold onto all ages.

As many of you know, my own little obsession, in critically appraising cinema, has to do with whether the drama is tritely simplistic or somewhat original… e.g. featuring a villain whose motives are at least contextually understandable… or whether the story is just one more “idiot plot” – based on the tedious assumption that civilization is futile and our fellow citizens are sheep. Refreshingly, the LEGO Movie starts with the notion that – despite problems like excess conformity, and villainous conformity-promoters – people and society aren’t hopeless.

SOA-ROCYes, yes, the “be original” and “be suspicious of authority” (SoA) and “rejection of conformity” (RoC) messages are pretty darn common in media — so common that most of you probably never notice them and think you invented SoA, instead of growing up steeped in SoA. Still, to see the Lego Company mock their own Instruction Manual Culture, in praise of free-form creativity, was kinda cool. And I always get a kick out of it when – as happens in every Spiderman flick – average citizens take on a vital and major plot-role in saving the day.

Just remember — everything is awesome!

== Items! ==

1. “An interesting development in the chess world of recent years is that human-computer teams, in which a grandmaster is aided by a program, have tended to be stronger than either humans or computers playing alone.”  – Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan?

changing-culture-map

2 See Humanity’s cultural spread, illustrated in video mapping births & deaths, over centuries.

3. Supernatural collective nouns: a clamor of clones, a clangor of robots, a yard-sale of androids…the Borg.

4. Ten scientific images that changed how we look at the world.

5. Hilariously well-done urban rebel-art pasted into select spots on the London Underground. I am stodgy enough to dislike a few of these handsomely official-looking signs… those that might confuse a rider and make her miss a stop. But the rest are marvelous. Punishable, of course. But guerrilla art is about willingness to pay for it.

== on target humor ==

HADramamine — the miracle drug we all need! See why.

For insight into the science of humor, see HA! The Science of Why We Laugh and Why? by Scott Weems.

Okay, maybe its a guy thing… and these fellows had too much time on their hands.  But I’m proud of em!

Funny! What if movies had been made earlier, with different stars? Movies Reimagined for another time and place: Volume 1. If you enjoy that, try Volume 2 and Volume 3.

Assholes: The Theory: Philosopher (not-proctologist) Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole.James proposes a theory of assholes (a person is an asshole when his sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people) that explains not only why assholes are a vital part of human society, but also how to recognize them and coexist with them.”

==The Fourteenth Year==

FEAR-FOUR Michael Nelson – one of the unsung heroes of our Internet Age – wrote to me with a story that riff’d off my article about the “Fourteenth Year”… my assertion that the last several centuries began exhibiting their true themes on 14 years after their calendar beginnings.

Said Mike: “I was talking to a Chinese-American woman. She asked, “Why is the world falling apart?” I said, “1914, 1814, etc.” She told me that makes a lot of since to her. Apparently, to the Chinese, the number 14 is considered at least as unlucky as 13 is in Western cultures. In Chinese, the word for “fourteen” sound like the phrase “sure dead.” Some Chinese buildings don’t have a 14th floor, or fourth floors, for that matter.”

It’s called tetraphobia. And it shows that some take seriously my assertion that all changes with the 14th year.

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Space Marvels

Space-News-3DJust a spacey set of cool miscellany items this time… about… space!

Here is a terrifically concise and persuasive animation about one of the bases for orbital mechanics — explaining why you must have several images of an asteroid, against the starry background, in order to determine its orbit.

Modeling the universe, starting with the Big Bang, only became possible with the advent of supercomputers, fantastic software and the realization of the existence of mysterious dark matter. Combining all of these resulted in what may be one of the great scientific achievements of our time – a model that portrays the Bang, then natural evolution into the cosmos we see today, with the same array of numbers of sizes and types of galaxies. If verified, it is a stunning validation of our current models and our growing ability as simulators… then creators?… in our own right.

NASA’s Kepler mission has found a planet roughly the same size as Earth, orbiting the “Goldilocks” or potentially habitable zone near an M-class (small-red) sun, about 500 light years from our system.   I’ll be very interested to see if calculations show it likely to be tidal-locked. In any event, we have a good target for the next generation of planet-studying telescopes.

Meanwhile, computer models indicate that having a companion planet may increase the chance of life on earth-sized planets.

Comet_close-up_node_full_image_2The European Space Agency’s elderly comet-hunting Rosetta satellite woke up from hibernation on Jan. 20. After a decade-long journey the satellite is approaching its target, comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and has sent back photos of the comet.

 

==Interstellar Relations==

Anthropologist Cameron Smith suggests that any interstellar colony starship would have to carry a minimum of 10,000 people to secure success on a genetic basis… assuming no further replenishment of breeding stock from Earth. This conflicts with University of  Florida’s John Moore who, in 2002, figured only 150 people might bring enough diversity for a viable gene pool. One wonders how much this is altered if you can bring frozen sperm, ova and even embryos.

Pope Francis would absolutely baptize an alien from Mars, if one showed up at the Vatican and asked for it. “If God prompts some Martians to come to Earth, find the Pope, and say “we want in on this Catholicism thing.” The pope would probably say “OK. cool.” But probably in Latin,” says The Wire.

lewis-out-silent-planetIs this really true? “Creationist Ken Ham has said that the U.S. space program is a waste of money because any alien life that scientists found would be damned to hell.” So much for the thoughtful Christian theological musings about other life and possible other redemptions, by solid minds like C.S. Lewis.

Ah but then televangelist Pat Robertson shockingly has urged Young Earth Christians to can it. “We’ve got to be realistic that the dating of Bishop Ussher just doesn’t comport with anything that’s found in science,” Robertson continued, “and you can’t just totally deny the geological formations that are out there.” Dang. It’s enough to make one believe in miracles.

 

==Back to Earth…and Mars==

Zircons are our probes into the very earliest days of Planet Earth. Now – in Australia – one was found with an age of 4.4 billion years. It cooled just 100 million years after the planet formed! Amazing implications.

NASA-stereo A new analysis of data from NASA’s Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) shows that a July 2012 solar storm of unprecedented size would have wiped out global electronic systems if it had occurred just nine days earlier. At long last, some of the powers in our protector caste are starting to take this kind of thing seriously. But in time?

Photographer David A. Kodama took this composite image capturing the unmanned, next-generation Falcon 9 rocket launch trajectory as it blasted off from the SpaceX launch pad at Vandenberg, Sept 29.

Those Norwegian skydivers who “caught” a “meteorite” falling past them? All of my instincts told me… no way, man. And now it seems more likely I was right. Some possibilities often seem too cool to be plausible. Stay skeptical, my friends.

mars-up-closeThe Curiosity Rover has completed two years roving over the surface of Mars. For a collection of stunning images, take a look at Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission, by Mark Kaufman. Meanwhile, NASA is planning for its next rover — the Mars2020 mission.

Here’s a Kickstarter project worth checking out. “Shrox” wants to fund production of a calendar of art depicting the settlement of Mars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The True Origins of the American Revolution

A few weeks ago, I was a keynote speaker at Freedom Fest, the big libertarian convention in Las Vegas. Do I seem an odd choice, given my past thorough and merciless dissections of Ayn Rand?

COMPETITION-1In fact I’ve done this before, showing up to suggest that a movement claiming to be all about freedom might want to veer away from its recent, mutant obsession — empowering and enabling the kind of owner-oligarchy that oppressed humanity all across the last 6000 years. Instead, I propose going back to a more healthy and well-grounded libertarian rootstock — encouraging the vast creative power of open-flat-fair competition

…a word that libertarians scarcely mention, anymore. Because it conflicts fundamentally with their current focus — promoting inherited oligarchy.

With that impudent, contrary attitude, would you believe I had a fine and interesting time? My son and I dined at the VIP table with publishing magnate and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Along with humorist P. J. O’Rourke and John Mackey (Whole Foods and an avid SciFi reader.) Also at the table? Grover (I kid you not) Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a guiding force beyond the American right’s current-central obsession — that government of/by/for the people must perish from the Earth.

Would you be surprised that I was the most-liberal voice at this gathering? And yes, I managed to poke without being rude. (I’ve been known to poke in other directions, too!) See an addendum, below, offering more about the Freedom Fest event.

Foremost, though, I want to focus one piece of polemic that Grover Norquist thrust upon us over dinner, concerning the origins of the American Revolution.

 

== It’s not easy being green ==

TEA-TAXESGrover N. asserted that, in 1770, the British people put up with being taxed above a 20% rate, while folks in the colonies were taxed at roughly 2% of their average income. Yet, those colonists reacted fiercely and rebelled when/because they saw that burden doubled to 4%!

What an interesting assertion! It turns out that the statistics are generally true, that is, when it came to taxes passed by Parliament – though Mr. Norquist leaves out levies enacted separately by colonial legislatures. But my real quibble concerns which word is correct in the preceding paragraph: “when” or “because.” 

Norquist says “because.” Implying that American colonists – unique by their irascibly independent nature – were eager to shuck all old loyalties, to risk hanging, to endure devastating war and deprivation, because 4% was beyond all forbearance. And therefore, today’s American populace, enduring many times that rate of taxation must be inferior, devolved creatures, unworthy of such a founding generation.

May I be frank? That assertion is utter, howling malarkey. In fact, the Founder generation in the 1770s was willing to pay many times as much tax, if only they were treated as full citizens, with representation. The Tea and Stamp and other taxes were convenient ignition sparks, But the fuel for a real fire was far more significant.

 

==  True Grievances Behind the American Revolution ==

The American Revolution serves as a Rorschach test that reflects the obsessions of each succeeding generation. In the 1920s, Marxist notions of class struggle dominated and thus even anti-communist historians viewed the rebellion as a phase shift from monarchal domination to empowerment of the bourgeoisie. In the forties, this seemed hackneyed and literalist scholars started instead taking the Founders at their word — that the Revolution was an idealistic exercise in limiting the scope of government.

During the cynical 1960s, fashions changed again, to viewing the rebellion as a manipulative putsch that allowed local gentry — the caste of Washington and Jefferson — to displace others at the top of the heap. A lateral coup, with just enough populism to keep the middle class placid.

Peoples-historyWhat these generations of scholars all seemed to agree upon was that the colonists weren’t rebelling over the raw magnitude of taxes. Indeed, many expressed puzzlement that there were any grievances worth fighting and dying over! Certainly it all seemed rather far-fetched, given how comfortable life had been for most American colonists, especially compared to the mountain of crimes committed against the people of France, by the Bourbon ancien regime.

In fact, despite the hairsplitting obsessions of academic scholars — and the puerile tendency of textbooks and politicians to mention only tea and stamp taxes — it is pretty clear in historical records that the colonists revolted for a host of genuine grievances:

  1. Monopolies such as the East India Company had been granted exclusive trading rights, cutting out American merchants, funneling commerce through ports and markets controlled by the top one hundred British families — the one-percent or one-percent of one-percent. Colonial goods had to be carried in cartel ships, and sold through cartel agents. Thus Americans were viewed as cash machines for the Crown and nobles. Those who had the gold, made the rules, and those rules ensured they would get more, an ancient and deeply human pattern that Adam Smith denounced with the publication of Wealth of Nations, in 1776.
  1. The insanely destructive 1764 Currency Act, which forbade the colonies from issuing paper currency and required use only of coinage released by the cartel, in London. This devastated the velocity of money, making it difficult for colonists to pay their debts and taxes, even if they had plenty of non-liquid wealth, and forcing thousands into bankruptcy. Contemporary accounts tell that until the 1764 law, you could scarcely find a jobless or poor person in British America.  After the colonies were banned from printing money, the economy tanked. Suddenly there were homeless and beggars everywhere.

That’s a helluva lot less abstract than a tax on tea. Alas though, it does not suit the tea-party narrative. Note also that there has always been an obsession, in society’s aristocratic class, with lowering the velocity of money, a policy that always devastates the middle class.

3) Almost half of the land in the colonies was owned by absentee lords. The main reason Franklin was sent to London (around 1760) was to attempt persuading the Penn family (also later the Baltimores and other members of the aristocratic cartel) to allow themselves to be taxed, even at very low rates, so that the colonies could function. Their refusal to contribute (based on ancient feudal privilege) was identical to the rigid stance of the aristocratic First Estate in 1789 France. The “legal” basis was exactly the same.

(Note: those French nobles lost their heads because they clutched obstinate, unreasoning greed. In contrast, the Penns/Baltimores and other lordly families with vast American holdings merely lost their lands, which the Founders seized and redistributed, like the “socialists” they were! 

(Hence let me put a side wager on the table: care to bet how the Kochs/Murdochs will behave, as they push exactly the same privilege-line to its inevitable conclusion? Never tax the “job creators!” Which of those two outcomes is likely to befall them, when that propaganda line finally loses its distraction effectiveness and America’s lower middle class remembers their grandparents’ tales of earlier phases of class warfare? Will the final outcome be the French result? Or the American? Either way, these fellows are nowhere near as smart as they think they are.)

4) Coming in at number four, at last: taxation without representation! Yes, it is the classic. Only let’s dive deeper into this one, because true history is nothing like what we’re told by the Norquist/Teaparty narrative.

TAXES-REVOLTThe British Parliament was at that time hugely “gerrymandered,” to apply a modern term. There were many Rotten Burroughs where a lord and a few dozen tenants got to elect their own MP, while the masses in Birmingham and London were steeply under-represented… and Americans had no representation at all. Reforming this mess (it eventually happened) would have prevented the explosion, keeping the colonies loyal. But it would also hurt the short-term self-interest of those lords and MPs. So, the blatantly unjust system was maintained and American grievance ignored.

Did you catch the parallel? Today’s Republican Party relies utterly upon two kinds of gerrymandering. In red state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, it is the blatant twisting of electoral districts. (Some blue states do it, too, but more of them are abandoning the foul practice; not one red state has.)

In the U.S. Senate, gerrymandered-unfair representation is even more deeply embedded. It derives from the cynical drawing of state boundaries, so that — for example — Dakota Territory was split in two and given four Senators, despite having minuscule population, then and now. That problem is much harder to fix and must await a truly angry era – one that is evidently coming.

unfair-representationAn aside: just to make this perfectly clear — anyone defending this wretched cheat (gerrymandering) is – himself – thus proved to be a cheater and liar and an enemy of the Republic. There is no matter of ambiguity or opinion over that. No rationalization to save you from what you see in the mirror. Reform will happen (as it eventually came to the British Parliament, after the damage was done). Those who delay reform of this dastardly practice are little better than thieves, and stupid ones, blind to how much worse they are only making the inevitable backlash.

The crux: you claim the American people despise their government and taxation? How about letting our elections be fair and proportionately representative, then let the people decide.

5) British laws against settlement beyond the Appalachians. At surface, this rule was to protect native tribes. Indeed, resentment against this restriction, particularly by Scots-Irish immigrants, arose because they wanted to go over the mountains to grab farmland from peoples already living there. But the Crown and Lords weren’t doing this to be nice to the tribes. They had a real problem on their hands.

The frontier provided an easy haven to which tenant farmers, indentured servants and slaves might flee, and/or remake themselves. That escape option – unavailable in old Europe – made it very hard to maintain a bottom-caste peasantry. For all its faults, the frontier forged the deeply libertarian American soul.

(Again… I am talking about older libertarianism… not the weirdly-mutated thing the movement has become.)

Note that factor #5  came to roost in two of the most important battles of the Revolution, King’s Mountain and Cowpens, when those Scots-Irish frontiersmen bloodied Cornwallis and helped take back the South from Charleston tories. (Note to nation. Please, next time, let Charleston secede!)

EGALITARIANISM6) Egalitarianism. Some historians anchor the American Revolution upon a single day, when Ben Franklin was summoned before the King’s Privy Council for a public berating and humiliation… the day that the smartest man in a century was converted from an impudent-but-loyal subject into a dedicated conspirator for independence. The colonies were already home to a new spirit and ethos – part cantankerous, part ebullient and hopeful, and part-scientific, with all those portions combining to demand one core question:

Why should I have to bow down, or be bullied, by another mere human… just because of who his father was?”

The irony is rich. Those today citing the Founders most often are folks who are most vigorously helping propel us back into a world of inherited status, dominated by clans and cartels of aristocratic families.

radical-revolutionIn his book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood emphasizes this aspect, pondering that the new idealism crystallized by Thomas Paine might have built into a breakthrough not seen since Periclean Athens — the invention of the dedicated modern citizen. Wood parses this idealism into many permutations, dissecting variations of republicanism, none of which matter to us here. Suffice it to say that a general quality of fervent belief in a New Man clearly did take hold, taking over from earlier grievances.

61p0XW6DvWLIn Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Princeton professor Danielle Allen ponders every sentence of the seminal American document and sometimes every word, examining five facets that revolve around the notion of political equality, including, as Gordon Wood describes: “the importance of reciprocity or mutual responsiveness to achieving the conditions of freedom.”  In other words, providing the back and forth of accountability that no individual can apply to him or herself.  The reciprocal accountability that was strenuously avoided and quashed by every ruling caste, in almost every other society that ever existed, and that is perpetually under attack, in our own.

Make no mistake. The Charleston tories became Confederate plantation lords, who aimed to re-establish inherited-landed-ownership nobility, the classic human pattern that ruined markets and competition and freedom and social mobility in every society other than ours.

And that torch is now carried by hirelings of a new oligarchy, diverting libertarian passion away from flat-open-fair competition over to worship of absolute property rights, no matter how inherited or how much this re-creates the Olde Order that sparked our Revolution.

History rhymes.

 

== What about hatred of taxation? ==

Were there other reasons for rebellion? Sure. For example, as in all civil wars, many felt their blood boil over local and personal grievances, spurring groups of neighbors to call themselves “tory” or “patriot” while riding forth to settle old scores. But for our purposes here, it suffices to demolish the pat and absurd narrative of today’s right, that the rebellion was all about… or indeed had much of anything to do with… the basic amount of taxation.

Oh, sure, there were earlier versions of Grover Norquist, in those days. But few.

eb0743f468c286572fe8cb3d2b92ae5eFor example, take the Whiskey Rebellion, which is often cited by radical libertarians as a failed but glorious attempt to finish the revolution.

How inconvenient to point out that the Whiskey Rebellion was not against the Whiskey Tax, per se! Rather it expressed resentment that state authorities refused to let farmers pay the tax… in whiskey! Which was their only cash commodity! They had no silver, but were willing to pay… in ‘shine!  (Which was freely traded about as currency, in those days.) Instead, domineering officials demanded coin, and thus bankrupted a number of farmers, driving others into a fury.

(Note the exact parallel with Parliament’s foolish 1764 Currency Act. Indeed, the very same principle was at stake in the much later Free Silver platform of William Jennings Bryan. And it is seen in those who urge us to “return to the gold standard.” Indeed, this same effect is manifest in Congress’s obstinate refusal to fund desperately needed infrastructure repairs that would have employed 100,000 Americans, circulating high velocity money… a far better form of stimulation than the Fed’s bond buying program, whose inefficient “stimulus” poured half a trillion dollars into low-velocity uses, like inflating asset bubbles.  Again and again, the pattern repeats: aristocrats use their political influence to bring down the velocity of money and to beggar the middle class.  An old battle, indeed.)

And yes, that was a case where state bureaucrats were bossy, insensitive, impractical and ruinous of the people they were supposed to serve. I told you, I have a libertarian streak! Government is a perpetual threat to freedom – even if today’s right exaggerates the current danger, a hundred-fold. Sincere civil servants can metastasize into overbearing bureaucrats! It isn’t only oligarchy that threatens us. All accumulations of power must have accountability!

The upshot of the Whiskey Rebellion was that Washington and his troops established the power of the state to tax. But there also ensued hurried changes in law, easing the farmers’ debt crisis, based on a principle we should always remember. That the state’s power should never become destructive of its citizens.

 

== The Underlying Agenda of the Narrative ==

I will hand it to Grover Norquist. He is honest about his goal, which is to starve government, then strangle it and then bury it. (Did I leave out the step of incineration?) He makes no pretense otherwise. Reiterating: Norquist and his co-religionists precisely want “government of the people, by the people, for the people” to perish from the Earth.

Now, as a science fiction author… and as a child of Adam Smith and George Orwell and Robert Heinlein… I openly avow that overweening and over-reaching government can be one of the Great Failure Modes! We need an active libertarian side of the national and world conversation, focusing skepticism on the potential for bureaucrats and armies and police to betray and oppress the citizens who hire them! Just as we need others to remind us that the greatest enemies of markets and enterprise and freedom — across 6000 years — have been cartels of owner-oligarch-lords.

cheatersCheaters can arise from any direction, aiming to end our Great Experiment and return us to the old pyramid of privilege, and it does not matter much if the masters call themselves “civil servants,” “job-creators,” feudal lords or communist commissars. It is the same cheating impulse. And it may erupt straight out of genetic nature. Unless we constantly resist all would-be lords, whatever direction they come from and whatever rationalizations they offer.

Which is why we need moderate libertarians who will constantly demand proof that any statist “solution” will both solve the problem at-hand and not take us toward Big Brother. Just as we need moderate liberals to remind us that the best capitalism is one that is flat-open-transparent and broken into units that are small enough to fail. A capitalism that benefits (as Hayek preached) from maximizing the number of skilled, eager and ready competitors! And hence, a society in which all children grow up healthy, educated, well-fed, hitting age 25 prepared to… compete! From basically equal starting gates. Not based on who their fathers were.

competition(Competition. There’s that word again. If only it were, once again, a libertarian touch stone.)

A plague on both the simplistic, lord-loving entire-right and a patronizingly pushy-PC far-left, both of which despise even the notion of flat-open-fair competition. Indignant dogmas are a plague, crippling our genius at negotiating an agile and sophisticated and wise civilization.

 

== We have a revolution to uphold… ==

As for Grover and his agenda. Sorry. Adam Smith and the Founders knew what our parents and grandparents in the Greatest Generation knew… that a government that is warily watched can serve us. And it can serve as a counterweight to other, older and just-as-dangerous centers of power. We remain free by siccing elites against each other! And that cannot happen if government completely vanishes. Or is neutered.

A lean and leashed government is the only tool citizens have to counterbalance the inevitable cheating by aristocracy that ruined every other human renaissance. Adam Smith And the Founders knew this. Every generation of Americans rebelled against cheaters… generally through calm reforms, but twice violently… though never falling into the intemperate rage of the Russian, French or Chinese revolutions.

Book-Review-The-Greatest-Generation-by-Tom-BrokawAgain I keep coming bcd to the ‘greatest generation‘ — that fought depression and Hitler and made the flattest but most successful capitalist society… one that got rich so fast that it could then afford to start toppling ancient injustices, like racism, sexism and all that. Do you admire that generation?  Well, that ‘greatest generation’ revered and adored one man, above all others. He was the same man that the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation the Koch brothers and Fox News all now want us to call Satan Incarnate.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Who saved America as a flat-fair-open market economy, from monsters of both left and right. And yes, many of FDR’s solutions were not appropriate for our era. I prefer looser approaches, that leverage on the vastly higher levels of education that our tech-savvy populace has achieved — in part because of what the Greatest Generation accomplished.

But I will proudly stand up for the founding father of both liberalism and libertarianism. Adam Smith, author of both Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was almost as smart as Ben Franklin! And both of them proposed that the future will be won by moderate, undogmatic people, who are passionately reasonable!  I relentlessly preach for agile, citizen-level power, a burgeoning Age of Amateurs, for Smart Mob ad hoc networks, and for local action.

I will continue preaching to liberals that they should rediscover their Smithian libertarian side.

Meanwhile, thReclaimAdamSmithough, libertarians, you must stop the ranting and lapel-grabbing dogmas that were spoon-fed to you by “think tanks” operated by a fast-rising caste of oligarchic-feudal cheaters! The great enemy of freedom across 6000 years, returning with a vengeance. Escape your hypnotic, Platonic catechisms and realize… that the true, healthy heart of your movement is far more liberal than you ever realized.

We are still the rebels.  Here is to ongoing, militantly-moderate Revolution, forever

=

See my collected articles: Libertarianism: Finding a New Path. 

 LIbertarianism** NOTES ON THE FESTIVAL: My hosts, Mark & Jo Ann Skousen, were lovely, their Freedom Film Festival was intriguing/challenging, and the evening’s talent show, a libertarian re-telling of Camelot, was a hoot. Oh, and the Janis Joplin impersonator was terrific! Hey, it’s Vegas; you can hire anyone or anything. 

Clearly, the top organizers of FreedomFest wanted to toss a grenade at the Randians and Rothbardians, and I was that grenade! In fact, I found it all very interesting… and proof that I don’t need a political chiropractor! I can turn my head and look all ways, seeking value, and listening well enough to understand what I refute. (Can you?)

 

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More Science: Biology and… Singularity news

Virus-Toxin-Parasite

Time for another science roundup!

==  Toxins, Viruses and Parasites ==

By some estimates, your body houses ten times more bacteria than cells.  But that is only the start of our humiliation! DNA surveys now suggest that humans have thousands of viral species in and on us. Most of them likely coexist within our gut in peace and harmony. This notion – of relatively harmless viruses that therefore have escaped notice by science – has been around a while. It features prominently in my short story “The Giving Plague.

AfterManyLikewise, the importance of the micro-biome – the vast array of symbiotic bacteria living in human bodies, especially the gut, was portrayed vividly in a 1930s novel by Aldous Huxley — After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. But only now are we truly dialing into the importance of what Huxley then called “intestinal flora.” Now read how scientists are at last uncovering hints of huge communities of viruses that lurk below our notice, possibly affecting our health. We have a lot to learn.

You can have  your personal microbiota tested at companies such as uBiome. Seems that that engineered probiotic bacteria (“friendly” bacteria like those in yogurt) in the gut produce a therapeutic compound that inhibits weight gain, insulin resistance, and other adverse effects of a high-fat diet in mice. “Of course it’s hard to speculate from mouse to human.”   In fact, we are finding ever more longevity-related mouse results that have no bearing on humans! Still…

(BTW Huxley’s novel is very good, if perhaps placid by modern tastes. And it turns out on the last page to have been science fiction, all along!  In any event, it should be required reading for singularity-immortality guys and gals.)

== More biology! ==

Shocking” news about electric eels and other voltage producing fish“They’re using the same genetic tools to build their electric organs in each lineage independently.”

Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a single-celled parasite that has infested many modern human societies that keep cats, and as many as 60 million americans. Its subtle effects may include warping personality! (And sometimes physical illness.) Now some researchers claim that TG may be a good model for stimulating the immune system against cancer. Okay. But don’t go rushing to sniff your cat’s litter box. As I said, TG may be doing humanity vast harm by affecting our personalities, exacerbating our rising inability to negotiate and solve problems.  In any event, we see no correlation between TG sufferers and reduced cancer levels. Still, maybe there’s a usable connection. Let’s hope this pans out. Go science.

Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees. And sure, there’s a chilling aspect — which the Greenpeace site very cleverly and chillingly conveys with this creepy satire, reminding us that cautionary criticism is the only way to expose possible errors….

Still, those who deride any and all forms of technological remediation as inherently bad, e.g. that it might reduce the imperative to save real bees, have got something wrong with their perception of human nature. It is possible to move forward in many directions, at once, toward the goal of saving the world. And yes, while top priority goes to reducing our impact-damage and preserving the natural ways. (I am taking part. Having provided bee swarms with makeshift shelters in the past, up on the hill… I’ve now set up a real hive box. If you’ve got a little land… why not?) Still, our worst problem is single-minded monomaniac prescribers, who declare that there is only one, zero-sum, answer to anything. We need to move on all fronts, at once.

amphibians-extinctionYou will spend some time exploring this interesting — and disturbing — graphic: A Disappearing Planet, charting genuses and species bordering on extinction. Amphibians are in real trouble. Heck we all are.

Do offshore wind farms create fecund artificial reefs? Seals who cluster and forage seem to think so.

== Ah… more singularity stuff ==

Hacking-matterAn excellent background article on Programmable Matter, this piece nevertheless commits the typical flaw of ignoring the role that excellent hard science fiction has played in enhancing, exploring and drawing attention to a potentially groundbreaking field. In this case, I highly recommend the works of my colleague Will McCarthy, such as Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages and the Infinite Weightlessness of Programmable Atoms.

Google Glass hack allows brain wave control. An EEG headset can be used to measure when certain parts of the brain show a greater level of activity. Within Google Glass’s “screen” – a small window that appears in the corner of the wearer’s right eye – a white horizontal line is shown. As a user concentrates, the white line rises up the screen. Once it reaches the top, a picture is taken using Glass’s inbuilt camera. So much for the claim that people will always be warned by: “OK Glass, take a picture” – or by seeing the user tapping and swiping on the side of the device. But seriously, you expected that to last? This is the future.

A tech forecast of mine from 20 years ago is coming true today at MIT… a needle table that responds to the user’s motions and emulates him/her in moving objects around.  We aren’t yet at the exercise floor I portrayed in my short story, “NatuLife.” But clearly it is coming.

Smart roofs to help NYC Cops fight crime, via ShotSpotter sensors.

Microsoft Research introduced “Project Adam” AI machine-learning object recognition software at its 2014 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. The goal of Project Adam is to enable software to visually recognize any object .

A California startup is developing flexible, rechargeable batteries that can be printed cheaply on commonly used industrial screen printers.

== And yet more from space! ==

Under ideal conditions, the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be able to detect two kinds of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmospheres of alien worlds, if atmospheric levels were 10 times those on Earth. In other words, if aliens are self-destructive fools, we might catch them during the brief window of time. But only if it is orbiting a very dim star.

UNIVERSE-BUBBLE Is the Universe a Bubble? If two pocket “universes” make physical contact, there are several possibilities. M-brane theorists think the collision would release so much energy that the resulting bang would wipe out any galaxy-style realms that existed before. On the other hand, researchers at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, think the interaction could be mild and show up in the maps we are now making of the microwave background. “We start with a multiverse that has two bubbles in it, we collide the bubbles on a computer to figure out what happens, and then we stick a virtual observer in various places and ask what that observer would see from there.”

Want more about the multiverse? See the Exploring the Multiverse – a talk given by astrophysicists Brian Keating and Andrew Friedman and me, covering the NINE different ways (that we have thought-of, so far) that this cosmos we observe may be just one of many! It took place at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD on July 29.

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Science that threatens… and promises wonders

AI-birthGeorge Dvorsky has a piece on iO9, How Artificial Intelligence Will Give Birth to Itself,  summarizing many of the worrisome aspects of a possible runaway effect, when self-improving artificial intelligences (AI) get faster and faster at designing new and better versions of themselves. A thoughtful reflection on how the Singularity might (or might not) go out of control.

Alas, George left out a process issue that makes all the difference. That issue is Secrecy, which lies at the root of every Michael Crichton science-goes-wrong scenario. (Not one of Michael’s plot drivers would have taken place, if the “arrogant scientists” had done their innovating in the open – as most scientists have been trained to prefer – exposing their new robots/dinosaurs and so on to truly public, error-correcting criticism.)

secrecyEfforts to develop AI that are subject to the enlightenment process of reciprocal scrutiny might see their failure modes revealed and corrected in time. Those that take place in secret are almost one hundred percent guaranteed to produced unexpected outcomes. And most likely dangerous ones.

The worst example of AI research that is secret and extremely well-funded, while creating AI systems that are inherently amoral, predatory and insatiable? It’s a danger that I explore here: Why a Transaction Fee Matters to You. Automated investment programs… of which High Frequency Trading is only one example… represent probably the most dangerous AI research on our planet today.

== But who needs AI, with brainy-folks like this? ==

Closer-To-Truth-David-BrinRobert Kuhn’s television series Closer To Truth “gives you access to the world’s greatest thinkers exploring humanity’s deepest questions. Discover the fundamental issues of existence. Enjoy new ways of thinking. Appreciate diverse views. Witness intense debates. Express your own opinions. Seek your own answers. Get smarter.”

Wow… that’s a pretty hefty promise! So why not check out this fabulous series, now available online? Full disclosure: I contributed a few bits to the program, on topics ranging from cosmology and SETI to religion and ESP.

But scan the impressive lists of other folks, some of them – heck, most of them – way smarter than me! Such as David Deutsch, Freeman Dyson and Francisco Ayala. Mind-blowing stuff.

== We can do that! Should we? ==

SHOULD-WEYou’ve got to wonder why this politically self-destructive course has been chosen.   Perhaps something isn’t being told. China building Dubai-style fake islands in the South China Sea. All in service of asserting extremely aggressive territorial claims.

Also. Dubai is planning the largest indoor theme park in the world, which will be covered by a glass dome that will be open during the winter months. The project will also house the plant’s largest shopping mall with an area of 8 million sq. ft., which will take the form of an extended retail street network. Oil is creating whole climate controlled cities in the middle east, prototypes for space colonies?

Meanwhile, America declines into superstition. Nation apparently believed in Science…at some point. (I guess the Greatest Generation truly was better than us boomers.) 

Stirling cycle engines have long been considered an under-developed opportunity in power generation. Using a closed gas cycle to tap energy from any substantial heat difference, these external combustion devices have been used in spacecraft. They can – at very low maintenance – draw power from burning just about anything.   Now… Segway inventor Dean Kamen thinks his new Stirling Engine will get you off the grid for  under $10,000.

== Physics and astronomy ==

solar-stormA massive solar storm — or Coronal Mass Ejection — barely missed the Earth in 2012. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” physicist Daniel Baker, about the biggest storm in at least 120 years. Looking around and taking prudent precautions in a dangerous universe is what both science fiction and sanity are for. Ostriches who stick their heads in the ground will lose everything.

Long predicted — the Age of Amateurs in astronomy! Astronomers have long known that combining the data from several astrophotographs can reveal dramatically more detail about astrophysical objects. So what will they discover by combining all the astrophotographs on the Web? They’ve developed a system that automatically combines images from the same part of the sky to increase the effective exposure time of the resulting picture. And they say the combined images can rival those from much professional telescopes.

Cool. The Curiosity lander on Mars happened to be perfectly situated to catch images of the tiny (14 miles) moon Phobos eclipsing the Sun. Wow.

Oh!  Hot off the presses… (when will that phrase lose all relation to its origins?)…  NASA has revealed the suite of instruments that will likely fly on the next (2020) Mars roving laboratory, or “son-of-Curiosity.”  A way cool set of new scientific methods… though again nothing to explicitly check for life itself.

Astronomers announced the discovery of the fifth known triple supermassive black hole system in the universe. Some galaxies have more than one central black hole — each orbiting the other in relatively close proximity — and scientists say this is probably the result of two or more smaller galaxies merging. The two closest black holes are separated by a distance of 140 parsces (one parsec equals about 3 light years). The third supermassive black hole is much farther away.

HIGGINSA very interesting and challenging and smart series of cartoons explaining tough fields of physics, like magnetohydrodynamics. Also black holes and weird geometries. I do sniff a little crack-pottery, around the edges, so be aware some of it is… non-paradigm. Still, very good tours of difficult topics!

Savoir Sans Frontieres: Scientific Comic Books

The Silence Barrier: The Adventures of Archibald Higgins

The Black Hole: The Adventures of Archibald Higgins

A Caltech prof’s new theory suggests a highly unusual class of stars — 1 in 10,000 — may be made entirely of metal. Wow. I wonder how long they last.

Microscopically structuring steel like bamboo makes it stronger yet more flexible.

Finally, I have been putting in queries to Kip Thorne and other General Relativity experts about Hawking Radiation at the fringes of a gravity well… do any of you out there know such an expert with an open mind? I really do have a physics PhD!  So a little professional courtesy? ;-)

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Political cleanup – Obamacare, religion in politics, and more…

Finishing up a series of four political postings, let me this time offer some thought-provoking snippets.

Number one on the list? Something so simple, yet no American journalist seems to be interested in mentioning it. Have any of you noticed – at all – the fact that Republicans have stopped mentioning “Obamacare”?

AFFORDABLE-CARE-ACTOh, there’s an occasional arm-waved generality from the Tea Party, but almost nothing from the GOP politicians or media. Now why would that be?

Perhaps because – just like Supply Side “Economics,” not one doomcasting forecast about the Affordable Care Act has come true. The rate of rise of medical costs has gone way down. Millions are now insured, getting preventive care and staying out of Emergency Rooms, while very few others have been much inconvenienced and the general quality of average policies has improved.

“Expanding the number of young adults with health insurance appears to have improved their health and saved them money, according to a new study that is among the first to measure the effect of the healthcare law that President Obama signed four years ago,” reports the LA Times.

Even a “flaw” of the ACA – the fact that millions of new insurance purchasers are choosing policies with high deductibles – is having an unexpected effect that believers in capitalism should like. It has meant that these newly insured citizens are very careful and choosy, when it comes to paying that first $2000 or so of medical bills.  They are seeking price transparency, shopping for the cheapest MRI. It’s a bloody nuisance and far from ideal. But it has applied hard, downward pressure on prices for many medical services.

Of course all that may change! The ACA was far from my own first choice – in fact, I dislike its blatant kowtowing to insurance companies. Indeed, it was designed by the Heritage Foundation for Newt Gingrich, adopted for years as the GOP’s top platform plank, and implemented in his state by Mitt Romney, before President Obama decided to co-opt and adopt the Republicans’ own  plan…

… whereupon the GOP declared “Ew! Obama likes it! Our plan must have cooties!” And yes, that’s what it boils down to.

But watch, if the good news keeps upcoming you will witness startling agility. You will start to hear crowing on the right, that “it was our own plan, all along!”

== When is a person’s faith relevant in politics? ==

Religion generally should not be a topic in politics. But here is a simple test for you Americans, to check whether you might be on the wrong side in this civil war.

book-revelation“Does my side include tens of millions of folks who pray daily for events that would kill most of their neighbors, consigning them to eternal torment? Events that would bring to an end all science and ambition and terminate both democracy and the United States of America?”

“If that pretty much describes my fellow partisans… could it be that I am on the wrong side, after all?”

I draw the line when a politician admits to praying daily for the Book of Revelation (BoR) scenario for Armageddon to come true as soon as possible, relishing a global holocaust-war that will result in the slaughtering of most of his/her fellow citizens, ending (forever) all traces of individual liberty and the nation the politician wants to lead.

Whose-raptureDo recall that the BoR was barely voted into the Christian canon, over stiff objections by the best minds of the day. Martin Luther despised its bood-thirsty, vengeful spirit, which runs diametrically opposite to that of the Sermon on the Mount. The recent veer in emphasis, among American fundamentalists, away from the teachings of Jesus toward obsession with BoR ravings, is symptomatic of their bitter resentment of the future — their frantic wish that it – and their disturbing neighbors – would just go away, as soon and as painfully as possible.

And yes, such venomous yearnings are their privilege in a free country! One in which, ironically, no central authority can punish you for your beliefs.

Only there is this. To my mind, anyone who avows to openly — or implicitly — praying for such an event to take place has thereby made his/her religious views pertinent to voters in an election. Voters have a right to take into account the scenario — and outcomes — that a candidate relishes. And whether a person who actively seeks those outcomes should be trusted with America’s sovereign power.  Or our nuclear weapons.

See what these folks actively yearn for, with amazing art by Patrick Farley.

Clearly, we Americans have been passing through what Robert Heinlein forecast as “The Crazy Years.”

== The real SkyNet ==

TransactionFeeTerminateHas High Frequency Trading (HFT) started to fade? Because of Michael Lewis’s book FLASH BOYS: A Wall Street Revolt? Because of SEC investigations? Or something that came earlier — my warning that HFT might result in Terminator? Is there hope? As much as two-thirds of all stock trades in the U.S. from 2008 to 2011 were executed by high-frequency firms; today it’s about half. In 2009, high-frequency traders moved about 3.25 billion shares a day. In 2012, it was 1.6 billion a day. But excuse my cynicism. I will betcha the nerd algorithm wizards have moved on to something else that is terribly clever, secret and almost certain to be regrettable.

See the Terminator Worry!

== Snippets ==

“The idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behaviour that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.”  — John Maynard Keynes. “Some economic consequences of a declining population.” 1937

“The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”  — J. C. R. Licklider, Man-Computer Symbiosis 

813drK5znDL._SL1500_Femen, the World’s Most Provocative Activist Group, can only happen when there are zones of real civilization from which shelter and support can be drawn. The tactics – provocative – are those of challenge… courageous and important, while reciprocally reliant on the parts of civilization that “get” and dig what they are doing, and can help protect them from the parts that want the heroes dead.

This is fundamental to the hypocrisy of those who denounce paternalistic government regulation. Oh, sure, that IS a failure mode! But find me the libertarian – since Goldwater & Buckley – who said that the alternative is NOT to proclaim that problems don’t exist. It is to find market oriented alternative solutions. And the capitalist alternative that logically applies to many forms of government paternalism is… insurance.

(Indeed, that was the basis for the GOP’s Gingrich-Romneycare health proposal, which president Obama embraced and the GOP then denounced, because he wanted it. Cooties!)

On a broader basis, look at where insurance companies are still pro-active and competitive (e.g. fire insurance). There you will find them behaving “paternalistically” in demanding clients take active care to mitigate risk. The lesson? Our pablum simplistic dogmas are not suited to problem-solving in the real world.

== More snippets ==

ending-poverty This graphic from The World Bank shows the world making great progress at reducing “extreme poverty” around the world. Though there are recalcitrant areas… and “extreme” is measured so generously — at $1.25 income per day — that your sense of satisfaction should be brief. That threshold, if earned by all of a family’s adults, should, in most places, allow their children to attend school. But I have my doubts. A real yin-yang graphic that should have a tin effect…

…to encourage us that solving poverty is possible and so is a better world… using both social and market methods… and that complacency is just as bad as despair.

Laughing at Laffer. Please. When an “economics” theory has not one successful prediction (ever) to point to, are you smart enough to say: “maybe Adam Smith was right about this… and I was wrong.”

What if Ayn Rand had written Harry Potter?

No Way to Prevent This…Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens — The Onion on Gun Violence.

 

 

 

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