Sci Fi Flicks! Some looks back & forward

AutomataKurzweil & co give us a sneak peak at the forthcoming movie Autómata: “Starring Antonio Banderas, here we have a believable future (2044, thirty years from now) in which desertification is threatening society, and a single company is leading the way in intelligent robotics.” says one George Mason university blogger.  Indeed, it appears to be part of the new crop of films that treat AI with some attempts at subtlety.

Of course, like most of you, I am eagerly hopeful about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. There appears to be some indication that it will offer us all the optimistic, can-do kind of confidence-building sci fi that this civilization desperately needs, after decades of stylishly-imitative cynicism. A theme that Luc Besson kind-of, sort-of, went for in “LUCY” (an under-rated film) and that Nolan’s protege murkily tried for, but failed to achieve in “Transcendance.” Marc Zicree and his team are clearly trying for this sensibility in “Space Command.”

LucyAbout LUCY. Now, first off, I am a Luc Besson fan — though I always make sure to tune down my IQ and mental age dials, whenever I go to see one of his films. I did that for LUCY and was rewarded by having a very good time. Though on this occasion… alas… well, this film was kind of tragic, because the IQ downshift should not have been necessary! Look, I am not looking for something as deeply thought provoking as Leslie Dixon’s wondrous screenplay for LIMITLESS

… but just five minutes of dialogue-doctoring could have shifted LUCY’s “we use just 10% of our brains” howler (that offended so many) into some much more plausible-sounding blather that we could more-easily shrug off. A little work with some sober science-advisers and hard SF idea guys could have soothed you nerds out there enough to make this film a real success. Likewise, some of the most “magical” scenes could so easily have been replaced with equally cool tech-manipupation stuff.

Having said that… LUCY has many moving and thoughtful scenes, along with gobs of Luc Besson’s trademark fun. And it does not go for the cheap idiot plot that is so common these days — that all our human institutions, neighbors and professionals are useless fools. Indeed, most are portrayed here as fairly smart and trying very hard.

HerEspecially, in the penultimate scene, when Morgan Freeman holds the super USB drive containing… well… no spoiler. But it represents a notion that is unabashedly Faustian and friendly to unlimited human ambition. That is refreshing, compared to the cliched, Crichtonian-nostalgic rant against science that pervades most media.

I saw this also in the lovely-gentle film HER.

The crux? I found myself won over more than I expected to be. Many good aspects of the film far outweighed howlers — like the ditzy villains. It is what Luc Besson does. As in The Fifth Element, this film is like a golden retriever who jumps on your lap and licks your face and pours love all over you until you surrender.

== Why this is rare ==

It is an uphill struggle for any film maker! Note the relentless number of dystopias, especially aimed at teenagers, that go for the cliched but timeless message: “I am a star-shaped peg that YOU (society/parents/schools) are pounding into a conformist square hole! Just you WAIT until I find my real friends and my real talents and powers!”

young-adult-dysopian-movieWho can compete with that timeless theme? Indeed, I praise and support the basic, individualistic, non-comformist love of tolerance, diversity and eccentricity that pervades most Hollywood dramas and sci fi novels! It is the only way we’ll get the self-preventing prophecies we desperately need, while keeping up our momentum of self-criticism toward a better world.

But when “warnings” become “idiot plots” that never once show the possibility of a decent civilization… that ONLY portray teen angst and repetitious chosen-one pablum, then we have a problem.

Below, I will offer up my comments (at last) on the flick Gavin Hood made from Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”… and my reaction may surprise you!

But first… and be warned I am about to go VERY fan-boyt geeky on you now…

== Star Trek Lives! ==

axanarFirst… a couple of added notes about “Axanar” the cool looking indie film being developed in the pre-Kirk (and pre-JJ Abrams) Ortho Trek universe.

1) Reiterating — do have a look at the “Prelude” online. This is way cool and I hope you will support the Kickstarter.

2) All praise to Paramount for having taken the simultaneously noble and excellently profitable route of allowing wide latitude for indie and amateur play in this beloved universe, one of the very few that expresses belief in a better human tomorrow.

f61e3e22cad3740dcbea23faa355ad1b3) One small note… I have long been rankled by the tendency of Trek producers to admire the Klingons as macho dudes — kind of the way Frank Miller praises Spartans… when both were/are horrific slaver-holders and vile oppressors, deeply and savagely cruel. Yes, you must wind up with the Klingons of Deep Space Nine, who have reformed a lot and have (by that point) become gruff-macho but decent allies. But clearly they had to suffer many major losses before finally cleaning up… as did the Kzin in Larry Niven’s Known Space cosmos. One of those setbacks was the Chernobyl-like calamity shown in one of the Kirk flicks. Axanar will be the earliest of these setbacks for the earlier, super-nasty Klingon types. Fine..

But how about a glance at the slave races, languishing under Klingon conquest-rule? (If Klingon territory is comparable to that of the federation, there would be a lot of such oppressed systems.) Even a nod toward them changes the equation! As even a momentary sight of the Spartan Helot-slaves would destroy our sympathy for the vicious Queen Gorgo in the wretched “300” series by Frank Miller and Zack Snyder.

I hope the AXANAR script will show some slave planets rebelling and helped to join the Federation! With others promised… “someday, we’ll free you, too.”

Into-darkness4) Finally, about the J.J. Abrams spinoff series. Okay, okay, things could be way worse. Compared to the vast majority of Hollywood sci fi betrayals, they are fun flicks and Abrams seems to actually think he is paying homage to the Roddenberry vision. He does not get the need for an underlying theme of can-do optimism, but at least he’s not doing the opposite.

That is, except for killing off Planet Vulcan and raising James Kirk as a traumatized, bratty orphan. But yes, that works, too. Sort-of. At least Abrams is handling Chris Pine’s character well.

Only… here’s the rub… ** Has the original Kirk Universe been erased? **

It is a major bone of contention when you discuss the range of possibilities in multiverse and parallel universes! And artistically, it is one thing if the branch point (when Kirk’s father is killed) created a NEW track without destroying the original. It is another — with many philosophical ramifications — if it is an erasure and replacement. (For one thing, it means Abrams’s cosmos could likewise be erased, at any moment!)

Sure, this may be worrying the bone way too much! But it is a sign of how deeply this mythos has wormed its way into our hearts that it really does matter!

star-trek-spock1Indeed, what’s all this with the old (Nimoy) Spock having sworn never to tell anything or interfere? To what end? All the paradoxes are already in place. His words of advice are needed! Especially since, on this track, the Federation has been robbed of one of its strongest members — Vulcan itself. Old Spock should be putting a number of advice gems in a can — like Hari Seldon does for the First Foundation… and JJ Abrams could be doing this NOW, while Leonard Nimoy is still able!

One of those gems should show Nimoy’s Spock saying:

The universe I came from has not been erased. It stands alongside this one, unreachable, but just inches away, sturdy, like a trellis on which the vine of your new adventure now grows. All of my friends, their triumphs and losses and accomplishments still flourish… elsewhere. But this timeline… this path… is yours.”

That statement would give solace and comfort to the millions of fans who are (frankly) just a bit cheesed off at Abtrams over the genocide of Vulcan and Kirk’s lost childhood. It also (hint-hint) lays the seed for a way-cool encounter between enterprises (and ChrisPine-Kirks) in some possible sequel.

And that’s my earnest (urgent) advice to JJ Abrams, as one storyteller about destiny to another.

== Ender’s Game ==

Enders-game-movieOkay, we finally rented Ender’s Game for a viewing of four families, having all delayed until we could share it, cheap. (That’s the trick, if you need to see a flick, legally, but want only pennies to go to the makers. And yes, it had many of the flaws I expected. And yet…

1) It is still the formula Card perfected so well. A demigod chosen-one Nietzchean ubermensch-child garners reader-viewer sympathy by seeming really weak and standing up to bullies… finding his “true friends and talents and powers” and showing those bullies what-for.

2) He feels really really BAD about every brutal use of power that he was forced… forced!… to engage in. Luring the reader or audience member to say: “Ender, don’t be so hard on yourself! They made you do it!”

That’s what I like about cardian demigods. They are so soulful and angst-ridden. When they take over the world, they never enjoy it. It’s always for our own good.

UnknownGavin Hood’s screenplay softens some of this stuff. For example, Card’s relentless tirades that all democratic institutions absolutely cannot ever be trusted and are guaranteed to be corrupt, and that rule-by-demigod is the only rational choice. Those are gone from the film and the core villainy of the Earth Military is portrayed in a fairly plausible way. Indeed, that particular failure mode can – and has — happened! The quickie incorporation of the Formic Queen from “Speaker for the Dead” was okay and left out the truly horrific rationalizations in the original novel, reducing it, instead, to a fairly sweet paean to tolerance. Fine.

As a flick, it is only so-so. Ender only earns his rapid promotions by passing unscientific “tests” that are designed to fit the schoolmaster’s tendentious expectations. There is never a rising-from-equals that would truly be dramatic, as we see in “Hunger Games” for example. Still, without question, Hood’s film is an improvement over the dismally anti-civilization, demigod-worshipping originals.

I kind of enjoyed it, in fact.

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The right narrative to fight voter-suppression candidates

I sent the following suggestion to the campaign of Jean Schodorf, who is running to oust the “worst Republican in the world” – Kris Koback – from the office of Kansas Secretary of State. Schodorf is that rare creature, a genuine prairie conservative who would have been republican all her life, till she realized that the madness that has hijacked today’s GOP is not temporary and recently switched parties. Unlike the millions of sane but in-denial “ostrich republicans” who have buried their heads, moaning and hoping the craziness will just go away, Schodorf is taking it on, head-to-head. Zeroing in on Koback’s blatant and extreme efforts to suppress thousands of native born Kansans from exercising their right to vote.

Here is my suggestion… which any of you are free to pass along to your own favorite candidates-for-sanity.

 ————

Dear Jean Schodorf,

voter-suppression-laws-voteDavid Brin here – best-selling author and scientist – with a suggestion how to manage the voter-suppression issue in your coming electoral campaign.

Let’s start with the obvious: You will get almost nowhere just proclaiming that Voter Suppression laws are unfair.  That will be dismissed as “the whining of losers.”

There is a much better “judo” argument that will expose the Voter ID campaigns as hypocritical cheating… a much more powerful accusation.  Please carefully read my argument below, which is cribbed from one of my more well-known postings: Steering Our Outrage in Wrong Directions.

“In fact, as a moderate, I am not opposed to gradually increasing the demand that voters prove who they are! Even though at-precinct voting fraud is virtually nil, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with improving care and accountability. People who are against voter ID improvements in any form are probably dogmatic, too.

voter-repression-laws“But — and here is a very big “but” — if these laws aren’t aimed solely at stealing elections for the GOP, then the states in question would have accompanied the new regulations with measures aimed at helping their citizens to comply with the new burdens.

“States routinely give “compliance assistance” to major corporations, when new regulations apply to them. 

 “But apparently not one cent has been appropriated in any red state to help the poor, or young, or women, or minorities to get the required ID, a move that would also help them in so many other aspects of life.  In some cases, simple access to ID might help them to STOP being poor.

“Please dig that well, because it is the alarm and utter proof of both cheating motives and lying hypocrisy. How much have red states allocated to help newly disenfranchised citizens to comply with onerous new state regulations?  Not… one… red… cent.

Hypocrisy“Hypocrisy is still punished by some voters. If this point of compliance is hammered home, maybe ten percent of the voters might be swayed, and that’s a lot.

“Hammer that this is what the once honorable and intellectual movement of Goldwater and Buckley is reduced to. Not winning elections based on the merits of their evidence or by comparing the outcomes from their party’s past periods of rule. Rather, all efforts go to cheating and more cheating. And if you support this cheat, then no amount of arm-waving will let you escape the clear fact — that you are a cheater, too.”

Yes, that is a very aggressive way to put it.  But this issue could be a killer for candidates opposing the swarm of vipers who have taken over the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

http://www.davidbrin.com

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Watching the Watchers of the Watchers

transparent-coveillanceKevin Kelly’s Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, not Fight it, in WIRED, prescribed “transparent coveillance” as the best practical solution in a world where information sloshes and duplicates and flows. I’ve known Kevin for decades as one of the sharp guys who “got” the notions in The Transparent Society long before most did.

Now it’s Home Depot reporting a massive hack-leak of customer information. A couple months ago it was Target and 110 million files. Before that? Open SSL, a critical security backbone. And before that? Shall I go on? Read this article about “Data Breach Fatigue” and how people are starting to shrug in resignation, rather than shout in outrage.

“We are in the trough of disillusionment,” says Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan. “Over 1,000 retailers have been hit; it’s not limited to Home Depot. There are 999 others that no one’s talking about.”

When will it sink in that Everything Leaks and that our best security measure will be to stop assuming there’s some solution out there, and instead adapt so that we will not be harmed — and can thrive — in a world where most information simply flows, like water. Believe it or not, we might be stronger and safer and even have more privacy, if we finally face that fact.

smile-video-cameraIn Smile, You’re on Video Camera, Futurist Virginia Postrel offers an interesting little thought experiment about the future spread of cameras and omni-veillance in our lives. The upside potential is vast… providing we remain calmly reasonable about negotiating carve-outs and exceptions. And – above all – if we demand that the light spread “upward” – at least as much as downward.

== Watching the watchers of the watchers ==

Matthew Reed Bailey wrote in, suggesting that the solution to citizen-police tension is not only to record authority, but to “layer” these recordings so that there will never be a way for cops to avoid it:

WATCHING-WATCHERS“One person directly films/videos the Authorities. Another person (or two or three) films/videos the interaction (from varying distances if possible) of the interaction between the first camera and the Authorities. And, then have several “Backup”…”

Indeed, what he describes is the absolutely necessary next step, after last year’s fantastic victory — the 2013 declaration — by both the courts and the administration — that citizens have an absolute right to record their interactions with police… the most important civil liberties decision in 30 years. Yes, it was vital! And predicted in The Transparent Society.

Of course, the next phase was obvious — a plague of cell phones and cameras “accidentally” broken by police, etc.

What I also predicted in TS was that this phase would be short lived, as a layering of recordings would take effect, with cameras at increasing distance from the action watching the watchers of the watchers. What I did NOT expect was how swiftly this transition would happen. Before 2013 was over, we got to see a man in an orange jail-jumpsuit being sentenced to a couple of years in prison, for breaking the camera-phone of the man he was arresting. Because someone further away caught him in the act.

police-shutdownThis is why we must resist attempts to give police the power to shut down all phones in an area. At minimum, we must demand that our cameras still work, in such a shut-down!

You “get” the idea. This is not so much anti-police as anti-bully. We have a right to insist, via accountability, that our police departments hire calm adults.

Take a look at What Battlestar Galactics can teach us about the Militarization of Police: A fascinating… if flawed… rumination about what several thoughtful science fiction films illustrate about the balance of powers among citizens and their protectors, the military and police.

==Transparency Apps==

Transparency-AppsBoycott and BuyPartisan are downloadable apps that let you scan product barcodes and find out if the company… or its officers… have actively supported some cause that you like… or loathe. One would hope that people use these things in moderation… except when it comes to Koch companies. At which point stringent ferocity is called for, lest the Confederacy win this round of the ongoing American Civil War.

Worried about emergency response times? The Peacekeeper App allows you to call upon neighbors in case of an emergency, sending an alert for crises Medical, Fire, Intruder, or Abduction. You can join an Emergency Response Group (ERG) or set up your own alliance of neighbors. The web site has a slightly redolent political aroma… but if it does what it claims, who cares?

Meanwhile the FTC declares that many mobile shopping apps lack sufficient transparency on privacy policies for consumers’ rights.

==Overseeing the Government==

transparency-governmentForty-seven U.S. federal Inspectors General signed a letter this month highlighting problems with access to federal records — problems they say slow their investigations and threaten their independence. In fact, the current use of IGs is scandalous — with many of them forced into conflict-of-interest, owing their appointments to the very officials they are charged to scrutinize.

I have long proposed sets of reforms that might improve the effectiveness of civil servants while simultaneously reassuring citizens that bureaucrats ARE “servants,” accountable and obeying the law. Foremost among these proposals has been IGUS — creating the office of Inspector General of the United States.   

The notion of a separate “inspectorate” dates back to Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, in 1911. If all departmental and agency IGs reported to a truly independent IGUS, the shift could be so simple that the bill might fit on one page. Yet citizen confidence and trust could be multiplied several-fold.

censorshipFinally…  a very interesting analysis of censorship in China. Researchers find that “Criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are routinely published, whereas posts with collective action potential are much more likely to be censored,” because these create “actionable information” for the authorities.

Seventeen fake cellphone towers were discovered across the U.S. last week. Owned by mysterious entities, they look like Verizon or AT&T towers etc, but sift and steal messages, texts… anything they want. Interceptor use in the U.S. is much higher than people had anticipated. One of our customers took a road trip from Florida to North Carolina and he found eight different interceptors on that trip.

Rumor check: a partial “debunking” or clarification of the fake cell tower story….

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Will we uplift other species to sapience?

uplift-sapienceThis time, let’s veer into an area wherein I actually know a thing or two!  The matter of whether humanity might someday… or even should… meddle in other creatures on this planet and bestow upon them the debatable “gift” of full sapience — the ability to argue, ponder, store information, appraise, discuss, create, express and manipulate tools, so that they might join us in the problematic task of being worthy planetary managers.

These scribbles were created (as you might guess) as part of an interview.

What first inspired you to write about uplifting?

Some other authors (e.g. H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Mary Shelley, and Cordwainer Smith) dealt with this general concept before, but always by assuming the process would be abused — that the humans bestowing this boon would spoil things by enslaving their clients of creations. Of course that is one possible (and despicable) outcome. Those were good “warning” stories with wholesome messages.

uplift-booksBut that vein is overworked, so I wondered — what if we someday begin modifying higher animals — and I think we clearly will — guided by the morality of modern liberal society?  Filled with hyper-tolerance and eager for diversity? My uplift novels portray a future in which sapient dolphins and apes serve on our councils, offer their own styles of wisdom, art and insight, enriching an Earth civilization that is no longer only human.  It’s an attractive outcome…

…but the path to get there is fraught with dangers and moral hazards.

How close do you think we genuinely are, scientifically, to being able to uplift certain species? And is there a scientific imperative to do so?

SCIENCE-UPLIFTWe are rapidly tracing the genetic mutations that empowered a sub-population of Homo erectus to transform into something theretofore never seen on Planet Earth – or possibly anywhere in the galaxy.  It appears that only a few dozen protein and regulatory genes made the crucial difference.  Already, some of these alterations are being tried in laboratory mice, so we can better understand some tragic human ailments.  There are – at present – rules against doing such insertion experiments on higher creatures like apes. But when the prospect looms closer, can you doubt trials will begin? If it isn’t allowed in the open, western scientific community, then it will happen in secret, elsewhere.  Frankly, I’d rather see this realm explored in the open, under relentless transparency and scrutiny, than let it turn into some secret, Michael-Crichton-style excuse for I-Told-You-so regrets.

MOUSE-SPEECH-GENEA recent article in Popular Mechanics: If You Give a Mouse a Human Speech Gene, It Learns Faster. Mice that receive a human version of a speech and language gene display accelerated learning! Don’t expect these findings to lead to a rush of smarter, “uplifted” animals—though they might just reveal something new and fascinating about the evolution of human speech and language.

“What surprised me most was that the humanized gene actually improved the animal’s behavior rather than messing up the system,” says behavioral neuroscientist Kyle Smith. Science writer Charles Q. Choi notes,  “The gene for the protein called FOXP2 has been firmly linked to human speech and language. Humans with just one functional copy of this gene experience difficulties in learning and struggle with spoken and written language. The gene itself is not unique—chimps have a version of it. But because the human and chimpanzee lineages diverged roughly 6 million years ago, they don’t have two key changes in amino acids that humans have evolved.”

And so, it begins.

You talk about how ‘many other species on Earth appear to be stuck under a firm glass ceiling’ – can you expand on this?  

uplift-barloweA while back, we were told that only humans used symbolic speech and tools.  Later, it was only dolphins and chimpanzees who could parse simple sentences.  In recent years, both rudimentary language skills and tool use have been documented in grey parrots, corvids (ravens), sea lions, elephants, every variety of ape, and even prairie dogs! Some people — admirably empathic folks — have declared that “this means we humans aren’t so special, after all.” And yes, in a sense it does mean that. Certainly, it is right that we expand our respect for Nature’s other wonders and fight to preserve them.

But there is another way to look at this. If so many species — all coming from different directions — appear to have plateaued at about the same level, then it implies that both Darwin and Mother Nature are generous, but only up to a point. “This far, you may rise easily, many of you! But no higher.  There is a glass ceiling through which you may not pass!”

Think about it.  If so many species achieved rudimentary linguistics and tool use today, would it not have been equally likely for the top-brainy dinosaurs?  Were velociraptors equally endowed? Can we ever know? Alas, because none of them managed to put together a space program, all dinosaurs helplessly perished.

No, the lesson from all this is to be even more amazed that humanity pushed through this glass ceiling.  Smashed through it, actually, by orders of magnitude! Which then demands of us not to feel overweening pride, but a sense of duty and obligation.  To use our titanic brains to benefit the planet, not just ourselves.

But it goes beyond that. If getting past the barrier is rare, then don’t we owe it to our neighbors and cousins to turn around and offer a helping hand?

What are your takes on ethical arguments against uplifting?  

uplift-word-cloudThose arguments are strong and persuasive and perhaps compelling!  For example, here’s one: “Other species have their own honor and dignity and beauty and styles of intelligence!”

Yes, I agree on all counts.  And if commencing a program of uplift on, say, Tursiops dolphins would cause all of those things to vanish, then I would say stop.  But that is zero-sum thinking. And it is fallacious.

We must preserve and help the bright dolphins and elephants and parrots and sea lions foremost by restoring and expanding their habitats and natural populations.  But any uplift project would work only with a small, selected sub-population that would soon be a new and different species, on its own path of destiny. All the richness of the old root stock would be preserved. You can retain the old — and everything worthy of respect — while creating the new.

UPLIFT-UNIVERSE-BRINLikewise, the proclamations that uplift would be typical “human arrogance, playing god,” seem easy to answer.  How about typical “human generosity”? Lending a hand to others across nature’s chasm, so they might then join us building starships?

Or so their ingrate teenagers might eloquently blame us for their adolescent angst, sneering “Hey!  I didn’t ASK to be this smart!”

The one argument against uplift that I find most compelling is the simplest. Yes, the goal is a beautiful one, to vastly expand the diversity of Earth’s sapience, with dolphin and chimp and bonobo and gorilla and even elephant sages sitting on our councils and sharing unique insights? Great. I portray them having problems, in my novels, but the product is still a lovely dream. (To be clear, while artificial intelligence might be possible, uplifted sapience is demonstrably beyond plausible, even very likely.)

All of that sounds fine. Only… in order to get there, the chosen sub-populations will have to go through generations of awkward fits and starts. No matter how carefully and lovingly we move ahead, there will be some pain. And I can understand folks who declare that they would – on that account alone – oppose uplift, no matter how wondrous the final outcome might be.

Salk-Good-ancestorIn the end?  I (very) respectfully disagree. All generations are built for one purpose… the one fine goal that Jonas Salk spoke-of… to be good ancestors.  To suffer what we must, for our grandchildren. I can think of no greater function than to sow, so that those descendants may reap.

Dolphin parents make similar choices every day.  If they could envision what their heirs might become… the earthly and alien seas they might explore… I think they would volunteer.

 Aside from the ethical reasons you’ve presented, what would be the benefits – commercially or scientifically – in doing so?

StartideThe oceans of planet Earth are a vast mystery, filled with both physical wealth and unique treasures to preserve.  We are trying to learn to be good planetary managers (often stymied by other members of our own, short-sighted species.) But I doubt we could fill that role all by ourselves, anywhere near as well as if sapient dolphin partners (and critics) were by our side.  The same holds for countless other opportunities for both profit and wisdom.  (I believe that — and portray in stories — descendants of elephants might be the perfect living inhabitants of asteroidal colonies!)

Our biggest danger is not the one preached by Michael Crichton and so many others — human ambition and hubristic pride.  No, our biggest danger comes from zero sum thinking. Proclaiming that we cannot seek – and sometimes achieve – the win-win. Doing well while doing good. 

What measures can be taken to protect the rights of animals if uplifting as a practice is pursued?  

SECRECY-NEWI’ve been a little unkind to Michael Crichton in this interview.  But in fact, every single one of his dire-danger scenarios preaches a single valuable lesson, and it is not “don’t do new things.”  If you read the books and watch the movies, you soon realize that the true lesson is: “don’t do new things in SECRET.”

The only possible way that uplift, or any other grand project, can be done well is if it is performed in the open, subjected to relentless criticism by opponents who seek out every flaw, every danger and mistake.  Only then, ironically, will the project move ahead with some strong chance of minimizing the pain… and maximizing the benefits for all.

Anything else you’d like to say on the matter? 

aficionadoI think you’ll like my novella “Aficionado.”  It takes a while to get to the uplift part.

See a page dedicated to the Uplift Universe

and my article Intelligence, Uplift and Our Place in a Big Cosmos.

Above all, let’s not paint our kids in a corner, binding them to our vows, based on this generation’s obsessions.  Those kids will be smarter and better than us.  If we make a civilization of decency, tolerance, maturity, thoughtfulness and fun… then they will answer all of these questions better than we slightly advanced cavemen ever could.

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Discerning Left vs Right

Okay, this blog entry is going to be a bit rambling and angry… somewhat of a drunkard’s walk, while ranting at the lamp posts! Hope it at least entertains. Here goes.

bullshit-asymmetry-brandoliniWe’ve all known this and said it for a long time. I laid it out in explicit detail in my Dispuations Arenas article. Still, it’s nice to see a cogent naming of the Phenomenon — Brandolini’s law – or, as Alberto Brandolini suggests, the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

== Heading for war? ==

democrats-republicans-wage-warOn the left side of the spectrum, and in some places on the right, folks are asking whether “Obama is playing into Bush’s bad policies. Now he’s taking the U.S. back into Iraq with more bombing.”

Sorry, this is a wrongheaded reflex. Back in 2002 – 2003, the issue was never “should Saddam Hussein be toppled and replaced?” Nor was it “should the Taliban – who supported and helped bin Laden to attack us be toppled and replaced?” We needed to do both things. (Though in Saddam’s case it deserved genuine policy debate and not a festival of Bushite lies.)

No, the real issue, re US involvement/meddling over there, is and was “should it be done in the stupidest and most expensive ways possible? In a calamitous, gruesomely thuggish methodology that would cost us trillions, damn-near ruin our military and our reputations and leave only two winners: Iran and Haliburton?”

If you actually (astonishingly) think that there will be any resemblance between the coming Obama-led engagement and the Bushite quagmires, you really need to read about the diametrically opposite ways that democrats and republicans wage war.

==Decaying Infrastructure== 

decaying-infrastructureAmerica’s transportation infrastructure, once a continental engine of mobility, productivity and opportunity, has fallen into such disrepair that it’s become an economic albatross. Consumers shell out billions of dollars for extra car repairs every year. Insufficient and poorly maintained roads mean costly bottlenecks for businesses, which discourage expansion and hobble American companies competing in the global economy. We all have heard of 60,000 bridges in desperate need of maintenance. Why is almost nothing being done?

At a time of steeply declining budget deficits (always true during democratic administrations and never true during GOP ones) it might seem simple to put middle class blokes back to work, stimulating the economy with high velocity cash while fixing the damaged streets and bridges and getting tons of benefits. One obstacle though. The do-nothing US House of Representatives… the laziest and least accomplished in the history of the republic… has refused to fund infrastructure repairs.

Moreover, several gopper congressfolk have openly admitted their reason — that the resulting improvements and economic boost might help democrats at the polls. It is the Hastert Rule. Never cooperate or negotiate in good faith with democrats, ever. (The last GOP leader who did that – Newt Gingrich – was dumped and jettisoned by Hastert, DeLay, Boehner and other leaders of the madness that has taken over today’s Republican Party.)

Anyone who continues to support this mutant betrayal of true conservatism/libertarianism is a rationalizing fool.

 ==War against Nerds==

war-against-nerdsSalon runs a fun article eviscerating how explicit has become the mad-right’s Assault on Nerds. It has got so clear and full-pitch that even William F. Buckley’s once-intellectual National Review has joined the War Against All Smartypants. Scientists and members of every knowledge caste have been driven out of today’s hijacked version of conservatism. God help us if this relentless campaign drives them all the way across — past moderate liberalism — all the way to the opposite madness on the far left.

I doubt that will happen. All we want is a sensible society where adults negotiate with each other mixed-pragmatic solutions to problems, aiming for a future that will be vastly better than the past that nostalgic loonies (of both the far-left and the entire-right) yearn for.

More evidence?  In late May, the Republicans in the House put an amendment in the Defense Spending Authorization Bill that forbids the Defense Department from spending any money preparing for the consequences of climate change. This article – on an admittedly liberal site – nevertheless lays this latest lunacy bare and lists an impressive array of serving and retired officers and military contractors who are deeply concerned.

 

The Bill is now in the Senate.

One of you in the community commented: “Our military wargames all kinds of scenarios. Preparedness is part of the job of our military planners, and having a plan prepared is the first step to winning a fight. I expect that somewhere the US military has a plan to deal with a threat from just about any conceivable direction. Oh, but not waves of hungry and thirsty refugees from all over the world, not that. We cannot plan for that contingency.”

==Divisive Politics==

HaidtSocial psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have thrown another grenade. “Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity-particularly diversity of viewpoints-for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity.”

Read that between the lines.  It is an indictment of the political correctness that rules in several hundred university soft studies departments.  Along with San Francisco, Berkeley and Illinois, these are the places where you get to see the reason moderate liberals are rightfully wary of their lefty allies.  And I will not be squelched in reminding you folks that there is danger there!  But again… a few hundred university soft studies departments are a far cry from the worst danger to our republic and freedoms and planet.

I am wary of that direction.  I am bloody furious at the New Confederates who are (at present) vastly more damaging and lethally dangerous to civilization.

== Ironies abound ==

sovereign-citizensMy sci fi author colleague John Shirley dissects “sovereign citizen”… a cult-like movement among those who take the anti-government wing of our widely shared Suspicion of Authority ethos to an extreme that denies any legitimacy of common bonds with three hundred million fellow Americans. While I agree with John, on many levels, I believe his approach is more left-versus-right than it needs to be, regarding this matter. (Indeed, while they are fewer – today – there ARE would be tyrants whose metaphors of outrage and hate come from (shall we say) the opposite direction. Surfaces can be misleading.)

In fact, it can be dissected very simply. Those who deny any validity to shared institutions that derive their legitimacy from the electoral political processes, that in-turn reflect consensus of a great and educated nation, are not simply asserting autonomy — (while hypocritically depending on that nation, utterly). They are either ignoring 6000 years of brutal feudal rule by armed thugs, or else deeply committed to becoming precisely those same armed thugs and feudal lords.

Civilization-FlashI attempted to portray this in The Postman, way back in the 1980s… and it is one part of the book that Kevin Costner translated to the film with utter accuracy! Especially Will Patton’s delightful General Bethlehem, who conveyed where all this would inevitably lead.

Indeed, I wrote The Postman specifically as a direct answer to these fellows. How average folks would not just cower before the would be lords, but instead might (if properly inspired) rise up to restore that gracious consensus nation, once again.

Having tasted civilization, many of us will gladly fight to the death, to keep it.

In an impromptu interview at a Portland restaurant, I gave a six minute run down of why I think the American political process has so broken down that we are effectively in phase eight of the US Civil War. Not one of the factors that I mention has a scintilla to do with so-called “left-versus-right” or any of the matters that you are being told to hate-over.

==The Tea Party and the Confederacy==

Here’s a somewhat too-radical but interesting essay about how the Confederacy lost phase four of the Civil War, in 1865, then won phase five with the collapse of Reconstruction and minority rights, in 1877. Indeed, things have swung back and forth, ever since, including the Civil Rights phase that was won by Blue America – finally crushing the vileness of segregation – but at a cost that resulted in the complete flip-reversal of the two US political parties. In that light, today’s raging “culture war” is only the latest phase.

TAXES-REVOLTClearly the Tea Party is not heir to the 1776 Founders. Their romantic delusions about that Revolution are discussed elsewhere…

… but the crux is clear; instead of wearing three-cornered hats, our Tea Party neighbors should wear gray, for they are the neo-confederate party. In fact, more and more of them are realizing this. Their devotion to the rising, worldwide oligarchy is identical to the feudal loyalty that their forebears gave to plantation lords. The aim – to tear down the future-oriented, change-welcoming, scientific and pragmatic Blue America, in order to replace it with classic nostalgia and feudal hierarchy – is identical to that of the southern tories who rode with Cornwallis and Tarleton.

My own, earlier take: The crucial phase of the Civil War, phase three, started in 1852, when waves of southern irregular cavalry began 8 years of violent raids into Northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. This was never the “war of northern aggression.” It was the diametric opposite. And it is time to re-learn the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

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Peering into the Future: AI and Robot brains

Singularity-word-cloudIn Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future? on Slate, Zoltan Istvan writes, “The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don’t like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don’t like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don’t like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs.” See what the proponents of these words mean by them…

…and why the old talmudic rabbis and jesuits are probably laughing their socks off.

==Progress toward AI?== 

Baby X, a 3D-simulated human child is getting smarter day by day. Researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute Laboratory for Animate Technologies in New Zealand interact with the simulated toddler, reading, teaching, smiling, playing games, even singing into the computer’s microphone and webcam. The blonde youngster mimics facial expressions, laughs, reads words, even cries when he is left alone.

1400832509352“An experiment in machine learning, Baby X is a program that imitates the biological processes of learning, including association, conditioning and reinforcement learning. By algorithmically simulating the chemical reactions of the human brain— think dopamine release or increased oxytocin levels— and connecting them with sensory digital input, when Baby X learns to imitate a facial expression, for instance, software developers write protocols for the variable time intervals between action and response. Effectively “teaching” the child through code, while engineering such a program is no cakewalk, the result is an adorably giggling digital baby with an uncanny ability to learn through interaction,” writes Becket Mufson, in the Creators Project.

This is precisely the sixth approach to developing AI that is least discussed by “experts” in the field… and that I have long believed to be essential, in several ways. Above all, by raising them as our children – even fostering them to homes in small robot bodies – we will gain many crucial advantages – that I lay out (somewhat) in Existence.

Meanwhile, Cornell’s Robo Brain is currently learning from the internet — downloading and processing about 1 billion images, 120,000 YouTube videos, and 100 million how-to documents and appliance manuals, all being translated and stored in a robot-friendly format, accessible to ‘helper’ robots who will function in our factories, homes, and offices. “If a robot encounters a situation it hasn’t seen before it can query Robo Brain in the cloud,” said one researcher. Follow its progress on the Robobrain website.

Meet Jibo, advertised as “the world’s first family robot.” Kinda creepy but attractive too…

Asimov-three-laws-roboticsEver hear of “neuromorphic architecture?” Silicon chip design that uses transistors — (5 billion of them in the latest IBM chip) – to create analogues of the nonlinear response patterns of biological neurons. The latest version, from IBM, is called “True North” and it is simply spectacular. Its prodigious pattern recognition capabilities are only matched by its stunning (by four orders of magnitude(!)) power efficiency. This is where Moore’s Law, augmented by new neuronal and parallelism software, may truly start delivering.

Now… How to keep what we produce sane? And where on the chip – pray tell – do the Three Laws reside?

Ah, well… I have explored the implications (yin and yang) of the Asimovian laws in my sequel which tied up Isaac’s universe – Foundation’s Triumph. Meanwhile, serious minds are grappling with the problem of “how to keep them loyal.” For example…

==Creating Superintelligence==

bostrom-superintelligenceNick Bostrom has published the book “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies,” that is well-reviewed by Andrew Leonard in Salon.

“Risks that are especially difficult to control have three characteristics: autonomy, self-replication and self-modification. Infectious diseases have these characteristics, and have killed more people than any other class of events, including war. Some computer malware has these characteristics, and can do a lot of damage…

“But microbes and malware cannot intelligently self-modify, so countermeasures can catch up. A superintelligent system [as outlined by Bostrom would be much harder to control if it were able to intelligently self-modify.” writes Bostrom.

Nick Bostrom makes a persuasive case that the future impact of AI is perhaps the most important issue the human race has ever faced. Instead of passively drifting, we need to steer a course. Still, his litany of “be careful what you wish for” parables is taken straight from the pages of a century of science fictional “what-if” scenarios. Geeky sci fi archivists need to be present, during the programming, to point out: “you may want to rephrase that… cause way back in 1947 Leigh Brackett showed that it could be misconstrued as…”

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.” Interesting article! In fact the mystery of the First Great Renaissance… the burst of human creativity around 45,000 years ago… is discussed in EXISTENCE!

But — if I may mention it — the real correlation with this notion… that sexual selection resulted in gentler, more “feminized” males, was presaged by this paper of mine… Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution.

==Developing Brains==

EMPATHYResearcher Talma Hendler has found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. One type she calls mental empathy, which requires you to mentally step outside yourself and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. Parts of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortex that make up this network. The other type she calls embodied empathy; this is the more visceral in-the-moment empathy you might feel when you see someone get punched in the guts. Very cogent and thought provoking.

This interesting article in Wired explores how movies exploit both of these networks to make you identify with the characters. Only the manipulation is now going scientific!

And veering a bit… When did modern humans arrive in Europe, and by how much did they overlap with our fading cousins, the Neandertals? New studies suggest it all happened earlier than most had assumed, perhaps around …45,000 years ago.

Now throw in…. Children and adolescents with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain, and this excess is due to a slowdown in a normal brain “pruning” process during development.

Hmmmmm.

==and organs==

Scientists have for the first time grown a complex, fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting cells that were originally created in a laboratory to form a replacement thymus, a vital organ of the immune system.

By deciphering the detailed gene expressions by which a lizard regrows its tail, scientists hope to re-ignite regrowth processes in mammals like us, that have been dormant for 200 million years. Both of these stories are straight from my story “Chrysalis” in this month’s ANALOG!

==Miscellanea==

Scientists report using laser light in ultrafast pulses to control the quantum state of electrons contained inside nanoscale defects located in a diamond, and also observe changes in that electron over a period of time. The findings could be an important milestone on the road to quantum computing.

SCIENCE-TECHNOLOGYAnother team has devised a way to make microscopes magnify 20 times more than usual. This magnification allows scientists to see and identify substances and matter as minuscule as or even smaller than a virus.

Direct synthesis of ammonia from air and water? At low temperatures and pressures? If this membrane method can bypass the usual harsh processes, the news can be significant for liberating poor farmers everywhere to make their own fertilizer.

Looks plausible… if amazing! A transparent luminescent solar concentrator developed in Michigan can be used to cover anything that has a flat, clear surface. Visible light passes through. But organic molecules absorb invisible wavelengths of sunlight such as ultraviolet and near infrared, guiding those packets to the edge of the solar panel, where thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells pick it up and convert it into energy. Fascinating… another potential game changer.

Stanford scientists develop water splitter that runs on ordinary AAA battery.

How to tell if a Chelyabinsk style meteorite came from an asteroid? Here’s the basic rule of thumb. “The speed of whatever collides with Earth’s atmosphere depends on its orbit, which in turn depends on its source. The impactor’s entry at 19 km/s means that it came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, not from a ballistically launched missile, whose speed is less than 11.2 km/s; a short-period comet, with an average speed of 35 km/s; or a long-period comet with an average speed of 55 km/s. As investigators began retracing the path of the meteor that blazed across the sky, their reconstructed orbit bore out that provenance.”  

Oh, anything much faster than 60 kps either fall naturally from outside the solar system… or was accelerated by someone with boojum powers and maybe ill intent!

what-if-munroeRecommended: what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (of the brilliant xkcd).

Researchers from UC San Diego’s structural engineering department are using drones to capture unique views of the earthquake damage to Napa’s historic landmarks. Our own Falko Kuester explains how this new tech is helping.

And finally:

Don’t bogart that puffer, my friend. Dolphins pass around a puffer fish — apparently to get high off its toxins. After a few chomps, you no longer give a fugu.

  

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Phases of the American Civil War

dogma-pragmatismI frequently refer to our current era of American politics as the latest phase of the U.S. Civil War… in part because the political maps so blatantly copy a pattern that goes back almost 200 years. Cyclically, we find ourselves mired in dogma, instead of pragmatism, intransigent hatred instead of negotiation, nostalgia and romanticism, instead of belief that we can craft a better tomorrow.

Illustrating that others see this same breakdown, New York Magazine carried an article, A Southern GOP Can’t Be the Party of Lincoln, decrypting how – politically – there seem always to have been two Americas. The Nixonian “Southern Strategy” flip changed the banners of the two sides, and Blue-vs-Gray has become Blue-vs-Red. Still, Jonathan Chait does a fair job of showing how consistent the political map has been.

This article, while mostly true and overall correct, misses a couple of key points.  First, the social movement called the “confederacy” has been at this for a long time.

civil-war-burnsPhase one of the American Civil War took place in the South, during the Revolution, when the British found their strongest support among Loyalist/Tory militias in Georgia and the Carolinas.  It was Scots-Irish hill settlers who tipped the balance in that struggle, toward what would become the American Experiment.

Phase two featured a period when southern politicians grew ever stronger in control of the U.S. federal government.  True, Andrew Jackson clamped down on John C. Calhoun’s secessionism, in the 1830s, and kept the nation together. But Mr. Chait is correct that Jackson’s overall sentiments were what we might call “confederate.” Indeed, southern control over levers of power only grew until, by 1860, five of the nine Supreme Court justices were slave-owners.

PAST-civil-warThis extended through the next phase, starting in 1852, when the Fugitive Slave Act turned the division violent.  Swarms of small units of southern irregular cavalry commenced rampaging across northern states, seizing anyone they wanted as an “escaped slave.” These raider squadrons had the support of U.S. Marshals who were appointed by mostly-southern presidents. When outraged northerners started forming posses to defend their neighbors, those marshals called in federal troops.

In other words, the “confederate” social movement is not always anti-central-government!  It is only opposed to federal government when it does not control those levers of power.  Witness the tepidness of anti-government proclamations during the tenure of GW Bush.  Indeed, it is a wrathful unwillingness to let the electoral winners have their legitimate turn that was behind the hysterical reaction to Lincoln’s election… and (one might argue) Obama’s.

By the way, those rampaging bands of southern cavalry were self-defeating.  They radicalized northerners, causing them to arm themselves, revive their dormant militias and (eventually) vote for the abolitionist Lincoln. An effect that – were eyes open – one can clearly see happening across Blue America, today. (This is why Gun Control is such a pathetic hot button on the right.  No one is seeking more than tweaks.  Indeed, under Bush, many liberals started arming themselves.)

BurnsCivilWarUp to this point, the Confederacy Society (CS) had lost phase one (allowing the establishment of a true federal republic), played for a draw in the Calhoun-Jackson era, and won phase three — in that its agendas controlled the national government and processes.

But finally, Blue America got fed up. And what ensued was phase four — the one we normally think of as “The Civil War.” Unable to stomach their opponents even having a brief tenancy in just one branch of the government, CS did not bother trying to send even one delegation to negotiate with president-elect Lincoln, thus eliminating all right to refer to the explanations in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence… that secession can be justified, but only when all other negotiations and redress have been exhausted.

We all know Phase Four very well. (If not, watch Ken Burns portray it magnificently, in his PBS series.) Hence, tra la I will bypass it!

I’ll speed through the others:

fall-dixiePhase 5- The 1870s early end of Reconstruction... when the South bargained to let Rutherford Hayes and the Republicans into the White House, in exchange for what they really wanted. The “confederacy” won this phase, big time, when they dickered their way into an end of Civil Rights protections and a surge of Jim Crow laws that ripped from freed slaves the right to vote. The real losers, though? Not just minorities, but in every pragmatic sense the entire South, which thereupon slumped into a backwater of economic retardation and romantic, old-timey hatred of progress.

(You’d deny this?  Then explain how China in just 30 years went from poverty to economic superpower… when the US South had 150 years and still blames its backwardness on Sherman.)

civil-war-word-cloudPhase 6 . The 1880s… this phase is not entirely associated with “confederate society” though it was part and parcel of the Democratic Party of those days. It featured William Jennings Bryan’s white-christian populism, Free Silver and a rebuke to the steamroller effects of consolidated northern corporations. And for the first time, the states of the Great Plains began edging toward alliance with the Olde South. Northern oligarchs won phase six… unfortunately, in this case. (The one time the confederacy wing of our ongoing civil war had some moral justification on their side.)

(What spun off from this phase was the Progressive Movement, which manifested all over America and was taken up by Theodore Roosevelt, whose family specialized in saving the wealthy in America from the inevitable price of limitless greed. If only today’s oligarchs understood that their greatest need, right now, is another Roosevelt! Without gentle, moderate reforms, our current momentum can only lead to tumbrels and guillotines.)

PHASES-CIVIL-WARPhase 7 – The 1940s through 1970s … the civil rights movement, started with Harry Truman’s bold desegregation of the military, then Dwight Eisenhower’s firm support of school desegregation. The essential and too-long delayed resumption of Reconstruction… which also included Lyndon Johnson’s effort to re-industrialize and re-invigorate the South. This phase was clearly won by Blue America (though the South benefited prodigiously, economically), but at a cost — which was….

Phase 8 – …the Nixonian, southern-strategy “flip” leads ultimately to today’s full scale New Confederacy effort to finally destroy the United States of America. Not by arms, but by ending the effectiveness of politics as a pragmatic, open-minded process by which undogmatic citizens negotiate a mix of experiments and find out what works. Replacing all of that with dogma more intense than communism ever was.

pragmatismPragmatism and science and re-evaluation are the enemies. A conviction of moral superiority that cannot be shaken by facts.

Teen sex ages and rates, teen pregnancies, STDs, domestic violence, divorce rates, bankruptcy and debt default rates, economic productivity, net tax parasitism…even obesity rates… tell us clearly than outcome metrics do not support any claims that salt-of-the-earth types are better at life and raising kids than decadent university-city-folk. So? The response is to utterly ignore statistics. Truthiness is all that matters.

GettysburgI could go on, but the point is clear: this rebellion against the American Experiment is both ancient and culturally deeply rooted.  We are in its eighth phase (at least).

Mark Twain commented that this relentlessly recurring rage is far more psychological than anything else, a deep romanticism and obsession with nostalgia that he blamed on Sir Walter Scott!  In Ted Turner’s wonderful film GETTYSBURG, one character opines that blue and gray America sang the same songs… but dreamed different dreams.

Today’s neo-confederacy is smart enough not to secede.  It is working from within to slash the things that it always hated. Especially science, which is the enemy of nostalgia.

And yes, that campaign now includes seeking to ensure that “government of/by/for the people” SHALL perish from the Earth.

LincolnGettysburgAddress

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China: Looking to the Future

Amid world tensions, are there good news stories?

== China’s Syndrome? ==

transformation-bustInvestment maven John Mauldin’s Thoughts from the Frontline: Ttransformation or Bust looks at China’s economy: “…there are no cases in modern history where an economy has managed to avoid an outright bust after experiencing rapid lending growth anywhere in the neighborhood of China’s ongoing credit boom.”

Mauldin continues: “The more I dig into the data, the more convinced I become that Xi Jinping and his colleagues in Beijing are facing an impossible challenge. After fueling one of the single greatest credit booms in modern history, the People’s Republic is left with a mountain of bad debt backing a number of overleveraged industries that are simply not viable without the state’s continued favor.” And: “While China does boast substantial buffers that can – at least in theory – allow it to paper over bad loans for another few years or resist the pressure of foreign capital outflows for a time, those buffers cannot protect China indefinitely. The longer the People’s Republic continues down the path of low-quality credit growth and widespread misallocation, the bigger the bubble will become. China may suffer one of the defining economic crises of our lifetimes.”

China-economyDoes this mean to be bearish on China? Of course not. In the 32 years since Deng Xiao Peng initiated the reforms that led to a spectacular development boom, more human beings have been lifted out of poverty than ever before. China’s new infrastructure is spectacular, especially in comparison to the decaying and underfunded, penny-wise neglect of America’s once-proud capital base. China’s education levels are skyrocketing and – the most encouraging development of all – science fiction is starting to take some real hold over there.

Two factors that receive far too little notice… that it was willing U.S. policy to allow three decades of trade deficits to enrich China — foreign aid through WalMart. See: How the U.S. saved the world by buying vast amounts of stuff. Probably the most generously helpful policy ever enacted by a great power, in the history of our species…

Intellectual-Property…that, plus turning a mostly blind eye to the hand-over-fist grab-theft of nearly all the crown jewels of American industrial Intellectual Property. (We need to recall that we were IP thieves, during our own early development; but still, this flagrant raid must stop. It kills the goose that lays the golden eggs that China relies upon.)

==Fighting Corruption==

So what are the prospects? Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party appears to be engaged in a major anti-corruption drive, using the “Central Commission for Discipline Inspection” to perform stings on bribed or shady party officials and then hand them over to state authorities. If this effort is sincere and vigorous, that is all very well and laudable…

fighting-corruption…and it has no bearing on the real way to eliminate corruption, which is liberating people to competitively apply transparency — reciprocal accountability — both laterally and from below.

Yes, yes, it is obvious why Xi and his cohorts — who are human, after all — will do what human rulers almost always do, and that is “solve” problems by top-down command. Indeed, sometimes it works. But then what? Something has always happened, after every Lorenzo di Medici, or Marcus Aurelius, or the first Tang or first Ming Emperors. After that initial burst of reform, top down systems always become spectacularly corrupt again.

east-westSome time ago, it looked as if the Chinese leadership was determined to leverage the ‘best possible’ combination of western and eastern methods, retaining hierarchical command control in the top tiers of governance, while allowing western methods of transparency and citizen-based accountability to root out inefficiencies and corruption down at the local and city and provincial level, where it does its worst harm to both average citizens and the economy.

I saw hints of this approach and squinted into the future, hoping I would hear Chinese leaders say something that is far from ideal (from a moral or righteous perspective) but that is at least smart and practical:

“We must retain single party control for at least another generation, in order to preserve stability during an era of rapid change. (Subtext: and also to preserve our grip on top-power in a traditional Chinese pyramid; we are, after all, human.)

citizenship-accountability“BUT, in order to maximize progress, efficiency and happiness, we will unleash citizen accountability upon all officials at the city and corporate level. People may record their interactions with officials. Moreover, the press is encouraged to publish exposés…

“… so long as the light STOPS at the district level. We will take it from there.

 “Only… district officials are warned. In ten years citizen accountability will rise to that level, so get ready! And ten years after that, this rule of openness will rise to the provincial level. So start preparing now, and stay clean enough to survive, when that happens.”

China-globalWould this create a dicey situation… the people may get that confrontational habit and try to pick up the pace! But the benefits — eliminating 90% of all corruption and waste — would be worth taking the risk.

That is what a Marcus Aurelius or Tang Emperor would have done, if they were truly wise. But wisdom, among human leaders, is as scarce as walking, talking dinosaurs.

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Climate: Have we reached the tipping point?

==Denialism continues== 

OCEAN-ACIDIFICATIONWhen you encounter anti-science climate denialists, say two words — “Ocean… acidification.” It is clearly and unambiguously happening. It is clearly dangerous and harmful. And it cannot possibly have any other cause than increased absorbed CO2 from human activity.

Every Distraction-Gambit concocted by AEI and Heritage Foundation and Fox – at the behest of coal barons and middle eastern petro princes – falls apart. Not sunspots nor “faked hockey sticks” nor any of the other incantations will work, this time.

Watch! As your crazy uncle suddenly points to the left and yells: “squirrel!”

But you can come back with another word. “TWODA“… or Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway…. All sorts of moderate, reasonable work on efficiency that would help address climate change and that would help us all anyway, even if climate change were a myth. Only one class of people would be hurt by us all becoming more efficient and saving money on energy, via TWODA.

Coal barons and middle eastern petro princes… who own today’s GOP. Huh, funny about that. So ask your uncle… “Is there ANY degree of investment in Rand D and moderate science and other TWODA, that you will admit would NOT “destroy the economy” and you would be willing to negotiate, just in case 99% of the people who actually know a thing or two about weather and climate happen to be right?  AnyTWODA at all? Anything?”

Before moving on, let’s do a chilling side segue… that’s very interesting. Eric H. Cline, in his recent book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, portrays a time when bronze age empires of the eastern Mediterranean were riding high… then went into a simultaneous tailspin due to drought and their own inability to adapt.

==Looking toward the environment==

methane-plumesThis is what we had all feared — those of us who aren’t ostrich-people. The possible tipping point. Methane plumes are emanating from at least 570 seafloor cold seeps on the outer continental shelf and the continental slope, Mississippi State University reported. A potential disaster that I warned about in EARTH (1989).

“Warming of ocean temperatures on seasonal, decadal or much longer time scales can cause gas hydrate to release its methane, which may then be emitted at seep sites,” said Carolyn Ruppel, study co-author and chief of the USGS Gas Hydrates Project.  “Such continental slope seeps have previously been recognized in the Arctic, but not at mid-latitudes.  So this is a first.”

To be clear, methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2… and rising ocean temps will cause icy methane hydrates to fizz, all over the globe, causing a runaway effect.

Okay, I began this missive all-reasonable and trying logic and argument.  But truly? Do I any longer expect that approach to work?  During phase eight of the American Civil War? Of course not.

Which leaves me with this to say to you wretched, monstrous, science-hating fools, with your “hypnotize-me!” Fox-Nuremberg rallies and neo-confederate rant-fests against all big-city-university “smartypants” types.

TWODA-2No evidence will change your opposition to negotiating even moderate, sensible, precautionary interim measures to increase energy efficiency or do basic R&D. You sabotage TWODA (Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway.)

You help to denigrate and geld the smartest, most knowledgeable, competitive and wisest human beings whom our species has ever produced, and thereby you declare yourselves to be brave authority questioners and skeptics! While kneejerk-robotically obeying the hypnotize-me channels owned by coal and oil barons.

Millions of science loving moderates (like me) have been willing to negotiate the best measures that would (win-win) simultaneously boost economic activity instead of squelching it, while taking basic precautions against the (perhaps slim) possibility that smart people aren’t stupid. We moderates do not want to “shiver in the dark”… but you SOB fanatics have never shown the slightest willingness to sit and make a deal.

You empower and enable the New Civil War which has reduced the world’s greatest and most scientific and future-oriented nation in history to utter dysfunction, unable to perform politics and negotiation at even the most basic level.

ClimateSkepticsYou refuse to look at actual outcomes, by which measure your “side” has proved insanely incompetent. You refuse to follow the money or look at who are the winners from your movement’s loony wars or from the Tobacco-style denialist-delay campaign on climate change. EVERYTHING to you is “right versus left” — a loony metaphor that allows you to ignore the fact that Adam Smith … today… would be a Democrat.

You are jibbering crazies. And when the seas rise, the climate refugees will legitimately claim your homes..

== Ahem… ==

AguingCrazyUncleRant mode off.  Only dig this.  The earlier phases of the Civil War featured this same syndrome.  A re-ignited confederacy, riled up on hate toward urban-educated-industrial-blue Americans who create all the wealth and progress. Each time it failed.  Blues were (as Sam Houston wanted, during the 1960s phase) slow to anger and seemingly soft as mush… till each and every time we proved tougher than we had seemed, and ponderously unstoppable when pushed too far.

Riught now, you are threatening the very lives of our grandchildren with your backwards-nostalgic fixations.  And our planet and the republic that we love.  And we will stop you from ruining any of them.

 

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Twelve Questions from Reddit

I recently participated in an AMA – Ask Me Anything on the Reddit Futurology subgroup. Here’s a selection of questions and answers from this session.

twelve-questionsWhat do you find that has changed in the past ten years that is leaning towards your own fictional work?

The trend toward transparency being crucial to our survival and freedom has been in my fiction and nonfiction for decades and it is coming true. Last year, largely unheralded by media, saw the most important civil liberties decision in thirty years, when the courts and the Obama Administration separately declared it to be “settled law” that citizens have a right to record their interactions with police, in public places. Of course there will be tussles over the details for years. I’ll talk later about how we must also watch the watchers of the watchers.

What, if anything, have you changed your mind about in the last 12 months?

In politics — I reluctantly concluded that reason will not prevail and the U.S. is doomed to a new phase of its 200 year Civil War. In science — I learned that we can look beyond the “curtain” of light that raised 325,000 years after the Big Bang! In literature, I learned that a new novelist in China – Liu Cixin – has leaped ahead by a couple of generations and will stun western readers, in the fall.  Hey, I am surprised a whole lot!

What do you believe (if anything) is necessary for our society and culture to change, in order to prevent a collapse/new dark age/extinction of our race? Or – if nothing – why?

UnlikelinessPositiveSumSocietyI’ve pushed for 30 years what I think is the secret of the Western Enlightenment Experiment — The Positive Sum Game. Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed shows what will happen if Earth is run by the Zero Sum thinking that dominated in 99% of human societies.

We get positive sum outcomes out of science, democracy, markets etc because they are competitive! But it is REGULATED competition that minimizes blood and cheating and maximizes folks leveraging against each others creativity.

The mistake of the left is to badmouth competition, when Adam Smith was the first liberal!

The mistake of the right is to imagine we can get these benefits without very meticulous regulation to prevent cheating, which ruined 99% of human societies and made them zero (or negative) sum. And it is winners and the strong who inevitably try to cheat. Look at how regulated sports is! It would collapse otherwise.

Right now oligarchs are trying to turn our society zero sum and feudal again. The attempt happens every generation. If we can prevent it and restore a pragmatic, can-do society, maximizing the flat-open-transparent arena of joyful-fair competition, then we may reach Star Trek.

Which self-preventing prophecy do you think would have the largest positive impact the on future if published today?

self-preventing-prophecyIn my essay, The Self-Preventing Prophecy: How a Dose of Nightmare Can Tame Tomorrow’s Perils, I talk about how the highest form of Science Fiction is a predictive novel that scares millions into fighting against the portrayed future. e.g. Soylent Green or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The greatest Self-Preventing Prophecy was Orwell’s 1984, which I discuss here.

A related topic is why so many recent films and novels wallow in dystopias that are NOT “self-preventing” because their scenarios are lazy and stupid, as I discuss in The Idiot Plot.

Today? I’d warn about collapse of confidence in our creative-pragmatic can-do civilization. The worst problem we have is so many of our neighbors turning stylishly cynical.  Too many of YOU think you invented “brave cynicism” when it is a drug-addict cop-out.

can-do-civilization

==On the Singularity==

What’s your opinion on the possibility of humanity forming a collective consciousness through the internet?

I portray this happening in Earth and in Foundation’s Triumph. The latter was in Isaac Asimov’s universe so it portrayed a Gaia/Galaxia uber mind that essentially takes over. Nicer than the Borg because folks don’t clank and whirr but instead float and go ‘om’ and commune…

I do think that to be a simplistic type of Overmind (see Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, too.) That is not how complexity actually layers, in complex systems lilt nature. In Earth I portray individual humans retaining all of their individuality, with the higher shared consciousness riding lightly above, benefiting from human individuality and eccentricity, absorbing and digesting their input the way you ponder the countless fleeting thoughts in your own head.  It is a more complex and subtle kind of “over mind.”  It might be a positive-sum win-win.

dowereallywantimmortalityDo you believe biological immortality could happen in 10 – 25 years from now? Also what do you want to see in the future with new technologies coming out?

I deem it pretty unlikely. I am a bit of a grouch-curmugeon in the transhumanist-life-extension community. Humans are already the Methuselahs of mammals, getting three times as many heartbeats as mice and elephants. We have probably plucked the low-hanging longevity fruit and the next steps will be very hard.

What I do expect to see is methods of brain/skull preservation that are far cheaper and more convenient than cryonics. Plasticization etc. No revival, of course and most intra-cellular info would be lost. But the location of a trillion synapses might be preserved and serve as boundary conditions for a fairly good emulation program that could upload a version of you, someday. Is that good enough? Depends.

See my larger essay: Do We Really Want Immortality?

Where do you differ with Ray Kurtzweil on the singularity?

KurzweilSingularityCoverRay and I get along, but I am a contrarian. Among those who do not believe in change – alas many of our fellow citizens – I speak about how rapidly human destiny is being challenged with new powers. Around Ray? I am cautionary.

For example, Kurzweil believes Moore’s Law, all by itself, will make him immortal by creating Soulful machines who will gladly incorporate us and human values in the adventure of super-life. I portray this happening! In Earth and in Existence! But at Ray’s conferences, I splash cold water.

He calculates Moore’s Law by crossing the rate of transistor growth in machines with number of synapses in a human brain… about a trillion. But synapses may just be the tip of the iceberg, especially if there’s intracellular computing! If so, Moore’s Law will need maybe TEN more doublings!

Which do you think we’ll reach first? Relatively cheap spaceflight, or full body ‘virtual reality’ simulations? The latter can, of course, include MMI equivalents instead of external bodysuits.

Sure VR will be the main thing for most of us. If we could make cheap “deputies” we could send them to Mars and bring back the heads and “live” the experience!  Say, I offer that in Kiln People!

 ==On Books…and Aliens==

temptationI just want to say that I really enjoyed your Uplift books. Do you have any plans for new books?

Indeed I am currently working to get Creideiki and Orley off that planet, at last! The Brightness Reef trilogy settles the fate/destiny of the ship Streaker, and a lot else. Till then, see the story “Temptation” downloadable from my website. Some will argue that Existence is uplift!

What do you make of Cliford D. Simak’s dog and animal society in City? I allways found his ideas on animal and foreign intelligence interesting, if somewhat anchored to his time.

Yes, Simak influenced me. Also the fact that I have never had a novel that did not feature an ape or other primate! ;-)

Have you looked into the topic of UFOs and if so, do you have a stance on the UFO phenomenon?

Sorry but this “phenomenon” is taking care of itself. Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law (yes it’s called that) is that CAMERAS get faster, cheaper, more numerous and mobile at a rate much faster than Moore’s Law.

thoseeyesThis means that the excuses for blurry UFO images get slimmer and slimmer. Have you done the math? All of the places where a UFO was dimly blurry in the distance 20 years ago… would have dozens of folks with cell cams right below it today! Please do the math. If images remain blurry, it is because they are teasing us and staying just out of range, even taking Brin’s Corollary and the lens quality of iPhones into account!

In that case, they are bastards. Snub em.

Please… you know I am interested in aliens! I spend my life on the topic, in SETI and in fiction. I’ll even admit a very slim chance there might be UFOs! But I find the creatures described in these stories to be illogical, immoral, unimaginative, ridiculous and WAY down on my list of priorities.

==On Privacy==

What is your idea on a transparent society, and how does that affect personal privacy? Or should we start getting used to having no privacy?

privacy-doomedThe most common assumption of people who have not read my articles or The Transparent Society is that – as “Mr. Transparency” I oppose privacy or think it is doomed.

No way! A free people will want and demand some privacy! In Chapter 4 of The Transparent Society I discuss how essential some core privacy will be… though it will be closer and narrower.

But the irony is that we will only have that core if we live in a world that is mostly open, in which most people know most of what’s going on, most of the time. Only then will voyeurs and spies and sneaks be deterred, because they’ll get caught!

There is so much to this. See more articles about transparency, freedom and technology.

PrivacyAccountability

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