How to regain trust in the NSA era: The IGUS Gambit

How might the Obama Administration best respond to wave after wave of “NSA revelations” that roil and cloud the political waters?

NSA-Snowden-AssangeIronically, almost none of Edward Snowden’s leaks — or those of Julian Assange — revealed anything that was illegal per se. What they have done is stir a too-long delayed argument over what should be legal!  Specifically, the Patriot Act and the ratchet effect on surveillance that always happens when a country enters a state of panic. The post-9/11 alarm is finally fading and — (barring some new, panic-inducing event) — elements of the Patriot Act and pervasive surveillance are now up for public debate.

See page 206* of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom? (1997) – where this cycle of terrorism and increased government surveillance was predicted in precise — and rather creepy — detail.

NSA-WATCHING-WATCHERS Elsewhere, I recently dissected and appraised the forty-two suggested reforms that a commission presented to President Obama, many of which he has instituted or sent to Congress. Here I want to focus on one important, trust-building measure that would make a huge difference.

 

== Meeting the needs of the Public and the PPC ==

As expected, most of the current argument is about the wrong side of the issue — mewling plaints calling to prevent society’s elites (like the NSA or Google) from seeing — an effort that is fated to be futile, condemned to absurdity by Moore’s Law.

But at last there is talk also of doing what will work — improving the degree to which the citizenry can supervise and have confidence that government remains essentially a servant of the people.

The main sticking point is over the need that members of the Professional Protector Caste (PPC) have for tactical secrecy, or the ability to conceal their operations from villains and adversaries.   This need is very strong, but so is that of citizens to feel assured that secrecy remains only tactical, short-term and pragmatic, never an excuse for permanent avoidance of accountability.

INSPECTOR-GENERAL-UNITED-STATESI have over the years offered several innovations that might achieve a win-win — securing both tactical shadows for the PPC to be effective, while ensuring accountability that at least partially reassures the public. Foremost among these proposals would be to create the office of Inspector General of the United States (IGUS).

IGUS could be established with a one-page law that simply transfers all of the inspectors general in every agency and department to an independent service under a figure of noted rectitude, whose staff might then perform their functions without the inherent conflict of interest that stymies so many IGs. IGUS members would be trained in both confidentiality and prim skepticism on the taxpayers’ behalf, allowing PPC agencies to continue tactically secret investigations, but always with the peoples’ delegated gaze over their shoulders.

NSA-Citizen-OversightA POLITICAL WIN-WIN: Without question, proposing and establishing IGUS would be an agile jiu-jitsu move on the part of the Obama Administration. It would simultaneously say:

“We understand that public confidence is shaken and this move should help to restore it while preventing the worst and most perniciously chronic abuses… while at the same time allowing our skilled public protectors to continue doing their important jobs. It is also the quickest way to do this, requiring the fewest changes in law.”

Will this satisfy everybody? Of course not… nor should it! Indeed, I do not consider IGUS to be enough. I have several more proposals that would work in parallel with IGUS, so that in-sum we all can truly be sure that our watch dogs remain loyal (if fierce) dogs, and never wolves.

inspectors-GeneralNevertheless, IGUS would be a good start. And it would allow the Administration to be seen acting vigorously, in a forward, pro-active direction that BOTH enhances public trust and allows our agencies to do their jobs.

My IGUS proposal was written in greater detail as one of two dozen “Suggestions for the Incoming Obama Administration” way back in 2008. Alas, not one of them got to anyone’s ear. C’est la vie.

Still, you can read about it here: Free the Inspectors General!

 

== Political Miscellany ==

Lying with Data: Fox viewers in the family? Show them this chart that appeared on their news” network and ask if they can explain why almost no American scientists are republican, anymore.  See this appraisal, also: The Statisticians at Fox News use classic and novel graphical techniques to lead with data.

 

Transparent-Society-206

*Here’s an image of page 206 of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to choose between Privacy and Freedom?. 

 

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Money flows that might prevent new World Wars

Syria-Russia-Iran-IraqVeteran U.S. diplomat and Middle East expert Dennis Ross made some interesting points about President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia in an L.A. Times editorial: “Next Test for Obama: Soothing the Saudis.” He referred to the Saudis biggest concern, the rise of militant Shiite Islam and an axis of Iran-Iraq-Syria that now includes an aggressively revanchist Russia. A problem that some have referred to as “World War Four.”

Alas, Mr Ross ignores the elephant in the room. That the Saudis are not the victims in any of this. Their relentless push to establish fiercely conservative Wahhabi madrassas all over the Sunni Muslim world helped to create Al Qaeda and most of the 9/11 attackers. Their own textbooks declare the west to be an evil place, to be tolerated only while necessary. Above all, they have striven, since 1948, to stymie peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. By pushing to keep Palestine as an open wound, they ensured only that the Levant region would remain embroiled and steeped in pain, never achieving what the Saudis’ Hashemite rivals once dreamed-of — an alliance between Arabs and Jews that could strengthen all concerned.

One wonders, as the generations pass along, if the admittedly brilliant grandsons of Abdulaziz ibn Saud might be flexible enough to envision how that long-deferred option is worth trying, at long last. That Israel and the Levant and Egypt and Arabia have potential far beyond mere oil, especially if all parties were to help foster synergies, instead of trumped-up enmities.

Saudi-aid-PalestinianThe Saudis, especially, have the wherewithal to offer aid and investment – a deal that would be impossible for the Palestinian side to refuse. And such an offer would corner Israel with an economic carrot that transcends any and all sticks.

Above all, such a jiu jitsu move by the Saudis would render the Russo-Shiite axis futile… almost cute in its impotence, next to the scientific/technological/economic superpower that would blossom in the Sunni-Israeli zone. All of these benefits await, but are only perceived by those of flexible mind.

Alas, Mr. Ross shows us no hint of any of that.

== A “Helvetian” scenario? ==

SMUGGLE-DEVELOP-COUNTRIESIt’s hard to build your country when the money keeps slipping away. Foreign capital flight has been a problem for developing countries this year, but a bigger problem might be the funds smuggled out by tax evaders, corrupt officials and criminals — $946.7 billion in 2011. Nearly a trillion dollars, according to the latest estimates released today by a team of economists at the non-profit Global Financial Integrity, an increase of more than 10% over the previous year. For comparison, total foreign aid to developing nations in 2011 was just $141 billion.

“The nations most hamstrung by illicit flows are in Africa, where illicit flows are the equivalent of 5.7% of GDP; the average developing country lost 3.7% of GDP in 2011. That’s a huge amount of money to lose that could otherwise be invested in private or public enterprise that might improve the lives of people living there. Instead, it winds up in tax havens—including the United States and the United Kingdom. “This isn’t really just a developing world problem it’s facilitated by developed country banks and tax havens,” Brian Leblanc, one of the economists behind the study, told Quartz.”

“Indeed, with six times more money leaving developing countries illicitly than entering them as aid, advocates for these nations might do well to back policies to block these flows. Promoting tax-haven crackdowns and convincing powerful multinationals to submit their transactions to more scrutiny is hard to do, but it could pay dividends for development down the line.”

MIDDLE-CLASS-RISEIn EARTH I portray a dozen developing nations having suddenly realized that several trillion dollars — ripped off from poor countries by former kleptocratic lords — sits in Swiss and other bank haven accounts.  When all else failed, they declared war on Switzerland — in the 2020s — in order to use the rights of belligerent powers to seize assets all over the world and to coerce return of enough money to save millions of children.

Things needn’t come to that! In fact, a deal might be worked out in which developing nations agree to keep the restored funds deposited in Swiss banks! Only with interest and collateral value now going to the nation’s children, not former klepto-presidents. Such a deal would, in a shot, restore hope and trust… and guarantee the bankers against the kind of comeuppance they think (right now) can never come.

History disagrees. It can come. Cut the deal.

Treasure-Islands-Shaxson-bookPOSTSCRIPT: In this recent report, analyst Gabriel Zuchman shows evidence that around 8% of the global financial wealth of households is held in tax havens, three-quarters of which goes unrecorded. Meaning that this is about much, much more than just the developing world. “On the basis of plausible assumptions, accounting for unrecorded assets turns the eurozone, officially the world’s second largest net debtor, into a net creditor. It also reduces the U.S. net debt significantly.”

It’s flagrant! “… (worldwide) more investment income is paid than received each year…” and “…many European securities, in particular, have no identifiable owner…”

Clearly this relates to my longstanding proposal — for worldwide transparency of ownership. It is completely non-socialistic and would probably result in taxes upon honest families going down. All it would do is ensure that those yelling the loudest in defense of open capitalism actually live by it.

== Grabbing, hand over fist ==

Related news that just hints at the scale of the oligarchic putsch…

Rupert Murdoch’s media group received a $882 million tax rebate from Australia last year in a revelation that is likely to reignite the debate over how much tax is paid by international corporations. Again, this generation is the savviest and most knowledgeable in history.  Do you guys honestly think that — when it becomes radicalized — there won’t be repercussions?

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It’s not the “One Percent”

First, before getting into the “one percent” matter…

9780812978728_custom-a68f3d31cb6007f7534ef6210f0693432759ff3d-s2-c85I have heard few interviews on NPR that were more cogent, intelligent and rich in wisdom and knowledge than this one, with Bruce Levine, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, who is author of The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South and Confederate Emancipation, Professor Levine deals handily with the edifice of completely made-up rationalizations we hear fermenting these days: e.g. that slavery was declining in the South during the lead-up to the U.S. Civil War (phase 1).

Not one of the excuses offered by apologists – like Judge Andrew Napolitano — stand upon anything more substantial than wish-fantasies and fairy dust.

Listen to the audio version. This is a wise and knowledgeable fellow. An example of why those waging war on science had to expand their campaign to encompass history, economics, journalism and every other clade of knowledge in American life.

== It’s not the “One Percent” ==

99-percentOkay, I have a bone to pick with you “progressives” out there. Sometimes you can be as lazy and simple-minded as your opponents.

Stop referring to “the one percent!” It is a trap. Indeed, it may be a polemical trick, foisted on us all by a conniving oligarchy that does not want to face the ire of a united citizenry.

Those chanting “we’re the ninety-nine percent” only thus empower Fox-pundits to respond that “most of the one-percenters are small business owners, or hard-working doctors and dentists who are demonized by the left for their well-earned success, stigmatized for providing valued goods and services.”

And that’s completely true!

Look, you polemical liberals out there, do you really want three MILLION of America’s most productive, innovative and hard-working people to be driven into the arms of the real oligarchs, by tarring them with the same, simplistic brush? Guilt-by-association?

There’s a word for that. It is “stupid.”

one-percentIn fact, according to this article in the Atlantic it is the top 0.01 percent—that’s the uppermost one percent of the top 1 percent—that’s leaving the rest of the top percentile behind, in the dust along with the rest of us. “While nine-tenths of the top percentile hasn’t seen much change at all since 1960, the 0.01 percent has essentially quadrupled its share of the country’s wealth in half a century.”

Alas, what this article leaves out is discussing the one-percent of THAT clade… or the 0.0001%ers. Those are the folks always to scrutinize. Even the father of modern market enterprise capitalism said so!

They aren’t all bad, just because they are rich! Indeed, the Silicon Valley billionaires and other entrepreneurs who developed goods and services by working closely with thousands of skilled and free-thinking engineers – these men and women know that it is a relatively flat, well-educated and open “diamond-shaped” society – dominated by a vibrant and empowered and knowing middle class – that creates the kind of opportunities that let them succeed in a positive-sum way. Getting rich while making us all richer. Guys and gals like that are sensitive to how it all would get ruined – will get ruined – if we follow the age-old human pattern. Into feudal-inherited-oligarchy.

Interestingly, those open-market-friendly rich men and women are mostly democrats.

ClassWarLessonsHistorySo. Shall we get mad? Chant and wave torches and polish our tumbrels? No, we must recall enough history to remember this is an old, old problem. Those who are meddling in our politics and hiring propagandists to restart the American Civil War, they are acting entirely according to human nature, spanning thousands of years. It is not morally culpable that they are too stupid to rise above basic, pre-sapient instinct. Alas though, it does mean that those obeying ancient-harem-seeking instincts are not as smart as they think.

By doing all of this, they in fact prove a fundamental of nature. That all good things are toxic, when too concentrated. Water, food, oxygen… wealth. It is one thing about which Adam Smith and Karl Marx absolutely agreed.

In order to save and preserve as system in which each of us can get rich — by providing competitive-creative goods and services – even very, very rich (so long as it is fair) – then we may have to put some kind of limit upon the number of verys.

== Obscure… but related ==

Speaking of very… this is very interesting, if too radical for our present world to experiment with… except maybe in a sci fi novel… Geo-libertarians hold that all natural resources – most importantly land – are common assets to which all individuals have an equal right to access; therefore, individuals must pay rent to the community if they claim land as their private property. They simultaneously agree with the libertarian position that each individual has an exclusive right to the fruits of his or her labor as their private property, as opposed to this product being owned collectively by society or the community, and that “one’s labor, wages, and the products of labor” should not be taxed.

This is one example of the many alternatives that used to be discussed by the Greatest Generation… before we Boomers took over and made everything simplistic, reflexive, emotional… and admit it… not one of you has ever read Adam Smith or Karl Marx. If your life depended on it, could you describe accurately what they said? Or even define what “left” and “right” mean?

Really?  Well… this blog does attract the erudite.  But those few of you are very very rare.

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From TWODA to “P.U.” to RNA

Smithsonian-future-is-here-2014This will be a science potpourri.  But first… an announcement for you Mid-Atlantic residents! I will be among the headliners — along with Patrick Stewart, Brian Greene, George Takei, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stewart Brand, Michio Kaku and some MythBusters — at the Smithsonian’s epic-scale “The Future is Here!” event, in Washington D.C. May 16-17.  Look it up and come if you can!  Brought to you by Smithsonian Magazine (subscribe) and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination (join!)

== Save the world from dopes? ==

Scientists have known for decades that Greenland’s ice sheet is melting, but they may have underestimated just how much water the second-largest ice sheet on the planet is shedding. New research indicates that a key section of northeast Greenland thought to be stable is actually dumping billions of tons of water into the ocean annually after a barrier of ice debris that had blocked its flow finally gave way. “We’re seeing an acceleration of ice loss.”

melting-ice“The Greenland ice sheet has contributed more than any other ice mass to sea-level rise over the last two decades and has the potential, if it were completely melted to raise global sea level by more than seven meters,” explains one expert. Between 1990 and 2011, climate change caused ocean surface temperatures around Greenland to rise 1.8 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

An interactive map shows that melting glaciers won’t give us “waterworld”… but you might not want to own land where (ironically) most of the folks in the climate denialist cult live.

A side benefit of TWODA* innovation?  Computer simulations have shown that offshore wind farms with thousands of wind turbines could have sapped the power of three real-life hurricanes.

Given current trends, then, we’re gonna need innovation even more than ever.

== biology “comes alive!” ==

DNA-RNA Watch this clip from the PBS series DNA. It’s four minutes of amazing images, visualizing how DNA gets unzipped, read, re-zipped and turned into something like hemoglobin, all in real-time. This process of information coding, retrieval and manipulation by molecular machines of stunning specificity is going on right now inside every cell in your body.

Then go on to another great biology video of “The Central Dogma” of protein synthesis. In which RNA polymerase and other active elements are represented as spaceship-like nanomachines. A fantastic instructional video that will leave you entertained and informed… with a cool-oh sound track.

And dig it: single-celled microbes that grow in biofilms have come up with a way to electrically reach out and pull electrons from minerals in the soil so they can stay in the sun.

Ah but science calls for judgment! After years of predicting it would happen — and after years of having their suggestions largely ignored by companies, farmers and regulators — scientists have documented the rapid evolution of corn rootworms that are resistant to Bt corn.  Read about how proper procedures were mismanaged and ignoring the scientists is leading to an agricultural problem of real substance.

== Technology, save us, oh deus ex machina… ==

P-PeeScientists have discovered a way to take the phosphorus out of our pee (and that’s a lot — we piss out 3 million tons of it each year). In my novel EXISTENCE is where most of you first heard about the coming Phosphorus Crisis. Well now one forecast is coming true. The P.U. or Phos-Urinal (not ‘pee-yew’) is coming!  (Is it too soon for the predictions registry?)

And more news: U.S. scientists say that emerging photovoltaic technologies will enable the production of solar shingles made from abundantly available elements rather than rare-earth metals, an innovation that would make solar energy cheaper and more sustainable. I spoke of solar shingles even back in EARTH. But the overall lesson is what’s important –

– that there are ways out of our messes, if obstructionists and denialists would stop hating on science and decide to help, instead.  Keep saying one word to them, a word for which they have no reply. TWODA.

Want more wonders? Before teenager Anne Makosinski, apparently, no one on record has thought to use thermoelectric technology to power a flashlight. Peltier tiles produce an electrical current when opposite sides are heated and cooled at the same time, so why not make a hollow flashlight that uses heat from the hand that’s holding it?

Google has released a concise list of “Ten Myths About Google Glass.” Mostly on target and calming stuff… though very conservative, down-pedaling what everyone can tell is coming… and a whole lot more than just a few sci fi authors will tell you about.

So cool! See an animation of the “Council of Giants” – a dozen big galaxies that surround our Local Group (which is mostly the Milky Way and Andromeda) in a very thin sheet, constraining our two spirals and having guided their evolution.

Physicists are exploring possible “hidden variables” loopholes in quantum mechanics that might involve elements of the universe holding quasi-conversations – or conspiring to exchange decisions – with each other, in an interchange that scientists are (mostly-whimsically) calling “free will.” Few consider this loophole to be likely. But now there appears to be a way to test it, using light from the oldest quasars in the cosmos.

And this eclectic museum is located in Baltimore, Maryland. “The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) looks worth a visit.

twoda-brin

======

*TWODA: Things We Ought to Do Anyway…to alleviate climate change… but that will help us economically, politically, internationally even if 99% of scientists prove wrong about climate warnings!  Increasing research and developing methods of energy efficiency should be on the table, even if you are a climate skeptic! The fact that you are NOT eagerly negotiating TWODA measures proves one thing.  You are no “skeptic” but a member of the denialist cult.

 

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Probing the future: very good news… and some very bad…

Good-judgment-projectSo You Think You’re Smarter than a CIA Agent? asks an article on NPR News, citing The Good Judgment Project – a four-year research study organized as part of a government-sponsored forecasting tournament. Thousands of people around the world predict global events. Their collective forecasts are surprisingly accurate. For the past three years, 3,000 average people have been quietly making probability estimates about everything from Venezuelan gas subsidies to North Korean politics as part of  an experiment put together by three well-known psychologists and some people inside the intelligence community. According to one report, the predictions made by the Good Judgment Project are often better even than intelligence analysts with access to classified information.

Philip Tetlock, one of the three psychologists who came up with the idea for the Good Judgment Project, also wrote Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How Can We Know? His concept started simple:

First, if you want people to get better at making predictions, you need to keep score of how accurate their predictions turn out to be, so they have concrete feedback.

PredictionsRegistryBut also, if you take a large crowd of different people with access to different information and pool their predictions, you will be in much better shape than if you rely on a single very smart person, or even a small group of very smart people.’

These desiderata will sound familiar to some of you, who have read my own, decade-old calls for new kinds of Predictions Registry concept — which ought to be civilization’s utter-top priority, for a number of reasons that I lay down in that article.  As for “collective smarts” see how Smart Mobs are portrayed in Existence!

 

== Reasons for optimism, while everyone goes grumpy ==

A fascinating study for the US Defense Department concludes that three “almost shocking” dollops of positive news are transforming our prospects for the better — even as the public mood in the U.S. keeps sinking into inexplicable funk. The report: “Some Aspects of the Future Security Environment: Considering 1987, 2012, and 2037,” looked back and forward 25 years, according to an unclassified summary released by Office of Net Assessment of a Summer Study in late 2012, by Jesse H. Ausubel and Alan S. Curry.

It begins by surveying the world effects of globalization, an ongoing phenomenon which remains fraught with tension and opportunities for economic setbacks… but under which vast numbers of human families are rising, every year, out of grinding poverty, into some level of (very) basic comfort. Those who complain about other effects of globalization, while conceding the good things, have some credibility. Those who do not, have none.

Optimism-PessimismThen comes a real surprise: “Water provides a second big change in resource concerns during the past 25 years. In 1975, almost all experts forecast large increases in use of water by the United States. In fact, most of the forecasts vastly overestimated demand — and water withdrawals in the United States peaked about 1980. The trend in actual use has been flat for decades, even as U.S. population has grown about 80 million, the population of Turkey. Agriculture consumes far the most water. In the United States the decoupling of food production from land accounts for much of the moderation of demand. Sparing land usually means sparing water, both here and abroad. We see in farming in other industries increasing precision where we use more bits of information but less stuff — less energy, fertilizer, pesticide and water. So the idea of a global water crisis seems far-fetched.”

How fascinating. We’ve become so used to gloom and assuming the world will burst into flame everywhere over water. Indeed, there will likely be some local stress!

“At the same time, some regions clearly experience stress because of weak management and complex borders. Among regions to watch are upper basins where nations are building dams to capture water that flows downstream through other nations, e.g. the upper Indus, Mekong, and the Tigris and Euphrates, where Indian, China and Turkey; respectively, are adding storage with all its benefits and risks, including political consequences downstream.”

Okay, as Forest Gump would say – “one less thing….” Sort of. But then…

== Is fracking your friend? ==

“A third big surprise in resources of the past 25 years is the discovery and acceptance of the abundance of natural gas, methane.”  Since this report was issued in 2012, the arrival of frack-released gas and oil has crashed into public attention, with nearly everyone leaping to take one extreme position or the other. Either this is capitalism at its best, with no need to regulate, or else it is satanic poisoning of the air and aquifers.

In fact, there are many reasons to believe the trend needs and merits strongly assertive regulation by a government that implements the public will, to get both the economic stimulation/jobs/security that come from energy independence and the capping of leaking greenhouse gas sources and tight protection of aquifers. Both the benefits of methane weaning us off of filthy coal and continuing the spectacularly successful incentives that have brought sustainables like solar and wind into the mainstream, becoming viable at a rate that’s far faster than automobiles and airplanes became practical, a century ago.

The potential harms that accompany good news seem to set members of my Baby Boomer generation a-quiver with agitation and zero-sum thinking. Almost never do boomers, of left or right, contemplate the positive sum, win-win. The possibility that we might enhance the good effects and minimize the bad.

Our calmer and more pragmatic heirs will be better off without our grumpy-boomer asses around.

== Feed us! ==

Then there’s agriculture. It was thought that the increases in crop yield that happened under Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” were peaking just as populations were rising, bringing the curse of Malthus back into play. In fact, the verdict is mixed, so far. There is clear evidence that climate change is affecting crop yields – destroying both farmlands and grazing zones. These problems are exacerbated by many stupidities in re water use, pest management, monoculture, monopoly controlled GM seeds and a myriad other vexing perplexities and needs for action. On the other hand, new kinds of crops emerge all the time. And we also have on the horizon algae-culture, and tissue-culture meat, and far better fish farming, any of which may be game changers.

We’ll need them. For when fertile zones at lower latitudes turn to desert, we lose areas with two growing seasons. Canada and Siberia may get warmer but the new “farmlands” lack topsoil and languish in total darkness for half the year. This is not a fair trade.

The report also discusses mixed news about population. There is the aging developed world, with fears of demographic collapse. There is China, with it’s own one-child-affected situation. There are realms like Africa and India where Malthus looms as a spectre… and a few places of relative balance like the US and Canada, who benefit from the invigoration of immigration. It is WAY too soon to breathe any sigh of relief!

Still… it don’t look (yet) like Soylent Green.

Ah, but then there’s worrisome news….

== China on the brink? ==

China-shakes-world“China is like an elephant riding a bicycle. If it slows down, it could fall off, and then the earth might quake.” – James Kynge, China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America.

John Mauldin and his partners are worried about China.

After 30 years of sustained economic growth topping 8% and a successful bank cleanup in 2000, the People’s Republic was well on its way to blowing through the “middle income trap” and transitioning to a more advanced consumption-based economy. But then in 2008 the banking crisis in the United States abruptly ushered in a painful era of balance sheet repair across the developed world and delivered a demand shock to emerging markets. Rather than allow the Chinese economy to fall into recession at such an inconvenient time, the Party leadership sprang into action to stimulate demand with its largest fiscal deficit in more than 60 years and to mobilize bank lending with historically low interest rates and enormous liquidity injections.”

As a result, China’s total debt-to-GDP (including estimates for shadow banks) grew by roughly 20% per year, from just under 150% in 2008 to nearly than 210% at the end of 2012 … and continued rising in 2013. Even more ominous, corporate debt has soared from 92% in 2008 to 150% today. 

“China has consumed just 65pc of the cement it has produced in the past five years, after exports. The country is currently outputting more steel than the next seven largest producers combined – it now has 200m tons of excess capacity, more that the EU and Japan’s total production so far this year.”

But property is the biggest bubble, as it was in the U.S. and Europe. “The average price-to-rent ratio of China’s eight key cities is 39.4 times – this figure was 22.8 times in America just before its housing crisis.”

George Soros holds that “The major uncertainty facing the world today is not the euro but the future direction of China.”

== The lesson: optimism? Pessimism? ==

OPTIMISM-PESSIMISM-3It’s neither! It is that the world is far, far too filled with good trends and news to make cynicism and gloom anything other than wretched, simplistic treason. Show me the cynic who is actually and pragmatically useful to anyone! Or who actively and effectively helps to solve any of the problems that he (almost never “she”) grouses about!

I would say the same thing about fizzy, polyanna, best-of-all-worlds optimists, too… if you could point me at any. Sure, I know a few “singularity” types who think we’ll all be gods within 30 years. But none of them prescribe indolent shrugs, the way cynics do. Most optimists admit the desperate need for action!

But cynics aren’t our worst adversaries. The very worst people – enemies of your future and of your grandchildren – are the manipulators who are propagandizing to millions that they should hate science. Hate the people who know stuff. Hate the very idea of mixed, vigorous, confident, can-do effort to solve problems, partly together, via consensus government, while mostly through our markets and families and individual efforts.

Those are the folks who are waging war against your kids.

 

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FLASH BOYS versus SKYNET – How Wall Street may be even more dangerous than Michael Lewis thinks

michael-lewis-flash-boysMichael Lewis’s new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, has certainly gathered tons of well-deserved attention. He was on the Daily Show and his interview on NPR is an absolute must-listen podcast in which you’ll painlessly (except for an angry gut reaction) learn an awful lot about how Wall Street is (surprise) cheating the rest of us.

Lewis focuses especially on an area about which I’ve inveighed heavily for two years… the perils of High Frequency Trading.

You don’t have time for books or podcasts? Then if you read or even skim any in-depth article this month, make it this one… an excerpt from FLASH BOYS about how the world of fast-pitched Wall Street trading has become rife with computerized cheating, so pervasive that any justification is impossible through the usual rationalizations of “market forces” and “correct price equilibration.” No little guy can win the full value of his trades. No retirement fund manager can use keen insights to maximally benefit her clients without paying a large “tax” or overhead in stolen value.

Excerpt-Flash-boysThe article appears to have a relatively happy ending, with the creation of a new trading center that corrects some of the grotesque advantages of behemoth banks and super-empowered Hugh Frequency Trading (HFT) operations. And I hope the sunny optimism of the final paragraphs comes true! (Failure to correct the cheating will lead us to French Revolution levels of anger, with tumbrel-riding lords losing much more than their “genius” predatory gains.)

What is more likely is a moderate series of reforms that — like those our ancestors performed under Teddy Roosevelt — restore just enough fairness and flatness and wary trust to keep it all in motion for another generation… and maybe restoring a bit of strength to the beleaguered middle class.

Michael-lewis-stock-riggedIndeed, the hoo-row over this one book appears to be affecting markets! It has prompted a few traders to bet against shares of the Nasdaq OMX Group, the parent of the NASDAQ exchange. One analyst estimates that about 25% of Nasdaq’s revenue, and about 33% of earnings, are attributable to high-frequency trading. The Wall Street Journal offers: The Responsible Way to Rein in Super-Fast Trading.

If HFT is reined in – maybe with timing measures but far better with a tiny Tobin Tax — then this one particular cheating mode will be controlled.

== Would that solve it? ==

But the danger remains… that we might return to the normal patter of 99% of human cultures across 6000 years. And that is the lesson of this article. Those who manipulate and distract us from getting mad and reforming capitalism are not only our enemies… but they are the enemies of the very same flat-fair open capitalism that they claim to admire.

Contradiction-Capital-MarketsRationalization and excuse-making for the predatory depredations of a monopolistic cartel of financial “wizard” parasites.

Alas, the relatively optimistic tone of FLASH BOYS must be viewed with caution. The “solution” of a new, neutral exchange can easily be perverted by the next round of cheating — both Adam Smith and Karl Marx called cheating the ultimate enemy of fair and flat and free competitive and creative markets.

Indeed, so long at the stock exchanges are controlled by closed cartels of conniving “seated members” there will be an inherent incentive for them to trade with each other, commission-free, which is the essential unfairness of HFT… and not the timing factor that Lewis dwells upon.

TransactionFeeTerminateI have also offered another, more science fictional but chillingly plausible reason to fear the many billions of dollars that major trading firms are pouring into the HFT versions of artificial intelligence (AI). It is a failure mode that grown more credible by the day. It could wind up wreaking devastating harm.

And you can find it here: A Transaction Fee Might Save Capital Markets…and Protect us from the Terminator!

See also: The Contradiction of Capital Markets.

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Science – Old Funding and New Money

Will scientific and other priorities in the coming century be determined at the whim of a near-omnipotent aristocracy?

BILLIONAIRES-SCIENCE“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.”  

As federal dollars for research diminish — falling victim to political and “culture” war — many billionaires have been stepping up to fund various scientific efforts, deliberated in part by eccentricity and whim. “The donors are impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science, they say, and willing to take risks that government cannot or simply will not consider…. Yet that personal setting of priorities is precisely what troubles some in the science establishment. Many of the patrons, they say, are ignoring basic research — the kind that investigates the riddles of nature and has produced centuries of breakthroughs, even whole industries…”

Read on! Moreover remember these are mostly the Good Guy Billionaires — as I portray in Existence. Those who generally want an all-boats-rising, positive-sum system… the kind of system that made them. I guess in a new gilded age, this is the best we can hope for, as opposed to the other kind, who reflexively act on ancient human instincts to push for feudalism.

Bring on the Medicis.

== But then… what is science? ==

Enemies of science have an array of tactics, honed across decades at the same ad agencies and “think tanks” that brought you campaigns proclaiming that cars don’t cause smog and tobacco is harmless. But to be clear, the assault is not coming only from the mad right.  There is a mad left, too, that wallows in conspiracy theories, rails against biology and vaccines, and has been the feedstock for an intellectual travesty called “postmodernism” — trying to deny that science can “know” anything, at all.

WHAT-IS-SCIENCEAs a member of a civilization that has mostly benefited from this new and vastly more honest way of confronting the universe, it behooves you to understand it better, in order to refute the foes who want a return the to dark ages.  As I suggested earlier, the new television series COSMOS is a great place to start.

On an intellectual plain… well… here’s a fascinating rumination about the nature of science, offered by Alan Sokal, who famously skewered postmodernism’s fevered incantation-frenzy with a famous trap of enticing gibberish.  Here’s one choice observation: “George Orwell got it right when he observed that the main advantage of speaking and writing clearly is that “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.””

Kind of a bit like CITOKATE, no?

== Solving a potentially lethal defect ==

But we may yet find ways to achieve the more-flat and more-open and more-fair world.

firechat-wirelessHere’s a step in that direction. FireChat, uses Multipeer Connectivity Framework, a feature Apple added with the latest update to its mobile operating system, to chat and send images via WiFi and Bluetooth without being connected to the Internet. Using Multipeer Connectivity Framework, one person with an Internet connection could potentially relay information to an area where the Internet doesn’t exist, like a rural area or subway station, using each phone as a node.

As it turns out, this Apple product — along with another called iBeacon — is just one implementation of the next big thing.  Low Energy Bluetooth or BLE is a new realm of applications that will let you do 10,000 cool things via tiny-packet bluetooth radio pulses… like find your seat in a stadium and then order your hotdog. Trouble is, you have zero selectivity as to who will get your packets and pulses and know where and who you are.

P2PThe tremendously good thing is it will let us bypass the cell companies who refused to create peer-to-peer text passing  when a phone cannot reach a tower. This capability I have been demanding for TWO decades as a major step toward society resilience and safety… and now the cellcos will pay for their stubbornness as millions start bypassing them for text, altogether. Serves them right. Still, this is gonna be an awkward transition.  A better version must offer us more control.

In related news… Google will host three developer conferences this year for its Project Ara modular smartphone concept. Project Ara is a push to make modular smartphones a reality. Instead of buying a single, fully-constructed phone where all the components seem like a black box, the Ara project is exploring the idea of snapping phones together based on individual components.

As sensors become cheaper, you’ll be able to sniff for toxins, appraise your water, see in the dark, navigate seamlessly… aw heck, I took you on a tour of possibilities in a recent book, right?

== Would you want wood? ==

Learn about a highly engineered material called cross-laminated timber (CLT). The enormous panels are up to half a foot thick. They’re made by placing layers of parallel beams atop one another perpendicularly, then gluing them together to create material with steel-like strength. “This construction has more in common with precast concrete than traditional timber frame design.” Many engineers like to call it “plywood on steroids.”  Towers are being made from it.  The building material of the future?

A tree can also be your friend, in need. For a makeshift way to purify water: break a branch from a pine tree, peel away the bark and slowly pour lake water through the stick. Good for your novel?

But on the other hand… why not do it better? A team of researchers at MIT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and in Saudi Arabia succeeded in creating sub-nanoscale pores in a sheet of graphene, a development that could lead to ultrathin filters for improved desalination or water purification. But it’s in the theme of this sub-heading because the source is Oak Ridge.  Get it?

Rights-of-way-mega-citiesSometimes the old ways are best… even in infrastructure!  London runs fiber optic cables through its 19th Century sewer system!

This is remarkably related both to my idea about revitalizing mega cities in developing nations and how to bring super fiber to every home in the developed world!

The key: rights-of-way.

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COSMOS brings back the wonder!

Cosmos_Carousel-carousel-360x282I hope you all have been enjoying the remake of COSMOS. (Sundays: Fox Entertainment and Mondays on National Geographic.) While episodes one and two were merely very good — with some stretches of preachiness — we were awed by the third installment, which was stunning on a par with… even exceeding… the Carl Sagan original.

Yes, all right, I’m biased: Edmund Halley has always been one of my heroes and the depiction of comets (so well-executed by show science director Andre Bormanis) seem to have been taken from my doctoral dissertation!

(See below about the controversial earlier choice of Giordano Bruno as the historical centerpiece of episode one.)

== What’s wrong with us? ==

But none of those elements mattered next to the awesome vistas and deeply-moving messages of this exciting and enlightening show, so well delivered by Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you have not watched… and heavily proselytized… this event, then you must have simply fallen into a torpor. Wake up!  It’s time to restore our civilization’s confidence and sense of can-do wonder.

Just ponder one absolutely amazing fact.

Last week, it was announced that a telescope on the south pole, financed by your tax dollars, just mapped out the inflation event that occurred in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the Big Bang.  Is that the amazing thing Brin is referring-to? No, it is not.

mars_curiosity_1_r640x453Or was it last year, when your taxes paid to send a capsule threading the narrow atmosphere of of a distant planet. A capsule that then – in the exact-right millisecond — deployed a parachute, that precisely deployed a rocket, that used a crane to gently lower a complete, mobile science lab onto %$#! Mars… was that the amazing thing?

Nope, nor was it the discovery last week of an asteroid with rings, or finding a new mini-planet beyond Pluto, nor the announcement of seven hundred new planets beyond our solar system (see below.)

No, the amazing thing is that YOU, when you heard about these things… and dozens more, in just the last year… , did not run outside — (even naked) — grabbing every random person you met, telling them about it, bursting with pride and shouting “I am a  member of a civilization that DOES stuff like this!”

Admit it.  You didn’t do that. Now admit it reveals that something has gone very wrong with us.

Yes, restoring that sense of confidence and joy is what COSMOS is about.

== One small fret? ==

sagan-diskAs one of the show’s side-endeavors — and a way cool one — kids all over the world have been invited to use an online drawing tool to scrawl “messages to extraterrestrials” on a stylized version of the Sagan-Lomberg “Golden Record” that is carried aboard the Voyager space probes. Have a look: some of them are endearing and give hope for the next generation. A worthy activity that stimulates thought!  However…

…there is this rumor going around, that some of the producers — perhaps Neil himself — plan to announce a surprise stunt to “beam” some of these messages into space by radio dish.  And if it turns out to be true, well, that would be a major blunder.  Ever increasing numbers of prestigious scientists are coming out against such “METI” stunts, which arrogate a peremptory right to change one of our planet’s major observable characteristics without ever exposing the endeavor to critique by scientific peers.

There are no good reasons to do such a thing, without discussing it with humanity’s greatest sages and with the public involved.  Indeed, a number of us have come up with some very good reasons not to! So please, Neil, just in case the rumor is true, stay scientific and don’t do it. And if you do it anyway, recall that a Klystron can transmit at very low power.  Talk to us…all of us. You’re doing a great job at that. Leave such stunts for a later, more-knowing generation.

== Oh, in keeping with the spirit of Cosmos… ==

FALL-IN-LOVE-WITH-SCIENCE…see this very moving essay: “It’s time we fell back in love with science,” which bemoans how British attitudes toward science are becoming crazier… as in America.

“When science used to tell us things we didn’t want to hear, we listened. Now we stick our fingers in our ears and say “lalalala” before finding someone who will tell us what we do want to hear.” writes Alex Proud in The Telegraph.

==Was Bruno the best choice? ==

Interesting articles spin online, about how COSMOS producers chose in episode one to focus so long and hard on Giordano Bruno, whose immolation in Italy cast into stark focus the fear and wrath provoked by heretical beliefs.  (I was surprised that Tyson did not pose next to the statue of Bruno that now towers over the square where he burned.) Although I speak of Bruno often, I never portray him as a saint of science. Rather, he was a paladin of confrontation… the top contrarian of an era that was just learning how to accept the prodigious benefits of open and fair argument.  And this fellow contrarian appreciates him in that ornery spirit.

Statue-Giordano-bruno-romeAs far as science goes, well, this article (Did Cosmos Pick the Wrong Hero?) compares Bruno to the Englishman, Thomas Digges, who was quietly doing much more to bring the ideas of Copernicus into the  mainstream of European thinking, without the accompanying in-yer-face theological dross that Bruno added, that multiplied his troubles.

Oh, certainly, I am more like Bruno, I suppose.  But with just enough maturity to know that civilization is actually pushed forward by more modest men and women of science.

== More compact!  Yet cogent ==

Less flashy than Cosmos, the “inFact” series by science journalist Brian Dunning, aims to offer net-era brevity to snappy-but-wise riffs on science for the interested layman.  I especially recommend the short piece on global climate change which aims — above-all — to calm folks down and get us no longer making science decisions based upon our political party.  Compact enough to get your crazy uncle to watch!  Oh, also see his video about Tesla!

Kind of impressive.  I would have added a couple of notes… e.g. that the mavens of weather forecasting make vastly more money than climate scientists and have no vested interest. They are the geniuses who transformed the old, 4 hour joke of a “weather report” into a ten day miracle. They know their stuff and have no reason to foist a scam on us… their “grants” are safe. Yet all of them agree we should take reasonable steps to become more efficient and reduce the worst effects of climate change.

Still, a very compact and cogent missive.  I recommend it highly, especially as a bridge for all your crazy uncles, out there.

== And yes, we live in a time of wonders, this month! ==

RIPPLES-BIG-BANGHave you been paying attention to the news just in recent weeks?

Again, let me reiterate… a special polarimetry telescope (at the south-freaking pole!) has tracked the subtle light twists that may show the gravity wave echoes of the first pico-pico-second of the Big Bang?  (Formerly, the cosmic background studies could only penetrate to about 300,000 years AB (after bang.)  Your taxes paid for this.  An earlier, science friendly Congress voted to be the kind of civilization that invested in such glories.  Run into the street about this!

Better yet… make sure science-friendly folk aren’t lazy about voting, this year! Think of the Supreme Court and get busy!

And in the same month: we tracked an asteroid passing in front of a star and found it had rings!  And also… we (you and me and others) discovered a new dwarf planet out there beyond the Kuiper Belt.

A little more than a month ago, Kepler scientists have confirmed the existence of 715 new exoplanets — four of which are located within their star’s habitable zone. It’s the single largest windfall of new confirmations at any one time. That’s a 70% increase… in just one announcement.

astro_graph_And we’re all taking part. See a chart of astronomers and physicists who have the most twitter postings and followers. And how many years they’ve been at it. All told, I suppose I score pretty well (@DavidBrin on Twitter). Especially since I don’t tweet that much… and science is not all I talk about!

Still, I won’t compete with Neil deGrasse Tyson.  The New COSMOS is a wonder.  Drag everyone you know into watching. It is a tonic for a scientific civilization, fighting to save itself from those agitating for a new Dark Age.

 

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Is World War IV taking shape?

World economics seer Louis-Vincent Gave, of the Gavekal Partnership, has explained the pivotal meaning of the Crimea Incident in a larger context which he calls a looming “World War IV” — the conflict between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, in which Sunnis control larger reserves of oil, but Shia populations are restive in the very places where that oil is pumped.

(Clearly, in its decades of tension and expense and geopolitical importance, the Cold War was a tepid-simmering “World War III.”)

WORLD-WAR-IVIf a rising axis of Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq takes hold – (the latter three Shia-ruled, currently) – then fear will tighten across the Sunni belt. Tensions will drive arms sales and raise oil prices, which is the only condition under which Russia prospers.  U.S. efforts to sap the strength of that alliance make a major reason for the Obama Administration’s peace efforts with Iran… which Vladimir Putin will try to wreck.

It is also a good reason to ponder whether Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan — himself politically embattled — might do the one thing that would settle matters in Syria… sending in the Turkish Army.  Even with the excuse of humanitarian reasons, it would be risky. (The threat to Russia’s Tartus naval base would raise tensions to stratospheric levels, though.)

Russia-Iran-Iraq-SyriaThe real locus of what-if pondering must zero in on Saudi Arabia.  Are they sufficiently unnerved by the Russia-Iran-Iraq-Syria axis… and simmering problems with their own restive Shia populations… to decide upon a change in policy?  To back off from their blatant efforts to manipulate and poison American political processes, for example, and to instead meddle in more constructive ways?

One ponders all this while reading the latest missive by veteran US diplomat and Middle East expert Dennis Ross, who makes some interesting points about President Obama’s coming trip to Saudi Arabia in “Soothing the Saudis.” (LATimes Tuesday.) He refers to the Saudis biggest concern, the rise of militant Shiite Islam and an axis of Iran-Iraq-Syria that now includes an aggressively revanchist Russia. A problem that Louis-Vincent Gave referred to as “World War Four.”

Alas, Mr Ross ignores the elephant in the room. That the Saudis are not the victims in any of this. Their relentless push to establish extremist Wahhabi madrassas all over the Sunni Muslim world helped to create Al Qaeda and most of the 9/11 attackers. Their own textbooks declare the west to be an evil place, to be tolerated only while necessary. Above all, they have ceaselessly striven, since 1948, to stymie any peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors. By pushing to keep Palestine as an open wound, they ensured only that the Levant region would remain embroiled and steeped in pain, never achieving what the Saudis’ Hashemite rivals once dreamed-of — an alliance between Arabs and Jews that could strengthen all concerned.

Sixty-plus years ago, they decided to keep the Arab-Israeli simmering at near-boil, instead of helping to end it.   Now, as negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis reach a critical juncture, the Saudis might sweeten the deal with financial incentives that would finally salve this awful wound. Israel and the Levant and Egypt and Arabia have potential far beyond mere oil, if they were to help foster synergies, instead of trumped-up enmities.

That might seem worthwhile, creating a core of strength all through the region that would solve the Saudis’ security problem without a shot.  Oh, but if only if those grandsons of a genius are half as smart as their ancestor.

== The Pentagon is concerned… ==

… about many things.  I spent an entire day there, a couple of weeks ago, consulting with strategic planners, who have a whole lot on their minds — like the resurgence of a militarily advanced and aggressive Russia, after the Bush-era leaders pretty much disbanded our peer-capable military in favor of insurgency-fighting SWAT teams. Still, that’s not what has the senior officers and officials breaking into a sweat.

The nation’s military leadership is in unified agreement that climate change is real, and also that it poses a clear and present danger to the US and especially its armed forces. “The Pentagon’s thinking is revealed plainly and publicly in its own 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review Quadrennial-defense-2014, which features no fewer than eight direct, specific, and unambiguous evaluations of climate change as it relates to geopolitics and military strategy.”

See also: The Pentagon’s Guide to Overcoming Climate Change Denial.

Ah, but the U.S. Officer Corps is no longer respected in the heartland.  As of November 2013, 23 percent of Americans said they “didn’t believe in” climate change.  Which will be about as effective as not believing in a bullet that’s been fired at your nose.  No wonder a cult-like tenor has set in, waging war not just on science but every other clade or profession of knowledge and skill in American life.

To be clear, the unequivocal position by the U.S. military has had some effects upon the Fox News party line.  Facts like Russian bases erupting along the Arctic Ocean and the opening of the Northwest Passage to summer shipping are pretty undeniable… so Hannity and company have veered to changing the message: “All right, the climate is changing… but… but… climate has ALWAYS been changing and that don’t mean we gotta do anything!”

In fact, that’s a lie, top to bottom.  The last 6000 years has been among the most stable, climate-wise, in the last 20 million… and even so, small perturbations like the 1500s Little Ice Age wrought horrible havoc on nations and peoples. Any astrophysicist will show you how closely Earth skates along the inner edge of our sun’s “goldilocks” or habitable zone… and hence why we can afford only traces of greenhouse gas.

But the greatest sign of stunning low-IQ is how Fox-viewers never notice the change in catechism!  From “there’s no warming!” over to “all right it’s hotter: but prove that it’s human generated!”  It’s like the millions of Glenn Beck followers who never once asked “WHICH eight foreign governments did you say George Soros toppled?”

Unscientific-AmericaThese and dozens of other, never asked questions show that this is the greatest know-nothing campaign against a sapient, scientific civilization in 150 years. Possibly since the Inquisition.  And you have to ask: what do Rupert and his partners hope to gain?

Finally, connecting this story to the preceding one, um… you are aware who Rupert’s top co-owner of Fox News happens to be?  Maybe the rising Russia-Iran-Iraq-Syria axis will convince that House to stop financially supporting Murdoch’s campaign against American sanity.

== Aw heck… while we’re on the subject… ==

“Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns a 7 percent stake in News Corp — the parent company of Fox News — making him the largest shareholder outside the family of News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch. Alwaleed has grown close with the Murdoch enterprise…. Last weekend, at the right-wing Constitutional Coalition’s annual conference in St. Louis, Joseph Farah, publisher of the far right WorldNetDaily, blasted Fox News for its relationship with Alwaleed.”

Go ahead and dismiss the fact that this particular commentator is rather left wing. Or else… maybe look at the inarguably factual content and ask yourself if the hypnosis-rally at Fox News — which has deliberately torched any thought of compromise, negotiation or discourse in America — is really being perpetrated out of love of this country. Or else, perhaps, our Second Civil War is being instigated by those who want us harm.

== There’s a much bigger threat ==

TransactionFeeTerminateNew York State is (once again) stepping in to do what the US federal government should be doing (if it weren’t deliberately crippled by trumped-up civil war.)  New York’s attorney general has called for curbs on services provided to high-frequency traders, allowing giant firms with superfast AI systems to jump in between buyers and sellers and haul away the value that both saw in making a deal.  In nature this is called predatory parasitism, and I go into detail here: A Transaction Fee Might Save Capital Markets.

It is the next huge scandal.  It could easily be prevented. But the real reason to be concerned is deeper… much, much deeper.  It could make climate change look tame.

In related news…  One person is about to go nuclear in the financial computer arms race. He and his partners will make a $50 billion exaflop supercomputer for foreign exchange trading.

Ah… I, for one, welcome our new Skynet banker-overlords…

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Hypocrites stand up for Liars! While others hold out for truth…

= Hypocrites abandon all pretense of supporting competitive markets = 

Amici-curiae-cato-instituteOhio has a law on the books that criminalizes “lying” (as determined by the State) in political discourse.  In opposition, P.J. O’Rourke and the Cato Institute have filed what one observer calls “the funniest — and possibly best — amicus curiae brief to the United States Supreme Court, ever.”

Yep… maybe, to today’s snarky-smug cynics it’s “best,” but I’m getting tired of this fellow who has spent his life ridiculing any standard of decent behavior, no matter how loosely applied.

Sure, there was a long stretch in my youth when giving the finger to “standards” was a necessary phase and boy did we boomers take to it!  The most self-righteous generation in history used our mighty Power of Indignation to take on all sorts of stodgy, repressive authority: right on!  Breaking ancient taboos that ranged from racism and sexism to uptight “morality” over normal human libido… a whole industry burgeoned around the ethos of “screw you dad!” And in large measure — despite his heroism against Hitler and all that — Dad had it coming.

But self-righteousness can become a nasty habit and it is currently poisoning America, in particular.  Moreover, it just downright stupid to claim that there are NO standards that decent people might universally apply.  Like “don’t deliberately harm people.”  And “don’t repeat deliberate, out-and-out lies that you’ve been confronted with, countless times and that you know damned well to be false.”

Cato-HypocrisyIn denying even that extremely loose and generous definition of “lying,” P.J. O’Rourke’s credibility is like the so-called “libertarian” “scholars” at Cato, an intellectual brothel, bought and paid for by an oligarchy that hires mouthpieces to concoct rationalizations and excuses for an oligarchic putsch that will end real competition, real capitalism, real competitive enterprise and real freedom. We’ll say anything you want, oh masters who pay the bills.

They fulfill what has become a complete (and unnoticed by media) betrayal of Adam Smith and the American founders — who knew very well one core fact: that the truest enemy of freedom and fair competition has seldom been civil servants.  Across 6000 years, most of the time, those good things were routinely crushed by cabals of cheating, competition-suppressing owner-feudal lords. The same caste that Smith and the Founders denounced.

In this particular case, it’s no wonder that O’Rourke and Cato snark and sneer and ridicule — calling today’s tsunami of organized lying “part of political discourse.” The ability to lie without consequences s fundamental to the Koch-Murdoch-Sa’udi campaign to destroy American aptitude for pragmatic negotiation and instead stoke Civil War. (In fairness, it was part and parcel of the far-left, back when they were the most looming threat to freedom. Even today, the left spawns something called “postmodernism” that also denies the existence of any kind of verification or truth.)

No scientist would ever have any truck with such nonsense.  Nor any medical doctor, teacher, journalist or any of the other clades of knowledge who are declared to be enemies by this new Know Nothing movement. Yes, much in life is contingent, arguable, unproved or at least tentative, but the crux of science is that we build a hierarchy of improving models.  And there comes a point where we can say “that’s simply false.”

Cato-O'Rourke-Fox-News-Supreme-CourtThe Big Liars’ goal – to make slander and deception consequence-free – has a perfect illustration: Fox is the only “news” outlet ever to sue not for protection from inadvertent errors or accidental falsehoods but from any accountability for relentlessly repeated and knowing lies.

Oh, the snarks by Cato and O’Rourke can be funny and indeed, they have a point. As illustrated in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic satire “Harrison Bergeron,” law-centered “solutions” to human deficiencies in character are inherently problematic.  Naturally, one can concoct a worst-case version of an anti-lying law to ridicule as an example of statist-meddling, thought-policing and nanny-finger-wagging prudery. O’Rourke is really good at skewering that sort of thing.  We boomers specialize in sarcasm. (And our vastly better kids will make a great world, when our sanctimonious boomer asses shuffle off this mortal coil.)

But that is not how anti-deception laws would work in any real America, and O’Rourke knows it.  Any such law would have to put stiff burdens of proof on the accuser that an assertion was deliberately public, known to be factually false, that the perpetrator had ignored repeated confrontations with the truth, and that the perpetrator was abusing a position of public trust.  Moreover, the sliding scale of penalties would consist almost entirely of retractions.

DisputationArenasArrowCoverIndeed, one potentially great outcome would be public fora for weighing factual evidence, as I describe in my Disputation Arenas paper. Looseness is an essential feature of American life and no one will go after internet polemicists bandying stupid-ass untrue jpegs.

But there has to be a backstop!  A point where relentlessly repeated lying by media hits a wall called Proved Truth. A point where the resulting shaming actually reduces the public credibility of the Goebbels-level Big Lie machines, out there.

That sort of thing will not suppress discourse.  It will sway discourse toward something we used to be good at.  Conversation.  Fair argument.  Debate.  Comparison of real evidence. And, ultimately, a word that the Murdochians do their best to rail against, hobble, cripple and destroy… negotiation.

Only dig it… the whole thing will soon be moot as technology provides us with actual, bona fide lie detectors.  They aren’t here yet, but as this article shows, researchers are zeroing in.

And see where it may go.

== A Miscellany of much smarter people… ==

…than the Cato sellouts surrounds us!  Let’s start with a woman who is incredibly American. “A California woman who applied for American citizenship had her application rejected because she identified herself as a “conscientious objector” who will not bear arms for the United States because she objects to war on secular moral grounds.” She wrote: “As a woman in my mid-30’s, I understand that it is unlikely that I will ever be asked to take up arms to defend this country. I could have easily checked ‘yes’, sealed the envelope, and sent it out,”  so, let’s see — taking a self-righteous moral stance on abstract principle, knowing that (1) the matter is of moderate memic importance and (2) that she’ll actually suffer very few negative outcomes…?  Yep. She’s already a real American. Proud to keep her.

Is MJ Harmless?  I have always liked California’s outspoken, slightly weird but fantastically effective Governor Jerry Brown. He so often hits the nail on the head. “California Governor Jerry Brown said he is not sure legalizing marijuana is a good idea in his state because the country could lose its competitive edge if too many people are getting stoned.”

Oh I can hear howls from most of you, out there. And mark me: it is terrific that we are finally moving away from the insipidly insane and counterproductive Drug War!  Marijuana is a lesser problem and should be treated as a minor vice, compared with so many others. And yet…

… those who go too far the other way and say it is not a vice, at all, are coo-koo birds.  Sure, as with alcohol, millions can use it once a week with no deleterious effects. And even habitual users aren’t dangerous to others, the way alcohol abusers can be!  And yet… those who deny MJ’s one major down side are hypocrites or blinkered fools.  For a large fraction of heavy users, it is an Ambition Destroyer.  It mellows guys down below the energy level it takes to get up and get innovative-transforming work done.  You all know guys like that.  And just because MJ is not the problem that puritan idiots said it was… that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem at all… one that we should keep thinking about.

And you can see the common theme with my screed about the mockers of all standards (above).  Just because a prudish system was 90% wrong, don’t compound the travesty by ignoring the 1% that was core and right.

Is the “age of the gun” as the Great Equalizer over?  See a thought-provoking argument that the past 700 years have been the Age of the Gun – when barely-trained infantrymen were the basis of military power. Says Chris Phoenix: “The implication I see is that Enlightenment ideals may have been based on, or at least supported by, the fact that a fairly small amount of work and training could create an army out of ordinary people.  But a quadcopter-mounted gun beats an infantryman.  So what happens, socially, when the leaders no longer have any fear at all of the people?”

Jefferson-rifleMy answer: It all depends.  This assumes that citizen militias cannot have quasi equivalent quadcopters. An Orwellian state would make sure of that.  But an Orwellian state does not mix well with the ethos that still reigns in the civilian population from which the military draws its recruits.  (The Animal House ethos that P.J. O’Rourke embodies.) Which makes it very hard to make a cohesively repressive occupying force, or a very large coterie of defection-free henchmen.  See this illustrated in the 2008 film about drones called SLEEP DEALER.   And in my own novel EXISTENCE… and in this discussion of “The Jefferson Rifle.”

Oh, but finally… These guys are a hoot!  The “New Monarchists” actually dare to show their faces… as we near the anniversary of the week when two microcephalic grandsons of Queen Victoria ignored every plea by real statesmen and plunged the world into a war from which today, a century later, we are still recovering.  Indeed, these guys are focusing especially on the Romanov (czarist) house and even suggesting Putin marry into it for legitimacy!

Oy!  Talk about microcephalic!

Preposterous-plausible-quoteWant an irony?  My short story “The Fourth Vocation of George Gustaf” makes the argument for a mild constitutional monarchy better than any of these guys do! So does Robert Heinlein’s DOUBLE STAR.  And mind you, neither of us really believed it!  I mean Gee Wiz, if you’re going to make a case for the preposterous, at least make it sound vaguely plausible.

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