The post-Covid world: potential game-changers

These have been boom times for “futurists,” a profession without credentials, in which anyone can opine about tomorrow’s Undiscovered Country. Ever since the turn of the century, a whole spectrum of corporations, intel and defense agencies, planning councils and NGOs have expressed growing concern about time scales that used to be the sole province of science fiction (SF). In fact, all those companies and groups have been consulting an ensemble of “hard” SF authors, uninterrupted by travel restrictions during a pandemic.

While I spend no time on airplanes now – and my associated speaking fees are now lower – I nevertheless am doing bunches of zoomed appearances at virtualized conferences… one of them looming as I type this.

One question always pops up; can we navigate our way out of the current messes, helped by new technologies? 
The news and prospects are mixed, but assuming we restore basic stability to the Western Enlightenment Experiment… and that is a big assumption… then several technological and social trends may come to fruition in the next five to ten years.

== Potential game-changers ==

– Advances in the cost effectiveness of sustainable energy supplies will be augmented by better storage systems. This will both reduce reliance on fossil fuels and allow cities and homes to be more autonomous.

– Urban farming methods may move to industrial scale, allowing even greater moves toward local autonomy. (Perhaps requiring a full decade or more to show significant impact.) And meat use will decline for several reasons – (a longstanding sci-fi prediction that seems on track sooner than anyone expected) – reducing ecological burdens and ensuring some degree of food security, as well.

– Local, small-scale, on-demand manufacturing may start to show effects by 2025, altering supply chains and reducing their stretched networks.

– If all of the above take hold, there will be surplus oceanic shipping capacity across the planet. Some of it may be applied to ameliorate (not solve) acute water shortages. Innovative uses of such vessels may range all the way from hideaways for the rich to refuges for climate refugees… possibilities I describe in my novels Existence and Earth.

– Full scale diagnostic evaluations of diet, genes and micro-biome will result in micro-biotic therapies and treatments utilizing the kitchen systems of the human gut. Artificial Intelligence (AI) appraisals of other diagnostics will both advance detection of problems and become distributed to hand-held devices cheaply available to even poor clinics.

– Hand-held devices will start to carry detection technologies that can appraise across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, allowing NGOs and even private parties to detect and report environmental problems. Socially, this extension of citizen vision will go beyond the current trend of applying accountability to police and other authorities.  Despotisms will be empowered, as predicted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But democracies will also be empowered, as described in The Transparent Society.

– I give odds that tsunamis of revelation will crack the shields protecting many elites from disclosure of past and present torts and turpitudes. The Panama Papers and Epstein cases — and the more recent FinCEN spill — exhibit how much fear propels some oligarchs to combine efforts at repression. But only a few more cracks may cause the dike to collapse, revealing networks of extortion, cheating and blackmail. This is only partly technologically-driven and hence is not guaranteed. 

I assure you, preventing this is the absolute top goal of the combined world oligarchies. If it does happen, there will be dangerous spasms by all sorts of elites, desperate to either retain status or evade consequences. But if the fever runs its course, the more transparent world will be cleaner and better run. And far more just. And vastly better able to handle tomorrow’s challenges.

– Some of those elites have grown aware of the power of 90 years of Hollywood propaganda for individualism, criticism, diversity, suspicion of authority and appreciation of eccentricity. Counter-propaganda pushing older, more traditional approaches to authority and conformity are already emerging and they have the advantage of resonating with ancient human fears.  Much will depend upon this meme-war. Which I appraise entertainingly in Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood!

Of course much will also depend upon short term resolution of current crises. If our systems remain undermined and sabotaged by incited civil strife and deliberately-stoked distrust of expertise, then all bets are off.

What about the role of technology and technology companies and individuals?

Many fret about the spread of “surveillance technologies that will empower Big Brother.” These fears are well-grounded, but utterly myopic.

– First, ubiquitous cameras and face-recognition are only the beginning. Nothing will stop them and any such thought  of “protecting” citizens from being seen by elites is stunningly absurd, as the cameras get smaller, better, faster, cheaper, more mobile and vastly more numerous every month. Moore’s Law to the nth. Safeguarding freedom, safety and privacy will require a change in perspective.

– Yes, despotisms will benefit from this trend. And hence the only thing that matters is to prevent despotism altogether.

– In contrast, a free society will be able to apply the very same burgeoning technologies toward accountability. At this very moment, we are seeing these new tools applied to end centuries of abuse by “bad apple” police who are thugs, while empowering truly professional cops to do their jobs better. Do not be fooled by the failure of juries to convict badd apple officers in trials. That’s an injustice, but at least nearly all of those officers are being fired and blacklisted, and that’s happening entirely because cameras now empower victims to be believed.  Moreover, we are fast approaching a point where camera-witnessed crimes will be solved with far lower police staffing. Letting us be more hiring selective. Ignoring the positive aspects of this trend is just as bad as ignoring the very real problems.

 I do not guarantee light will be used this way with broad effectiveness. It is an open question whether we citizens will have the gumption to apply “sousveillance” upward at all elites. Only note a historical fact: both Gandhi and ML King were saved by crude technologies of light in their days. And history shows that assertive vision by and for the citizenry is the only method that has ever increased freedom and – yes – some degree of privacy.

Oh, privacy hand wringers are totally right about the problem and the danger presented by surveillance tech! And they are diametrically wrong in the common prescription. Trying to ban technologies and create shadows for citizens to hide within is spectacularly wrongheaded and disastrous. See The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?  

== And pandemics? So are we done? ==

Of course not. But it’s too soon to make predictions except:

– Some flaws in resilience will be addressed: better disease intel systems. 

Stockpiles repaired and replenished and modernized after Trump eviscerations. 

Quicker “emergency” delpoyments of large scale trials of tests and vaccines. 

Federal ownership of extra vaccine factories, or else payments to mothball and maintain surge production capacity. 

Money for bio research.

Unspoken by pundits. This will lead to annual “flu shots” that are also tuned against at least the coronivirus half of common colds. And possibly a number of nasty buggers may get immunization chokes put around them… maybe Ebola.

And serious efforts to get nations to ban the eating or pet-keeping of wild animals, plus ideally exclusion zones around some bat populations… and better forensic disagnostics of deliberate or inandvertent release modes. Not saying that happened. But better wariness and tracking.

In fact, from a historical perspective, this was a training run for potentially much worse and – despite imbecile obstructions and certainly after they were gone – our resilient capability to deploy science was actually quite formidable and impressive.

Almost as impressive as the prescience of science fiction authors who are now choking down repeated urges to chant “I told you so!”

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Destination Mars! Tune in to watch!

Exciting news from Mars! As opening acts, spacecraft from both the United Arab Emirates and China entered orbit above the Red Planet, last week, with China hoping to be the second nation to land a successful rover, in a few months. And we await the news from NASA’s 2020 mission – which will attempt on Thursday to land the Perseverance rover that will explore the surface and collect rock samples for later return. In addition, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter will collect images from above. NASA will be using the same delivery technique – complicated and terrifying – that was so successful at landing Curiosity some years ago. 

Tune in! You can watch the landing broadcast live, starting at 11:15 am PST on February 18, for “seven minutes of terror” as the rover plunges through the atmosphere of Mars, slowed by thrusters, a parachute, and then lowered by crane to the surface of Jezero Crater. For a preview, watch this NASA animation of the landing procedure.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirate’s Hope mission has just returned its first images from the Red Planet this week; it will carry out research on the atmosphere of Mars. In addition China’s Tianwen-1 probe successfully entered Mars orbit after a seven month journey.

== So many ways it matters! ==

Technology developed for NASA’s Perseverance mission will have had many spinoff uses on Earth. These examples are important, but the most boring may also help save us… better ability to detect small amounts of methane, helping us find pesky leaks that contribute to climate change… and more urgently send forth drones to find those rancid SOBs who are venting it deliberately from pipelines and wellheads. 

Meanwhile Japan’s mission to the Martian moons will take images in 8k and return samples. Possibly among the most valuable pieces of real estate in the solar system, and the sort of partners NASA should be working with(!), instead of joining a silly rush of Apollo-wannabes eager to plant ego-footprints on a dusty lunar plain.  WHile we should continue robotic lunar science – and sell orbital hotel rooms and landers to those eager, would be moon-tourists… and polar water may have some limited uses… there is simply no valid reason for the US to join that rush to satisfy a footprint fetish that we took care of 50 years ago.

But sure… more lunar science! Fantastic new versions of Planetary Radar let Earth-based radio telescopes create incredibly detailed images of the moon and will open studies of other planetary moons and asteroids. Just stay on target guys! Minimize spillover! These beams are narrow, collimated, laser-like and much more detectable at long range (very long range, if you get my drift) than our measly TV signals and airport radars… which fade almost to nothing within a light year. (And no, ET is not watching I Love Lucy. That’s a silly cliché.)

Oh. Check out the bright dot of (immense!) lightning on this gorgeous Juno mission image of Jupiter! Taken by a camera made by Malin Space Systems in San Diego. Can you spot the dot… nearly the size of Europe?

== Looking toward asteroids ==

I’ve said it for more than a decade. One of the greatest astronomical discoveries has been the number of moons and dwarf planets that appear to bear pools… or oceans… of liquid water beneath protective ice roofs. Now even stronger evidence that at least some sort of briney lake exists under the ice on… Ceres. (Sorry EXPANSE fans! Ceres colonists would not have to import water.)

Leaving the (for now) pretty much useless Luna to tourists, some human endeavors are turning toward where the real wealth lies. For example: Japanese scientists open the Hayabusa probe’s containers of samples from carbon-rich asteroid Ryugu!

The mission to collect 60 or so grams of pristine material from Bennu instead may have collected more than 2000 grams, penetrating half a meter into the ancient, carbonaceous asteroid. Now stowed and ready for a launch homeward in March, the  return capsule will arrive home in 2023. Wonderful! OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid-sampling mission, but it’s not the first one in history. Japan’s Hayabusa mission delivered small bits of the stony asteroid Itokawa to Earth in 2010.

Only now… meticulous orbital studies suggest that Bennu is a lot less-dense in the middle, possibly even “hollow.” In which case the mind reels with sci-fi possibilities! From obviously trying to dig out a wonderful O’Neil space colony to… wait… did you say hollow? What’s mostly hollow inside and rigid outside and sails through space? Um, a ship?  

The New Horizons team that gave us the spectacular Pluto-Charon flyby, a few years back and a subsequent Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) recently partnered with the Subaru Observatory to search for new KBOs along the probe’s path, and about 75 new KBOs found in the direction New Horizons is traveling. Between 15 and 20 will pass close enough to New Horizons to be scientifically observed, beginning this December. 

Says PI Alan Stern: “Although none of these KBOs are close enough for us to reach for a close flyby like we did at Arrokoth, the science we can do even from a distance will produce new results on KBO surface properties, shapes, rotational periods, and close-in moons that could not be achieved any other way.” And with new observations… “Perhaps (if we get lucky) we’ll even snag a new flyby target if we can find a KBO that’s within reach of our current fuel supply (about an eighth of a tank, which was about the same amount it cost to get to Arrokoth).”

== And more space news… ==

The next SpaceX cargo mission to the space station will carry an experiment called BioAsteroid that will contain pieces of meteorites and fungi, to see if a fungus can extract useful elements. Recently one kind of bacterium was shown to pull rare earth elements from basalt. Important. 

As if taken from the very 1st chapter of EXISTENCE, “Scientists estimate that almost 3,000 dead satellites are orbiting our planet, which doesn’t account for the 900,000 pieces of debris less than 10 centimeters long that could cause a catastrophe should a chunk hit the wrong satellite at the wrong time…. and now, the European Space Agency is in the beginning stages of executing one of the more bizarre solutions: a space claw that would grip larger defunct satellites and steer them back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where both the satellite and the claw itself would burn up in peace.” Alas, the tether based technology that I describe would likely work much better and less expensively. (Here’s that vivid trailer of Existence with art by Patrick Farley!)  

Finally…No, this is not an actual image sent back from Voyager 1, as the article seems to imply. But it is a kinda cool representation of what the solar system would look like, in V’ger’s rear view mirror, right about now.  One of humanity’s proudest accomplishments.  And let’s hope for another this Thursday, as our civilization resumes lifting its head.

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Agile moves that Democrats might make, right now

Looking toward a new administration…

With each new administration — Democrat or Republican — I always publish my own list of impudent suggestions for possible actions that would step around the typically lobotomizing “left-right axis,” scoring immediate points by doing some non-partisan good…. offering maneuvers especially to skirt the utter determination of this generation of Republican Congressional leaders — stated openly by Dennis Hastert, all the way to Mitch McConnell — that the American federal legislature should do nothing meaningful at all, ever again.

A few of these notions won’t wait!  They’d have maximum effectiveness if undertaken before the inauguration or the convening of the 117th Congress.

1) An Inaugural Twist. Planning for a ‘minimalist inauguration,’ as announced by appointed White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, would be a terrible mistake! Yes, Joe Biden must set a healthy example for the nation, on his first day in office. But accept that tens or hundreds of thousands will come anyway. Nothing will stop them. So what’s needed is a way to get them to spread out, safely masked. Besides, why deny America’s enthusiastic majority their day? Oh, and a final consideration; given the vast number and seriousness of threats, should Kamala and Joe go anywhere together? Shouldn’t they stay apart?

 There is a simple solution! That is to have the new Vice-President – Kamala Harris – take her oath at the far-opposite end of the Mall, on the hallowed steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

Symbolically, it’d be a huge way to say – with both Lincoln and MLK gazing down – ‘we’ve come a long way, baby!’ And the swearing-in by Sonia Sotomayor would be a good offset to spotlighting John Roberts. Picture Harris giving her speech, then waving down the long Mall at the Capitol, calling “Over to you, Joe!” past a vast crowd that now has plenty of room to spread out!  Pass out a bazillion flags and flag masks and say “Use the flag to make a social distance circle. Let  America’s flag protect us, as we mean to protect and reclaim the flag!”

The images would be spectacular, denying the fox-o-sphere any “crowd size” yammers. It would establish Kamala as a star and a voice of her own, not just a warmup act. … And then there’s that added, paranoid reason. Keep her away from Joe. Especially that day.

2) If Pelosi pushes these quick mini-bills, they might achieve wonders… even if blocked!

While much attention goes to Biden’s appointment picks, until inauguration, actual action is in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hands. She must and can put forward right away a few short bills that might even pass the Senate, over objections by Mitch McConnell! How could that be, now that today’s GOP is the most tightly disciplined political force in the history of the republic? 

Simple. Trap them into publicly opposing extremely simple things that would be wildly popular with voters! 

– Shall we start with new, moderate and consensus limits on the powers of the new president? Incredible failure modes were revealed by a madman predecessor, flaws that Republicans defended… only now would likely be delighted to fix. Most of these Biden won’t oppose! Like reasonable limits on war powers, or establishing procedures to rule on emoluments violations.

– How about a one-sentence bill making clear that Secret Service agents aren’t personal servants! A constituency that’d be delighted with this change.

– Another demanding that the Air Force charge for political or private use of Air Force One in advance. A telling dig!

– Or passing rules ending the travesty of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel ‘advising’ that sitting presidents cannot be sued or indicted or even investigated! Instead, ensure that Presidents can be “slow-indicted” or “slow-sued” without destroying their ability to perform vital functions, and establishing above all that they are not totally immune? Would GOP senators dare not to defect, break ranks, to hem in Joe Biden with such rules? 

And with Biden consenting to them, won’t this wind up making dems look like non-partisan reformers? 

And would that also not put those two GA senators seeking re-election — Loeffler and Perdue — on the spot, at just the most inopportune moment?

– Another one-sentence bill? One that simply ends the ban on refinancing student debt. It is insane that folks are forbidden from doing what anyone with a mortgage can do, taking advantage of low interest rates to re-adjust their debt burden. (Those who established that rule were inarguably very, very vile people, whatever their formal ideology.) Key to this one is that it could be achieved with a bill that amounted to ONE SENTENCE!  Making it harder to bottle in committee.

(Again, this is not the student debt forgiveness that so many want. That’s for later. But allowing student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy would be a huge advance. It would not be available to high earners and carries some negative financial consequences which would eliminate the moral hazard objections. And it might be done in a very brief bill.)

– A COVID relief bill? Sure, try that. Though I doubt Mitch would face defections there. And others on this list will be more effective because they can be utterly simple! A few sentences. 

– How about a bill immediately giving medicare coverage to all CHILDREN, a move so guaranteed of parental enthusiasm that anyone opposing it would face toasting. It’s a win-win, if we demand those Georgia senators decide now, risking ire from either those parents or else Mitch.

Oh there are many of these reforms that don’t have to wait for inauguration! Because they’ll either get Senate defections to pass and get Trump’s grudging assent… or else that refusal make them look very, very bad and Democrats very good.

3) Again with the blackmail warning. Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but I promise you, Putin’s agents are all over DC, setting up hotel rooms with one way mirrors, just like in the Borat movie!

In fact, is it possible that the greatest thing Sacha Baron Cohen ever did will be that scene where even Cohen’s crude methods lured Rudy Giuliani into embarrassing and compromised behavior.  For decades I have inveighed that blackmail traps  — executed far more skillfully by Russian agents whose traditions go back to the czarist Okrahna — await almost every male who rises to any sort of power in the USA… and females too! Especially those with careless male relatives. 

(Seriously, can’t you name a dozen recent political figures — senators and administration officials — whose behavior could not be explained by greed or ideology, only absolute obedience to masters who can coerce them insatiably, because blackmail — unlike money and ideology — has no limits.)

Unpersuaded? Well, I made the argument here, long ago and nothing has changed. It is vital that incoming legislators and officials be warned about this kind of thing and armed by our security services with tools to turn the tables.

Even more important is…

4) Get the light flowing! There is nothing Joe Biden could do, across the entire coming administration, that will upend and transform U.S. politics more than establishing a Truth & Reconciliation Commission that brings in America’s greatest sages … and randomly nominated citizens from all walks of life… and charging them with drawing into the open all crimes against the Republic.

Of course there must be carrots and sticks. Like a promise to follow recommendations for trading clemency for truth… with extra points for those who bravely come forward first!  And yes: “I know this will wind up shedding uncomfortable light on some Democrats and allies and who knows how close it will come? But the nation needs this, desperately!”

Get some friendly zillionaire to offer cash prizes and legal expenses! This could be done immediately, even before inauguration. And nothing is more likely to nudge the national mood of fact-distrusting paranoia more toward a consensus that the time for shadows is over.

Accompany this soon with bills limiting the power to enforce NDAs! (Non-disclosure agreements.) And let the nation judge for itself which party’s partisans howl louder!

Oh, there’s more, much more! But I’ll set aside those that can wait for January. The ones offered here have urgency of timeliness! Though, alas, I know I will get the same results as last time… or when I published Polemical Judo… or the time before that….

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The Animated Storyboard as an Art Form in its Own Right

I’ve long proposed a concept for small-scale cinematic storytelling – one that could become a valuable studio pre-production tool, but might also grow into a medium in its own right, liberating small, writer-led teams to create vivid dramas, whether as first drafts or as final works of popular art. The concept is full-length, animated storyboarding.

For more than a century, the initial element in cinema has been the screenplay, generally around 120 pages for a ninety minute film. While offering detailed dialogue and some scene description, scripts remain sketchy about many other aspects. Moreover, screenplays (and their writers) are treated with little respect – as the most disposable or replaceable components of an expensive process.

In coming years the screenplay, as such, may become obsolete, both to sell an idea for filming and as a working production tool. Instead, a small team consisting of the writer, a computer-animator, a photographic specialist, a musical specialist and some voice actors might team up before hitting the studios with a pitch. Using animatics and integration technologies that already exist, such a team might create a complete 90 minute cinematic story wherein animated characters act and speak upon sets that are computer-merged from still-photos or video pans.

While (generally) too crude to display to the public as-such, these animated storyboards would nevertheless be much closer to realization than a mere 120 page bundle of paper sheets. For example, they would include simple musical background, sound effects, etc. These full-length drafts might be screened before live or online audiences, swiftly testing alternative plot-twists and endings. They would decisively bridge the gap between writer and finished product. (I have ideas how it could be implemented, in unexpected ways.)

Here’s one nifty aspect: producers would take to such storyboarding, and view it as a producer’s tool. Directors would see it as a useful director’s tool. But the main beneficiaries would be writers – originators of the core elements, ideas, dialogue, characters and dramatic tension — as they would rise 5 levels of execution closer to final product before relinquishing control.

If producers say “this looks promising, but we’ll want to make changes,” the creative team can say “We’ll be back on Monday with three new versions we can test before focus groups.” All of which can happen before any contracts are signed… leaving the creators in a strong position.

Now, crude or partial versions of this notion have been around. Amazon Storyteller let you upload a story/script and produce a customizable storyboard. And there’s ToonBoom and Crazy Talk Animator, as well as several others listed below. But none of them has been truly liberating.

A true animated Storyboard (AS) would flow smoothly, have music, and use real actors’ voices behind stick-figure (or rendered avatar) characters. The animation itself would not have to be lavish, just good enough to vividly portray the story and action. In fact, much of the movement can be computer interpolated between artist sketches, almost seamless to the eye.

Think of an animated script… with some scenes rendered more vividly to show off possible special effects. This could then be shopped around to directors & studios, saying “let’s make a deal based on this, and not arm-waved descriptions.”

One sub-variety – even more economical than the version described here — is the narrated storyboard, as illustrated by the famous Chris Marker film “La Jetee” (later remade as “Twelve Monkeys”) and more recently as “The Life of a Dog” by John Harden. (Both of them are in French, interestingly. A fertile technique, it has been under-utilized by indie film-makers and could easily be transformed into the full-voiceover version I propose here.)

Another cool aspect — the animated storyboard is a product in itself! Time and again it has been shown that people can accept and identify with very crude and even cartoonish representations, so long as the drama, pace, music, dialogue and voices are first rate. Even talking and moving stick figures (or a little better) can draw empathy and tears from an audience. Such full, feature-length renderings of a story might draw a following online, if the sequence of words-action-emotions and music are well done. And if that online following is all the story gets, at first? Well, fine, there are monetization methods… and there would soon be awards.

Moreover, if an AS feature gains a cult following online, that might lead to interest from producers, later on, giving the story a second chance.

Ideally, we’re envisioning a product that enables a writer and a few specialists, plus several voice actors, to interact under the leadership of a “director” knowledgeable in the program itself. A team of half a dozen could make a 90 minute feature, crude, but with incredible swiftness and agility, sometimes achieving drama better than many products coming out of studios today.

Now some news. While bits and pieces of this concept have been around for years, I can report on one company whose package appears to bring many of them together, at a level where small teams might actually accomplish something of value. The ToonBoom package is intended for professional storyboard artists. It’s more about making studio artists more productive (which is where the money is), but spec writers and their partners might soon use this – or similar – products to create an art form as influential as (but far better than) anything shown on any YouTube channel.

We’ll see.

And hear and feel.

======

* David Brin is a scientist, tech speaker/consultant, and author. His new novel about our survival in the near future is Existence.   A film by Kevin Costner was based on The Postman. His 16 novels, including NY Times Bestsellers and Hugo Award winners, have been translated into more than twenty languages.   Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web. David appears frequently on shows such as Nova and The Universe and Life After People, speaking about science and future trends. His non-fiction book — The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? — won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.   (Website: http://www.davidbrin.com/ )

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NOTES:

Animation software examples:

ToonBoom https://www.toonboom.com/

Crazy Talk Animator Demo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_WLdBCns-s

CrazyTalk8: https://crazytalk.reallusion.com/

Anime Studio Pro: http://store.smithmicro.com/productDetails.aspx?pid=19282

Amazon Storyteller (no longer functioning): http://studios.amazon.com/storyteller

Studiobinder Templates:  https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/top-10-storyboard-software-of-2016-free-storyboard-templates/

Twinery: https://twinery.org/

TyranoBuilder: Visual Novel Studio  http://tyranobuilder.com/

Nevigo Game Design:  https://www.nevigo.com/en/articydraft/overview/

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Science on sacred sites: Can we find middle ground?

On June 21 — solstice day — the Supreme Court of Hawaii heard oral arguments in Honolulu on whether to approve a building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the biggest and most expensive in the Northern Hemisphere. And it is a real fight. Native Hawaiian activists claim that the snow goddess — Poli’ahu — lives on Mauna Kea and should be left in peace, on her sacred mountain.

(The more famous fire goddess — Pele-honua-mea (“Pele of the sacred land”) — lives on the more flamboyant (especially right now), active volcano Kilauea. Although the two goddesses are often conflated as the same, they were said to have been bitter rivals.)

For starters, let’s be clear; yes, indigenous peoples have a perfect right to be pissed off or suspicious over honkies who want to set up camp on sacred spots. I do not dismiss their righteous resentment as wrong! But if this truly is a theological issue, then should it not be argued theologically?

Humans have always sought clues to the will of the gods, and since they tend not to speak audibly and objectively, one approach has been to search for “signs” or things that are significantly and unambiguously out of the norm.

In this case, one trait of Poli’ahu’s mountain stands out as special, spectacular… even miraculous. It is the trait that brings the world to the Big Island, hoping to build temples of science. That trait is the mountain’s special — even unmatched — view of the heavens.

What other trait is so unique that many of the planet’s greatest minds pay homage? Mauna Kea is already home to thirteen of the world’s largest, most powerful telescopes, operated by astronomers from more than a dozen countries.

Sure, I’m just a haole sci-fi writer… though I featured characters from an independent and powerful Hawaii in the year 2060, in Heart of the Comet. Elsewhere I argue that all of humanity may speak Hawaiian, in a hundred years! So, it’s with deep respect that I point to the one miracle of Poli’ahu that’s inarguable and universally acknowledged by all. Perhaps she may be saying:

“Here is my mountain. I have made it special, so that you may host the world to gaze in wonder through my window to the universe.”

Wasn’t part of your proudest heritage as stargazers? The greatest navigators and voyagers the world ever saw? Among your heirs may be captains who lead our expeditions across the Great Galactic Night. It’s only a suggestion…

…but might you reclaim (along with others) your rightful title as the People of the Sky?

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Correlation, causation – and reason for precaution

“Correlation is not the same as causation.” This is a core catechism that is drilled into most of us scientists, along with “I might be wrong,” and “build your competitive science reputation by demolishing the half-baked work of others.”

Alas, “Correlation is not the same as causation” has become an incantation parroted by Fox-Watchers, as part of the Murdochian campaign to undermine science and claim that nothing can ever be proved. In fact, sifting for correlations is how experimental science begins. A strong correlation demands: “hey, check this out!”

But it’s more than that. A strong correlation shifts the Burden of Proof. When we see a strong correlation, and the matter at-hand is something with major health or safety or security implications, then we are behooved to at least begin taking preliminary precautions, in case the correlation proves to be causative. Sometimes the correlation is later demonstrated not to be causal and a little money has been wasted. But this often proves worthwhile, given long lead times in technology.

For example, we were fortunate that work had already begun on alternative refrigerants to CFCs, when their role in ozone damage was finally proved. Indeed, valid concerns over the health and environmental effects of tobacco and leaded gasoline were dismissed for years. Two must reads: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, as well as the story of Clair Patterson and the obstructionism of the oil industry.

Another example: terrorism experts sift for correlations and apply intelligence resources to follow up, while giving potential targets cautious warnings. Many correlations don’t pan out. But a burden falls on those saying “ignore that.”

Parse this carefully. Strong correlation demands both closer examination and preliminary precautions.

But the underlying narrative of the crazy, anti-science right is: “Correlation is not the same as causation… and any ‘scientist’ who talks about a correlation can thus be dismissed as a fool. And since that is most of science, this incantation lets me toss out the whole ‘science’ thing. Yippee!”

Those who spout this incantation aren’t all fools, but you can tell by watching to see if they follow “Correlation is not the same as causation” with… curiosity! And acceptance of both precaution and burden of proof. Those who do that are “Skeptics” and welcome to the grand, competitive tussle known as science.

Those who use “Correlation is not the same as causation” as a magic incantation to dismiss all fact-using professions are fools holding a lit match in one hand and an open gas can in the other, screaming “one has nothing to do with the other!”

See my earlier list of examples  – including well-justified concerns over tobacco, smog and leaded gasoline – where this and other incantations delayed the proper application of science to public policy, leading to hundreds of thousands… maybe millions… of deaths worldwide.

Another central mythos: We all know that:  “Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn’t automatically make them wise.”

It’s true. But in the same way that Suspicion of Authority is wholesome, till it metastasizes, this true statement has been twisted into something cancerous:  “Any and all people who are smart and know a lot, are therefore automatically unwise.”

The first statement is true and we all know it. The second is so insanely wrong that anyone believing it is hence a stark, jibbering loony. And yet, the latter is now a core catechism of the confederacy, because they have been allowed to leave it implicit.

Of course, blatantly, the average person who has studied earnestly and tried to understand is wiser than those who deliberately chose to remain incurious and ignorant. When cornered, even the most vehement alt-righter admits that. But cornering them takes effort and – above all – careful parsing of the meme. It is a logical corner they’ve painted themselves into! But their memes are slippery.

Suspicion and distrust – of universities and smart people, as well as of people with knowledge and skill — now extends from the war on science to journalism, teaching, medicine, economics, civil servants… and lately the “deep state” conspiring villains of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and the U.S. military officer corps. This is bedlam. It is insanity that serves one purpose, to discredit any “elites” who might stand in the way of a return to feudalism by the super rich, which was the pattern of 6000 years that America rebelled against.

We need to be more proactive and tactically effective in fighting back against these agents of darkness and promoters of feudalism. There are clever shills who get rich providing incantations against science and other fact-professions.  We must show every uncle and aunt who parrots this nonsense how they have been hoodwinked. That is where phase 8 of the American Civil War will be won, in the trenches, getting one friend at a time to snap out of the hypnotics spells…

… by using evidence and logic and compassion to draw our neigjhbors back to a nation of progress and science and pragmatic accountability and hope for an ever-better future.

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The death of science-based policy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was one of our jewels. It normally had about 60 staffers, to help assist White House staff in creating fact-grounded policy. President Obama expanded it well past 100 personnel, bringing in more question-asking consultants, scientists and speakers… like yours truly (twice in 2016 alone). “The size of the office under the Obama administration reflected Mr. Obama’s “strong belief in science, the growing intersection of science and technology—”

Beyond advising the President on scientific discoveries and their implications for national policy, OSTP was involved in encouraging breakthroughs in STEM education and re-igniting a generation of skilled programmers. It is also responsible evaluating investments in Research and Development, as well as for crisis response. Heading the OSTP was the Presidential Science Adviser, a position generally filled by some of humanity’s sharpest minds.

white-houseAll of that is over. President Trump has attrited the Science Office of OSTP to zero…  that’s zero staff to consult with West Wing policy makers over anything scientific or related to science. OSTP as a whole is down to a couple of dozen placeholders.

Elsewhere, I wrote about David Gelernter, who seemed a front runner for the Science Adviser post, under Trump. A bizarre and polemically-driven person, Gelernter apparently would have been far too scientific for this White House. Perhaps they sensed that he would be capable – in extremis – of saying the hated phrase: “um… that’s not exactly true.”

Trump has not yet appointed a Science Advisor. And yet… “The Oval Office is surrounded by interest groups who would sculpt the facts to fit their agendas, and the president desperately needs an expert who can de-spin the facts,” writes Brian Palmer in Slate.

That, after all, was the criminal offense of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) which was banished by Newt Gingrich in 1995 for giving honest answers. And the fate now apparently destined for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), for similar treasons against dogma.

Iscience-policy-ostpt is this fevered spite against all fact-users that makes our current civil war completely unrelated to the old-hoary-lobotomizing “left-right” political “axis.” When all outcomes and metrics of US health and yes, economics and capitalism do vastly better under democrats, fact users become Enemy #1. And that’s ALL fact-users, now including even the FBI, the Intelligence Community and the U.S. Military Officer Corps. (Look up the term “deep state” to see how the mad right is justifying attacking even them!)

The EPA’s head Scott Pruitt recently axed 38 science advisors from the Board of Scientific Counselors — which advises the EPA on its research programs. “This says to me that they do not want objective science,” said Peter Meyer, who resigned in protest last month. Deep cuts are targeted for the EPA budget, as well as reduced enforcement of environmental regulations.  Pruitt defends Trump’s rejection of climate change, and is now launching a program to critique the scientific consensus on the issue.

Fans of the movie “Idiocracy” – and die hard confederates – may openly avow wishing for this rise of the know-nothings. But your conservative aunt might be swayed to pull away from this madness, if you dare her to name one profession of folks who actually know stuff that is not under open attack by her crazy husband and his ilk. She knows she will need skilled people, from time to time.

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The battle must begin at state level

There are vital issues that get shunted aside in the ongoing public obsession over Trump’s latest tweetstorm. In The Case for Paying Less Attention to Donald Trump, Ed Burmila, in Rolling Stone, makes a cogent point that we should pay less attention to our current president — and more to what the confederacy is doing to our fellow citizens, down at the state level, where the GOP’s lock on more than thirty out of fifty statehouses and 65 out of 98 state legislature chambers, has set them to work doing no less than re-establishing feudalism.

LESS“Donald Trump’s presidency has been a disaster, but he has succeeded beyond his wildest expectations in one key way: getting attention – attention that fills the void where the rest of us have a soul…. (But fighting back) begins with winning back the state legislatures that draw electoral maps and make the rules that shape elections,” writes Ed Burmila.

In other words, this is no time for timid appetites. The goal should not be to shift twenty-five swing Congressional seats, but 125! And that will be a hollow victory without a thousand State Assembly wins.

These state races are the most important battlegrounds for now.

This coalesces three themes that I’ve pushed for some time.

impeach-trump1: Don’t seek to impeach Trump! Not yet. Our civil servants are now fully alerted to the insanity and they should be able to protect us, for the time being. For now, Trump is the Republicans’ nightmare. Impeach, and the confederates will just rally behind a President Pence and march with savage discipline. See this explored in more detail in my essay, The Move to Impeach Trump is a Trap.

2: Gerrymandering (one of the most horrific betrayals of citizen sovereignty) and other electoral cheats — such as voter suppression — are central. These plagues upon our electoral system have metastacized till even Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts cannot ignore them, anymore. (Or else they are simply not Americans.) But we need clever and strong backup plans, explored further in Gerrymandering & American Democracy.

3: Retaking many of those states will not be done by running Santa Monica liberals in deep red districts. Go ahead and run liberals and Bernites etc in swing constituencies. But in districts that are deeply conservative by personality, we need candidates who are pro-science, pro-rights, honest, logically fact-loving and un-bigoted… but who can also relate to locals… by personality.

Elsewhere, in a 3-part series, I talk about the richest possible source of such candidates, military colonels and captains. Men and women of rectitude who can compel even the reddest voter to actually listen to a democrat, possibly for the first time in his or her life.

See also 314 Action, which seeks to advocate for a pro-science and fact-based agenda in public policy — and also to encourage scientifically and technically trained men and women to run for office.

crowdpacBack to the article by Burmila… the point relates to how YOU should allocate your political time and energy. Yes, national issues matter! Give money to the fight against gerrymandering, and Schwarzenegger will match your contribution in this  campaign on Crowdpac: This is our chance to make gerrymandering unconstitutional. 

Furthermore, Burmila adds:

“The payoff of being politically active simply is greater in down-ballot races. House and Senate races are of course important, but the marginal benefit of adding one more volunteer to those campaigns is small compared to what an activist can contribute to a local race. Throwing your donation and evening volunteering hours into the miasma of money and noise that is a modern congressional race is like spitting into the ocean. In a local race, the time and money you can donate will be much more impactful. Knocking on doors and speaking to a few hundred voters on behalf of an unknown candidate in a state assembly primary could make a real difference.”

This is where you can make a difference — at your local and state level.

Give the rest of it a read. Then give some thought about that retired officer you know, who happens to live in a red district. It’s arm twisting time.

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Russian relationships: collusion or treason?

I know bunches of sincere, thoughtful conservatives who are THAT close to defecting. They admit their party has gone insane, but cannot bring themselves yet to use the “T-Word.” They keep being distracted by squirrels. Like “There’s been no proof yet of actual collusion.” Or “Russian meddling didn’t clearly affect the election outcome.”

1. Irrespective of GOP-Russia collusion, the fact is that Putin’s FSB Security Agency wanted the GOP to win, not just the presidency, but across the board. That outcome is what they blatantly sought. And that is a fact of profound political redolence. It should deeply bother all patriotic Americans. While that motive and goal is not a court-of-law conviction, it is consistent with mountains of evidence that the Republican Party is not healthy for the U.S.

2. All right then, but did the GOP collude with Moscow, toward that goal? We are not (yet) in a court of law, so demanding court-of-law proof of GOP-Russia collusion is just plain wrong. The pile of circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It’s a mountain!

Manafort, Flynn, Pence, the ENTIRE circle of people surrounding Jared Kushner, secret meetings and channels! Scads of business connections and sweetheart deals with Russian-mafiosi oligarchs. Exxon, for H sake! “Emoluments” amounting to billions! You know I could go on and on.

Dig it. We do not need to be hamstrung or stymied by court-of-law standards when deciding that something stinks to high heaven and the security of the American state is at stake. Those who demand court-of-law standards are Fox shills. They scream “witch hunt!” while the townsfolk close in on a coven of pointy-hatted, Satan-chanting crones who have children suspended over a cauldron. These may not quite be witches — (heck, not one of them is female) — but we are perfectly right to demand answers to our questions.

3. Court-of-law hairsplitting over definitions of “obstruction” are necessary when deciding on criminal prosecutions and whether to deprive the perpetrator of either life or freedom with prison. But it is an absurd standard politically. These are traitors, pure and simple. That is “traitors” with a small-t … for now… until it’s proved in court. But the shoe fits.

4. The same term applies to those who drag their feet over reforming the weaknesses that the Putin-cabal tried to exploit. The issue is not whether the FSB etc were THE tipping factor in 2016. The issue is the fact that Congress is holding ZERO hearings about how to strengthen U.S. electoral processes, investigating corruptible voting machines. The horrific influence of partisan secretaries of state. Gerrymandering. Weaponized narrative. They would leave all of that in place, for future elections. If you don’t call that implicitly complicit, then you have your head in the sand.

They are complicit. As the old saying goes: “We’ve settled what you are. Now we’re just trying to determine the price you sold us out for.”

It is the “T-Word.” We’re only arguing over whether it is “t” or “T.”

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Six Science Fiction Questions

I’ve been answering quite a few queries over on the question and answer site Quora. Here are a few selected questions about science fiction, dystopias, fantasy, and more…

How plausible do you find Huxley’s Brave New World?

BraveNewWorldYour question is exactly the one asked by Huxley himself, and by his top-caste character, World Director Mustafa Mond., who accepts that change may inevitably come to his tightly organized world. That is one of many contrasts with Orwell’s 1984. Where one party controls with fear and pain, the other does with eugenics, conditioning and pleasure, lots of pleasure.

Note what happens when some alphas start asking inconvenient questions. Are they killed? No, they are sent to “the Islands” where they can study, experiment and keep arguing for changes to be made. This shows that Huxley’s directors are aware that change may come, but demand a steep burden of proof… while seeing value in those who question. A lot like Huxley himself.

For years, Orwell was deemed the one making a plausible prediction. But today the scientific and skilled classes and even the “prols” have so much potential power in their hands – making today’s “terrorists” seem lame by comparison – that no government can risk for long angering those castes or abusing them. Not for long. (Hence the utter stupidity of today’s oligarchs, who wage war on science and all the fact professions. Nothing else could show as starkly how deeply stupid the oligarchy is.)

No, any dictatorship in the future will have to be like Brave New World… or an augmented China … committed to keeping the populace content.

For more see my essay: George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.

Which science fiction scenarios do you find the most disturbing?

MV5BNzQzOTk3OTAtNDQ0Zi00ZTVkLWI0MTEtMDllZjNkYzNjNTc4L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The Matrix, for suggesting that advanced AI’s would be spectacularly self-defeating and stupid. The novel, Revolt in 2100 by Heinlein, for predicting with stunning accuracy how America might go crazy. The film Idiocracy, for coming true before our eyes.

Almost anything by Philip K Dick, for questioning our perception of reality. Orwell’s 1984 for prescribing tech empowerment of older means of despotism based on terror.  Huxley’s Brave New World for showing how the same thing could happen with pleasure and fun.

And hey, what’s my novel The Postman… chopped liver? Its premise is coming true before your very eyes.

Which science fiction book offers the most likely scenario to a better world?

51WFumUHOCL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If you want prescriptive preaching, set in plausible tomorrows and above average writing, try almost anything by Kim Stanley Robinson (his latest is New York 2140). He chides and finger wags, like LeGuin. But his aim is always to propose A Better Way. (I agree with him a lot… but he gives up too easily on regulated market enterprise.)

Iain Banks novels show alluring, post scarcity societies. (See his culture series: Consider Phlebas.)  So does Star Trek!. So does Robert Heinlein’s prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (Ignore the silly gun stuff at the beginning.)

My own novels Earth and Existence offer ruminations on the path ahead.

What do you consider to be the best Sci Fi/TV franchise?

MV5BMTc3MjEwMTc5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQ2NjQ4NA@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Stargate was by far the best and most thorough exploration of a science fictional premise. It was tightly consistent and episodes all correlated with each other in a series of very well-managed plot and character arcs, while always striving to at least nod in the direction of scientific plausibility. It was also successful at engendering massive numbers of hours of diverse stories at a fairly low budget.

A final point about Stargate… it is one of the only SF franchises to revolve around a motif that is essentially optimistic. Of course, the equally good Star Trek had all of those traits, with a bit lower score on consistency, but even more hours and even more optimistic.

Ranking in the same general area – with similar qualities – would by Babylon Five.

See where I explain why optimism is so hard to do, in sci fi and hence so rare in my article: The Idiot Plot.

An excellent SF TV franchise at the opposite end of the optimism scale would be the remake of Battlestar Galactica. The premise and universe remained kinda dumb. But it had the best damn writing team imaginable. You had to watch.

And The Expanse has similar qualities.

What is the most interesting magic system from fantasy or science fiction?

Most magical systems rely upon a short list of basic fulcra:

fantasy1- similarity — make something similar to the object you seek to control. A voodoo doll of a person. Or a model of a valley where you want rain to fall.

2- contagion – add something that was part of the object to control. Add a person’a real hair trimmings to the voodoo doll.

3- True Names. Related to similarity. You gain power if you know the object’s full (or even hidden) names.

4- Appeal to powers…Invoke mighty spirits – or God – by offering what they want. Something valuable, ranging from a human sacrifice all the way to promising to be a good boy or girl.

5- Art… a florid- dynamic-dramatic VERBAL INCANTATION helps… it is the technique used by cable news and politicians – especially one side – to dazzle millions into magical thinking and hostility to fact-based and scientific systems. Other art enhancements could be visual or musical.

Note that all of these seemed to be reasonable things for our ancestors to try, even though magic almost never worked. Why? First, because these are all methods that work… on our fellow human beings! Persuasion uses all of them and other humans are the most important part of the environment. It was just an extrapolation for people to believe they could also persuade the capricious and deadly forces of nature.

Second, pattern seeking. We invest our hopes into an incantation… and shrug off when it fails, but shout with confirmation, if the thing we wanted happens.

All told, magic has been a horrid sickness that hobbled humans for ages, preventing us from honestly separating what work from what doesn’t. But we are all descended from priests and shamans who got extra food and mates because they pulled off this mumbo-jumbo really well. Their genes flow through our brains, today. No wonder there’s a War on Science!

But if you truly want a different system of magic, try my fun novel The Practice Effect! 😉

What is your most promising science fictional concept?

I suppose most people would cite the “Uplift” of pre-sapient creatures like dolphins and apes to full partnership in our civilization. It looks more likely by the day.

EarthHCIn my novel Earth, I posited both gravity lasers and a way the planet itself could become self-aware.

In Sundiver it’s — well — a way to go to the Sun.

In Existence it is the ultimate implication of self-replicating interstellar probes.

But my favorite is the machine I wish I had, from Kiln People, in which you can make 5 or 6 cheap, temporary clay “ditto” copies of yourself, each day, so that every single thing you needed to do, that day, could get done. I want that. I need that!

== See more questions on Quora, follow the links for more answers and lively discussions of each of these questions, or follow me on Quora.

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