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?)

 

Leave a comment

Filed under history, politics

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under science

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? ;-)

Leave a comment

Filed under science

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.

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under science

Will the “true 21st century” bring us back to feudalism?

Exactly a century ago, a lone gunman set in motion events that transformed the world — ending the lives of millions and shattering empires. With that anniversary in mind, I pondered the clear fact that the last three centuries all seemed to start on their FOURTEENTH YEAR. The brutal arc and themes of the 20th Century – a concave pit that hit its nadir in 1943 – all of it started with shots fired in Sarajevo in June 1914. And 1714 and 1814 were years of similar, transforming portent.

Century-Begin-2014 See my explanation… along with speculation where we might be heading, if 2014 proves to be the “real beginning” of the 21st Century. And sure… that great, over-arching, 21st Century theme might turn out to be pragmatic, adult problem-solving, science and reason! Heck, throw in the Age of Aquarius! I’m for all of that.

But let’s be frank, the odds have always been against those traits ever getting the upper hand for long. Too many deep, animal drives have propelled most human cultures toward slumping into pyramids of hierarchy and domineering privilege. And rationalization, as portrayed in this poignantly sarcastic piece in the Onion.

Conniving cheaters and their lickspittle excuse-makers will always be an anchor on our ankles, dragging us backward.

== Traitors to the Enlightenment ==

How far does it go? Corey Pein takes on (and eviscerates) one extreme cult — the New Feudalism — a weird and deeply sick new type of mind-herpes that has infected some of our worst indignation junkies out there — resentful fanatics who love drawing attention by declaring hatred of democracy, egalitarian justice and science, pledging fealty instead to rule by a new lordly caste.

Neoreactionary-brinLike a parody of evil techie libertarians, theses fellows would be funny, if they weren’t potentially dangerous. See my own take on this “movement,” which declares hatred of all the things that brought us the richest, wisest, gentlest, most productive, insightful, generous, creative, artistic, scientific and enlightened era of all time. Indeed, delusional rationalization is the greatest human talent, and the one gift in which pathetic under-achievers truly excel.

See the root cause of all this, in my talk: “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?”  Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!

Mr. Pein may go a bit too far by interpolating and extrapolating similar views that he attributes to Silicon Valley libertarian-investor Peter Thiel. Thiel likes to poke at a very wide horizon of concepts and he is entitled, even if some of those what-if experiments border on silliness. I can hardly throw stones at that trait! And Thiel has done enough pragmatic delivery of genuine goods and services that he is no under-achiever. Again, if he wants to poke at our heads with provocative ideas — he’s entitled.

indignation-junkiesAs for the others? Facts will not stall indignation junkies, even when nearly all of their assertions prove diametrically opposite to actual truth. It is the Rapture of the Ingrates.

Oh, one final, amusing thing about the neo-feudalists? Their hilarious adoration of Vladimir Putin.

== Putin… the expected one? ==

I kid you not. Track the admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is lavish and open among the neo-feudalists but only softens a little — to “grudging admiration” —among the pundits at Fox. And why not? Everything now happening in Russia suits the Fox Design, as does the Putin narrative. Religion, hierarchy, inherited status, venerated values, top-down monopolies organized around families…

During the Crimea takeover, President Putin derided Western notions of tolerance and universal rights as “barren and neutered.” Said Putin, it is time to resist this scourge of “diversity” creeping in from the West. “More and more people in the world support our position on defending traditional values.”  He asserted Russia’s role to “prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.”

UnlikelinessPositiveSumSocietyI do not blame him for saying this! It is, after all, exactly (almost word-for-word) the dismissal that zero-sum thinkers — even very bright ones — always come up with, when faced with the stunning successes of the Enlightenment West. Our wealth and productivity and power and freedom and joys must have come at a cost! Something precious must have been sacrificed in a “tradeoff.”

Osama, Stalin, Hitler, even the Civil War Confederates… all said the same thing in various ways. Western/Northern decadence must have been purchased at cost of our “soul”… or manhood, or grit, or resilience, or style, or willingness to sacrifice.

Zero-summers must believe this! The only alternative, when staring jealously at our innumerable successes, would be to admit “those people in the scientific-tolerant West know a better way to live.” And rather than utter those words, they would rather die, or else make up a good story.

Every generation of Americans, especially, has had to disprove the Zero Sum Canard, sometimes at great cost. In comparative terms, we got off easy with 9/11. The grit and determination exhibited by New Yorkers, who stood atop the rubble and shouted “Is that all you got?” was capped by the courageous rebellion of the passengers on flight UA93, who reacted within minutes and showed what resilience and grit truly mean. No zero-sum society would ever see common citizens react with such rapid agility or guts.

Positive-Sum-GameI do not blame the zero-summers for not understanding the Positive Sum Game. Zero-sum thinking is deeply rooted in human nature. But understanding why they go back, again and again, to the same dreary rationalization does not mean we must put up with it. Because it always forces us into a position of pain, having to prove, yet again, that we have (figurative) cojones.

We cannot surrender our method — our positive sum revolution. Not even while merchants of fear on both the left and the right are yammering at us to give up and give in to despair.

== Speaking of ingrates… ==

With just a few exceptions, the states whose politicians most-loudly preach small government tend to be much more reliant on it than other states. Red States by far are more dependent on the federal government and are poorer. In aggregate, these states take back much more from the federal government than they put in. More of their gross domestic product comes from direct and indirect government outlays. This turns the takers vs makers debate on its head as those pushing that message represent the end they portend to despise.

Quality-life-america-countyAnd more — a composite ranking (map) differentiates those counties where Americans are healthy and wealthy, educated and thin… versus struggling, poor and obese.

Sorry. The left has its haters of the enlightenment, too. But our biggest problem, right now, is the New Confederacy. Instead of seceding, this time, they think they have a better plan. They are tearing it all down from within.

 

1 Comment

Filed under future, politics, society

Media Challenge FAA Drone Ban — and drones conveying beauty?

MEDIA-DRONE-BANDrones have already been used on several occasions in the US to document the news. Last week, a storm chaser in Arkansas used a drone to record the havoc wrought by a tornado. But the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been very slow to adopt rules for private and corporate drone use and has taken a draconian zero-tolerance policy on its interim ban on almost all such uses. Now, a number of media companies, including The New York Times and The Associated Press, accused the Federal Aviation Authority of violating the First Amendment.

Is this a difficult problem? Sure! Just imagine a future city scape abuzz with irritating mechanical vultures — delivery owls and snoopy eye-spies, swooping about, colliding with buildings and each other and power lines, causing blackouts and raining shattered, glowing parts on all below… at minimum city use should involve devices capable of situational awareness and detection of collision hazards and minimum separation rules. But dig it – we will only get there if the experiments can proceed in a few cities to see what really happens!

Start with Houston. They don’t give a darn anyway….

== Drones, androids and robots bring you the news! ==

ROBOTS-NEWSWill human journalists become obsolete? I participated in an online (HuffPost) panel discussion about the latest trend… robotizing the news media.  Here are just a few examples of the trend.

Japan Unveils  It’s First Android Newscaster. Not exactly uncanny, yet.  But they’re busy. With an expected 7% drop in population, their interest in automation is very high.

AP Will Use Robots to Write Some Business Stories.   – 4000 robo stories in the time it takes human writers to do 300.

Shades of Max Headroom! The following couch discussion of this is… fluffy and made me want to replace the panel with robots!  Another News Outlet Is Using Robots To Write Stories

Apparently most sports stories have come to us this way for several years.  (I suspect decades, even generations.)

== And more drones…  ==

Drones… everywhere!  Illustrating what has sometimes been called Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law… that cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile faster than ML. Now… watch how the flying cams are getting far more rugged, using a simple gimbal in a cage approach!  Watchbirds here we come, yippee.

Oh, but see the very end of this blog for one of the best links you’ll ever click, brought to you by a drone.

== The insurrectionary recourse? ==

citizen-uprisingAll the ructions and revolutions overseas raise an earnest question: could it happen here? Dialing in closer: is it still even theoretically possible for a mass citizen uprising to topple the government of the modern, western state? Mr. Harry Bentham makes an earnest effort and raises a few interesting points in “Does Modern Tech Render the 2nd Amendment Redundant?

Alas, his appraisal winds up being rather shallow, simply reiterating his arm-waved and evidence-free assertion that a mass uprising, armed with civilian rifles, could naturally and easily overcome forces of the modern state. Mr. Bentham leaves aside any discussion that:

- Any mass civil ruction will likely feature as many armed civilian “tories” as “rebels.”

- Local police have lately been heavily up-armed to close to military levels. Their loyalties in a crisis would complicate matters.

Jefferson-rifle   – Everything depends upon the morale and attitudes of the troops. If they retain strong connectivity and identification with the populace, they will be unreliable instruments of repression.

These and other factors were discussed in my own treatment on this issue – The Jefferson Rifle: Guns and the Insurrection Myth – where I appraise whether modern westerners — and Americans in particular — still retain an “insurrectionary recourse.”

And why attachment to that ideal is THE driver behind the refusal of the Gun Lobby to consider even modest compromises.

 

Fireworks== Finally… drones and sheer beauty 

I cannot recall when last an item of media so delighted me. I am… for once… speechless. Though proud to live in …
oh, just click this. Full screen. 

Leave a comment

Filed under science, society, technology, transparency

Brilliant innovators – hopeful signs

First a reminder that two of my TED style talks are up. THE FUTURE IS HERE Science meets Science Fiction Imagination, Inspiration and Invention was a lavish event last May in Washington DC, presented by the Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Here’s a link to my talk: Otherness: will we supply our own new diversity? (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!)

Also “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?” My talk at TEDxUCSD finally offers a public version of this disturbing notion I’ve been discussing for years — that an unseen addiction is destroying our civilization.  (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare! )

== Innovation will save us ==

Dean-kamen-slingshot-waterYou cynics out there had better not read this article about one of the heroes of our age, Dean Kamen, whose new water-distillation machines may provide healthy supplies to hundreds of millions of needy people, slashing disease rates and even preventing war. Kamen’s knack for making money while attacking “impossible problems” goes way back. His FIRST Robotics League has made nerdy inventiveness cool and high-status and fun on thousands of high school campuses. Guys like him — and Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and others — prove that it’s not about left-vs-right. It is about deciding to be confident problem solvers, helping us all to win the positive sum games.

What was the federal government’s role in starting the shale-gas revolution? There is much ado in the press over the arrival (long expected by some of us) of cheap natural gas and renewed supplies of domestic petroleum, developed inside North America. The prospect of U.S. and Canadian energy independence is shaking up political dynamics all over the globe and (among other effects) helping to fuel a new renaissance in American manufacturing.

What seems bizarre is how this has become a crowing point for the Right. The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal regularly runs opinion pieces that criticize federal efforts to advance energy technologies and their commercialization… and completely ignore the past federal role in research and stimulation and infrastructure, that made the shale boom possible. See this piece in Physics Today. Can you spell h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y?

The gas industry itself has spoken on behalf of federal research efforts. “The DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it,” said Mitchell Energy’s former vice president Dan Steward. “You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”

== Inheritance of acquired… nervousness? ==

My colleagues Greg Bear and Mark Anderson have been among those who for years have suggested that Darwinian puritanism blinds us to certain ways that Lamarck might have been at least a little bit right. That some acquired characteristics can be passed to the next generation. Now comes experimental validation of their suspicion… in a way that many of us always knew in our gut. That trauma can get passed down the generations.

FEAR-PARENTSSee this report: Can We Inherit Fear From Our Parents? In a laboratory experiment, traumatized mice appeared to mature normally. It was only when researchers subjected them to behavioral tests that differences became apparent. The traumatised mice appeared to be reckless, wandering into bright, open spaces that mice usually avoid. Yet they also appeared to be depressed. When placed in a tank of water they gave up and floated instead of trying to swim to safety. 

“When males from the traumatised litters fathered offspring, their pups displayed similar abnormal behaviour even though they had never experienced trauma. The pups’ insulin and blood glucose levels were also lower than in normal mice – a symptom of early life stress. The offspring seemed to have inherited the effects of their fathers’ trauma. Furthermore, the next generation, that is the grandchildren of the original stressed mice, also showed abnormal behaviours. How could trauma be transmitted down the generations?

“The researchers analysed the traumatised fathers’ brain tissue, specifically in a region called the hippocampus, where memories are formed. They noticed larger than normal quantities of tiny RNA molecules called microRNA. Like tiny switches, these molecules are known to turn the activity of genes on or off.

“An abundance of this microRNA was also detected in the traumatised fathers’ sperm and in the brain tissue of their offspring. Could it be that the microRNA was somehow imprinted with the experience of the trauma, transmitting the memory to the offspring? To answer this, the researchers extracted the microRNA from the sperm of traumatised mice and injected it into embryos. The pups that developed from these embryos displayed the same behavioural and metabolic abnormalities as the traumatised fathers, while pups injected with RNA from un-traumatised fathers did not. It was strong support for the hypothesis that the sperm RNA was transmitting the experience of trauma.”

== More science ==

Thorne-Zytkow-neutron-starA red supergiant that contains, in its bowels, a neutron star? The existence of such an object was first proposed by (my friend) Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Anna Zytkow, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK. Now there is a strong candidate to be an observed Thorne-Zytkow object. Amazing.

Goodbye High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). Conspiracy theorists have accused the program of doing everything from mind control to global communications jamming. Now bulldozers await as the research program (on interesting things, not mind control) wraps up.

Exobiologists surveyed more than 1,000 planets for planet density, temperature, substrate (liquid, solid or gas), chemistry, distance from its central star and age. They developed and computed the Biological Complexity Index (BCI) suggesting 1 to 2 percent of the planets showed a BCI rating higher than Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a subsurface global ocean that may harbor forms of life. With about 10 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the BCI yields 100 million plausible planets. At a glance, it seems a shallow conclusion, in part because Kepler results skew heavily toward massive planets orbiting close to their stars. And because Europa-style moons have no need for a Goldilocks Zone and hence may be pervasive.

Neuroscientists have suspected for some time that the brain has some capacity to direct the manufacturing of new neurons. Now generative neurons that stimulate stem cell production of more neurons have been found.

See the “raptor” two legged robot that can speed faster than a man.

TheGapIn The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals. Psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a “definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose.” Says Ray Kurzweil: “Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children, and human evolution, he surveys the abilities most often cited as uniquely human—language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind, and mental time travel—and finds that two traits account for most of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: Namely, our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on scenarios, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. These two traits explain how our species was able to amplify qualities that we inherited in parallel with our animal counterparts; transforming animal communication into language, memory into mental time travel, sociality into mind reading, problem solving into abstract reasoning, traditions into culture, and empathy into morality.”

Let Phil Plait show you (and explain) the stunning and strange surface of Saturn’s moon, Phoebe.

== Amazing, if true. ==

HP’s new computer technology can manage 160 petabytes of data in a mere 250 nanoseconds.

‘There is something about the brains of high-IQ individuals that prevents them from quickly seeing large, background-like motions.’ Very interesting re differences in brain function. Interesting grist for deep pondering… or else (as I’ve seen)… we’ll see this used by dogmatists proclaiming “see? Smart people must be stupid!”

Papyrus-plant-bookA fascinating article in Salon, from the book Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars” by John Gaudet, describes how the papyrus plant gave ancient Egyptians the ability to make boats and use their water world.

Finally, a glimpse at male-female vocabulary differences showing we still have a way to go.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under science, society, technology

Everything leaks – get used to it.  Use it. Also: is Skynet coming?

== Will Wall Street give us Terminator? Others weigh in ==

AGI-artificial-general-intelligence A few years ago, I posed a chilling hypothesis, that AGI — or “artificial general intelligence” that’s equivalent or superior to human — might “evolve-by-surprise,” perhaps even suddenly, out of advanced computational systems. And yes, that’s the garish-Hollywood “Skynet” scenario leading to Terminator.

Only I suggested a twist — that it would not be military or government or university computers that generate a form of intelligence, feral and self-interested and indifferent to human values. Rather, that a dangerous AI might emerge out of the sophisticated programs being developed by Wall Street firms, to help them game (many might say cheat) our economic system.

Indeed, more money is being poured into AI research by Goldman-Sachs alone than by the top five academic centers, put together, and all of it helping to engender systems with a central ethos of predatory opportunism and parasitic amorality.Oh, and did I mention it’s all in secret?  The perfect Michael Crichton scenario.

Barrat-Final-INvention Now comes a book by documentary filmmaker James Barrat — Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era — reviewed here on the ThinkAdvisor site — Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan? — in which Barrat discusses a scenario sketched out by Alexander Wissner-Gross, a scientist-engineer with affiliations at Harvard and MIT, that seems remarkably similar to mine. Opines Wissner-Gross:

“If you follow the money, finance has a decent shot at being the primordial ooze out of which AGI emerges.”

Barrat elaborates: : “In other words, there are huge financial incentives for your algorithm to be self-aware—to know exactly what it is and model the world around it.”

The article is well-worth a look, though it leaves out the grand context — that “emergent-evolving” AGI make up only one category out of six different general varieties of pathways that might lead to AI. To be honest, I don’t consider it to be the most likely.

But that has not bearing on what we — as a civilization — should be doing, which is taking reasonable precautions. Looking ahead and pondering win-win ways that we can move forward while evading the most obviously stupid mistakes.

Secret schemes of moohlah masters — that’s no recipe for wisdom. Far better to do it all in the light.

== Everything leaks ==

Heartbleed: Yes It’s Really That Bad.  So says the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Heartbleed exploits a critical flaw in OpenSSL, which is used to secure hundreds of thousands of websites including major sites like Instagram, Yahoo, and Google. This article in WIRED also suggests that you can redouble your danger by rushing to trust fly by night third parties offering to fix the flaw… and meanwhile, “big boys” of industry aren’t offering general solutions, only patches to their own affected systems.

The crux? (1) change your passwords on sites where financial or other vital info is dealt-with, then gradually work your way through the rest, as each site offers you assurances. (2) try not to have the passwords be the same. (3) help ignite political pressure for the whole world of online password security to have a rapid-response component (not dominance) offered by a neutral agency… one that is totally transparent, neutral and separate from all law or espionage “companies.” And…

Everything-leaks…and (4) might I ask if you’ve noticed that this kind of event happens about twice a year? And it has been that way since the 1980s? Each of the events a scandal in its own right… hackers grab half a million Target card numbers… or Microsoft springs a leak… or Goldman Sachs… or Equifax… or Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange and Edward Snowden rip off veils of government secrecy… and pundits howl and the public quakes and no one ever seems to draw the correct conclusion –

- that everything eventually leaks! And that maybe the entire password/secrecy model is inherently flawed. Or that there is another, different model that is inherently far more robust, that has only ever been mentioned in a few places, so far.

Here is one of those places.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers remain a vital part of reciprocal accountability. I would like to see expanded protections that simultaneously expand reciprocal accountability and citizen sousveillance… while allowing our intitutions to function in orderly ways.

Whistle-blower-lawsNow this announcement that the Project of Government Oversight (POGO) install SecureDrop… a new way for whistle blowers to deposit information anonymously and shielded from authorities trying to root out leakers. As author of The Transparent Society, I sometimes surprise folks by straddling this issue and pointing out that the needs of the bureaucracy should not be discounted completely! Or by reflex. Whistle blowing falls across a very wide spectrum and if we are sophisticated citizens we will admit that the revealers of heinous-illegal plots deserve more protection than mewling attention junkies.

Still, there is a real role to be played by those pushing the envelope. Read more about Pogo here.

Then again… Facebook can now listen in on your activities with a new audio recognition feature for its mobile app that can turn on smartphones’ microphones to “hear” what songs or television shows are playing in the background. Sounds cool… um, not.

== Brandeis the Seer ==

The famous dissent in Olmstead v. United States (1928)To , by Justice Louis Brandeis, is a vital mirror to hold up to our times. Take the most famous part of eloquent dissent, regarding a seminal wiretapping case:

Brandeis-criminal-law-olmstead“Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher,” Brandeis concluded. “For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means — to declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal — would bring terrible retribution.”

Which brings us to Andrew O’Hehir’s article on Salon, recently, using Brandeis as a foil to discuss – and denounce – some recent polemics against Edward Snowden and his journalist outlet, Glenn Greenwald. To be honest, I found O’Hehir tendentious and sanctimonious, but there were some cogent moments that made the article worthwhile, especially when he shone some light on the incredible prescience Brandeis showed, in his 1928 dissent:

“If Brandeis does not literally predict the invention of the Internet and widespread electronic surveillance, he comes pretty close,” for Brandeis wrote, “The progress of science in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wire-tapping …Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home.” Brandeis even speculated that psychiatrists of the future may be able to read people’s “unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions” as evidence. O’Hehir notes, “…as far as I know we haven’t reached that dystopian nightmare yet. (But if that’s the big final revelation from the Snowden-Greenwald trove of purloined NSA secrets, you read it here first.)”

== Transparency media ==

Anyone care to review this for us? Post-Privacy and Democracy: Can there be Moral and Democratic Development in a Totally Transparent Society? by Patrick Held. It provides arguments why the end of privacy or at least secrecy might be inevitable given our individual demand for technology.

Leave a comment

Filed under society, technology, transparency

A War on Reason? Many cliches you believe are “opposite to true”

In this era of argument-by-facebook-jpeg, there was a lot of positive vibe for the simple graphic that I posted, a while back, showing that the U.S. budget deficit suffers a positive 2nd-Derivative (2D) — that accelerates toward skyrocketing debt — during almost every year of every Republican administration since Eisenhower. And that the 2D — contrary to every “truthy” slogan we’ve been taught — improves or decelerates during almost every year of every Democratic presidential term.

Here’s a whole site (nonpartisan) of tax graphics of interest.

WAR-ON-REASONSo, why do people continue to believe “common knowledge” things that are diametrically opposite to true? Other examples abound.

For example, Democratic presidents always beef up the U.S. Border Patrol and reduce illegal immigration, while GOP presidents almost always cripple the Border Patrol and open the floodgates of illegals. It is right there in the budgets and manpower figures, with the one exception that G.W. Bush started down the usual GOP path, slashing Border Patrol funding… but then had to increase it again after 9/11.

If you actually thought about it, you would understand why both parties’ actions run diametrically opposite to their reputations and rhetoric. Dems actually benefit from LEGAL immigration, which increases the potential numbers of loyal union members and voters. Unions do not want illegals undermining wages… which is something the top GOP masters do want. If you hate the ethnic changes in America, fine, but go after the dems for legal immigration, which they did open wider, and stop obsessing on the much smaller illegal influx, which your own party has relentlessly caused. But if you are that kind of person, logic is wasted on you, anyway.

Deregulate-WordThe same cognitive dissonance between cliched expectation and reality can be found in “de-regulation of excessive government bureaucracy.”

Which party talks and talks and talks about that? Ah, but does the GOP ever do anything about it? Even during the many years when they held every lever of power?

In fact: ironically, it was the democrats who disbanded the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) that Ayn Rand deemed the worst example of “captured” government, favoring railroad moguls over competitors. It was the democrats who disbanded the horrid old Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and restored airline competition. They unleashed the wild-open Internet upon the world, with almost no regulation at all! Dems did every other major DE-regulation of the last century except in one industry.

Finance. Wall Street and banking. The GOP led the charge deregulating there, for the simple reason that regulation of finance is desperately necessary to prevent massive raids on our economy. And rampage raids on our wallets happened after every GOP-led “deregulation” of finance, especially in the 1920s, the 1980s and the mid-2000s.

And so the question is raised… why do all the pundits and journalists and pols and online yammerers never even glance at any of these horridly opposite-to-true cliches?

== The real war is against reality ==

WAR-EXPERTISELikewise, the War on Science… and against all smartypants professions. Forty-three years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, roughly forty percent of scientists and twenty-six percent of U.S. journalists (the people in society who interview and question the widest samplings of Americans) called themselves Republicans, only slightly fewer than called themselves democrats.

Today, just 7% of US journalists so identify and less than 5% of scientists.

What’s changed? Similar steep declines are seen in nearly all of the professions that require extensive knowledge and skill, from teaching and medicine to economics, law, law-enforcement and civil service to university professors in almost every field, even to the U.S. military officer corps.

When I ask my GOP friends (and I remain a registered Republican) to explain this, they reply with blanket condemnation of each of these professions, calling them rife with pointy-headed drones and herd-following myopics, betraying their fields by plunging into political bias. Science, they declare, has been betrayed by the scientists themselves!

An interesting assertion, argued generally by that most-persuasive modern device, the mass-forwarded facebook jpeg! Today’s postage-free equivalent of a crazy-uncle chain letter! How much more convincing than actually talking to the people who can tell Bernoulli’s equation from a cellular automata model… from a hole in the ground.

otherculturewar(Name a single exception to this demonization (mostly by the right, but also by some elements of the radical left) of folks who actually know a lot! After a decade spent asking this question publicly, I have seen just three professions listed that are of high intellectual attainment and skill, yet have escaped regular attack by the central cathedral of Know-Nothingness — Fox News. Can you name those three?)

The mass-desertion of the GOP by all the smart people does not discredit Smart People. It discredits a “side” that has gone crazy, by waging war on smart people. This is no longer “conservatism” in any recognizable sense, but rather a cult. Goldwater and Buckley are spinning in their graves.

 

== And Finally ==

All right, this is just terrific. A generic “why I am right and you are wrong” anthem for our (insanely self-righteous) times.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under media, society

May I bring up climate change?

OCO_spacecraft-high1A few days ago, I drove up the Califonia coast to help my son move. The trip coincided with the attempted (3 am) launch from Vandenberg AFB of JPL’s Orbiting Carbon Observatiory — OCO-2 — which will nail down Earth’s CO2 cycle. OCO is part of a constellation of five earth-sensing satellites bring launched just this year. (The first OCO failed, weirdly, and others were canceled, back during the Bush Administration. Whereupon it took a while to re-start the earth-sensing programs.)

That late night – early morning – my son and I stood with 1000 invited onlookers, not very far from the pad. In fog that was deemed “no problem,” we murmured along with fellow True Believers in science as the count-down reached T-minus forty seconds… and the announcer called “hold-hold-hold – there’s no water!” Alas! Someone forgot to turn on the water sprayers near the rocket nozzles, meant to dampen the sonic vibration when they ignited, and – with the 30 second window lost – the launch was scrubbed. (This keeps happening to me!) We could have gone back the next morning at 3am, but we were already wiped…

Still — OCO went up! And civilization ekes another small step forward, against the screaming resistance of ankle draggers who want us wallowing in dark ages.

==The smart-rich stand up for their own long-term interest: civilization==

Recall a while back, when I cited Greg Page, executive chairman of Cargill, Inc., who leads a large group of very conservative agri-businessmen that — despite strong GOP bias — broke with the Fox Party Line on climate -- turning instead to face our desperate need to save the planet.

Climate-changeThey aren’t the only ones! Think. What businesses will be hurt most by the ever rising instabilities we face? News item: an insurance company is suing nearly 200 Chicago-area towns for failing to do more to prevent damages it says are linked to climate change. Farmers Insurance is asking the communities to return flood claims from the spring of 2013, which caused at least $218 million in losses. The towns should have done more to fortify their sewers and stormwater drains, the group argues.

So, as the smart-practical conservatives peel away, what is the Fox-Koch end game plan for when obscurant denialist delaying tactics hit the inevitable wall? It happened before, to “cars don’t cause smog!” And when — after 25 years and 20 million lost lives — the Tobacco Lobby finally surrendered and admitted “we lied.”

Will they declare “we NEVER obstructed!”

To hasten that day, here’s the bullet I find most effective, because your crazy uncle will not have an answerOcean acidification.

Roll the words over your tongue, and your keyboard.  Ocean Acidification.

It is blatantly happening. It has no other possible cause than increasing atmospheric CO2. Watch, when you raise this point, what happens next! As your crazy uncle quickly changes the subject by pointing somewhere else and yelling “squirrel!”

== Just how evil is efficiency? ==

CAFE-AUTO-FUEL-STANDARDSUnder the new, 2009 CAFE standards, the U.S. auto industry is required to raise the average fuel efficiency of its vehicles to 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025. But consumers have been slow to adopt hybrid technology, so car companies have to find other ways to get fuel savings. All automakers are pushing efficiency R&D hard. Fuel economy is right up there with safety. This article describes some of the innovative ways that the companies are making cars far lighter while just as strong and safe.

The GOP delayed raising auto efficiency standards for 25 years, shouting it would “destroy Detroit.” When the CAFE standards were finally raised, in Obama’s 1st year, guess what happened? (1) The GOP tried to destroy the U.S. auto industry by refusing loans to GM and Chrysler (loans that are now 90% repaid). (2) The mileage standards are working! Mileage is rising rapidly, American drivers are saving billions at the pump, the automakers are highly profitable, the air is cleaner…

And this is a perfect example of TWODA. Improvements in efficiency that are win-wins, that would help us deal with Climate Change and that would still be worthwhile, even if every single climate scientist turns out to be an insane idiot (as depicted on Fox!)

twoda-brinTWODA – Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway – whether or not climate change is real. (It is real, by the way.) In other words, there are scads of things we can do, without risk of “ruining the economy.” (Almost all TWODA measures would help the economy, in fact, not hinder it.)

Simple and relatively modest investments in R&D, in efficiency, in infrastructure and new technologies that would all be worthwhile, even if all the pointy-headed “alarmists” proved to be absolutely 100% mistaken.

Oh, and on the off chance that 97% of climate, weather and atmospheric scientists, and nearly all the science, prove to be right, after all? The guys and gals who gave us the ten day weather report, who successfully model climate on 6 planets and actually know the Navier-Stokes equations and cellular automata models… (do you?) What if — just maybe — the folks who actually know stuff turn out to be right?

Then we’d have taken prudent measures to save a world for our kids. TWODA.

So why have the masters of one of our parties propagandized like mad against TWODA? Against even modest measures to improve efficiency? Against even sitting down and discussing modest efficiency measures?

Because they are the only ones whose wallets would be hurt by TWODA ! Coal Barons and foreign petro-sheiks (including those who co-own Fox).

ClimateSkepticsUse this! As they backpedal from “there’s no warming!” to “yes the ice caps are melting and the US Navy is worried, but the SUN is doing it!” to “Okay it’s not the sun, but it ain’t a greenhouse!” to “Okay it’s a greenhouse, but it’s too late already and any effort to ameliorate it would destroy the economy!”… as they backpedal and dodge and weave, have one word in your hip pocket. TWODA.

But again. The most effective thing to raise is ocean acidification. It won’t convert them! No logic or facts can do that. But at least you’ll get a giggle when they point offstage and yell “squirrel!”

3 Comments

Filed under science