Tag Archives: surveillance

Sousveillance is the answer to surveillance

       When people complain about surveillance society being bad, what ideal alternative do they imagine? This is the best question I’ve been asked on Quora, all year. I have been asking it since 1995, when I started writing The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 
         First, let’s be clear. I respect the many brave and smart Paladins of Freedom out there, from the ACLU to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to countless journalists, activists and – yes – some politicians and business folk, who are deeply concerned that a surveillance state could lead to Big Brother. They have this reflex in part because of our enlightenment traditions of independence and freedom… but also because of dire warnings told by science fiction! (See my essay: George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.)
big-brother-surveil       They all know that if elites monopolize the power to watch and surveil common folk, Big Brother is almost inevitable. Some fret he’ll come from aristocrats and faceless corporations, some from academia and faceless government bureaucrats. All share the same legitimate(!) fear!
          And all but a very few are reacting in ways that are stunningly dim-witted and myopic. Because they then conclude that our best option to prevent Big Brother is to hide from him! To skulk to protect our secrets. To make “cyberpunk” our romantic image of resistance. To whine and holler “Don’t look at me!”

Across 25 years I have never heard a single one of these activists explain how that can be accomplished.

        Nor heard them cite a single example, from history, when anything like it happened. They proclamations are always, always vague and near term. (Now, some near-term “privacy codes” are tactically helpful, I openly avow. But none will work across a ten year frame. Not one ever proposed.

        There is – however – a way out. A way to protect freedom and prevent tyranny and oppression by elite, staring eyes. It happens to be the way we got this narrow window of freedom in the first place. Not by cringing and cowering from elites, but by stripping them of that MONOPOLY on vision! By stripping the mighty naked. By dividing power into smaller, mutually-competing chunks. By looking back at power.

SOUSVEILLANCE-SURVEILLANCE        It is called sousveillance… look it up. It is how we got our freedom. It is assertive, aggressive, militant, and the only thing that can even conceivably work. It is the only way to hold elites accountable. Accountability is key. We must be able to watch the watchers.

        Think. It does not matter what elites KNOW about you, so long as we all know enough about them to supervise, so that they cannot DO anything to you.

        Epistemologically, you can never verify that someone else does not know something! But you can verify that they are not DOING something. If you can see.

        In The Transparent Society – and somewhat in EARTH – I go much deeper. But the essential is that we must not hide. We’ll have some privacy! Because if we can see, then we’ll catch the peeping toms!

        But above all, to be both safe and free, we must be able to see.


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A Transparency Tsunami

Face Recognition has arrived. Smile. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working on the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) allowing authorities to identify individuals by their faces from street cams, driver’s license photos, mug shots or other images. As Ginger McCall points out, there is little or no “legal oversight of such technologies.”  And I agree!  Oversight and “undersight” or sousveillance is absolutely essential lest this lead to Big Brother!

FaceRecognition“A total of 37 states have enabled facial-recognition software to search driver’s license photos, and only 11 have protections in place to limit access to such technologies by the authorities.”

Alas, McCall goes on to do the same yawnworthy thing — hand-wringing that we must somehow (without hinting at an even remotely plausible way) restrict elites in the use of these new technologies.  The wrong solution to a real problem, and always, always the vague-implausible one that activists reach for.  The article in the New York Times spirals downward into a list of begged-for impossibilities, never once considering the real issue…

…which is not how to blind elites (a utopian notion never achieved by any society in history and impossible today, as cameras proliferate faster than Moore’s Law.) Rather, the solution is to limit what authorities can do to us with such systems. And to accomplish that, we need only get into the habit of looking back. Of embracing the tech waves and ensuring that no cop, no public official, goes un-recognized, unwatched.

What could be more obvious?  To work with tech trends instead of (futilely) against them? But the well-meaning activists, though properly worried, never stretch their minds in a new direction.  The only direction that can work.

== It can get way worse ==

Paul Krugman, back in June, appraised a chilling – even terrifying – new law in Hungary that allows the Prime Minister to order deep surveillance of any government official, down to aspects of their personal lives, while exempting the very top layers of authority.  “Under Hungary’s new national security law, certain authorized government officials may initiate intrusive surveillance on their higher-level underlings…. Generating a surveillance order doesn’t require that the target be suspected of doing anything illegal. Any old reason will do…. The only required approval comes from the Minister of Justice, a feature which keeps control of the program within the inner circles of the government.”

SousveillanceSurveillance“Now that the law has passed, potential targets of surveillance must sign a “consent” form. If the targets have spouses, the spouses must sign consent forms, too. And if the targets or their spouses don’t consent to this surveillance, the targets lose their jobs. In short, this “consent” is not optional and the whole family is fair game for surveillance.”

And here’s the crux: “Those specifically exempted from either the background checks or the intrusive surveillance include the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, Constitutional Court judges, the Speaker of the Parliament, the president of the Supreme Court (Curia), the president of the National Judicial Office, the Chief Public Prosecutor, the ombudsman and his deputies, the head of the data protection agency and members of the European Parliament.”

“Given that the Hungarian surveillance program involves listening to the content of phone conversations, reading emails and bugging the houses of state officials to see what they are doing, there are particular dangers here. What is to prevent the Hungarian government from simply blackmailing people with what they find? What keeps the Hungarian government from acting on purely political information (firing someone for criticizing the government, for example)? The law contains no meaningful protections against the use of the information for political and personal reasons and it offers no procedures that would reliably correct mistakes.”

== But there are also good trends ==

The Acxiom Corporation, a marketing technology company, has amassed details on the household makeup, financial means, shopping preferences and leisure pursuits of a majority of adults in the United States. Acxiom is embarking on a novel public relations strategy: openness. It plans to unveil a free Web site where United States consumers can view some of the information the company has collected about them.

ReleaseTheDataThe data on the site, called AbouttheData.com, includes biographical facts, like education level, marital status and number of children in a household; homeownership status, including mortgage amount and property size; vehicle details, like the make, model and year; and economic data, including whether a household member is an active investor with a portfolio greater than $150,000. Also available will be the consumer’s recent purchase categories, like plus-size or maternity clothing, or sports or hobby products; and household interests like golf, dogs, text-messaging, or charities.

“With about $1.1 billion in revenue in its 2013 fiscal year, Acxiom is a leading player in an industry called data brokerage. The company collects, stores, analyzes and sells consumer data with the aim of helping its clients — including well-known banks, credit card issuers, insurance companies, department stores and carmakers — tailor marketing to their most valuable current customers or identify new customers.”  AbouttheData.com is as much ruthlessly pragmatic as idealistic. Mr. Howe recognizes that regulation of his industry may be coming and that it’s better for Acxiom to be seen as a part of the solution than a part of the problem.  “You may be surprised to know that we are in favor of heightened industry regulation, but we want to make sure we have a voice in the process,” Mr. Howe said. Aboutthedata.com is Acxiom’s bid to have a say in any legislative or regulatory developments. “If we are on our front foot, if we innovate and we are learning,” he said, “we think that earns us a seat at the table.”

One should compare this to a generation ago, when the three credit scoring companies screamed and fought against allowing consumers to look at their own credit files.  It took vigorously progressive reformers to wrest that right into the public domain where — voila — credit reporting vastly improved, because consumers found a myriad mistakes.   The system now works better bcause of transparency. Um… duh?

Acxiom is clearly not led by fools, but rather by clever folks who can see where things will trend, and who want to be seen leading the way.

== Risk and  scandals==

FearOfRiskAfter some years steeped in misleading cliches, it appears that security maven Bruce Schneier has found his groove again, making cogent sense in a recent pair of essays.  The first concerns our modern, disproportionate fear of risk.  His point is both general — about how we let our fears be driven emotionally, rather than logically — and specific, as in the trillion dollar spree of over-reaction to 9/11 that made no sense economically or in helping to make us more secure. A vast spasm that also undermines democracy.

Alas, Bruce leaves out some additional factors, like the varied Fear Industries such as cable news.  Plus the fact that we are wallowing in Phase Three of the American Civil War, one side of which relishes dread as if it were Mother’s Milk… and the other side is little better in its hand-rubbing schadenfreude.

His other recent missive focuses directly on the NSA and other scandals released by Edward Snowden. “Trust is essential for society to function. Without it, conspiracy theories naturally take hold. Even worse, without it we fail as a country and as a culture.” Yes, it is a bit of a platitude and short on real suggestions.  Still, well worth a look, and vastly better than Schneier’s earlier, fumbling misstatements about transparency.

== Important transparency miscellany ==

What the NSA really does with your data: A primer on data mining.

This historical survey of wiretapping is extensive – though not as comprehensive as the eagerly partisan author would have us think.  It nevertheless provides some needed historical perspective.

A number of women across the country have listed their positive pregnancy tests for sale on Craigslist. ‘Wanna get your boyfriend to finally pop the question? Play a trick on mom, dad or one of your friends?” Dang. I mean…. dang.

Landau-SurveillanceJust when you thought the NSA-spying imbroglio couldn’t get dumber… with the added news of even vaster monitoring by the Drug Enforcement Administration… now we learn what you really ought to have expected. There’s human nature to muck things up further as NSA-officers sometimes spy on love interests. Um… duh?  And what did you expect when there’s no reciprocal accountability?  Dig it, there are ways to apply citizen supervision over even shadow-war services that must maintain copious tactical secrecy.  It can be done in a win-win way. If you cannot come up with candidate methods, you aren’t trying.

Score one for the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a major victory in one of EFF’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The Justice Department conceded that it will release hundreds of pages of documents, including FISA court opinions, related to the government’s secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

And following up on that… Bruce Ackerman in the Los Angeles Times offers several suggested reforms for the secret FISA Court that are much in line with my earlier New York Times Op-ed, including making the court truly adversarial, diversifying the appointment of the judges and increasing oversight.  All of which advocated for the “win-win” approach that I have been pushing… though not as radically as I would like.

How to turn off the feature on your android phone that “backs up” your settings on a Google mainframe… and thus gives them your wifi passwords.  You can choose not to do this.

Is Twitter to become more invasive than Facebook? Josh Harkinson writes, “Twitter has what only a handful of other tech titans possess: a digital Rosetta Stone that enables it to know who you are, wherever you are.” Twitter will be able to track you across all of your devices.

And finally, xkcd offers varying opinions on Internet privacy.


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Dilbert, Skynet and the latest from the transparency front

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) and I have both agreed and disagreed about transparency, for years. In his posting, Crime and Privacy, he has opined, for example, that Ironically, the more the government clamps down on individual privacy, the more freedom the residents will have. When the government can detect every sort of crime, it will be forced by public opinion and by resource constraints to legalize anything it can detect but can’t stop.” 

DilbertHm, well, that’s right in the general gist, though wrong in the specifics. What Scott is fumbling around — and that I made explicit in The Transparent Society (1997) — is that universal and pervasive surveillance can take us in either of two directions.  One is toward Big Brother, if elites monopolize the omniscience and can surveil in secret, without accountability or supervision.  In that case, you get what Vernor Vinge called “ubiquitous law enforcement.” And if the cops can’t arrest everyone?  Then they’ll cherry-pick and arrest those whom they don’t like.  In the specifics, Adams is dead wrong.

But Adams is floundering in the right direction when he holds that a lack of privacy would lead to fewer activities being against the law. The only reason law enforcement can afford to act against drug users, or prostitution, or gambling, for example, is because only 1% of those crimes are detectable. If police could magically know every time someone violated a drug or prostitution law, the volume would be so high they would end up ignoring the entire class of crimes for purely practical reasons. And that’s where we’re heading.”

Still wrong! But almost there. What is missing from his vision is… citizenship. Let us assume that we remain sovereign voters and citizens, not just legally but empowered by omniscience of our own. By “sousveillance” — the ability and fierce determination to look BACK at the mighty – of government, oligarchy, corporatcy, criminality – in effect, watching the watchmen. (I portray this in my novels, EARTH and  EXISTENCE and it is very likely. ) Suppose we get used to applying reciprocal accountability and even inserting cameras of our own – or at least trusted witnesses – even in the authorities’ surveillance chambers and control rooms. In that case:

1) Cherry-picking and other abuses will be caught and deterred.

2) We will argue, debate, deliberate and change some of the laws ourselves.  Some will be abandoned, as Scott Adams describes, only by our choice, not because of some cop-laziness.

For example, if you are caught every single time you break the speed limit, and if the fine every time is $400, then you will join millions of your neighbors demanding that the system of fines be changed!  You currently pay $400 because the law assumes it is missing 99% of the speeders.  If it catches 100% of them, then rational people will negotiate a shift to a tariff system, where you pay by the mile… and by the mph… each time you hurry above the limit, but are not putting folks at risk. Deterrence that’s reasonable and flexible. Um…. duh?

Here is what I find depressing. People just don’t get this! Not even smart, out-of-the-box thinkers like Scott Adams. They seldom look at the society of citizens around them and see it! We never notice that notice99% of the stuff… even the rules… around us is working! (Just stand at a 4-way stop sign intersection and watch a miracle at work.) Sure, complain about the wretched 1% that isn’t!  I got a list of complaints that rolls out the door. But this tendency to only notice what’s wrong seriously undermines our belief that we can fix things.

No wonder negotiation has broken down, in this era of dismal culture war.  We all assume the worst. We never ponder… is there a solution that we could negotiate, among ourselves, so that these trends won’t rob our freedom, but enhance it?

== The matter at mean ==

smbcThe best and smartest of the topical web comics is Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC), by Zach Weiner. A recent strip illustrates the psychological state that drives elites — even well-meaning ones — to proclaim a need for asymmetric information flows… to know everything about us while letting us know very little about what they are doing.  In fairness, such asymmetries can be necessary at a tactical level. But you can count on the rationalizations always getting pushed beyond sense, extending secrecy as a convenience, as job security, and an expression of self-importance — a tendency that winds up endangering citizenship and freedom.

(Another dollop of transparency wisdom from SMBC.)

We shouldn’t get angry about this fundamental trait of human nature — it is likely what you or I would do, to some degree, if we found ourselves in a position of power. But human nature is a challenge, a foundation we had no part in shaping, a hand we are dealt that can and must be improved. When it comes to surveillance by those with power we simply have to keep up a steady counter pressure, to find innovative methods for applying transparency upward (sousveillance). Watching the watchers, in ways that do not prevent them from doing their legitimate jobs.  It turns out there are such methods, just waiting for a concerted effort on our parts. Here is one example: Free the Inspectors General.

Oh, lest this focus solely on government, note that the same psychological drive affects elites of all kinds, from finance to business to social or international or criminal. Only (a slim majority of) scientists regularly practice transparency as a schooled habit. We are all human. But we must stop this old habit from destroying us. We can’t afford to indulge it anymore.

== Skynet now has lasers ==

Our friends the HST (High Speed Trading) or HFT (High Frequency Trading) algorithms are at it again. A single hacked/prank tweet on the Associated Press (AP) account, declaring that the White House had been bombed and Obama injured, sent the market into an instant freefall for three minutes, far too quickly for human traders to have been involved. “That goes to show you how algorithms read headlines and create these automatic orders – you don’t even have time to react as a human being.” See also: Skynet and the Flash Computer Trading Monster.

As if we didn’t already have enough reasons to dread this particular path to artificial intelligence (AI) now they are planning to equip Skynet… I mean Goldman Sachs HST systems… with lasers! Laser beam technology originally developed for the military is being rolled out to shave time off trades. It will compete with new microwave networks that are increasingly being used by traders. Ah, humans.  Marx was right about capitalists, they will sell the new overlords the rope used to hang us all.

== Transparency-related Miscellany ==

I consulted with Qualcomm about this, amid my decades long campaign to change the design of our cell phone system, so that it will continue to be useful when we’ll need it most, when some disaster (local or national or global) brings down the cell towers!  Implementing one of these resilience concepts, Qualcomm hopes to boost mobile coverage with a cell phone service that uses small cellular base stations installed in homes to serve passing smartphone users.

And along similar lines, adding to our potential resilience… Ushahidi aims to build the world’s most simple, reliable, and rugged Internet connection device, but with sophisticated cloud-based features. Its BRCK hub is rugged and can connect 20 devices  with any network in the world, providing eight hours of wireless connectivity battery life

VingeSmart dust computers, no bigger than a snowflake, will scavenge power from their surroundings, and monitor your world. Clearly a huge predictive hit for my friend Vernor Vinge in his novel — A Deepness in the Sky — which explores the possibilities.  Big potential upsides await… or else downsides far worse than Orwell. Raging against such things won’t stop them from being abused.  Embracing them just might.

Hitachi Develops World’s Smallest RFID Chip.  Nicknamed “Powder” or “Dust”, the surface area of the new chip is a quarter of the original 0.3 x 0.3 mm, 60µm-thick chip developed by Hitachi in 2003. And this RFID chip is only one-eighth the width of the previous model.  Already the hand-wringing has begun… while clueless over  how to deal with such a world.  Clue: moaning about this won’t stop it.  Elites will have it. We have one option.  Give it to us all and ensure the elites are watched with this stuff.

– How easy is it to scam the Internet with a fake persona? “Santiago Swallow” skyrocketed from a nonexistent made-up name to a Kred social influence score of 754 out of 1000, within days of being “born” online… midwifed by British technology expert Kevin Ashton (who coined the term “Internet of Things.”)  For example: It didn’t take long for Mr Ashton to purchase Swallow some 90,000 followers, all for the price of $50. An automated tweeting service was used to broadcast his thoughts to the world. Image manipulation software created Swallow’s look and Mr Ashton finished his experiment by writing a fake Wikipedia entry and setting up Swallow’s own website through WordPress.

In fact, there are business opportunities for a pseudonymity-reputation conveyance service that would be an instant hit, allowing tools to overcome scams like this. Alas, the general response is hand-wringing and “what’cha gonna do?”

== Past, present and future shock ==

rsz_screen_shot_2013-03-19_at_100548_amIn his book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens NOW,” Douglass Rushkoff contends we must get used to the the world arising out of Alvin Toffler’s prophetically accurate “Future Shock“… a coming era when everything is happening all at once and the present becomes a cacophony of unbearable complexity. One in which the nostalgic reactions of left and right differ — the Occupy Movement seeks an endless present of confrontation while the right wallows in apocalyptic dreams of an ending that would relieve one of having to think about complexity. And yet, both of these bickering twins express a common, underlying personality trait: anomie toward the future.

Borrowing from some of the best web-philosophers, Rushkoff calls digiphrenia – digitally provoked mental chaos.  One of many overlaps in his book with near-future problems that I portray in Existence. Such as how corporate investing in new goods or services has been replaced by relentless — and ultimately futile — efforts to game the markets in real time, betraying the confident foresight that is supposed to lie at the root of capitalism. The motivator (in that case) appears to be less greed than a pervasive unwillingness to grapple with the gyrations of a rapidly shifting target called the near future.

Rushkoff is a savvy writer and perceptive in his attempt at a big picture.  Alas, temporal chauvinism happens to the best of us and the tendency in “Present Shock” is to fall for the very thing he describes happening to others.  Assuming that the present is the only topic here – the only subject worthy of myopic focus.  In fact, history teaches a sobering lesson – that every major new communication medium triggered disruption alienation and pain, before eventually becoming a net force for good.

Movable type, glass lenses, radio, loudspeakers, mass media. Each time this happened, some — like the Luddites of 18th Century Britain — would cry fore-tellings of gloom: that commonfolk would be overloaded, their ability to process overwhelmed, or that people would drift aimlessly without the anchor of tradition. Meanwhile others — from Giordano Bruno to Benjamin Franklin to Teilhard de Chardin — proclaimed ecstatic joy over the prospect of expanding human powers, predicting that the process might culminate in almost godlike omniscience. Every time, the grouches proved right in the short term and wrong over the long run.

Today’s Internet and media-blasted world shows every sign of passing through a similar era of confusion. A confusion well-documented in Present Shock — though alas, without as big or deep or wide or as calming a perspective as Douglas Rushkoff claims that he is offering. That is no indictment. It is all right to be a meta-example of the very thing that you are describing. And he describes it all very well.

== More Transparency Miscellany ==

tor1– A cool and informative Scientific American article about Google Glass… and my sci fi augmented reality “specs” in Existence… and other takes on how we’ll move through a world of many layers and textures.

– An almost completely plastic pistol, made in a 3D printer. It’s heeeeere.  What a world.

– Fortunately, personal firearms will be nowhere near as important in the future as universal access to vision and knowledge. Citizen victories in the Age of Cameras can be among the most important in our time. Recent court decisions in the U.S. have supported a citizen’s right to film and record police activity in public places and the Obama Administration has declared this right to be “settled law.”  No matter could be more important than preserving the one recourse any person must retain, when dealing with authority… our ability to appeal to the truth.

– Now see how the same fight is being waged in Britain by a brave young woman — Gemma Atkinson — whose animated story is brilliant and informative.  Again, most of the time, most police are our good and faithful servants.  But the only conceivable way to keep them that way, is by getting them used to being supervised by their employers.  By us.

– Supreme Court says states may bar Freedom of Information requests from non-residents. Resist.

– An interesting rumination on Yelp! and other crowd-sourced “critic and review” systems… the advantages… and many many disadvantages that must be overcome, before this promising method can truly displace the appraisal of professionals and experts.

== Saving provocative politics for last ==

So you think I am always coming down on conservatism?  (That is, the current-loony Fox-led version; I admired  the intellectual honesty of Barry Goldwater and I tell everyone – left or right – to read Adam Smith;  but neither Goldwater nor Smith nor William F. Buckley would recognize today’s mutant right.)

Well surprise-surprise… I am fully aware of sins of the left, as well!   And I will now  swivel to aim in that direction.

First, bear in mind that moderate liberals are a much larger population than actual leftists, and that liberals do not partake in many of the traits of their more dogmatic allies, nor do they believe almost anything that Sean Hannity claims that they do.  Nevertheless, there truly is a fringe and there are ways in which the far left wing behaves much like fanatics of the far right.

For example, both extremes demand tests of purity and the recitation of rigid, in-group defining doctrines. Neither wing is even remotely interested in applying the genius of pragmatic compromise. At times, the left’s political correctness can seem as brutally intolerant as the know-nothing religiosity we see gushing from the opposite extreme.

HaidtOne very smart social psychologist who lays out the case in ways that should make left-of-center intellectuals squirm is Jonathan Haidt. If you are one of those intellectuals, and are honest, you’ll give him a look and listen: The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology. (Or see his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion). And perhaps even adapt. Please. We can only afford one half of the American polity going psycho at a time.

And continuing my swivel to cast a wary eye in all directions: a war on whistle blowers? It is much more complicated than this, and there have been other measures that enhanced whistle blowing incentives, of late. Still we need to keep paying attention.

And… the U.S. gives big push to internet surveillance: Senior Obama administration officials have secretly authorized the interception of communications carried on networks operated by AT&T and other Internet service providers, a practice that might otherwise be illegal under federal wiretapping laws.  I see such things as inevitable.  What I demand (and you should) is that we get something in return.  Ever increasing powers of supervision.

There. See?  I am wary in every direction. Remain suspicious! Especially if you have a “side” that you feel is better than its opposition.  It may only be better in 90% of the ways…

…and that 10% could become lethal. Unless we make sure that even our “friendly” elites know.  That we are watching them.

For more on Transparency and our future…

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Is Technology offering Transparency…or spying on us?

A look at how technology enables greater transparency…but not always both ways:

Google Goggles… or Project Glass… is finally announced.  See the official preview… and an amusing satire. These futuristic Goggles would project information directly in your field of vision, offering updates on the time, weather, map directions, road closures, upcoming appointments, names of colleagues, buildings, etc. You will be able to leave memos to yourself, send email to friends, read restaurant reviews and take/share photos or video (but can you do all this while walking?). Of course this is just scratching the surface (so to speak).  I portray this technology taken thirty years into the future (including solutions to the “walking problem), so stay tuned in just three months for a glimpse of where it will all lead. in Existence.  Or see it presaged, back in in ‘89, in Earth.

Ah, but is two-way vision always a good thing? At the Consumer Electronic Show (CES), Smart unveiled a new Smart TV that demonstrated how the seamless integration of sensors, built-in cameras and microphones enabled “smart” features such as gesture control, voice commands and all kinds of interactive and connectivity.  But this Smart TV can also turn into a spy within your home, reporting without your knowledge.  There is no indication as to whether the camera and audio mics are on. You can point the camera toward the ceiling … but there is no easy way to physically disconnect the mic to ensure that it is not picking up your voice when you don’t intend it to. Will your Smart TV soon be spying on you? Onward Orwell!

Navizon’s Indoor Triangulation System allows anyone carrying a WiFi-equipped smartphone, iPad or notebook computer to be tracked (inside as well as outdoors) without their knowledge or consent — and with no option to opt out. This Buddy Radar enables locating shoppers in a mall, doctors in a hospital, clients in a convention hall…or lost children in a crowd. If this bothers you — then disable WiFi on your devices when you’re not using it. Not a convenient solution.

technology-spyingAnd there’s corporate surveillance: Dunkin Donuts installed an employee monitoring system that monitors  their staff with video cameras and tracks every punch of the cash register. The result: a drop in employee thefts by 13%.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, tells internet users they should demand their personal data from giants such as Facebook and Google:  “One of the issues of social networking silos is that they have the data and I don’t … There are no programs that I can run on my computer which allow me to use all the data in each of the social networking systems that I use plus all the data in my calendar plus in my running map site, plus the data in my little fitness gadget and so on to really provide an excellent support to me.”

I must agree.  The really frustrating thing is not that elites will know about me.  That’s inevitable.  But what is dangerous as hell is their reluctance to let us have full access to our own information… or reciprocal information about them.

==Transparency in Science==

Scientists are not immune to bias, and they should be transparent about the sources of their funding. The director of the US National Institutes of Health called for a  compulsory online registry of researchers’ interests as a condition of federal funding. “The public may not always understand the intricacies of rigorous science, but most individuals quickly grasp the concept of bias.” Nothing came of this proposal. Each university should have a publicly searchable database of academics’ external sources of money. And that’s fine, so far… but where does this simply become a way to bully scientists, making them look over their shoulders with every step?

If we scientists do have to set this example of transparent accountability, then can we at least have back a little respect?  And start seeing Wall Street follow suit?

 == Dire news on the medical front==

Up to a third of what the U.S. spends on medical care may be wasted, in large part because of over-testing and over treatment.  Now a major panel has cited nine procedures that doctors should resort to far less often.    Fascinating article.

One of the most highly-valued contributors to this blog’s comment community, an emergency room physician, reports,  “We stand on the brink of the post antibiotic era.” One of the worst antibiotic-resistant staph infection strains called cMSRA, which can penetrate even healthy, intact skin, has just learned to defy the last defensive drug that physicians could use without fearing major consequences to children or the allergy-prone.

This is not a good time to back off from science.  In the 1950s, the most popular man in the United States was Jonas Salk.  Today, most Americans have never heard of him, and nut-jobs on both the left and right rail against vaccination and the Medical Establishment.  It seems we get what we deserve.

== Science & Tech Potpourri ==

Experiments are finally moving ahead with solar updraft power towers… of a kind that I mentioned long ago in Earth. These systems use a very large surrounding “greenhouse” – many square km of clear plastic or glass – that heats air to flow up a tall chimney while driving generators.  Efficiency is much lower than solar thermal, but start-up simplicity and load balancing are attractive, as is mixed use of the land below the sheeting.

==On the Lighter side==

Examples of my Uplift meme used in modern humor.

Terry Bisson’s classic, hilarious little story about why we may not have been contacted. “They’re Made of Meat” has been produced for a lovely, ironic radio show.

The Purdue Society of Professional Engineers team smashed its own world record for largest Rube Goldberg machine with a 300-step behemoth that flawlessly accomplished the simple task of blowing up and popping a balloon.

== And finally…  A Sober Thought on Pop Culture ==

Stooge alert!  (woop, woop, woop!)  Like most American males, and all American kids (something happens to women, I guess) I love the Three Stooges.  I haven’t seen the new movie.  I hope it’s good, though even if it’s great I expect my wife to get her year’s quota of eye-rolling exercise!

Now, let me stand up for this in philosophical terms.  The best of the old scenes weren’t the plain hitting. That was always lame. No, it was those stunning metaphysical contemplations of the inherent, hopeless irony of existence.  In other words… art!  In that art  connects the viewer directly to life’s inherent poignancy without words or persuasion.

Take some of the most perplexingly ironic-tragic stooge situational dilemmas, like the boys using Curly as a battering ram to punch through a brick wall, then trying to pry him back out with a crowbar. Oh, the expressions on his face, as the crowbar hook moved back and forth in front of him, preparing to strike like a cobra… or like implacable fate. He is hypnotized, transfixed, the way all of us have been, at various train-wreck moments of “real” life.

Nothing better distilled for me the inherent unfairness of the universe… or the absolute impossibility of human beings being able to think our way out of this puzzling quandary called the life – the game that you simply cannot win.  And yet the boys never stopped trying. Persevering. Coming up with one “hey, let’s try this!” hopeless gambit after another. And sometimes something brilliantly stupid – or stupidly brilliant – actually worked!  And you came away thinking… maybe I should keep trying, too.

I confess, that philosophical depth may just be rationalizing away what’s really no more than Neanderthal immaturity.  (See the “laughter scene” in the amazing paleolithic film QUEST FOR FIRE.) So? Nevertheless, I made my Tymbrimi and Tytlal characters big stooge fans, and for reasons that they found wholly adequate!

Ever see the Stooge flick in which they made fun of Hitler, a full year before Charlie Chaplin started THE GREAT DICTATOR?  Oh, they had guts too.

Final note.  It is a tragedy that we never had a four stooges film, with brothers Curly Howard and Moe Howard sharing the screen with both Larry Fine and the other brother, Shemp Howard.  I consider Shemp to have been a comic genius of the first order and always enjoy him immensely. I hate the fact that he is excluded from Stooge Festivals on TV. History and fans are unkind to him because we compare him to Curly, who was a force of nature – akin to gravity or electromagnetism.

Oh, never forget that the greatest city in the world — fittingly the home of Wall Street, where stooge-like intelligence and antics are the norm — was pre-named, as if precognitively, for one of Curly’s most perceptive lines. Nyuck Nyuck.

Whether the new film is a fitting tribute or (most likely) a travesty, still carry the deeper lesson with you, every day. Persevere you knuckleheads, numbskulls and dollfaces. A civilization that can produce such art should be able to achieve anything.

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Total Information Awareness and Crime-Reporting Apps

== From the Transparency Front ==

Total Information Awareness?   NSA (the National Security Agency) is building a mammoth electronic spy center in Utah. The $2 billion Utah Data Center, to be completed by Sept. 2013, will be five times the size of the US Capitol. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher and analyze torrents of information flowing through the world’s communications databases— with an ability to handle yottabytes of data. Much of it international but a fair amount obtained by sifting intra-U.S. phone and email traffic.

What does this have to do with transparency and freedom and all that?

Only this.

Our protectors of online liberty, ranging from the ACLU and EFF and Privacy NGOs all the way to European Privacy Bureaucrats, are all very well-meaning – but clueless if they think laws, regulations and procedures will prevent elites (over the long run) from seeing anything that they want to see, or knowing whatever is within reach to know. Why? It’s simple and basic. We’re monkeys!  And a powerful monkey will not let you prevent him from seeing. Name one nation in all of human history where the elites allowed this to happen.  One.

On the other hand, we can prevent the mighty from becoming tyrants by looking back!  If we master the arts of sousveillance or watching the watchers, then no matter what they know about us, there will be limits to what they can do to us.

The chilling thing about the new NSA facility is not how much better it will let government “protectors” see, in order to better protect us.  The scary thing is that there won’t be officers of a uniformed and independent Inspectorate, roaming the halls on our behalf, making sure that protection is the only thing going on.  Or better yet, dozens of randomly chosen citizens (with security clearance) whose universal-access badges give them the right to poke their heads in any door and ask any question.

Inconvenient?  Irksome?  Will the protectors complain?  Tough. We need to demand that price! In exchange for their omniscience, they must surrender any chance of omnipotence, by letting us wrap them in chains of accountability. A chain we can yank, to remind our watchdog THAT he is a dog… lest he start thinking like a wolf.

==An App for Reporting Crime==

Want to report a crime, terrorist alert…or just snitch on your neighbors? The new Suspicious Activity Reporting Application, a crime-reporting app for your Smartphone, lets you snap a pic, and anonymously voice your suspicions to authorities. Developed by the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security, the free app is available through Itunes. “The longer you wait the less accurate eyewitness information becomes and evidence fades,” said Thom Kirk, Director of the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center. “Enabling the information to be sent at the time the activity is taking place will not only improve the accuracy of the report, but also improve the ability of the authorities to respond quickly.”

Is this an aid to community policing or a way to harass your neighbors; a powerful tool against terrorism or the next step toward Big Brother?

Or rather… clearly if we all have this, then Big Brother becomes impossible!  But (as I explore in The Transparent Society) might this lead to a nation and world filled with oppressive little brothers?  With nosy neighbors bullying each other, or tyranny by a perfectly democratic 51%?  I show good reasons to believe we may evade this pitfall too!  But not if we remain mired in civil war.

== Sci-Tech Miscellany ==

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding Boston Dynamics’ development of a prototype robot called the Cheetah. (Recall Boston’s incredible robot donkey… and the satires it inspired?) The cat-like bot managed to gallop 18 mph on a treadmill, setting a new land speed record for legged robots. (The previous record: 13.1 mph, set at MIT in 1989.) The company has a prototype human-like robot in the works called the Atlas that can walk upright and use its hands for balance while squeezing through narrow passages on surveillance or emergency rescue missions.

Smart lighting: Philips has a system being widely used all over the world now with some statistics to back it up.  They have just one camera in each light, facing straight down, with the light around the camera (concentric). The result is a computer vision system with mesh-based computing that estimates the number of pedestrians, cyclists, etc., and their speed and direction of movement, and predictively adjusts the light outputs on all the lights, to optimize for the activity detected by the vision system. One result is a 75% reduction in energy usage with no noticeable reduction in light output.

Ah, but will all lamps on public streets and areas then come equipped with cameras?  (As I already portrayed in EXISTENCE.) Oh, what they’ll see… and report.

Meanwhile…. some sci-tech miscellany!

A radical Japanese biplane design flies supersonic airspeeds without the sonic boom. Misoru (sky in Japanese) uses two wings to reflect shock waves back at each other, zeroing out the pressure shockwaves.

NASA has released a mosaic of images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

A gorgeous visualization of the Universe – dark matter and all.


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Potpourri: Eavesdropping, Surveillance and Looking Back

==From the Privacy Front==

Starting our potpourri of sci-tech-soc news: Kinect is watching you! People choose to post personal information on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. However, game platforms like Microsoft’s Kinect, continuously observe your nonverbal behavior, capturing every move you make. Subtle facial movements and gestures may seem harmless to share with others, but the way you move is frequently even more revealing than what you say. Researchers have used the Kinect to gather data to diagnose symptoms of ADHD; advertising companies may acquire such data to fine tune commercials.

Look back to watch those who are watching you! Collusion is an experimental add-on for Firefox that allows you to see any third parties that are tracking your movements across the Web. In real time, it visualizes the data as a spider-web of interactions between companies and other trackers. Mozilla is developing Collusion, with support form The Ford Foundation, to enable users to not only see who is tracking them across the Web, but also to turn that tracking off when they choose. You will be able to opt out of sharing your personal data with a global database.

We seem to be – very gradually – winning the most crucial civil liberties issue of our time.  “An Illinois court declared the state’s controversial eavesdropping law unconstitutional–opening the recording of encounters with police.” This case is especially important because Illinois politicians made it a matter of explicitly aggressive anti citizen law. “Illinois’ eavesdropping statute, one of the strictest in the nation, makes it a felony to record any conversation without the consent of all parties. It carries stiffer sentences — of up to 15 years in prison — if a police officer or court official is recorded without his or her knowledge”  Now, one can understand their reasoning.  Given that nearly all of the last 5 or so Illinois governors have gone to prison and most Illinois pols are deathly afraid of wiretaps, having citizens free to catch corruption terrifies them.  But they need to understand.  This will not stand.  

==Disputation Is Central==

I’ve long promoted the notion of “disputation arenas” or ritualized combat for ideas, as one major way the Web could finally pay off in vital, grand scale ways, doing for that realm what markets do for products and services and science does for truth. In fact, for a rather intense look at how “truth” is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article in the American Bar Association’s Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, “Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society’s Benefit.”   Also available on Kindle.

This was a core concept in my “Eon Proposal” for several dozen ways to improve our problem-solving skills in times of crisis. Now it appears that Google is taking a step toward bringing disputation to life, with its Hangout Series:  “Versus…will give you the chance to question people who are close to the decisions being made on topical issues, on both sides of the debate. Real-time voting on the channel will also let the speakers know how their arguments are resonating with viewers.”

The first debate will focus on the topic of the War on Drugs and will feature the opinions of a wide variety of celebrities, politicians and tycoons…  

==Hackers and Cyberpunks==

Even back in the 1990s, while writing The Transparent Society, I opined that most of today’s romantic “cypherpunks” or hackers – who proclaim themselves to be righteous, brave and sophisticated anarchists or revolutionaries against Big Brother – generally show astonishing naivete and ignorance over even the basics that underground movements understood, going back to anti-Nazi or anti-Soviet resistance, or the cat-and-mouse games versus Czarist secret police, or other legendary struggles going back to Sumer and Babylon. Of the twenty or so fundamental techniques used by oppressive regimes to staunch rebel movements, only three or four are thwarted at all by secret coding and other crypto techniques. Most of the hackers I’ve met seem to be completely unaware of the others, or the relevance of actual history… or else appear to be blithely reliant upon the fact that they don’t live under Big Brother at all. The fact that they can rely on news media, lawyers, and civilized law to protect their persons and families.

That is not to say we might’n’t someday need to resist a genuine Big Brother regime!  History shows that the odds are always against enlightenment, freedom-based societies. To some extent, the romantic Suspicion of Authority (SoA) expressed by cypher-hackers… and libertarians and liberal anti-corporatists… is deeply based and justified.  We are now experiencing an attempted oligarchic putsch like nothing seen since the 1890s. Indeed, I do not mind supremely skilled young geniuses honing useful cyber arts, prowling and poking a bit and becoming capable at skulking through the mazes of power… even if those methods are still less-than-crucial in a society that remains mostly lawful and accountable. Because it might cease to be so! We may need such skillful Neuromancer-types someday. And so, I am not offended by non-harmful “fooling around” with backdoors and cracking and such. Activities that really should be tolerated to some extent. (Indeed, they are! If no money or harm-doing was involved, those who are caught often thereupon face… job offers. (Shudder.))

But here’s the ultimate irony. Those who are best at this craft aren’t preening in public, nor pulling indignant-posturing stunts, attracting the attention of law-enforcement. Want recent evidence? See the latest example, as one of the most “legendary” of the latest round of extroverted hackers was caught fairly easily, then spent months ratting out his comrades.  These aren’t the adults in their movement.  The grownups are keeping low profiles, acting as citizens… while honing their craft quietly, against the day we all might desperately turn to them.

Moreover, just like us, they actually hope such a day will never come.

==Science Snippets==

Earthshine reveals how to analyze exoplanets.

The biggest obstacle to studying distant planets? Separating their weak light from the blinding photon-torrents pouring out of their nearby suns. A possible method has been suggested to  – “capitalize on a notable difference between light that is reflected off a planet and light that is emitted by a star: the former is often polarized, whereas the latter is not. To demonstrate the enhanced amounts of information embedded in polarized light, Michael Sterzik, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory in Santiago, Chile, looked for biosignatures in Earthshine — the sunlight that’s been reflected off of Earth to the dark portion of the Moon’s face and then back to our planet. “The state of polarization contains a lot of information that hasn’t been used very often,” Sterzik says. Once the planetary component is thus separated, it can be analyzed for spectral components like water, methane, or even chlorophyll.

Hm… actually, this sounds like reason to call up my old UCSD physics Masters Thesis.  While my doctorate provided the modern explanation for comets (covered in a dusty, insulating layer), the earlier work was an advance in the theoretical treatment of polarized light passing through inhomogeneous, unevenly absorbing media… in other words, planetary atmospheres.  

Under certain special circumstances, quantum systems can remain coherent over much greater timescales and distances than conventional quantum thinking expects. Moreover, it appears that that life exploits this process in a way that explains the recent observations from quantum biologists.

Quantum biology you ask? Whassat? The two most famous examples are in bird navigation, where the quantum zeno effect seems to help determine the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, and in photosynthesis, where the way energy passes across giant protein matrices seems to depend on long-lasting quantum coherence.

And now something nifty: a DIY gadget shines different colors of light on a surface depending on its temperature, helping to show where more insulation is needed in a room.  Just the beginning of citizen empowerment through sensortech!

==And Finally==

Chuckle at this scientifically modified  pastiche of the Last Supper.

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Taser Cams, Mind Reading and the World to Come

From the Transparency front. Taser Inc — best known for its generally non-lethal but controversial “stun-gun” devices — has released a mini-camera (about the size of a cigar stub) that clips on to a police officer’s sunglasses or collar. The camera can record two hours of video during an officer’s shift. “Testimony is interesting; Video is compelling,” says the Taser site. The information is then transferred and eventually stored in a cloud-computing system that uses Taser’s online evidence management system.

The system will clearly be useful for effective law enforcement and clearing officers of false charges (nationwide police currently spend over $2 billion annually on accusations of brutality). But what about the other side? Holding police accountable.  Will this tend to reinforce our trend toward ever-rising levels of calm professionalism, knowing that eyes are watching all the time? “When people know they are on camera, they act like better citizens,” says a Taser board member. Or will this add stress to an already stressful job? And will the devices conveniently “fail” when their testimony is needed most? Most important, who will have access to the information?

Now science brings us deep transparency!  All right.  This one has even me a bit daunted and stunned.  In Existence I portray this happening in the 2040s.  But it appears that researchers at UC Berkeley have figured out how to extract what you’re picturing inside your head, and they can play it back on video.  A functional MRI (fMRI) machine watches the patterns that appear in people’s brains as they watch a movie, and then correlates those patterns with the image on the screen. With these data, a complex computer model was created to predict the relationships between a given brain pattern and a given image, and a huge database was created that matched 18,000,000 seconds worth of random YouTube videos to possible brain patterns.  Is this for real?  Already? (Read closely. It’s not a direct reading but a correlation. Note that the derived image of Peter Sellers – (I mean Steve Martin) – has SHORT sleeves because that’s what was the closest-correlated image stored in their database.  Still…)

==Space and Beyond==

Virgin Galactic almost ready for passengers. Citizen space travel is due to start next year. You’ll need $20,000 to hold your place; suborbital tickets will cost upward of $200,000. Next up (they say): SpacshipThree flights from London to Melbourne, via space in about two hours.  I’ll believe the second part when I see it. But it’s cool and I describe much of this (and more) in Existence. One of the better sides of a new Gilded Age.

As Virgin Galactic gets closer to becoming the world’s first commercial space line, Playboy is eagerly pondering the creation of the ultimate intergalactic entertainment destination. Zero gravity dance floor…and sights out of this world at the new Two Hundred Mile High Club.

Looking beyond: Hubble finds a exoplanet that appears to be a steamy waterworld. It turns out the planet  GJ 1214b – first discovered in 2009 –  is composed mostly of water, under a thick, steamy atmosphere. This represents a unique class of exoplanet where extreme atmospheric conditions make it totally alien to our everyday experience. It’s a super-Earthabout 2.7 times Earth’s diameter, weighing almost seven times as much. This world is also hot: it orbits a red-dwarf star every 38 hours at a distance of 2 million kilometers, giving it an estimated temperature of 230 degrees Celsius. Spectra of water vapor plus low planetary density suggest it’s mostly water. The high temperatures and high pressures would form exotic materials like ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water’, substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience, Just 40 Light years from us.

Mars scientists select landing sites for future rovers. My pal Oliver Morton offers a lyrically fascinating discussion of what the new Mars rover Curiority will see, when (we hope) in lands safely and begins its exploration of Gale Crater. But is “exploration” the right word anymore?  Read and then decide for yourself!

==Fiction’s Predictive Success==

I was recently sent this compilation: The 15 Best Novels Forecasting Our Future.  An interesting list – with a quibble. While many titles that they chose are excellent literature and fine futuristic “gedankenexperiments”… almost none of them scored very well at “forecasting our future.”  In many cases, their lavish exaggerations were never intended to foretell but rather to caution, warn or prevent. Predictive success is hardly their top selling point.

In contrast, predictive success is one of several categories in my own list of best science fiction novels, where I include many of the same books, but not in the accurate-forecasting category. In fact, the predictive track record of my own books is being tracked and held accountable.

Alas, the list is also a little heavy handed, politically.  Not that I disagree much! But (for example) while I share the academics’ low opinion of Atlas Shrugged, their disdain is chiding and moralistic, while mine is based on factors that are much more… objective.

An interesting philosophical appraisal of the popular action adventure video game Mass Effect gives perhaps a bit too much credit. The author speaks of “uplift” and a galactic setting in which humans are weak, low-class late-comers, as if these and other concepts and notions did not come from someplace else. (One would think the designers might at least slip freebie copies of some games to the writers of the most-inspiring novels they’ve read!) Still an interesting missive.

An evocative short, post-apocalyptic film: An attempt to cleanup Earth’s radiation-contaminated cities using organisms that are part fungi, part mollusk gets out of hand (what could possibly go wrong?)…Shot in the ruined landscapes of Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Sometimes Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal just nails it: Are we living in a simulated reality?…And our march toward oblivion.

Speak Russian?  Interested in the future?  See this Russian translation of my article about Predictions!

Amazing! Marvelous crop circles in snow!

==And Finally, an Opportunity==

“The Heinlein Society is pleased to announce that for the 2012-2013 academic year we will be offering the first of many scholarships. There will be two $500 scholarships awarded to undergraduate students of accredited 4-year colleges and universities majoring in engineering, math, or physical sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry), or in Science Fiction as Literature. Applicants will need to submit a 500-1,000 word essay on one of several available topics.

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Politics Redux: Blue New Hampshire, Transparency and the latest episode of WikiLeaks Mania

First a note to Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.  There’s a point that your surrogates ought to be making – (with SuperPac deniability for you, of course!) Remind folks that New Hampshire is a Blue State. About as blue as they come. And hence, if the hybrid-type republicans of the Granite State prefer Mitt Romney… what does that say about him?  Redmeat for red South Carolina.

Oh, but now on to things I actually know something about…

== The Return of WikiLeaks ==

Last month, WikiLeaks launched its latest campaign, releasing nearly three hundred documents that reveal the extent of sophisticated surveillance technology that has been used by both oppressive rulers and Western democracies — devices that enable governments or law enforcement agencies to track and monitor individuals via their cell phones, e-mail, and Internet browsing histories.

This is clearly the sort of transparency that – while it may short-term inconvenience some western governments – could help the secular trend toward an open world that (in turn) fosters and strengthens enlightenment nations and people.  In other words, embrace this! The answer to most modern problems may boil down, time and again, to a more aware citizenry.

Heck, shouldn’t earlier phases of the WikiLeaks affair have taught the US government a valuable lesson? Answer me this riddle. What was the biggest overall effect of Julian Assange’s leak of 250,000 State Dept cables? Who benefited most?

It was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, getting exactly what she needed, when she needed it!  Scores of those leaked memos revealed US diplomats candidly despising Ben Ali and Mubarak and other Arab dictators they were forced to deal with. These revelations – secret, and hence credibly sincere – showed US envoys and apparatchiks expressing profound sympathy for oppressed people and holding their noses, forced by unpalatable circumstance to dicker with tyrants. Revealed precisely when the Arab Spring was brewing, those cables could not have been better timed to show youth in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and so on that “at worst America isn’t our enemy… and maybe they’re more with us than we thought.”

A bizarre assertion? Well, did anybody notice the near- total lack of anti-American themes during the Arab Spring?  It may not have been Assange’s intent… but that felicitous outcome was the exact thing that he wrought, and maybe our leaders should ponder the lucky break.

More important. They should contemplate the value of this overall, secular trend toward a generally more open world. Light can only – occasionally – inconvenience us.  For villainous regimes, it is lethal.

=== And while we’re on transparency…  ===

A Missouri judge ruled the FBI does not need a warrant to secretly attach a GPS unit to a suspect’s car and track his public movements for two months.

My reaction?  Let me surprise you. Mr Transparency is yawning. This simply replicates what would happen if the FBI tracked the fellow with a classic “tail.” He was publicly  visible the whole time.  If a tail was okay, then why not save us money?  Yes, yes, this may lead to “them” knowing where we are all the time?  So?  That’s coming.  Protest it? Protest the sunset. Both are inevitable.

What matters to me is looking back. And I mean looking back hard. Watch the watchmen. Supervise them intensely, then let them do their jobs. Let’s pick our fights and make them count.  Sousveillance!

=== And why transparency won’t be enough ===

Members of the House and Senate regularly buy and sell stocks even while considering major bills that will affect those companies. Yet there have been no insider trading cases brought against Congress members. Nor is it likely, for Congress makes its own rules – and those rules are silent on insider trading. “They have legislated themselves as untouchable as a political class,” writes Peter Schweizer, who has documented the money made by Congress members, in his book, Throw Them All Out. (This despite the promise, in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America to make Congress fully accountable.)

Both parties are guilty of dubious trades that anticipated the effect of changing government policy–buying or unloading stock just before changes took place.  Alas, Schweizer’s prescription – to “throw them all out” – won’t happen because of another self-serving strategy by the politician-caste.  Gerrymandering.

Look, I favor some politicians over others, naturally.  The party that’s less disciplined, more diverse and willing to negotiate strikes me as better than one that is the most tightly disciplined and dogmatic political force – and the most fiercely anti-science – in American history, controlled by a media empire owned by unfriendly foreigners.

Nevertheless… at another level, we the people have to recognize that we are being preyed upon by the entire political caste.  Money has to be taken out of politics.  Transparency must be augmented, exponentiated.

And we must start with Gerrymandering!  An ugly, scheming job security program that has radicalized most members of Congress into raving partisan lunatics. Take a look at this outrageous example, as redistricting in Texas comes before the Supreme Court.

Only here’s the thing. A mass public rebellion against gerrymandering is already underway!  The practice has lately been banned by referendum in a number of states, most recently and powerfully in California — a blue state whose largely democratic voting population nevertheless voted to end democrat-leaning gerrymandering.  (If only all states had such vibrantly patriotic citizens.) See my article on Gerrymandering.

(Alas, not a single red state has joined the rebellion.)

Well, maybe it’s gathering momentum! A nationwide insurrection against this abuse by the political caste! In 28 other states, lawsuits have been filed against this foul practice.  A racket imposed by politicians against their natural enemy.  Voters.

Now… if only the Court were on our side…

=== Some Political Miscellany ===

* OWS Fights Back Against Police Surveillance by Launching “Occucopter” Citizen Drone. In response to constant police surveillance, violence, and arrests, Occupy Wall Street protesters and legal observers have been turning their cameras back on the police. I am no lefty or radical. Sometimes the cops are right. But this right to look back must be absolute and inviolable. Mr. Transparent Society is radical about this!

* Techies are now figuring out how to attach sensors and cameras directly to insects and powering the devices off the creatures’ own movements.  Similar to the “mosquito cams” that I spoke of in The Transparent Society (1997), these will tilt the balance of power toward whoever has the best ability to see… including ability to detect mosquito-cams!  Our only hope in such a world is NOT to ban the things – that cannot conceivably work.  But to make sure we all have them.  And hence that we can catch the peeping toms.

* Three GOP candidates stand above the others, when it comes to intellect, having interesting things to say, and departing (in spots) from pure, Know-Nothing trog-populism. Let’s dismiss John Huntsman. He actually wants calm, moderate, pragmatic negotiation – in other words, his chances of getting the Republican nomination stand between nil and hopeless.

The other two? I’ve praised Gingrich as 1/3 fascinating/smart… if 2/3 crazy. Now see Ron Paul at his libertarian best!  If only his crazy-ratios weren’t the same as Newt’s.  Well-well, these are the three I’d at least buy a beer and expect, during the conversation, to hear some interesting (if at least half jibbering loopy) things.

* Is the US Private Sector dying?  Because the “accountants are in charge”?

== And finally – the most important quotation you can cite this year ==

“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness.”
– President George Washington, State of the Union address, 1/8/1790

Science and technology were responsible for half of US economic growth since 1945. Those who are demonizing science… and disparaging every other knowledge profession… are at-best fools and at-worst the genuine enemies of hope for the republic. Or for human civilization.  Don’t take it from me.  Take it from George Washington.


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Wonders and Disturbances: The Political Kind

Let’s take a look at a raft of political and social news, gleanings and/or outrages… followed by a potpourri of scientific and other wonders that remind us — civilization is about a lot more than anger!

But first the big news.  Exactly as I predicted, a federal court has stepped in with the most important decision and precedent of our times, one that will make a more crucial difference to our role as citizens than anything since the Civil Rights Act:  Citizens may now record their encounters with police.

This is so important that I will quote directly the first two paragraphs of the ruling just laid down by Torruella, Lipez, and Howard, Circuit Judges in the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals:

“Simon Glik was arrested for using his cell phone’s digital video camera to film several police officers arresting a young man on the Boston Common. The charges against Glik, which included violation of Massachusetts’s wiretap statute and two other state-law offenses, were subsequently judged baseless and were dismissed. Glik then brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his arrest for filming the officers constituted a violation of his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.

“In this interlocutory appeal, the defendant police officers challenge an order of the district court denying them qualified immunity on Glik’s constitutional claims. We conclude, based on the facts alleged, that Glik was exercising clearly established First Amendment rights in filming the officers in a public space, and that his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause. We therefore affirm.”

I’ve said it before, I am no cop-hater.  I admire our skilled professional protectors and I’ve helped them in many ways, over the years, from consulting with many agencies all the way down to relieving Sheriff deputies from routine traffic duties during San Diego’s 2007 wild fires (as a CERT-trained volunteer).  I consider the current “war against professionalism” – including hatred of science and our civil servants – to be a travesty and I note the historic rise in professional standards among those doing a very taxing and challenging job on our city streets, dealing with provocations that any other generation of cops – reacting according to hormonal human nature  would have handled with a billy club upside the head!

Nevertheless, this is not a fight that our hardworking public protectors can be allowed to win, at any level, in any way, shape or form. The only recourse of a citizen, when pressed or shackled or condemned by authority , is the truth. We must have access to it, especially when it concerns our potential for exoneration. Purely, universally and always. It is human nature that they’ll want to evade the accountability of our cameras.

They must be taught – simply and firmly – to get used to it.

Remember this news. It was important.

 == Politically Fascinating Miscellany ==

—  Science is really starting to zero in on a list of verified personality differences between liberals, conservatives and leftists that manifest in measurable ways in the brain.  A fascinating article… and perhaps one more reason why dogmatists have been pushing the “war on science.”

— Look at these ten charts showing America’s historically super-low tax levels. Then ask “who is behind making low taxes for the rich the top issue? The only thing that matters?” Who is financing that message? Oh, right. Got it. (Make your friends see these charts.)

— Did I sound optimistic earlier, about the appeals court’s ruling about citizen cameras?  Well, maybe I spoke too soon.  Remember, the Supremes can over-rule!

The Supreme Court majority that gave us George Bush Junior for 8 years (after which, not one Republican I know can name an unambiguous statistical metric of national health that improved, with most of them plummeting as a result of brainless misrule) – also gave us the Citizens United decision, allowing corporations to spend whatever they like to influence elections, swamping contributions from mere citizens made of flesh and blood.  Now see how blatant it has become.

“Cameron Casey wanted to invest a million dollars in the Romney campaign and why not? He and Mitt were both scions of Bain Capital, which specializes in enriching its members by selling off America. Having a President overseeing the process could net a solid return!But those pesky campaign finance laws limited Mr. Casey to a few thousand dollars. No problem! He incorporated “W. Spann LLC”, gave it a million bucks; W. Spann LLC gave that million to “Restore Our Future”; and, no longer needed, W. Spann LLC dissolved.”

You do realize that there is nothing to prevent a foreign petro-lord from doing the same thing? And… this is… okay?

— And no, I do not believe the only political crazies are on the right. Anyone who has read Earth or The Transparent Society knows that I see dangers to freedom and enlightenment coming from all quarters, instead of the ridiculous mono-directional paranoia that is the lazy habit in most modern folks. (Suspicion of authority should aim in all directions!)  Lest we forget the evils of Leninism. Even today, when one end of the political spectrum seems to have gone stark jibbering insane, I keep reminding folks that we should keep an eye on the other extreme.

See it in action here.  Oh, yes, there are leftie jerks. Only bear in mind (1) that the loony left does not control liberals – whom they despise as moderate compromisers. And (2) if the Earth really is imperiled by a movement that won’t listen when science warns of a clear danger, then we can hardly be surprised when some folks get dramatic and think – well – exaggerated thoughts.

— Sorry, but this is a matter that really chafes my hide. “Michele Bachmann thinks the world is ending and the pope is the antichrist. Her friends want to bring about the end times in Israel and her church has an issue with the papacy.” Look, I consider this separate from every other aspect of the divide across an idiotic, artificial “left right axis.” I don’t care what mythologies or beliefs people claim, so long as they remain detached from the candidate’s likely actions in office. But it really is another matter when a person asking for my vote also believes most of her fellow citizens are already damned souls. When she openly desires to see “fire rain from the sky”… while asking for the keys to our nuclear arsenal. When she openly wishes for an end to democracy and the United States of America.  I call that relevant.

— “How my G.O.P. destroyed the U.S. economy.” Yes, that is exactly what David Stockman, President Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Four Deformations of the Apocalypse.”  This summary continues: “Yes, Stockman is equally damning of the Democrats’ Keynesian policies. But what this indictment by a party insider — someone so close to the development of the Reaganomics ideology — says about America, helps all of us better understand how America’s toxic partisan-politics “holy war” is destroying not just the economy and capitalism, but the America dream. And unless this war stops soon, both parties will succeed in their collective death wish.”

Holding predictors accountable?  Those who remember EARTH and  The Transparent Society know that I have long promoted the idea of better holding accountable those who make predictions about the future. Indeed, our brains are equipped with organs – the prefrontal lobes – that seem to be obsessed with attempting to appraise future possibilities and events. We just don’t do it as well as our prophets claim they do! See my articles on Predictions Registries:  http://www.davidbrin.com/predictionsregistry.htm and http://www.davidbrin.com/predictions.htm

“Now A Hamilton College class and their public policy professor analyzed the predictions of 26 pundits …and used a scale of 1 to 5 to rate their accuracy… The top prognosticators – led by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman – scored above five points and were labeled “Good,” while those scoring between zero and five were “Bad.” Anyone scoring less than zero (which was possible because prognosticators lost points for inaccurate predictions) were put into “The Ugly” category…   Even when the students eliminated political predictions and looked only at predictions for the economy and social issues, they found that liberals still do better than conservatives at prediction. After Krugman, the most accurate pundits were Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi  …The group also found a link between conditional predictions and accuracy, that is, a prediction that was conditional (“If A, then B”) was less likely to be accurate. Finally, those prognosticators with a law degree were more likely to be wrong.”

It’s a step… though I remain a bit skeptical. As my articles describe, a truly respectably predictions accountability system will have a number of traits that seem to be missing in the Hamilton College study. For example, a specificity index is just as important as one for predicting successfully.  Still, a worthwhile effort.

— Finally:  See an interesting riff on Ayn Rand’s Hollywood days, writing treatments for a film glorifying the atom bomb. Elsewhere I call her a jibbering loony.  An apologist and rationalizer for the very same oligarchic tendencies that Adam Smith denounced.  (Choose: you can have Smith or Rand, not both.)

But in this case (for none of the reasons she gave) Rand was right about the bomb. It has proved (so far) to be a force for good. It limited the size of my generation’s wars to Vietnam level or below, saving probably a billion or more lives from the conventional WWIII that seemed inevitable in the normal pattern of human affairs. If this were 1947 and you listened to Oppenheimer and Teller, you would call Teller crazy and Oppenheimer wise. Indeed, at the time, we had no reason at all to believe Teller’s forecast that nuclear weapons would chasten humanity, wake us up and teach us new ways! Oppenheimer had history on his side and a desperate wish to step back from the precipice. But it turned out Teller was right (so far).

And the fact that we CAN be chastened into changing our ways may help explain why we’re among the first to reach for the stars.  A topic I expand upon, in my new novel.

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Singularitarians & Secessionists – techno-tubes & uplift

I really do like these mad, transcendentalist singularity guys! Alas for their simple, Moore’s Law extrapolations —


KurzweilSingularityCover“The brain’s overall complexity is almost beyond belief. One synapse, by itself, is more like a microprocessor -with both memory-storage and information-processing elements – than a mere on/off switch. In fact, one synapse may  contain on the order of 1,000 molecular-scale switches. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth”

Clearly, intracellular processing plays some role, as I forecast in 1989, in EARTH. Heck, even a factor of ten plays hob with those who think it will be trivial to duplicate and transcend the power of the human brain. Oh, well.

How’s this for synchronicity? I am the very model of a singularitarian.

While we’re on the subject, I am often asked why I don’t depict uplifted octopi, or other cephalopoids, the intellectual giants of the invertebrate kingdom.  Well, I do depict a pretty smart ‘ps in my next novel, EXISTENCE.  But they really are the aliens among us.  For example, take this:

Octopuses have large nervous systems, centered around relatively large brains. But more than half of their 500 million neurons are found in the arms themselves, Godfrey-Smith said. This raises the question of whether the arms have something like minds of their own. Though the question is controversial, there is some observational evidence indicating that it could be so, he said. When an octopus is in an unfamiliar tank with food in the middle, some arms seem to crowd into the corner seeking safety while others seem to pull the animal toward the food, Godfrey Smith explained, as if the creature is literally of two minds about the situation.”

Our last common ancestor reaches back to the dim depths of time, 500 million to 600 million years ago. That means octopus intelligence likely evolved entirely separately and could be very different from that of vertebrates.

===About our long-term survival
See a fascinating interview of Rebecca D. Costa regarding her new book:Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. Her appraisal of “supermemes” or mental habits that prevent us from perceiving or negotiating solutions to problems, is most enlightening.

How many ways could Earth be destroyed? In his book, Armageddon Science: the Science of Mass Destruction, Brian Clegg catalogs real and theoretical threats to our planet. The most likely in his view: nuclear weapons, cyberterrorism and natural disasters.

My home state: What is the future of California? California Dreams asks you toimagine the future: what will a day in your life look like in Futuristic California. Submit a video.

“Top Ten reasons to expect the next ten years to be more exciting than the last.”

Delivering food & freight by a series of tubes – sounds like vacuum tubes of drive-through bank tellers, but it would work via induction motors & intelligent software. This Futurama ‘pipe’ dream would cut carbon emissions and lessen our dependence on truck deliveries, which makes our cities fragile. Don’t tell me this idea sucks.

= Secessionism is… “patriotic”? or hypocrisy

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – At South Carolina’s Secession Gala, men in frock coats and militia uniforms and women in hoopskirts will sip mint juleps as a band called Unreconstructed plays “Dixie.” In Georgia, they will re-enact the state’s 1861 secession convention. And Alabama will hold a mock swearing-in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis…._

PAST-civil-war…who, just three years before that, gave a famous speech demanding that all soldiers and citizens hold to their vows to the United States, right or wrong, through thick or thin, as their paramount, sacred duty. Yet, soon, in a snit over their side losing an election – nothing more – the southern aristocracy hurled their neighbors into a hopeless conflagration that despoiled their region for generations. Why?

We are told by these modern secession-romantics that “it was never about slavery but state’s rights.” So?  Name the crime that had been committed against their states’ rights?  Demand that they cite one.  Even one.
Even the secession declarations do not cite any specific grievances, because there were none! There had been no time for even a single action to have been taken, by Congress, or abolitionists, or an Abraham Lincoln who was not even yet president. When you break a solemn oath – without having been harmed a scintilla… or once even having tried to negotiate with your countrymen… then you have no excuses.  You are simply a traitor.

Oh, by the way, actually read the Declaration of Secession. It repeatedly and relentlessly and openly cites slavery as the core thing that they are fighting to defend.  “Slave” is present 20 times.
I have said it before.  I will no longer let any good old boy, who fantasizes about going back in time and riding with Nathan Bedford Forest, preach to me about patriotism.

_Meanwhile, Republican whip Eric Cantor has launched an attack on that most dastardly bastion of anti-american subversion…the National Science Foundation
With the abandonment of patriotism and fiscal responsibility and 9/11 as ralling cries, it seems that the neocons are left with just two themes. Keep heaping largesse on the rich.  And hatred of smartypants

and finally…

A Missouri deputy might think twice the next time he tries to arrest a person on bogus charges. The last time he did so, the arrest was caught on a hidden camera in the arrestee’s sunglasses.” Carlos Miller’s Photography Is Not A Crime site tracks these types of cases on a daily basis.

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