Category Archives: technology

Is There Such a Thing as Progress?

First a teaser for folks in Arizona:  How do we fit in a universe that’s unveiling itself in confounding ways? Might we share the cosmos with other intelligent beings, or are we alone in the vastness of space? Could the universe be a Matrix-like simulation?

flier-for-savethedateI’ll be giving the Shoemaker Memorial Lecture about “Humanity’s Place in a Very Strange Universe” at Arizona State University’s BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, in Tempe, on Oct. 1 at 7 pm. Free, and open to the public, with a book signing afterward. Click here to RSVP

Next day I’ll speak at ASU’s Center for Science & Imagination: Science Fiction and the Future of Journalism at 1:45 pm; Sign up at EventBrite

== Dare we dream of a world free of poverty by 2030? ==

In this interview, ex imam Ahmed Akkari, one of the main denouncing voices during the 2005 crisis about Denmark Mohammed cartoons, explains how study of enlightenment thinkers lead to reconsidering his stances on freedom of expression and secular societies.

Indeed. We’ve spoken before of the evidence shown by Harvard Prof Steven Pinker that percapita violence rates have been plummeting, (on average) since 1945.  Now… here is yet more news that shatters pat nostrums of both the right and the left.  In April, the Development Committee of the World Bank set the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2030.  Sound naive and delusional? Jeffrey Sachs in the NY Times shows a strong case that this goal can (roughly) be met and indeed is being met.

Progress“According to the World Bank’s scorecard, the proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line (now measured as $1.25 per person per day at international prices) has declined sharply, from 52 percent in 1980, to 43 percent in 1990, 34 percent in 1999, and 21 percent in 2010. Even sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the most recalcitrant poverty, is finally experiencing a notable decline, from 58 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2010.”

Sachs shows that “…anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone. Disease control, public education, the promotion of new science and technology, and protection of the natural environment are public functions that must align with private market forces.” In other words, the much-maligned Mixed-Approach that we inherited from the Greatest Generation turns out to have been exactly right, all along.  Read this.  It supplements Steven Pinker’s work and shows what we might still accomplish, if vigorous, pragmatic, non-dogmatic ambition and goodwill take hold …  if we thwart the grouches and cynics whose dyspeptic and demoralizing grumbles make them by far the worst enemies of humanity and Planet Earth.

As President John F. Kennedy said: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

== And even rougher (deserved) treatment for cynics ==

The always acerbic, clever and sometimes on-target David Wong uses his modernized CRACKED site to deliver some truly eye-opening rants, slapping the reader with wake-up! calls.  In this case, he provides: 7 Reasons the World Looks Worse Than It Really Is. Some of them even ones I haven’t mentioned before.

For example: “You can hate the greed and cutthroat competition of capitalism, but before that it was the much-worse feudalism. You can say that communism was never given a chance because countries like Russia and China were taken over by crazy assholes, but you have to understand that susceptibility to crazy assholes will always be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system. You have to give credit to the people who worked hard to make things less bad today.” 

CynicismAnd: “This is why I’ve grown to find cynicism so frustrating — cynicism doesn’t cause inaction. The desire for inaction causes cynicism. And so you fight to defend your cynicism tooth and nail.”

Alas he ignores the MAIN reasons for nostalgic cynicism!

(1) The alluring romanticism of look-backward  worldviews which dominated nearly all human societies, perceiving some lost golden age in the past, instead of a human-built one in our future.

(2) The tendency of the political right to deny that human improvability is possible and urgently necessary and hence worth paying taxes to pursue.

(3) The tendency on the political left to demand lots of (necessary) improvement, but only with chiding, never encouragement, angrily denouncing any admission that lots of progress has already happened, because that admission might “reduce the perceived urgency to improve and do more reform.” (A presumption that is as loony as anything at Fox.

But heck, while you’re at it, check out The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie.

This is a frequent theme of mine. One that I will elaborate more upon… next posting.

== Poking at sacred cows ==

This riff attempts to make excuses for Robert E. Lee’s loss at Gettysburg, on cartographic grounds: Lee’s ill-fated combat decisions and ultimate defeat likely stemmed from bad reconnaissance reports, his forces spread too thinly across 7 miles, and an inability to see the more compact and elevated Union forces, according to geographers and cartographers who synthesized old maps, text and data into a digital model of the three-day Pennsylvania battle in 1863. “We know that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was virtually blind at Gettysburg,” Anne Kelly Knowles, a geography professor at Middlebury College, wrote in the article accompanying the interactive map on

There is a problem with that excuse… it is just as easily applicable to almost all of the Union commanders Lee defeated during the previous two years.  The problem was a general one… in several senses of that word.  Hence, applying it to make excuses just for Lee is disingenuous. In fact, Lee collapsed every time he tried to take on the vastly more difficult job of strategic attack that his much derided opponents faced. Generals McDowell, McClellan, Rosecrans, Halleck and so on, had to maneuver vast, invading armies and their supply chains through poorly mapped territory with almost nonexistent communications.  Inevitably, one wing or another became exposed for an aggressive defender to pounce-upon.

Lee’s admitted brilliance was less a factor than historical circumstance and the transient effects of technology in the 1860s. These combined to offer huge advantages to agile and aggressive defense, Lee’s specialty as he recklessly chewed at the flanks of his lumbering opponents.  But at Antietem and Gettysburg, he was the one attempting to coordinate a strategic advance.  And in those cases, Lee’s approach — charge at anything you see that’s blue — was  more crudely ill-conceived and reliant on luck than the advances of Rosecrans, Grant, Sherman, or even Halleck and Pope. Indeed, he was spectacularly fortunate, in both cases, that he did not face an aggressive Lee-type on the Union side. In fact, his lucky stars saved him at both battles.


Some wisdom on reality vs. perception:

DARPA’s next Robotics Challenge. Challengers will deal with a very complex search-and-rescue scenario.

A fascinating look at how dolphins react to mirrors!

Okay this is cool music appreciation:  90 theramins doing Beethoven’s 9th.

Sweet and moving, from SMBC.

And this lovely lecture-tribute-perfomance to Gershwin.

Kewl chance to put your life — and time — in perspective.

And talk about perspective!  A camera strapped to an eagle’s back.

How we survived the sixties I’ll never know. It is the biggest evidence for alien or heavenly intervention.

== Recommended ==

BookQuestionsUCLA Prof Gregory Stock was one of the earliest of the modern wave of scientists promoting what became known as “transhumanism” or improvement of the human species.  Now he has come out with an interesting new “Book of Questions” — which is what the title suggests, a series of posers, puzzlers, and cringe-worthy shit-disturbers… the sort that you raise once-per-evening at a dinner party or discussion group or the work-lunch room, to get some lively passions raised.  Sample some at

== And finally … ==

Can you believe the web browser is 20 years old? Or that MOSAIC took the world by storm ONLY 20 years ago? Either way, it makes you blink, just to imagine the world of back-then.  Have a look back via Frank Catalano’s brilliant essay about the things we used to take for granted.


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From Google Glass to License Plates: Transparency Updates

I’ve been busy with a few national interviews. One of them, on the NSA, transparency and aggressively looking back, has already appeared on the David Seaman Hour. Other topics ranged GenerationChallengfrom SETI to SciFi.   See also my interview on NPR News:  The Man Who Predicted Google Glass Forecasts The Near Future: If wearable technology will allow for some segment of society, say, government, to “spy,” then all of us should want and have the same technology available.

“How do you see research and innovation making a difference for a better future?” The European Union asked questions like this of about a hundred “sages” in preparation for the Horizon 2020: Digital Agenda for Europe conference that I will help keynote in Vilnius, Lithuania, in November.  You can view my 90 second answer… and the other participants’ answers… or learn more about the conference.

== Transparency News ==

The most important civil rights matter of all – a citizen’s right to record his or her interactions with police and authorities in public places – took several major positive turns last year, with both the courts and the Obama Administration firmly declaring it to be “established” that we have that right. Alas, it will be hard to implement day-to-day.

At the recent Future in Review (FiRe) conference, Google visionary Vint Cerf said: “Anonymity or pseudonymity is a very important part of democratic society. On the other hand, I don’t think that people should be free to cause harm.” His solution: an Internet “fire department” that analyzes and compares the IP addresses one’s computer is communicating with to ID known botnets or malware IPs.  This is not my preferred approach, which is to create commercial pseudonymity services that are strongly encrypted and reputation linked… and to encourage all responsible sites worldwide to snub non-reputationed sources.  But Vint is very smart and I’ll always try a Cerf idea on for size.

== Get used to it ==

blog-alpr-imagepool-500x280-v06Massive tracking of license plates — via cameras mounted on patrol cars, bridges or stoplights. They snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers, times, and locations. Data are stored for months or years in police databases. And you expected… what?

Predictive policing.  It’s happening.  Give us the same tools. Reciprocal accountability to look back at the watchers.

Data privacy researchers have been able to identify the names of hundreds of participants in the Personal Genome Project (PGP) using demographic data from their profiles.  And you expected… what?

Oh but we’ll do it to ourselves! Motorola researchers now propose a “vitamin authentication” pill —  a small tablet that contains an electronic chip. After someone swallows the pill, the stomach acts as an electrolyte in the chip’s battery and powers it. The chip has a switch that turns on and off, generating an 18-bit signal like an electrocardiogram. One’s entire body would be the authentication token, just like the fobs that many office workers carry to get on corporate networks. The implications… the implications… my head hurts just tracking some of them….

Privacy: Does Face Recognition cross the line?  Bah. We’ll only be safe when all of us can access multiple different and redundant and overlapping and independent face-recog systems, all the time.  And when those systems report to us whenever anyone is glancing at our face… exactly what happens in “real” life.

Oh, and blogmunity member Jonathan S offers this: “One of the prizes offered last week on The Price is Right was an iPad with a paired remote-control, camera-equipped electric helicopter. Total cost, including the iPad: about $850 US. Yes, that’s right, for about the price of a middling computer, you too can have the surveillance capability many people in the US want to deny their police forces because it’s “too intrusive”. Go to the park, with fully-charged tablet and ‘copter; sit on a nice bench somewhere, and watch everything going on in the park.”

Yep.  And we are at the fork in the road. Ban these things – they will shrink, the mighty will get them anyway, and we won’t.  Or else embrace them, and you will be able to access a million eyes, and catch those who are staring at you.  Choose.

== Micro-Payments to the rescue? Saving Journalism too!  ==

jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-futureJaron Lanier opines that the internet should be changed to incentivize a myriad micro, nano or pico transactions between sovereign users and dispersed content creators (like you and me) so that we benefit from others’ use of our own information — a new utopian notion to replace one that he helped to coin, but that hew now rejects, that “information wants to be free.”  Alas, Jaron is rather vague about how such a new system would work and – more important – what powerful interests in society might be marshaled behind helping to make it come true. (read more in his book, Who Owns the Future.)

In fact, I agree with his goal, which would empower dispersed citizens of a vast, middle class commonwealth. But I’ll settle (for now) for two important things:

(1) a much more transparent world in which our present institutions of democracy, science, justice and markets work more effectively and

(2) a system of micropayments that would save the profession of journalism from possible extinction.

As it turns out, I’ve long explored parameters of the former… and I am pretty sure I know how to do the latter.  Indeed, #2 is do-able in a surprisingly efficient, simple and probably-effective way that will – almost overnight – persuade millions to pay a nickel per article to, say, the New York Times and thus save that journal and hundreds of others.  Think that’s impossible?  That folks are too addicted to the free?

I’ll bet you a nickel.

== And Transparency Miscellany! ==

The Seattle Police Department became the latest department to equip its officers with wearable cameras.  You saw it in The Transparent Society – back in 1997 and in Earth (1989).

In The Verge appears a fascinating report about the company behind the non-lethal stun guns that have become commonplace around the world, Taser International, which has set out to transform policing once again – this time, with Axon Flex, a head-mounted camera with a twelve-hour battery life that officers can use to record interactions. The device is constantly on, but it only captures video of the thirty seconds before its wearer begins using it, and then both video and audio while police are speaking to a citizen. Footage is then uploaded to a cloud-based service where it can be accessed by the police department. It includes an audit trail to reveal who has accessed the information and when.  (from Watching the Police: Will Two-way Surveillance reduce Crime and Increase Accountability?)

In a major victory for the community radio movement after a 15-year campaign, the Federal Communications Commission has announced it will soon begin accepting applications for hundreds of new low-power FM radio stations.

theprivateeye_01enr00-1-300x181I’d be interested in folks’ opinion of The Private Eye,  a graphic/comic series that posits a future when all internet secrets got spilled in a single day… and an over-reacting society clamped down to make “privacy” a fiercely enforced right. (A sham of course, hence the tale.)  Explore and report back here!

== Eyes and ears in conflict ==

Ever experience cognitive dissonance between your ears and eyes? This YouTubed remix of a speech by John F Kennedy is overwhelmingly worth a visit, to hear one of the finest odes to an open and transparent society ever delivered by any politician… at least since Pericles.  Alas, or else hilariously, the visual part is one long screech of paranoiac conspiracy theories, re-contexting JFK words into attacks upon everything from Freemasons to mainstream media.


Especially amusing: while Kennedy is describing the skulking methods of the Soviet Empire, the youtubers show image after image of US government agencies. Pithy!  Gotta hand it to em! Mind you, I do believe there are conspiracies! The ongoing effort to retake social rule by secretive owner-oligarchy manifests in many undeniable ways, such as the list of top owners of Fox. (Or the less numerous but equally nutty leftist “truthers” out there.) But these fellows do us no service by plunging down kookooland.

Listen to JFK’s words, though.  Please do. While chuckling and shaking your head over the use of dishonest imagrey to repurpose them.

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“Consensus” science? And more science potpourri

First, before getting down to science, congratulations to my bro Kim Stanley Robinson, for winning this year’s Nebula Award for best novel. 2312 is an epic that spans the solar system and a myriad fascinating ideas. And felicitations also to the other Nebulists – the delightful/brilliant Nancy Kress and the talented Andy Duncan and Aliette de Bodard. Learn more at the SFWA site.


See today’s  San Diego Union Tribune article/interview about me and the Clarke Center Starship Conference (with a familiar face smiling on page one of the paper on our doorstep).

Mostly, I was asked about SETI… the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. By coincidence, at the Starship Century Symposium at UCSD, we had the honor of hosting Dr. Freeman Dyson and Dr, Jill Tarter (head of the SETI Institute) at our home.

== Do scientists “vote” on what is true? ==

Is it true that “97 percent” of scientists working in the fields of climate, meteorology and planetary atmospheres stand by the current consensus, that human generated, carbon-rich gases produced by human industry are responsible for substantial, rapid climate change?

That claimed figure — long denied by one major wing of Culture War — now appears to have been verified systematically.  Almost all of the extremely smart folks who study climate on eight planets and who were responsible for transforming the Weather Report’s range from two hours to ten days agree that something reckless and perilous is going on, and some carefully discussed and economically bearable alteration of habits may be in order.

Does 97% agreement means that something is necessarily true?  My late colleague, author Michael Crichton, led the charge for those on the right whose catechism now declares that “science cannot vote on what is true: there is no such thing as scientific consensus.”  Indeed, like many polemical lies, that line has a basic level that is true. Nature, indeed, cannot be coerced by mass opinion, even among brilliant scientists. There have been times when 97% of them were dead wrong.

Take these examples from a well-written little piece  on the Fox News site that relates “five blunders in science.” Indeed, at the surface, these interesting anecdotes — (e.g. Lord Kelvin’s calculation of the age of the Earth and Einstein’s cosmological constant) — simply go to show that science is not a realm of all-knowing priests, but of brilliant and not-so brilliant workers whose interplay of argument and experiment and criticism is just as important as coming up with terrific models.  (When you and I read this article, we’ll say, there’s evidence that science works well.  Ah, but then note where this piece was published. And imagine the sub-text lesson that is drawn by the average Fox customer.)

merchants-of-doubt1In fact, those occasions when 97% of scientists get  it wrong are rare. And science has been much better at correcting them than polemical political mobs have been.  In any event, those rare cases are irrelevant to the matter at hand…

…which is whether to let public policy be affected by — and prudently attend to — important failure mode warnings by most of those who actually understand an important field of human knowledge.  And to give them some benefit of the doubt, rather than reflexively obeying the same advertising firms that claimed cars don’t cause smog and tobacco is good for you.

When 97% of those who know a lot more than you do about something warn you that there may be danger ahead, only idiots blithely ignore such expert diagnoses and go charging ahead with business as usual.

See also: Distinguishing Climate Deniers vs. Skeptics and Arguing with Your Crazy Uncle About Climate Change.

== Science Potpourri! ==

A team of researchers from the United Kingdom and Canada have discovered pockets of water that they say have been isolated for at least up to two billion years. What makes the find especially intriguing is that the ancient water carries all the essential ingredients for life.

Reversing heart disease in older mice?  Sure. Claiming this portends a reversal of aging in humans? Malarkey.  Mice are not analogues for human aging. Period. For reasons I go into elsewhere.  Good news for mice though!

NASA’s Lunar Monitoring Program uses a special 14 inch telescope to stare at the moon whenever it is in view from Marshall Space Flight Center.  This is the sort of thing we need to do more of — and it bore result startling results when a boulder-sized meteor slammed into the moon in March, igniting an explosion so bright that anyone looking up at the right moment might have spotted it.  Only now we have a device looking for us.

D-WaveRead a fascinating and cogent explanation of why NASA and Google are investing in D-Wave’s quantum annealing approach to quantum computing, which appears to work better for optimization problems than any of the gate based quantum computer experiments. This is a frontier with many puzzles and many potentials. (A few of them illustrated in Existence.

Amateur beekeepers are taking up controlled breeding to seek hardier varieties that can withstand New England winters, resist mites, overcome parasites and pesticides and help stave off the honeybee collapse that threatens agriculture across North America.  Augmenting work done at universities, these clubs are terrific exemplars of useful avocation science and the Age of Amateurs.  Heck, I just rescued a hive on my hill, moving it from a lethal place to safety.  Third time I’ve done it. I think I’ll buy some bee boxes next.

Would you gardeners use human poop that’s been treated and transformed into organic fertilizer? About 50 percent of the bio-solids produced in the U.S. are returned to farmland through a process that is heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency… To sell Class A biosolids to farmers and gardeners, facilities have to ensure that there are no dangerous heavy metals or bacteria in the end product. Still…

Researchers have used transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) which mildly “shocks” the brain with high frequency electrical noise. Supplied to an area known to be important for math ability, this can apparently improve a person’s ability to perform calculations. No one exactly knows how this relatively new method works, but it does seem to allow the brain to work more efficiently by making neurons fire more synchronously.  Augmentation, here we come. Expect huge use in China.

Alien? Subhuman primate? Deformed child? Mummified fetus? The Internet is buzzing over the nature of “Ata,” a bizarre 6-inch-long skeleton featured in a new documentary on UFOs. A Stanford scientist now asserts the DNA is purely human and not “alien”.  Okay, look, I deal in the strange professionally.  And the lack of  any external and separate-referenced studies of this thing screams alarm bells.  Despite sober-sounding rhetoric in the articles, I give it 90% to be a hoax.

== And still more science! ==

According to preliminary orbital prediction models, comet C/2013 A1 will buzz Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. JPL calculations suggest the comet is most likely to make a close pass of 0.0007 AU of Mars  (that’s approximately 63,000 miles from the Martian surface). But uncertainties are still high and the comet might either strike the planet or break up. But that’s unlikely and not what concerns me.  What I fret about is the storm of pebbles, dust and gas  accompanying the dirty iceball (according to my doctoral dissertation). There is real danger than a near passage might sand-blast our Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissaance Orbiter spacecraft, now delivering valuable science from above the Martian surface and providing services to the Curiosity and Opportunity landers. I find this prospect exciting and worrisome.

But stay tuned… 2014 will be significant in other ways.

A disappointingly superficial article about geo-engineering by Clive Hamilton appeared in the New York Times, glossing over many aspects and issues, and leaving out any mention of the one geo-engineering remedy to climate change that would actually replicate what the Earth is already doing — ocean fertilization to remove CO2 from the atmosphere while stimulating new fisheries. Alas for journalism.

transhumanist-readerWhere is it all leading?  Max More and Natasha Vita-More are the editors of The Transhumanist Reader: Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future, the first book to present a comprehensive survey of the origins and current state of transhumanist thinking about the future of humanity. The volume offers of core writings by seminal thinkers, exploring the scope of the effects of human innovation of science and technology and how, in turn, science and technology often changes human nature.  It goes into arguments for and against human enhancement and life prolongation along with issues of social concern and biopolitics.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the world’s most famous astrophysicist, and he is a Trekkie.  “I never got into Star Wars,” Tyson tells us. “Maybe because they made no attempt to portray real physics. At all.”  Despite his getting way too inflated lately I always liked the guy a lot.  Here’s one more reason. I guess.

== Science I’ll preen about ==

San Diego-based Torrey Pines Logic is developing the Beam 100 Optical Detection System for the military; it sends out pulses of low power lasers that can detect various lenses out to roughly one kilometer. Returning pulses are analyzed for signatures indicative of optical glass, discarding noise from other glass, like bottles, windows. (Note one for the predictions registry?)

Meat from tissue culture could be a powerful game changer, one that has appeared in science fiction since the 1940s and certainly in many of my own past novels. Now researchers hope to make one hamburger from calf muscle cells grown in dishes… a small and expensive beginning, but so was the first micro-processor.

Reminiscent of my “privacy moths” on Planet Jijo, in my novel BRIGHTNESS REEF:  “Croatian Bees Are Being Trained to Hunt Down Deadly Land Mines.”

3DPrinterSpaceA 3D printer is slated to arrive at the International Space Station next year, where it will crank out the first parts ever manufactured off planet Earth.  More than 30 percent of the spare parts currently aboard the International Space Station can be manufactured by Made in Space’s machine. I presented a paper to NASA in 1982 predicting this exact event, someday.  It was dismissed as sci fi, alas.

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Science -Technology Roundup

The “High Quality Research Act,” sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), would strip the peer-review requirement from the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant process, inserting a new set of funding criteria that is significantly less transparent. Smith, sponsor of the highly controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that would expand U.S. oversight over copyrighted intellectual property on the internet, published an editorial in Roll Call describing how his vision of science funding is based not upon the impacts new research may have on the scientific community, but whether that research will “create jobs.” He went on to boast about how much of the House science committee’s $39 billion in agency budgets gets dumped onto nuclear, fracking and “clean coal” projects. Smith has no background in science.  But then, neither do any of the members of the majority party on the House Science Committee.

TEDTalksTop100Deepak Chopra weighs in upon the firestorm over whether TED, the organization that stages wildly popular international Chautauqua lectures, was right to ban from its site talks by psudo-science promoters and “alternative medicine” hucksters.  From my language, you can tell that my sentiment runs against the tide — the tsunami — of howls crying out “repression of free enquiry!”  A storm that Dr. Chopra joins.

But no, I won’t.  As author of The Transparent Society, I am hugely in favor of openness, transparency and reciprocal accountability.  But the aim of having a wide-open civilization is not – as some would have you believe – that all opinions are equal.  It is that true Reciprocal Accountability is the way that pearls rise out of manure piles.  It is how we figure out which revolutionary or impudent ideas merit further attention and which sink into the simmer of crap, of which Ted Sturgeon called “90% of everything.”TED has proved itself to be a marvelous center of entertainment, ideas and discussion.  It should be wide open to concepts that have at least some, tentative balance of evidence in their favor and demonstrably repeatable phenomena to convey.  But we do our fellow citizens, many of whom have proved stupendously gullible (e.g. vaccination panic and climate denialism) no favors when we have ZERO pre-vetting according to the scientific standards that have served our civilization so well.

Impudence?  Yes!  Tilting at paradigms?  Sure thing. Quasi-religious quackery by men who have spent fifty years evading accountable and verifiable experimental disproof of their bald-faced jabber?  Um… I think that, having proved that I am liberal minded, I don’t have to drop all of the standards I was trained, as a scientist, to bring into a world that desperately needs them.

==Human Nature and the Blank Slate==

StevenPinkerProf. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of our Nature (proving that violence has declined, steeply (per capita), worldwide since 1945), does a TED talk about Human Nature and the Blank Slate — a topic he dealt with in his his older tome The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Fascinating as usual.

Our children will have so many diagnostic tools to focus on THEIR kids than we clueless parents had.  For example: new research from Bristol and Cardiff universities shows that children whose brains process information more slowly than their peers are at greater risk of psychotic experiences. These can include hearing voices, seeing things that are not present or holding unrealistic beliefs that other people don’t share. These experiences can often be distressing and frightening and interfere with their everyday life.

==Marvels of Earth and Space== 

ExoplanetNASA’s Kepler mission has discovered more than 2000 confirmed planets orbiting distant stars. Planets with a known size and orbit are shown in this animated graphic from the New York Times, including five planets orbiting Kepler 62, two of which are only 50% larger than Earth and orbit in their somewhat smaller sun’s Goldilocks Zone.  These are only the confirmed exoplanets.  There are more than a thousand potential candidates. You live in a civilization that does stuff like this!

Ponder that again. You live in a civilization that does stuff like this! Did that feel good? Now, get righteously pissed off at the fools (of both right and left) who seem hell-bent on repressing anyone, at any time, from feeling the way that you just did.

== And now more ==

Sunjammer spacecraft will ‘sail’ toward the sun next year — using a 13,000 square foot sail, a collaboration of the UK Space Agency and NASA.

New measurements suggest the Earth’s inner core is far hotter than prior experiments suggested, putting it at 6,000C – as hot as the Sun’s surface.

A major mystery of life on Earth is that organisms are exclusively made up of left-handed amino acids (Chirality). One theory is that star-forming regions sometimes exhibit circular polarization of the light from a powerful star, and this polarization may affect the molecules forming near other new stars in the region, causing most or all of the pre-biotic “soup” molecules to prefer one orientation over the other.  Hence, sibling systems born from the same nebula might tend all to be the same molecular twist… and another region will be opposite, with nothing for the first group to eat.

Off the coast of Sri Lanka, photographer Shawn Heinrichs captured a dramatic battle between sperm whales and orcas.  Nature is important and beautiful.  But also very tense and not sweet.

Earth warmed more in the last three decades of the 20th century than it has during any 30 year period in the last 1,400 years. Over the past 1,400 years, the Earth experienced a gradual cooling, according to the study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience. Between 1971 and 2000, all of the cooling was entirely reversed.

Investors in carbon-intensive business could see $6 trillion losses as policies limiting global warming stop them from exploiting their coal, oil and gas reserves. Excuse me while I fail to weep.  It used to be “conservative” to want efficiency and to believe in waste-not, and to dislike fouling one’s own nest.

==Technology Advances==

EyeTrackerAn Eye Tracker in every smart phone? Gaze and eye tracking are becoming ever-more off-the shelf. Someday I’d like to explore whether my idea from SUNDIVER exploring the latency effects of the unconscious recognizing scenes before the conscious mind does, might lead to a lie detector and personality profiler.  A terrible curse if monopolized by some elite but the best tool to save the Enlightenment, if shared by all.

The small molecule universe, or SMU is the set of all feasible organic molecules below a certain weight. Now, Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh created a virtual library of every compound that could exist. The sections are all marked out–now chemists can get to work filling them in.  Mind you, much attention is now shifting to proteins and large molecules.  Still, the SMUniverse is ripe with opportunities and this may help researchers organize their efforts.  E.g. “the team found vast regions of emptiness, small molecule dark matter, where countless new compounds may fit in like unknown puzzle pieces.”

A fascinating article about some NASA engineers meticulously disassembling an Apollo era F-1 Saturn engine and digitizing it so that a new version (modernized) might be reborn in the new Space Launch System (SLS).

The end of the spacesuit? Nano suit (now only in the larval stage)  could revolutionize space travel.

OpenWorm: an Open Source Virtual Worm simulation, accurate in biology and behavior, to help researchers in biology research.

A filter based upon NASA technology is so powerful it gets rid of everything in the Coke that makes it Coke, and turns it into … plain water.

Alan Alda is teaching new scientists on how to speak plainly and how this will benefit science.

New methods of generating large volume high density toroidal air plasmas. Just envisioning it gives me the willies!

Roundup… the most-used herbicide… is it a danger to your health? In 2007, as much as 185 million pounds of glyphosate was used by U.S. farmers. And Europe bans three commonly-used pesticides in an effort to protect honeybee colonies.

The marvelous xkcd on scientific outreach !!!!!

Final note:  I’ll be talking about this later, but the implications just to science are chilling.  How our ability to deal with modern problems with traditional American agility is being dragged down by those who believe (fervently) that the End of Times are nigh.


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Technologies that might change everything

Straight from the pages of Existence… though sooner than I expected… researchers now claim to have the entire Neanderthal genome in published form, as clear as that of “any person on the street.” Okay, start your countdown till someone announces she is pregnant with… That will be a real boat-rocker…

…but there are other events on the near horizon that may be more important to saving our world.

Cynics love to extrapolate while optimists look for game-changers. In my latest novel, I portray both spectra of personalities, each with some strong points to make… though only optimists get to see the most important waves of change coming. Take this year’s arrival of reasonably priced and stunningly efficient LED light bulbs, for example. Businesses are already doing whole-building replacements and you should start now in your heavily-lit areas.  They pay for themselves so quickly that fluorescents are hogs, by comparison. Within two years, incandescents and pigtails will be considered bizarre or quaint.

That’s one game-changer.  Another is the rapid fall in prices for solar energy.  Photovoltaics can’t yet compete with the plummeting (in the US) price of natural gas, but their economics are surprising cynics and could accelerate soon.

ChangeEverythingNow comes a bit of news that could matter a lot. And it has to do with the latest wonder material that’s getting huge attention in Europe and across the industrialized world.  Graphene… a sheet-like molecular form of carbon, related to graphite, though in the way that a pile of organic sludge is similar to an Opera diva who can pitch a perfect game. I’ll leave for another time a listing of the uses being explored, from electronics to biochemistry. But one recent announcement stands out as particularly hopeful.  Using graphene to create ultra-thin membranes, engineers at Lockheed Martin have just announced a newly-developed saltwater filter that could reduce desalinization energy costs by 99 percent.

Desalinization typically involves a sheet of composite (TFC) membrane manufactured from a thin-film layer of polyimide stacked on a porous layer of polysulfone. The problem? The thickness of these membranes requires high pressure to push water through. Lockheed Martin’s Perforene filter is made from single atom-thick sheets of graphene. Because the sheets are so thin, water flows through far more easily.

Now if they can solve many problems (like tearing) and bring this on the market soon… our future will look brighter.

== Calling Algernon! Increasing intelligence? Or lobotomizing? ==

Toddlers with iPads… teenagers on FaceBook and iPods… do new electronic media help them learn to think? Or hinder? Studies show that “digital  natives” of the new generation are less agile at divided attention than they think.  Now, in the Atlantic Monthly, comes a fascinating article, The Touchscreen Generation, showing that the landscape is not simple. Electronic media do hold out promise… but it may be a while before we know what works, and what lobotomizes.

Meanwhile, George Dvorsky reports on io9 that by grafting human glial cells into the brains of mice, neuroscientists were able to “sharply enhance” the rodents’ cognitive capacities. These improvements included augmentations to memory, learning, and adaptive conditioning.  Yay Algernon. But the implications go much farther.

Long dismissed as mere support structures for the nourishing and maintenance of all-important neurons, glia have lately been shown to have important direct effects upon information processing and may have played a vital role in the breakout of human intelligence. Human glia are larger and have more fibers than those of lower species.  As to the mouse experiments: human glial progenitor cells were transplanted into each hemisphere of the developing forebrains of newborn mice — who later acquired new conditional associations and learned tasks significantly more rapidly than did their unengrafted controls. (Glial cells extracted from other rodents had no such effects.)

It gets weirder. “Gap junctions” are connections of astrocytes (a type of glial cell)  to other astrocytes, and even to neurons. Gap junctions in neurons bypass the usual synaptic connection, providing a “short circuit” between cells and function to create high speed networks of signal propagation within some areas of the brain, eyes, heart, and other parts of the body. Gap junctions are sometimes referred to as “electrical synapses.”

How-to-Create-a-Mind-cover-347x512Wow.  Amazing stuff.  Yet not quite surprising. For you see I expected something like this. Indeed, the news will excite those who are interested in some science-fictional ideas, for example uplifting animals,  plus enhancing our own intelligence and curing brain disorders. But it will dismay others, e.g. those who hope soon to download their minds into immortal robots.

Ray Kurzweil  and others in the transhumanist community talk about the “connectome”… the number and placement of the synapses that spark and flash with ion transport between the axons and dendrites of a hundred billion neurons.  There may be close to a trillion synapses.  Still, that is a tractable number and if they can be modeled by digital computer cells, then Moore’s Law will cross a trillion fast connections easily by 2025, allowing us to create a brain-in-a-box theoretically as capable as a human one.

That leaves software as the tougher nut to crack!  But lets put that aside for now. Kurzweil and others pin their hopes on that grail – the date when Moore’s Law lets a box emulate a trillion synapse connectome.  Supposedly in time to download the true minds of aging Baby Boomers. That is… if synapses are the only important thing going on in a brain.

== Is that all we are? A trillion synapses? ==

At a Singularity Conference I once pointed out to Ray  and some of the other transhumanists that their fervent calculations might be way off regarding how many Moore’s Law cycles it will take to have computers capable of emulating a human brain.

There is preliminary evidence that some degree of murky, non-linear (and hence difficult to model) “computation” may take place within neurons, and even surrounding astrocyte, glial or other support cells in a brain. Perhaps hundreds or thousands of bias computations for every synapse flash! Add to this the “gap junction” effects we saw above, offering a myriad paths for info to flow around synapses, and the math changes dramatically. It may take many, many more Moore’s Law doublings before we can emulate in silicon the marvel that is a cogent human brain.

That’s bad news for the connectome transcendentalists!  Even if you successfully freeze or plasticize a brain to preserve every synapse for later analysis, you may still lose all the other delicate states within and between cells.

Ah but switch gears now.  Might this news help us enhance the intelligence of animals? Or even enhance our own?  Poul Anderson started the conversation in his epochal novel, Brain Wave. We had better start preparing now.

Oh, then there’s this:  mouse neurons, or brain cells, implanted into rats can survive with the rats into old age, twice as long as the life span of the original mice. “The findings are good news for life extension enthusiasts.”  Um…. maybe not.

Porfiro(BTW: Those of you who have read Existence know about “Porfirio” the super enhanced rat.  Can I call ’em?  Or what?)

== Science & Tech Miscellany ==

The new Samsung Galaxy S IV, will reportedly include an eye-tracking feature to make it easier to scroll pages without physically touching the screen. Some people will view this as an added convenience.  But gaze tracking may have a dark side.  In any event, you can glimpse where this all may lead in Existence, in Rainbows End and other near future SF.

We aren’t in immersive Augmented Reality yet (AR), but the world I’ve portrayed in science fiction is fast approaching.  See what a difference eight years makes, in scenes outside the Vatican in 2005 and 2013. Prediction… this business of holding your phone over your head, in order to see over a crowd, is cool.  But our Google Glasses will project simple stalks upward to leave our hands free.  We’ll have antennae like My Favorite Martian.  And you can see it portrayed vividly by renowned web artist Patrick Farley.

Japan became the first country ever to successfully extract natural gas from underwater deposits of methane hydrate, a frozen gas sometimes referred to as “flammable ice.” The breakthrough could be a boon to the energy-poor nation, which imports almost all of its energy. And if the technology proves commercially viable, it could benefit other countries — including Canada, the U.S., Norway, and China — that are also seeking to exploit methane hydrate deposits. Better they should be used this way, than for climate change to simply release them into the atmosphere.  THAT is my nightmare scenario.  And the denialist cult is making the danger more acute, every day.

Physics-of-the-Future-Kaku-Michio-9780307473332$30 million in Google Lunar X-Prizes. That’s the initial lure drawing companies and consortia to develop private moon landers/rovers that some hope to launch in 2015, in search of riches like platinum group elements, or Helium 3, or (only in a few polar craters) even water.

“We now estimate that if we were to look at 10 of the nearest small stars we would find about four potentially habitable planets, give or take,” said Ravi Kopparapu, a post-doctoral researcher in geosciences. “That is a conservative estimate,” he added. “There could be more.” According to his findings, “The average distance to the nearest potentially habitable planet is about seven light years. That is about half the distance of previous estimates,” Kopparapu said. “There are about eight cool stars within 10 light-years, so conservatively, we should expect to find about three Earth-size planets in the habitable zones.”

More claims of “meteoritic life“? A team claims to see tiny, electron-microscopic trace fossils of living organisms in a meteorite that fell onto Sri-Lanka.  The group happens to involve core figures in the “panspermia movement,” making the “discovery” suspicious… if interesting.

== And even MORE science Miscellay! ==

haasI first saw glimmers of this some years ago. What if every light bulb in the world could also transmit data? At TED Global, Harald Haas demonstrates a device that  flickering the light from a single LED too quick for the human eye to detect can transmit far more data than a cellular tower — and do it in a way that’s more efficient, secure and widespread.

I’m not certain how accurate this report is. But it claims that Chinese scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation’s intelligence by five to 15 IQ points.  It is essentially a variant on the eugenics approach described in Robert Heinlein’s BeyondHOrizonBeyond This Horizon in which couples would fertilize a hundred zygotes (embryos) then analyze them and choose one to bring to fruition and birth, a wholly natural child that they might have had anyway, but still with both good and worrisome implications.

A fascinating article  goes into why, after decades of emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, the sciences of anthropology and psychology still tend to assume uniformity and that people around the world think largely like Americans… who may (according to some metrics) be the weirdest people of all.

President Obama has proposed a bill to allow anyone to unlock a cell phone that they already own.  This should be just the beginning of a trend toward freeing patents and copyrights and other Intellectual Property from the hellish trap they have fallen into.  Instead of serving their original purpose, to end millennia of secrecy and lure creative people into sharing their innovations, they have become tools for constraining and limiting use, even of things that you rightfully own. I do not oppose IP or patents or copyrights!  We do need to remember what they were for. Here’s an essay going into some detail.  For even more of the basic concept, see: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 

For decades, “phage therapy” was  a realm of medicine that always seemed to glimmer on the tantalyzing horizon. Pursued mostly by Soviet scientists, the notion was to find viruses that would preferentially infect and kill the kinds of microbes that are parasites on humans. There is even a variety that attacks human cancer cells preferentially. An oncolytic virus is a virus that infects and kills cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue.  In science fiction, the concept of an oncolytic virus was first introduced to the public in Jack Williamson‘s 1951 novel Dragon’s Island. Alas, this field hovered at the edge of proved practicality… until (apparently) right now. In response to encouraging clinical trials. For example, Amgen purchased the oncolytic virus company BioVex for $1 billion in January 2011. And more recent news suggests a phage will soon be attacking melanomas in people.  Hopefully without the results seen in the Hollywood film I Am Legend.

Wow. New York City at night, photographed from the International Space Station.

== And finally … ==

V. H. P. Louzada and colleagues appear to be endorsing my kind of human. “Here we propose the use of contrarians to suppress undesired synchronization.”  Yes, they are talking about damping wild swings in neuronal networks, but the same wisdom can apply in societies.

See?  I told you folks it was wise to put up with ornery bastards!  Dogmas and polarized “sides” are a sure sign of diminished brain capacity.  Criticize everything. Even your allies. Especially yourself.

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What big-unexpected problem we will face in coming decades? (Contest winners)

UnexpectedProblemMy latest novel Existence shows humanity confronting many challenges forty years in the future — some expected and some unforeseen. Indeed, finding, revealing and exploring unexpected threats… this might be considered one of the most valuable services of good, thoughtful science fiction.

I recently crowd-sourced a question to my Facebook followers: What do you view as the biggest unexpected problem we will face in the next few decades? Many insightful and thought-provoking responses poured in, from profound to comedic, ranging from political instability to economic collapse, civil unrest to over-reliance on machines, social disruption to psychological plagues. Others dealt with problems of over-population and life extension, shortages of water and biodiversity, severe climate change, collapse of our information systems, growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, even meteor impacts.

Here I’m posting the most intriguing responses that got the most fan votes (the top two won fee copies of the brand new paperback edition of EXISTENCE! Note that I do not necessarily agree with all of the cited entries and will respond to a few of them in comments. But all of them show verve and a willingness to peer ahead:

1. What form of government will replace capitalism? This system is devolving at FTL speed, and the world is still unaware of a viable solution to it, while world situation is becoming more erratic and explosive daily. We will find ourselves in need of new ethno-national definitions very soon. Also, what will replace religion, for the same reasons. However, I feel that space exploration and the focus towards space will, at least partially, contribute to the latter. –Margie Lazou

2. Political and economic pressures from spacefaring nations to keep others from having the ability to access the almost infinite resources off-planet; extremely low cost for resources – material and energy – for the space-capable, and artificially high prices for everyone else. –David Christensen

3. Longevity due to augmentation and medical advances will create a need to migrate off planet for resources but those left behind must deal with massive social strain and change along with the burdensome question of what it means to be human. –John Berry Gosnell

4. A plastic-eating bacterium with resistance to all known antibiotics. –Martha Dunham

5. The unexpected loss of a sense of humor in people of European extraction, leading to mass suicide and the end of sit com laugh tracks. –Rhonda Palmer

6. The consequences of a universal lie detector machine. Politics and virtually every other field of human endeavor will be changed by everyone having to tell the truth. The rules that will evolve to deal with social and business situations will rapidly change society. –Kevin Settle

7. The biggest unexpected problem we’ll face will be psychological. A depression plague is going to begin to eat away at modern society. We lose a sense of personal control over the modern world (i.e. external locus of control), where people believe that things happen to us, rather than “we make things happen”. Apathy and self destructive behavior will no longer be the domain of emo-kids. It will threaten the viability of all societies worldwide, fueled by environmental impacts (historically, we rarely see them coming) and a growing disparity in wealth, power, and liberties. Long term ramifications will include economic collapse, famine, civil unrest and finally social atavism. –Richard Carter

8. Fresh water supplies. –David Caune

9. Biggest unexpected problems? Aren’t the expected problems enough?  Biodiversity depletion, climate change, class warfare, outright warfare, the depletion of basically every resource: food, energy, fresh water, a whole whack of strategic minerals including helium, orbital debris. Hell, the only thing “unexpected” capable of killing us more quickly than we’re killing ourselves would be a meteor impact or giant-ass solar flare. –Gabriel Emilio Zárate

10. The replacement of skilled and unskilled labor by automation combined with an ever-increasing population could have drastic effects on unemployment levels and civil unrest. –Eric Berman

11. Clinical near immortality will create beyond Malthusian population growth, further stressing Earth’s resources. The moral question of when life “ends” will arise, for while they are able to keep the body alive, the mind still fails within 90-120 years. Discussion begins around planned obsolescence being introduced as part of gerontological treatments. –Wes Edmunds

12. The social (A movement away from sexism and tribalism. Along with an exponential expansion of global leisure and tourism.) and economic (Explosive demand and shifting of manufacturing, agriculture, and service industries.) ramifications of the children of 1/5th of the world’s population growing up as a ‘spoiled generation’ with two living parents and four living grandparents focusing all of their energy, hopes and dreams for the future, and their own personal life choices and mistakes on a ‘state mandated’ single child. –Richard Praser

13. A growing number of disruptive technologies and culture’s difficulties in adapting. The biggest problem here will be the growing rift(s) between the people who use the technologies and those who don’t. (Either by choice or access.) We may find that our culture is not the quickest to adapt, and the United States may be left in the wake of the world, wondering where it went without us. –Luna Rebecca Flesher

14. Collapse of our information systems due to overwhelming amounts of information from untrustworthy sources and the inability to verify sources and filter information effectively. –Eli Roth

15. Fresh-Water Scarcity and the many consequences thereof! Including massive dust-storms that will cause air-quality problems and which will contribute to erratic weather patterns in some of the most populated areas of the World ( especially in China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa and the US South-West ). And this will lead to food scarcity and pest-control problems; hence a massive increase in the risk of life-threatening/lethal disease epidemics! Hence social instability in countries that have nuclear and/or chemical weapons! ( OK: all this is actually expected…BUT…).

But what is unexpected about this: failed states with nuclear/chemical arsenals and the dire need for the Super-Powers to cooperate on direct military interventions: so as to limit overall harm to general populations and mitigate the risk that those very same Super-Powers from going to war with one-another! Hence: a dangerous trend of ever-reduced civil liberties, freedoms and personal security! Hence: an ever-more dangerous, further erosion of trust between the general public and their respective governments! Which will lead to a massive increase in psychological breakdowns and the social disorder and related violence that will further harm our very need for social cohesion based on warranted trust: hence a whole new phenomena: psychological profiling and related witch-hunts! Hence the risk of a new dark ages. And given the kinds of dangerous technologies now in existence: a very real risk of total social meltdown and the subsequent high risk of a final, near-total, if not total, civilization collapse! –Jean-Pierre A. Fenyo

16. The development of mind-machine connections. While they will remain primitive in 30 years time, they will create a rift between those with the resources to afford their implantation and those who cannot. –Bradley Brown

17. I think the next crisis of truly global proportions will come from technologies that prolong life or even eliminate natural death. These technologies will inevitably and necessarily be restricted to a few. Not doing so would result in overpopulation, which would lead to forced birth control or mass starvation. Those who have these technologies will not want their enemies or those of whom they disapprove to live forever (would you allow a Hitler or a Stalin or even just a Castro to live forever?). Nations would want the balance of power that this brings to shift in their favor. But even in the unlikely case where none of this would happen, such technology would have to be deployed gradually and even if the intent were to make it available to everyone, those who are not at the front of the line would perceive it as hoarding and a denial of what they will surely claim is a “god given right”.

And then, of course, religions would get in the mix, calling this an evil and in opposition to the “clear” will of their god. However it happens, there will be two camps: those fervently in favor of it and those furiously opposed to it. This will lead to social unrest, widespread acts of sabotage, probably a few small wars, wildly disrupted economies, famines, plagues, rains of toads, cats sleeping with dogs, and Republicans and Democrats agreeing on something that has yet to be identified. –Claudio Puviani

18. A combination of events, which will result in over-population, lack of natural resources, an under-abundance of food stock, supply and sources culminating in a ridiciulously strained attempt to reach the stars, taking up more time, effort and money than it is really worth. –Stephen Ormsby

19. I see two upcoming problems, actually:

–The need to overhaul the global economic system. In an increasingly globalized world, “capitalism” tends to become associated solely with the U.S. model of industrialized society, while technological progress accelerates, along with obsolescence and resource depletion. This leads to disruptions due to environmental, cultural and legal differences between various countries/blocs; we will also see the need to overhaul the patent system and property rights, as well as redefine individual/collective responsibilities.

–A global religious crisis. With two of the three main Abrahamic religions in full recession – mainly in the highly-industrialized West – relegating proselytism as a secondary (less important) goal, fringe groups and extremist movements are likely to increase their public presence. The crisis of faith experienced mainly in the West will expand across the globe as more people under moderate regimes in developing nations will follow similar paths of questioning, enabled by technological progress and more discoveries in fields such as of bio logy (genetics) and astrophysics. While a truly global jihad seems unlikely, the tensions between believers and agnostics/nonbelievers will continue to grow, and this is bound to lead to cultural upheaval, with hard-to-foresee consequences. –Alex Savulescu

20. Shortages of critical materials for technology, pharmaceuticals, etc. Every environmental and problematic issue boils down to human population, however. We’re trading quantity for quality, and there is nothing to stop it. You can’t even bring the subject up without a volley of insipid, formulaic, unthinking responses, one of the first of which will be “Why do you want to murder people, you monster?” Given that every path to a survivable future involves some sort of conscious, deliberate action on population, like NOW, I don’t see any path that saves us.  –Hank Fox

21. The biggest problem? There are two, I think, and they are intertwined. Climate change and the death of the oceans. –Michelle Connor


Thank you to my many bright readers for their wisdom and insight! We will need a generation of creative, ambitious, and far-seeing problem-solvers to face the unexpected over the next few decades. While not every suggestion was exactly “unexpected,” all conveyed the passion of people who think seriously about our path ahead.  The kind of folks who read the literature of tomorrow.

My best-known aphorism is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error. Here, we have attempted to shine light into possible (potentially dark) scenarios for the future, foreseeing various obstacles and stumbling blocks we may encounter along our path to creating a brighter future.

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Exciting possibilities in (and about) space!

First some exciting news about space-flight.  Then I’ll finish with a followup (and speculative) reflection on our recent multiple encounters with space rocks.

== NASA’s NIAC: New and Innovative Advance Concepts ==

Soon I will be off to participate as an advisor in the Spring meeting of NASA-NIAC in Chicago.  NIAC is a far-out, little research program at NASA, trying to enable big things. NIAC stands for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. Its budget last year was $5.5M, or about 3/100ths of 1% of the $18 billion NASA budget. Its charter is to Change the Possible in aerospace. NIAC studies exciting, unexplored missions that won’t be “ready for prime time” for a decade or more. Here are a few projects they funded last year, chosen at random:

681397main_lunar_construction_astronauts_226   •    A  researcher at USC is trying to “3-d print” whole buildings with quick drying concrete. Behrokh Khoshnevis is working with NIAC to see if it’s possible to do this on the Moon or on Mars, using local soil, to build infrastructure in preparation for a future NASA mission.

•    NIAC has a researcher at Draper Labs, Kevin Duda, who is working on a space suit that would help astronauts feel a sense of “down” while in space for a long time. It might also help them exercise just by doing their regular movements. The suit has gyros on it that resist motion intelligently for that sense of “down”.

•    Kendra Short at JPL is trying to print small spacecraft. Not 3-D printing, but rather flexible printed electronics, batteries, sensors, everything on a sheet of mylar or even paper. This could be used anywhere in the solar system to rapidly design and print useful electronics.

SuperBallBot•    An interesting robotic rover is being designed with Mars in mind. Adrian Agogino is adapting tensegrity structures to make an inexpensive and durable rover, the Super Ball Bot, that you could simply drop down to Mars — no a parachute or airbags needed.

•    Here’s an example of something NIAC is funding on life support systems: Michael Flynn is developing Water Walls, Redundant Life Support Architecture, a concept to put the waste water processing into the walls of a spacecraft so that the water and waste would protect against radiation, too.

RAP•    NIAC is funding a small asteroid mining study. With the Robotic Asteroid Explorer, Mark M. Cohen is trying to figure out if mining an asteroid could ever make real business sense. If so, what might be valuable to mine in space, and how could it be accomplished?

One of the coolest parts of NIAC is how open it is: info about all their studies is freely available at Also, they have their projects report out to the program office at public meetings, the NIAC Symposiums. The next is in Chicago from March 12-14th. See their website for details on the Spring Symposium.

== More Exciting space news == 

The next three years will feature truly astounding announcements regarding human spaceflight: half a dozen new commercial and potentially human-crewed space vehicles, including:


–XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx suborbital space plane
–Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
–Armadillo Aerospace’s Vertical Lander
–Stratolaunch’s Air-Launched Rocket
–Blue Origin’s Space Vehicle
–Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser Space Plane

HedgehogA way cool concept that emerged from MIT, JPL and NASA NIAC… a Phobos mission (to replace the doomed Russian one) would start with an orbiter that then deploys several small “hedgehog” landers that fling themselves across the microgravity surface by sudden tilts driven by gyros and flywheels. I have long pushed for Phobos as a target.  It could very well be one of the most valuable sites in the solar system.

An electric sail produces propulsion power for a spacecraft by utilizing the solar wind (charged particles) instead of light. The sail features electrically charged long and thin metal tethers that interact with the solar wind. As illustrated in EXISTENCE. Now see plans for the real thing.

EmDrive, China’s radical new space drive using microwaves that seems to violate Newton’s laws by requiring no propellant mass?Professor William Napier and Dr. Janaki Wickramasinghe have completed computer simulations of our sun’s movements in its outer spiral location in the Milky Way, and determined that we are now entering a danger zone where molecular clouds might perturb the solar system — the odds of asteroid impact on Earth go up by a factor of ten.

Watch a great (and personal) tour of the International Space Station given by Sunny Williams just immediately prior to her departure from the ISS a month or so ago.  She literally gave it the day of her return to Earth… after commanding the ISS for the prior 3 months.

Not to be missed! Google has created a visualization of the 100,000 stars nearest to the solar system, based on actual astronomical data. You can zoom in all the way to the solar system to see how small Neptune’s orbit is relative to the Oort Cloud, or zoom right out to see how puny 100,000 stars is in just our quarter of the Milky Way galaxy.

600px_messenger_orbit_image20130218_1_4by3_946-710Scientists spin carbon nanotube threads on an industrial scale. This is huge – not just for a Space Elevator  but for construction in general. There’s a cool video showing how they do it – they’re not keeping it all secret…

And finally, a gorgeous false-color image of Mercury. NASA’s Messenger space probe has been mapping the surface, and has detected evidence of water ice and volatiles at the permanently shaded poles of Mercury.

== Finally: space rocks redux ==

To recap: one asteroid – about 50 meters across – zipped by Earth from the south, closer than our communication satellites, just hours after another – perhaps 15 meters across – plummeted in from the north and gave up more energy than a hydrogen bomb as it broke apart high over over Chelyabinsk, in the Russian Urals, briefly outshining the sun and shattering hundreds of windows.  Soon reports came in of lesser bollides over Cuba and San Francisco, leading one of you to write in that February 16 began featuring regular meteor showers a few years ago.  (The “Febrids”?)  So mark your calendars for next year, you northern hemisphere folks.

All this ruckus led to my serving another stint as astronomy pundit on BBC. My job on-air was to reassure that there would be no radiation… that in fact, bollides like this one seem to strike our planet once a decade or so, but always till now over open ocean or deserts or countryside. (In the 1970s one such event, off Japan, almost triggered a rise in DEFCON alert level at the US NORAD!)  This was the first ever to perturb a city.

Anyway, we still aren’t “safe.”  Comets (my area of scientific expertise) could swoop down from almost any direction, almost any time.  So let’s become more capable of living and working out there in space!  Our proper path is vigorously forward.

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The near future of manned spaceflight

MannedFor a recent interview I was asked:

Where is manned spaceflight headed in the near term?

GOLDENSPIKEThere certainly is a lot of buzz about big changes in manned spaceflight in the news. From space hero-pioneer Elon Musk ruminating about self-sustaining colonies of 80,000 people on Mars… to a startup called Golden Spike  that seeks to purchase government and commercial vehicles to offer flights – and even landings – on the Moon (two tickets to the moon, yours for $1.5 billion). Then there’s Mars One, a Dutch company that hopes to launch a series of robotic missions to Mars that will construct outposts on the surface. Humans will follow by 2023. Part of the funding may come from reality media  — filming the astronaut training and interactions. Big Brother on Mars?

Okay — let me say that I see two drivers and two paths ahead for human spaceflight, one slow and plodding, the other quick and exciting.  Both will be needed. Each will benefit from the other.

Ever since Challenger blew up, NASA’s meticulous approach to manned spaceflight has been to redouble caution. To fill in each missing step, then the sub-phases between each step. After Columbia, this fill-en_0805_blackstone_480x360in-every-gap method has led to such flawless undertakings as the recent Curiosity lander’s spectacular (and spectacularly complicated) landing on Mars.

But that was just a robot.  When human lives are at stake, the process becomes so carefully mature that – in effect – nothing gets flown at all. At minimum, human-rating every component multiplies costs by as much as two orders of magnitude, in some cases. Let’s be plain. If this were humanity’s only path to human spaceflight, countless thorny problems and sub-problems would be vanquished!  But nothing would ever actually fly with people aboard.

Fortunately, through this process NASA keeps developing new technologies.  So do the civilian world, foreign governments and the military.  These improvements trickle – or gush – and spread. New thresholds have been reached in computers and sensors, in equipment capability and reliability. And in plummeting hardware prices.

One result? We are ready for the dawn of a new era, one of private space ventures. And, fortunately, the politicians seem perfectly ready to welcome non-state activity.  Instead of raising obstacles, the present administration seems bent on clearing a path.

694662main_logo425From the Rutan/Branson Spaceship to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, there are dozens of private manned and unmanned missions being planned. Some of them leverage upon the desire of the rising caste of super-rich for unusual experience, starting with sub-orbital jaunts.  Plans are in motion to extend this market, leading downstream to space hotels and – eventually – private moon landings. The new Planetary Resources company plans to access the vast wealth of asteroids.

All of these things can be done now because technological thresholds are falling… and also because they can allow higher risk ratios, because private ventures aren’t answerable to the same levels of enforced care as public ones.  The cost effects of allowing part failure rates in the one-millionth probability – instead of on-billionth – is nothing short of astronomical.

== A New Barnstorming Age? ==

We may, at last be ready to embark on the equivalent of the the great age of barnstorming aircraft development, that our grandparents saw in the 1920s, when risk – and even some loss – was considered part and parcel of courage and exploration. When the new frontier was legitimate territory for tinkerers (albeit, today they would be billionaire tinkerers).

FrontierIf so, it will have come about from a mix of government investment in meticulous process and checklisting a myriad details… meshing well with the unleashing of private ambition. No example so perfectly disproves the idiotic canard that everything must be all-government… or else that government is evil and wholly uncreative.  We are a complex people in a complex age.  But we can rise above comforting nostrums to realize, a careful mix was how we got everything we see around us. A mix that is negotiated by goal-driven grownups – that is how we’ll get farther ahead.

== What are pros/cons of each approach? ==

SpaceShipONeThe Branson/Rutan “Spaceship One” approach, and others like it, have the advantage of paying for themselves incrementally, improving their methods and capabilities in the same way. Those offering suborbital jaunts won’t have to answer to taxpayers or budget committees. If Branson and Rutan and the others deliver a safe and peerless experience, the wealthy will thrust money at them, hand-over-fist doing us all a favor by recycling some of it into something useful and cool. (Like oxygen, water, food… too much accumulated anything becomes toxic.)

Some of us will also go too, through prizes and lotteries (and gifts to favorite authors?) Calling Fantasy Island!

And their next products will emerge in a matter of due course.  Orbital hotels and – quicker than you now might expect – private moon landings. These missions will be of very little scientific value.  But they will leverage technologies developed by NASA and others, transforming them into off-the-shelf tools and something that today’s NASA is ill-equipped AME_0003to do — actual, risk-taking human crewed expeditions. (All of it perhaps presaged by the Robert Heinlein novel The Man Who Sold The Moon.)

In time, this will transform into own-your-own sub-orbital rocket kits, as I portray in an early chapter of EXISTENCE.  (See this portrayed via some cool images in the vivid preview-trailer.)

SpaceX and others are counting on winning contracts to deliver commercial and government payloads into orbit, predictably and reliably. This will soon include human crews for the Space Station.  The Dragon capsule will not be optimized for paying private customers seeking a “yeehaw” experience.  But I expect there will be some such, as well.

Way back in 1982 I headed a team at the California Space Institute that outlined an alternative space station design, using Space Shuttle External Tanks, that would have been soooooo sweet.  Just five launches would have led to a station larger than the present one and far more capable.  Ah,well.  The tanks are gone.  (But sample the wondrous possobilities with my short story: “Tank Farm Dynamo“!)

Still, some of the new inflatable structures and composites being developed at L’Garde as well as UCSD’s new Structural and Materials Engineering building may lead to new, commercial stations that offer hotel experiences in the sky.  And even though the moon is sterile scientifically and for physical wealth (and offers almost no benefits as a “way station”), it may (as said earlier) be enough of a tourist allure to propel us back to that sere, but romantic (if largely useless) destination.

== What about the Old Dream? Missions to Mars? ==

SpaceXOh, we will poke away at the big stuff.  Certainly the shift away from a return-to-the-moon boondoggle, which almost no scientist on Earth supported, was a step in the right direction.  And with private capitalists salivating over asteroids, it does look as if the choice to look that was was a correct one.

NASA will keep developing the technologies we’ll need for missions to asteroids, to Phobos (potentially one of the most valuable rocks in the Solar system), and eventually Mars.  We could afford to spend twice what we do and pick up the pace.  The payoffs – just for remembering we’re a scientific civilization – would be overwhelming.

screen_shot_2012-03-09_at_9_25_48_am-4f5a10c-intro-1Oh, and of course other nations than the self-centered US will be part of this mix, in ever-greater force.  In EXISTENCE I portray manned spaceflight getting a nationalist impetus when the Chinese start flexing their competence and muscle out there It could help propel interesting times.

Still I was asked about just human spaceflight in the near term.  And the near term to me looks commercial, private, bold, close-to-home, rather lavishly exclusive…

…but fun.

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Reconsidering Copyright

“Current copyright law does not merely distort some markets — rather it destroys entire markets.” So reads the final line of a report released by the Republican Study Committee of the House of Representatives that is highly critical of current copyright law.

== Are Patents and copyrights Inherently Evil? ==

Intellectual-PropertyThe report points accurately to many of the flaws that have crept into modern copyright.  Including the absolutely false notion that Intellectual Property is — or ever  was — about what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. Or that the purpose of copyright is to benefit the creator. Rather, the purpose of copyright is to benefit the public: to  “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

Ars Technica heaps further praise: “The memo, titled ‘Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix it,’ is a direct assault on the relentlessly pro-copyright worldview dominating Washington for decades.” It is certainly worthwhile to go visit these two linked articles and see what the fuss is about…

… before pausing, taking a step back, and lamenting that even the Good Guys in this controversy proudly display shallow thinking while smugly proclaiming themselves to be wise.

To be clear, I pay college bills for my kids out of my copyrights and patents.  Nevertheless, I am philosophically willing to posit that people should not and cannot inherently “own” ideas or knowledge in any fundamental way, even if they created it in the first place. They have interests, some rights. But those are more constrained.

intellectual-property-lawMoreover, let me further avow that IP law has become a warped thing, twisted by lobbyists to serve the interests of mighty corporations and not the public or progress. All of the complaints cited in the articles have valid points that should be addressed. And yes, the chief villains are those who would use “ownership” to make “intellectual property” serve lawyers and oligarchs, rather than creative people.

Still, I am unsympathetic to those who righteously demand the very opposite, tearing down all copyrights and patents, under the proclaimed theory that we would then automatically enter some sort of Open Source Nirvana.  An Age of Aquarius and infinite sharing and endless voluntary creativity.

Yipe!  I lived through that sort of talk in the 1960s.  And what species do these fellows think they are part of? Elsewhere I have repeatedly proved that I am a friend to the Maker and Open Source movements! But please, don’t make it religious dogma. We are practical men and women, with practical problems to solve.

300px-NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1I come close to despair over how proudly ignorant all the righteous people are (right or left, techie or troglodyte) about actual human history. For example, have you ever heard of the Antikythera Device?  The Baghdad Battery?  The fabulous piston steam engines of Hero of Alexandria?  Our ancestors were creative people! Yet, all of those technological advances and a myriad others were lost!  Why?

Until you can answer that question clearly, you will never grasp why patents and copyrights were invented in the first place.  And you should always understand the thing that you want to replace.

Put yourself into the shoes of an inventor or innovator in 99% of human cultures. Unless you found a patron in the king, you had only one way to benefit from your innovation — by keeping it secret! By scribbling your designs in cryptic verse and murky code, in just one carefully guarded grimoire, in a hidden attic.  Under a floorboard. Only then could you keep customers flocking to you… till the clever blacksmith in the next town reverse engineered your improvement and started competing with you.

And when you and your son died in a plague or fire? Or when the town was pillaged… what happened then to your invention? Do you get the picture?  Secrecy slows things down, and very often means that advances are simply lost. And yes, this resonates with The Transparent Society – should you be surprised?

human-progresss-secrecySelf-interested secrecy was the failure mode that ruined human progress for at least ten thousand years, keeping the process clogged and slow.

A way had to be found that would lure inventors out into the open, eager to announce, avow and declare their innovations!  While pondering how to fix the flaws in Intellectual Property, we are fools if we don’t consider how much better things got, when it was invented.

Go.  Read history. Hold conversations with Ben Franklin in your mind. Maybe even read The Transparent Society. Understand the actual problem. Then, instead of railing at us quasi-religious incantations like “information wants to be free” come up with another way to keep creative people shouting “look what I just came up with!”  Instead of slumping back into the old ways that stifled innovation for 10,000 years.

patent-copyright-futureThen we can talk about a replacement solution, admitting that it is time for patents and copyrights to give way, gradually, to another innovation.

Another invention.


* After-note for authors! If you sold rights to your copyrighted works after 1978, you should be aware that based on Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act,  authors may cut away any contract after 35 years. It happens that my own very first book contract (Sundiver) was signed in the year… 1978… and is coming due for such a release or renewal right about… now.) It is still a world where you’re well-advised to keep informed. Now go and be creative.

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Is Law Enforcement Going Dark? Dilbert’s Dilemma and other Transparency Crises

First a pair of announcements:

I’ll be in Los Angeles to help politicians, movie stars, family members and writers dedicate Ray Bradbury Square at 2pm on December 6.

* My No Losers” proposal  to simplify the tax code without rousing intense opposition may get traction if you sign a petition to the White House. Take the time!    

== Is Law Enforcement going blind? Or getting X-Ray Vision? ==

In Going Dark vs. a Golden Age for Surveillance, Professors Peter Swire and Kenesa Ahmad, discuss the assertion made by some law enforcement agencies that their ability to see, surveil and protect us is “going dark” because of some new methods of encrypted communication that are widely available to non-gevernment entities, including criminals and terrorists.

This complaint goes back to the Cypher Wars of the 1990s that led to my book: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Swire & Ahmad respond by showing that we are, instead, entering a “golden age of surveillance” in which agencies have access to vastly more information about everybody, including location data, contacts, interactions and rapidly searchable databases.

The loss of agency access to information, due to encryption, is more than offset by surveillance gains from computing and communications technology. In addition, government encryption regulation harms cybersecurity.”

They later add: “The evidence suggests, furthermore, that the degradation of wiretap capability has been modest at most, and—at least statistically—wiretaps have become more useful over time. The number of wiretap orders implemented in the U.S. has grown steadily the last two decades.” 

Their basic conclusion is that there exists no panic-level need to rush to expand beyond the Patriot Act’s already aggressive  domain of permissible surveillance methods and permissions. All correct so far, and wise.

Alas though, I might have asked for more from these scholars. Swire is a friend and  one of the best minds around in this area. Still, he and Ahmad should have at least mentioned two added points:

1) Such calm-down missives as theirs will be like failing dikes in a tsunami, the next time something terrible happens. As I explain on p.206 of The Transparent Society  (the infamous page where I seem to foretell both the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath) there will be a Ratchet Effect whenever public panic allows officials to claim “we might have prevented this, if we had better abilities to see and detect threats.” In such an aftermath, those powers will be granted.  And will almost never be withdrawn.

2) The protective agencies can be expected to continue pressing for better surveillance methods, both in pursuit of a professional ability to do their jobs and as a natural outcome of human psychology.  They will never give up because we monkeys need to see and powerful ones won’t be denied. If forbidden, they will simply peer at us surreptitiously.  Robert Heinlein said: “Privacy laws make the spy bugs smaller.”

The answer over the long run is not to try futilely to hold back the inevitable ratchet, but to demand a price for every increase in their ability to surveil.  That price should be reciprocal accountability, transparency and “sousveillance” – the power of citizens to look back, to supervise their paid guardians, to watch the watchmen and hold them accountable.

There are many ways to do this, some venerably traditional and others innovative, for a new century. All are based on the realization that it matters less what elites know about us (they will know it all anyway: elites of government, corporations, money or even criminality) but rather what they can do to us.  Adverse action against private citizens by potential Big Brothers can best be prevented by turning the Telescreen so that it peers in both directions.  This is the only proved method; it is the way that we have had the win-win of modern society so far.  It is the only scenario that can possibly continue to work.

== Dilbert — too — misses the point! ==

Scott Adams – creator of the Dilbert series of comic strips about the ironies and shenanigens of life in business and engineering – has published an essay, The Privacy Illusion, about the futility of trying to conceal personal information, especially from the government.

As far as he goes, Scott Adams is right.  It is delusional and futile for any modern citizen to imagine that the “government” or any other elite will lack ways of finding out about you anything they want to learn.  His recommendation that we drop silly notions of hiding information about ourselves is correct… up to a point.  Only then, alas, Adams stops!  Making the same error as Swire and Ahmad, he does not continue and thus completely misses the point. That there is a Part Two… a vital “therefore let’s do what works”… a next step that is behooved upon us all.

Look, I have to repeat because no one ever seems to absorb it. Yes, the government (or other elites) will have powers of surveillance to peer at our lives.  But we have a reciprocal power that can prevent the elites from becoming Big Brothers.  At risk of belaboring – the mighty in this world will know whatever can be known. We can’t stop that.

Again, what we can do is influence what they can do to us. That will be affected – above all – by whether the watchmen are being watched.

== Other Transparency-Related Matters ==

( I’ll get even more repetitious in here! These compiled potpourri-postings sometimes present material gathered across months, that then get strung together in an hour.  And each time, I would mention my book!  Ah well, sorry about that.  Such is our modern age.)

Google released its sixth Transparency Report on Tuesday, showing what it believes is a clear trend: around the world, government requests for user data is on the upswing. “From time to time, we receive falsified court orders … We do examine the legitimacy of the documents that we receive, and if we determine that a court order is false, we will not comply with it.” Google has been issuing semiannual Transparency Reports showing government requests received by the company since early 2010.

Eye Am a Camera: Surveillance and Sousveillance in the Glassage: Professor Steve Mann on transparency and the shifting boundaries between surveillance and sousveillance in the new age. He predicts: “Digital Eye Glass will mark the end of McVeillance (surveillance without sousveillance). As a result, veillance will be two-sided and that alone will transform society far more profoundly than augmediated reality itself!”

Quad  copters have so revolutionized, with auto-stability systems, that any derp-citizen can fly one right out of the box… the ARDrone lets you fly a camera-equipped drone that transmits back home, a real step toward sousveillance!  That’s looking at the bright side.  The dark side? Well.  Buy two.  One to experiment with and one to hide in the closet, in case they’re made illegal.

Names of Infamy: Deny Killers the Notoriety They Seek: Apparently, my essay on changing the names of heinous mass killers got a lot of attention.  Almost as many viewers in Canada alone as in the U.S. and a rather large number in Norway.  Might we see an effort there to pass legislation changing (for example) mass killer Brevik’s name? Given the cushy nature of his imprisonment, that might be especially called-for,

Blinding or turning off your cell phone camera? A patent application filed by Apple revealed how the technology would work. If an iPhone were held up and used to film during a concert infra-red sensors would detect it. These sensors would then contact the iPhone and automatically disable its camera function.  The method describes the use of new infra-red sensors, which could theoretically make their way into a future iteration of the iPhone, to detect if an iPhone was held up during a concert with the intent to take footage. These sensors would first be able to detect infra-red light entering the iPhone’s camera lens from the stage, then shutting off all video recording capabilities. Buy up lots of cheap and used digital cameras now! Before they are all connectable from afar and capable of being hijacked by the mighty.

== The power of busybody gossips ==

I have spoken before about how the classic form of human governance is a top-down hierarchy of inherited oligarchy — some variant of feudalism – a pyramid-shaped social order in which a few at the top lord it over the masses and make sure that their sons will rule likewise.  It was the pattern in 99% of human history and nearly always was accompanied by delusion, bad statecraft and lack of corrective criticism or wisdom.  Still, that pattern is woven into our genes and manifests when millions who should be loyal to the Great Exception — our democratic enlightenment – yearn for fantasy or religious arbiters or “kings.”

Still, the real pattern was a bit more complicated than just caste dominating caste.  The rulers had help!  First, the lords got assistance from a clade of priest/wizard/shaman/bard-types who wove incantations or spells or stories to convince the masses that it was GOOD for the lords to rule!

Then came a layer of thugs – brutal men willing to enforce that rule with truncheons, whips and nooses.

Finally, and seldom remembered or portrayed, we had a fourth layer of control over the masses. Busybodies and gossips.  Yes, they could be found in every hamlet of neighborhood.  Women or men whose joy lay in nosiness and whose satisfaction lay in bullying manipulation.

We are familiar with images of Big Brother, surveillance, the KGB and Gestapo.  What folks forget is that the real eyes and ears of every secret police system consisted of the local biddies and crotchedy farts who knew everyone’s failings, lapses and stories. Who served as the system’s eyes and ears.  You think those days are behind us? Have a look at this method being used in China, in service of protecting order during an important Party Congress.  It is an ancient method, as I describe in The Transparent Society.

== Let the government use your router? ==

I am involved in emergency management from many directions, often consulting for departments like Homeland Security, DARPA and DTRA.  I’m also a member of CERT (my local Community Emergency Response Team) and recently upgraded to California Disaster Corps.  So I have great sympathy for the problems our first responders face, preparing for future calamities.  Still, proposals like this one raise my hackles from a different direction – in my role as “Mr. Accountability” and author of  The Transparent Society.

Will emergency responders (and possibly other agencies) be able to turn a switch and access your home WiFi router … in a crisis?  Should they?

“Well-meaning proposals sometimes have a way of raising troubling questions. Case in point: A team of wireless researchers in Germany proposed a way to improve the communications abilities of first responders, the brave people who rush into disastrous situations to help save the victims. But the proposal hinges on something many private citizens and privacy or security advocates will likely find uncomfortable: creating an “emergency switch” that lets government employees disable the security mechanisms in the wireless routers people have set up in their own homes. This would allow first responders to use all the routers within range to enhance the capabilities of the mesh networks that allow them to communicate with each other.

“The residents’ wireless traffic would still remain private, in theory. Wireless routers already support a technology that might make the idea feasible—the creation of guest networks that home owners can use to grant visitors access to the Internet…” though this guest status would be remotely switchable by authorities.  All told, it is within reasonable range of possible compromises, but with one problem….

…these concessions they ask from us should always be matched by concessions that we win from government.  Transparency sousveillance concessions that incrementally increase our ability to supervise and inspect the authorities, to ensure these powers are never abused.

Where is the NGO or ombundsman or agency that applies pressure in this direction, on our behalf, whenever the ratchet turns?

== Yet more transparency miscellany ==

Want a possibly better telescreen reference? Dig it.  The possibility that camera sensor elements are actually in between the pixels and thus are indistinguishable to the naked eye even if the device is dissassembled.

Ex-cop Marc Goodman runs through a list of ways that new technologies can and do empower criminals, terrorists and bad actors. His TED talk gets a bit scary… till the end when he calls for exactly the sort of openness-based solutions that I recommend in The Transparent Society … and illustrate vividly in Existence.

No more hiding behind anonymity? YouTube is fighting against idiotic and often nasty/racist/sexist commenters by requesting full names when you upload or comment on videos.  We seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place.  Anonymity protects free speech… and unleashes the most vicious instincts from truly awful people.  Is there any way we could get to hold onto some accountability and feedback loops that encourage maturity and decency… while still keeping the most important benefits of anonymity?

It turns out that I discuss this very issue in great detail… you know where.   Moreover, I describe a win-win-win scenario.  Millions could be made by a new kind of business offering mediated-pseudonymity.  And about half of the idea is right there, in that cojoined, hyphenated word!  (Ah, but the rest… how to make money at it? There are some cute tricks. ;- .)

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