Friday, November 29, 2013

Giving through Proxy Power…and a New Science Fiction Museum

Proxy-Activism-NewIt's the season when many of us sit down and discuss the year's allocations for helping the world… call it giving, tithing, donating, or just joining others in making a better world for our grandchildren, or, as Jonas Salk described our basic duty -- "to be good ancestors."
For those who look ahead, it is self-interest, in its purest form.
Once again, let me tout an approach that might let you be systematic about this, picking among the various topics that raise your passion and using this annual exercise to do a very efficient thing: empowering others (activists) to go save the world for you!
Pass the word about this approach: The Power of Proxy Activism.  It could be your most effective (and comfortably simple) way to make a difference. To be part of the solution, not the problem.
MSF-Museum-of-Science-FictionOne forward-looking project you might consider: help crowd-fund the new Museum of Science Fiction -- to be established in Washington D.C.  Interactive exhibits will present the bold vision of Science Fiction, invoking its 'sense of wonder' about the universe --  exploring the intersection of science and the imagination. Right now... they are raising money through Indiegogo for a Preview Location as a first step toward the museum. See this interview with Executive Director Greg Viggiano.
As an added incentive, you can receive a private tour of the museum, a lecture and signed hardcover from Greg Bear. You can also receive a signed hard copy of my latest novel, Existence, or a signed set of five of my hardcovers.
Or…Be immortalized and have a character in my next novel named after you! Die gruesomely on paper and/or onscreen (if you so choose)! Or it makes the perfect holiday gift.
==From the Philippines to the Classroom==
doctors-withoutThere is urgent and immediate need around the globe: Help rescue and recovery efforts in the Philippines…still reeling from the terrible impact of Super-typhoon Haiyan. Thousands  have died from the storm and its aftermath, and survivors are in desperate need of food and fresh water, as well as medical supplies and sanitation. Groups such as Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), the Red Cross and Oxfam International are sending teams of emergency responders to help with this tragic situation.
Every person’s list of memberships can be uniquely different. For example, I send money every year, selecting among organizations including:
The Planetary Society supports education, advocates for pro-science policy and directly funds innovative research on space exploration -- reminding us to keep looking toward the frontier in space. Now ably led by Bill Nye the Science Guy!

Project Heifer International educates and empowers impoverished farmers overseas to practice sustainable agriculture, setting up community cooperatives -- and working to end cycles of hunger and poverty. Your gift keeps on giving, for families pass on the training they receive -- and they give the first female offspring of their livestock gift to another neighboring family in need.

Habitat for Humanity International is involved in building and repairing simple decent and affordable homes for homeless or displaced people all over the world, using volunteer labor and donations. Families in need can purchase the houses through no-interest loans or other innovative financing solutions.
sierraclub-logoThe Sierra Club, which has a proven track record of rationally negotiating long-term sustainable environmental solutions -- to maintain clean air and water and open spaces for our descendants. Radical environmentalists call then "sell-outs" but they are the ones who have to do the hard dickering in a flawed but real world.
The Ocean Foundation works to protect the health of the world's oceans and coastlines, as well as to conserve our disappearing coral reefs and marine mammals.
Greenpeace, I do not always agree with them. Proxy power involves a weighing of factors. But I am glad they are out there acting as the "bad cops" and thus getting corporations etc. to eagerly negotiate with the Sierra Club!  Think about it.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation fights to resist censorship and advocates for open accountability -- to defend your rights in a an ever-changing digital world. Another case where we disagree on some things… but I am glad they are out there spending my dues  on good fights.
WitnessWitness: See It, Film It, Change It. Witness is involved in getting video equipment directly into the hands of pro-freedom elements overseas -- to record and document human rights abuses -- transforming individual stories into powerful calls for justice and change.
The Skeptic Society: Fighting for the Enlightenment, the Skeptics Society promotes science, examining and illuminating all manner of extraordinary claims….and working to debunk a growing tsunami of pseudoscience.
==And a few newer sites==

The Long Now Foundation fosters long-term thinking about humanity's future and our responsibilities to that future.. 

Crowd-it-Forward  enables you to donate to contribute to "Random acts of crowd funding."
DonorsChooseDonors Choose enables you to give directly to the classroom. Public school teachers may seek funding for special art, science or literacy projects to benefit their students, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods. Help purchase microscopes, books, or painting supplies.
Finally, Books for Soldiers allows you to help fulfill specific requests from soldiers -- for books, DVDs or games. Of particular value to those stationed away from family during the holiday season.  I have some titles I'd suggest!
==Philanthropy on the larger scale==
philanthropyAnd if you know someone a bit better-heeled?  Someone with the resources to make a much bigger difference?  Here is my paper on innovative philanthropy that circulated for a while in foundation circles. It proposes a nifty way to engage billionaires in the New Aristocracy… or for a mere millionaire to create a way to influence billionaires! Oh, and also to craft one of the best possible reality TV shows, ever!
Consider a modest institution called the Eye of the Needle Foundation or "EON." Its symbol, a camel sailing easily through a needle's eye, makes biblical reference to helping rich folks "reach heaven" by means of well-targeted altruism. The aim is to offer dramatic, extravagant, altruistic... and possibly historic ways for billionaires to spend their money.
Something for the man or woman who has everything.  (Oh, and did I mention... it would make a spectacular TV series?)
Go thou and be good ancestors.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Neo-Reactionaries" drop all pretense: End democracy and bring back lords!

Following up on my previous posting, about the rationalizations of the new aristocracy, this time I plan to reveal to you a pernicious trend among some of society's best and brightest.  But first, will you indulge me with a riff of background?
In Existence,  I portray a grand conference, held in the Alps around the year 2045.  The secret meeting has been called by a consortium of "trillies," or trillionaire families, with the objective of commencing a new, world-wide era of Aristocratic Rule.  But their goal is not just to re-institute the ancient pyramid of privileged domination, but this time to start off on the correct foot. To get it right.
Social-pyramidPainfully aware of how gruesomely awful such pyramid-shaped societies were at governance, across the last many-thousands of years -- how fraught with violence, delusion, waste and error -- the trillie families are nevertheless unable to step back from the approaching time of takeover that their parents had conspired for, all the way back even to the Twentieth Century.  Giving in to human nature, they nurse rationalizations about the failure of democratic systems, and their hired boffins supply them with plenty of incantations to support the coming putsch.  And yet --
Yet, I also describe this particular lordly cartel as smarter than average. They know that the vast, educated middle class has access to powerful technologies that, should they become enraged, could make the guillotine look like louffa. Hence, they take their coming transition to rulership seriously, much as the Medici dukes of Florence did, during the Renaissance. Amid that alpine conclave, I show them calling on their hired intellectuals and house savants to take up the role of Machiavelli. To study and report what went wrong with past eras of oligarchy and feudalism, innovating ways to do it better, this time.
These are deeply cynical scenes!  But still, they also contain my patented brand of optimistic faith in reason: in this case positing that a cabal of trillionaires would have enough honesty and self-awareness to know how badly their favored system worked, in 99% of past human cultures. That they would hire the brightest people they could find (among those who could be trusted to help them end democracy) and ask those boffins to develop modified approaches to aristocracy,  based on lessons from both history and science.
For example, how to avoid catastrophic in-breeding and instead use meritocratic systems to invite the very best commoners upward to join their elite families via marriage and other alliances, at the top. Solving the illusion of superiority by making it -- gradually -- completely real.
== Fictional wishful-thinking? ==
ThePlutocratsDo I expect such calm and measured sobriety from the New Lords who are -- even now -- making their moves to restore the ancient social order?  Replacing the middle class, enlightenment, diamond-shaped social order with a traditional pyramid of owner-lord privilege?
Of course not.
For every Lorenzo de Medici or Heny Plantagenet there were hundreds, thousands of fools who let flatterers talk them into believing ego-stroking stories -- that they were lords because of their own genius, or inherent superiority, or God-given right.
As I have said many times, this is human nature.  We are all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off this trick. Voluptuous delusions run through our veins, so strongly that it's amazing the Enlightenment Miracle was ever tried at all, let alone that it lasted as long as it has.
== The rise of the Neo-Reactionaries ==
Till now, the Enlightenment had several things going for it: like the fact that it works.
For three hundred years, in realms as diverse as science, wealth-creation, error-avoidance, innovation, justice and happiness, it has outperformed all previous societies combined. But that is not the secret sauce. Its key trick, above all, was a very strong mythology of egalitarianism, individualism, pragmatism and liberality --
Four-Arenas-Competition-- the ideal of a level and fair playing field, in which good ideas should win out over bad ones, without interference by stodgy or biased authorities. Adam Smith taught us -- and the American Founders instituted -- ways to benefit from arenas of competition in which no single person's (or narrow cabal's) delusions may reign -- but instead products, policies, theories and justice are wrangled, tested and refined in four great arenas -- markets, democracy, science and courts -- where avoidance of criticism or error-discovery is difficult, even impossible over the long run.
They never worked perfectly and were always under attack by cheaters.  Still, these accountability arenas are the only systems that ever penetrated our species's penchant for delusion in any systematic way.  

Leftists who despise competition in principle are fools who ignore both human nature and a cornucopia of positive-sum outcomes from the four competitive arenas.
Rightists who believe competition works well without careful tuning, regulation, research, opportunity-enhancement, shared investment in infrastructure, and (above all) relentless prevention-of-cheating are even worse fools who ignore all our past.
Even that most-solipsistic of clades, the libertarians, used to declare fealty to Adam Smith's process, albeit grudgingly. But you had only to look at their favorite books and stories to detect an undercurrent and foretell that it would emerge openly, someday, into betrayal of Smith. Idolatry of the Nietzschean ubermensch or superman -- the figure every geek supposes himself to be -- oppressed and kept from his natural place on-top by jealous mobs of bullies, like those who oppressed him on the playground.  Where every young nerd (myself included) muttered: "just you wait till I come into my powers!"
From Ayn Rand to Harry Potter to Star Wars to Orson Scott Card, how many mythologies have catered to that fantasy, in all its voluptuous, masturbatory solipsism?  In contrast, can you count any mythic systems -- other than Star Trek -- that encouraged a different view? Recognition that "I am a member of a civilization"? One that made million miracles possible? Not by unleashing a few demigods, but by stimulating the collaborative and competitive efforts of whole scads of bright folks who are merely way-above-average?
Well, the pretense may be over, fellas and gals.  Welcome to Nietzsche World.
Welcome to the Rapture of the Ingrates.
It is called the "Neo-Reactionary Movement -- a quasi-new cult that yearns for the ancien régime of monarchy and feudal rule. One that rejects Adam Smith and Franklin and the entire Enlightenment.  And above all -- democracy.
== Yearning for the "Return of the King." ==
I'll let Klint Finley describe this movement for you, in a few paragraphs clipped from his excellent article on the subject: Geeks for Monarchy: The Rise of the Neo-Reactionaries:
"Neoreactionaries believe that while technology and capitalism have advanced humanity over the past couple centuries, democracy has actually done more harm than good. They propose a return to old-fashioned gender roles, social order and monarchy."
Rise-Neo-ReactionariesFinley continues:  "Perhaps the one thing uniting all neoreactionaries is a critique of modernity that centers on opposition to democracy in all its forms. Many are former libertarians who decided that freedom and democracy were incompatible."
“Demotist systems, that is, systems ruled by the ‘People,’ such as Democracy and Communism, are predictably less financially stable than aristocratic systems,” a leading light of this movement, Michael Anissimov writes. (And note how he slips in the Trojan Horse axiom that communism is a categorical cousin to democracy - the sly rogue!) “On average, they undergo more recessions and hold more debt. They are more susceptible to market crashes. They waste more resources. Each dollar goes further towards improving standard of living for the average person in an aristocratic system than in a Democratic one.”
There it is, the assertion that autarchies "get more done" than flighty, self-indulgent, bourgeoise polities. Is this just a fluke? No, the movement has been long-simmering. It reminds me of a statement made by Star Wars impresario George Lucas in an infamous 1999 New York Times interview

"Not that we need a king, but there's a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There's a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled. In the past, the media basically worked for the state and was there to build the culture. Now, obviously, in some cases it got used in a wrong way and you ended up with the whole balance of power out of whack. But there's probably no better form of government than a good despot."  
Every time I read that, it leaves me breathless. Stunned. I appraised that perspective - and its toxic lesson - in Star Wars on Trial.  Indeed, I have elsewhere explored the emotional underpinnings of all this:
"Wouldn’t life seem richer, finer if we still had kings? If the guardians of wisdom kept their wonders locked up in high wizard towers, instead of rushing onto PBS the way our unseemly “scientists” do today? Weren’t miracles more exciting when they were doled out by a precious few, instead of being commercialized, bottled and marketed to the masses for $1.95? Didn’t we stop going to the moon because it had become boring?"
The temptation to wallow in romance -- in fiction -- is understandable.  To prescribe feudalism for real life, though?
Oh, where to begin on this grotesque -- and  poisonously romantic -- wrongheadedness?   Shall we start with the way that these fellows erect edifices of assertions that, when examined, prove to be not only untrue, but spectacularly and diametrically opposite to true?

Like maintaining that Hitler and Stalin were epiphenomena of democracy, and not absolutist-oligarchist reactions to democracy -- attempts to throttle it to death, erecting new elites, complete with harems, along ancient patterns? Or that despotic Spartans ever held a candle to the Athenian polis, even in martial accomplishments? Or the way no ancient autarchy ever "got done" even a scintilla's percentage of the accomplishments of any modern democracy.
The list of staggering rationalizations is too long for me to even ponder addressing, from ignoring Adam Smith's denunciations of aristocracy as the core enemy of enterprise, to the bizarre belief that you can have economic freedom without any of the political kind, or that the clearly nasty and stupid rulership pattern of 6000 years should ever, ever again be trusted with anything more than a burnt match. Or that Communism was somehow a version of democracy, instead of a quasi-feudal theocratic cult that relentlessly spewed hatred at "bourgeoise democracy." Or the way they rail against the Hayekian sin of "too few allocators and deciders" when it is committed by civil servants, yet justify narrow cliques of conniving group-think lords who do the same thing, just because they are "private."
Above all, the hoary and utterly disproved nostrum that bourgeois citizens are fiscally less prudent than kings and lords, a slander that is as counterfactual as claiming day is night.
Fortunately, I do not have to refute this nonsense in detail, myself. Finley links to Anissimov's manifestos -- and many others' -- against modernity, democracy and enlightenment… so go ahead and give their own words a fair shake. Read the incantations! I have faith in you.
Anti-Reactionary-FAQThen head over to a marvelous, point-by-point refutation provided by Scott Alexander showing, among other things, how neo-reactionaries overestimate by many orders of magnitude the stability or governing aptitude of monarchies.  Alexander recently published an Anti-Reactionary FAQ, a massive document examining and refuting the claims of neoreactionaries.
Seriously, it is huge but painstakingly detailed, accurate and devastating. You need to give it a look. Alexander writes very well, entertainingly, and this vote of confidence in YOU needs to circulate as widely as possible.
== Disproof by example ==
Let me clip just one short part of Mr. Alexander's devastating refutation of those who contend that absolute monarchy, following ancient principles, will outperform democracy, equal rights and all that decadent western crap. He starts by suggesting the simplest and most fair experimental test of rhe neo-reactionary assertion.  That we take a very homogeneous country and split it in half.
"One side gets a hereditary absolute monarch, whose rule is law and who is succeeded by his son and by his son's son. The population is inculcated with neo-Confucian values of respect for authority, respect for the family, strict gender roles and cultural solidarity, but these values are supplemented by a religious ideal honoring the monarch as a near-god and the country as a specially chosen holy land. American cultural influence is banned on penalty of death; all media must be produced in-country, and missionaries are shot on site. The country’s policies are put in the hands of a group of technocratic nobles hand-picked by the king.
"The other side gets flooded with American missionaries preaching weird sects of Protestantism, and at the point of American guns is transformed into a parliamentary democracy. Its economy – again at the behest of American influence – becomes market capitalism, regulated by democracy and bureaucracy. It institutes a hundred billion dollar project to protect the environment, passes the strictest gun control laws in the world, develops a thriving gay culture, and elects a woman as President.
"Turns out this perfect controlled experiment actually happened. Let’s see how it turned out!"
zrx_image19Alexander then provides an image that speaks ten thousand words.
Some of you know the experiment to which he refers.  North and South Korea.
Oh, but read this section.  Read the rest.  And marvel that bright males (almost no women, of course) are able to talk themselves into believing factually-opposite, example-free, history-ignoring, human nature-ignoring and cosmically stupid incantations, just because it flatters their playground-traumatized imaginations to imagine that -- in a world of far more limited opportunities and justice -- they would somehow get to be the ones with harems.
== We generate our own, home-grown enemies ==
It is said that every generation is invaded by a fresh spate of invaders -- their children. In our case, western civilization has raised many generations steeped in memes of suspicion of authority and questioning the home-and-familiar, one of the most unusual things that any culture ever preached to its own offspring!  I appraise this reflex favorably in my essay and book Otherness.  These memes are what led to so many successive self-improvement campaigns, from constitutionalism to elimination of slavery. They led us hippies - for example - to march against horrid assumptions that all other generations took for granted -- wasteful and inherently impractical superstitions like racism, sexism and environmental blindness.  They also guarantee that new immunal rejection reflexes will be applied against the Boomers' assumption sets by even-newer generations!  So be it.
To an extent, this is a core element of the Enlightenment's healthy process of advancement and renewal. Heaven forbid that the young stop getting in their elders' faces, confronting their mistakes.  But T-cells that go screeching through the body looking for mistakes are not always right! And many a sanctimonious twit of both right and left conveys more heat than light.  More noise than value.
better-angels-of-our-natureIn this case of the neo-reactionaries, you have a cult of ingratitude that should incur at least a burden of scholarly proof. Certainly not being allowed to get away with blithe assertions and bald-faced lies. For example, I have again and again pointed out recent evidence -- such as Steven Pinker's book on declining world violence -- that we have good news to build upon.  Open and reciprocal criticism helped to make the violence decline happen!  Along with steep plummets in world (per capita) poverty and so on.  That's a lot of accomplishment to overcome, in claiming that kings could do better.
In fact, I know -- and rather enjoy -- some of the fellows in this general community, such as Anissimov and Peter Thiel, whose other accomplishments are respect-worthy and whose lively, vivid minds make up for abstract disagreements. There are areas of common ground! Like the long range goal of a world that overflows with empowered and sovereign individuals, needing little in the way of regulation or constraint, a shared dream, even if we part company over how to get there.
Let me emphasize that there is diversity in this melange, and lumping can give unfair impressions. Not all of them ascribe - for example - to the vaguely racist insinuations of the Human Bio-Diversity (HBD) sub-grouping. There is some overlap with the Singularity-Transhumanist movement -- warranting wariness and care, when you attend those gatherings. Indeed, this general horizon of nerd-dom is an eclectic scattering… and I like that!

 Indeed, some of the brightest - like Thiel - have legitimate complaints -- in the nitty gritty of the details of running a complex, democratic civilization. Fine.  Want to propose alternatives? Experiments? Deregulations? Criticism is a feature, not a flaw of demotic life, part of the completely unique ferment that generally keeps us moving forward. (For example, I have no objections -- only questions - regarding Thiel's endeavor to create new sovereignties out at sea.) You want to offer innovations and solutions and evidence, along with those wild-eyed assertions? Well, you know...
...we'd all love to see your plan.
== We are still the revolution ==
Alas though, they tend not to view things that way. Here I am speculating: but I believe that some of these fellows have swung in this bizarre direction because they are too smart to be fooled any longer by the undead thing that has hijacked American conservatism, sending poor Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley spinning so fast that Arizona and New York draw electricity from their graves.  Having driven off all the nation's scientists, teachers, doctors and every other clade of "smartypants" professionals, the New GOP could hardly hold on to brainiac Silicon Valley libertarians, who can see the unalloyed record of catastrophic governance and universally bad outcomes from the Bush years.
But what's the alternative? Smarmy, compromising-consensualist and preachy-progressivist liberalism?  Never.
Let's give them points for imagination, then, finding a new -- or rather, ancient -- direction to call their own.  Even though Neo-Reaction winds up as delusional as any dogma issued by the House of Ailes.
Rather than picturing themselves as part of Adam Smith's flat and open competitive churn,  Neo-Reactionaries prefer to envision a kind of uprising or counter-reformation. An up-ending and reversal of what they see as a decadent experiment in mob rule, gone wrong, demanding that we return to the beastly way of life that oppressed and limited and cauterized all of our ancestors (including the lords!) -- only getting it right, this time. 

 A way of life that (I admit) is the natural human attractor state! One that caters to every romantic impulse behind the popularity of fantasy tales of Martin, Lucas or Tolkien. One that is darwinistically so compelling and natural that it probably snared most intelligent races in our galaxy -- a top potential explanation for the Fermi Paradox. An attractor state called feudalism.
An attractor that is yanking hard on us now, as would-be lords deliberately instigate a fresh phase of Civil War to cripple American pragmatism and institutions, throwing into imbalance all four of those great, positive-sum accountability arenas upon which our Great Experiment relies.  

But it won't work.
OligarchistsThey do not get to call themselves rebels!  We and our Enlightenment are the revolutionaries, still, beating down the repeated, clawing assaults of oligarchists from all sides, some of whom called themselves "communists," but always prescribing the same, boring pyramid of power.
These guys face a steep burden of proof that we should reject the social contract that brought them to their high status, and all of us the comfort and means to debate this in a world-spanning agora. A civilization that may -- in just two generations -- embark upon interstellar adventures, bringing light, at last, to the galaxy.
Amid the Rapture of the Ingrates, they are welcome to contend (it's a free country) that we'd all be far better off if the west had not followed the advice of Locke and Montesquieu and Franklin and Smith and all the other heroes -- the greatest our species ever produced -- who rebelled against oligarchic rule, giving us one chance -- perhaps only this one -- to try something else.
They are free to offer that assertion. But I am (nodding thanks to all those heroes) equally empowered to say bullshit.


1.  Long time member of this community Larry Hart suggested a term "endarkenment" to apply to those who have chosen to oppose the Enlightenment Experiment.  I find it quite tasty.  

2. Personally, I do not feel anger toward the oligarchs who are conniving and bribing and undermining in order to sabotage the experiment, as much as toward the intellectual "boffins" who take the money and concoct rationalizations like "neo-reaction."  The former are only acting out of quasi-animal reflex. Puppets of Darwin, they are only doing what harem-builders have done ever since humans developed metal implements and agricultural division of labor -- steal other men's women and wheat and then hire priests to tell everyone this is a good thing.  They must be thwarted in achieving this traditional and deeply human goal, or our destiny as a species will be spoiled -- and there are "good billionaires" who know this.  Indeed, those rich dudes who are tempted by the old reflexes, yet choose to stay on our side -- the Gates/Buffett types -- are our greatest hope.  Recalling the wisdom of Andrew Carnegie, they know their kids will never starve… and will do better if they have to work, a little, alongside us.

No, it is the smart aleck boffins who provide the priestly rationalizations who should know better.  They are the ones who… if their plan truly succeeds… should be remembered and held to account by the inevitable Resistance.  So let it be written.  So let it be done.

3. Throw this into their faces relentlessly.  They decry the fallacy of limited decision-making castes in commerce and science… and use that concept to attack "big government" for allocating based upon limited knowledge sets, removed from the critical feedback loops of markets.  Then they turn around and praise rulership by tiny, insular clades of aristocrats or kings, allocating almost entirely on the basis of whim. ("Okay everybody, we're gonna spend 50% of the national GDP on a pyramid!  Or Versailles. Or conquering everyone in sight.") It is beyond hypocrisy.  It is incantation.  

4. The fundamental flaw, though, is succession.  Find for me one example (other than Plantagenets) in which three direct generations of kingship did not include at least one maniac or complete fool, whose whims brought devastation down upon the house and the nation.

5. Down below in comments, one fellow claimed that the success stories of Hong Kong, Singapore and China show that political freedom is unnecessary in order to improve the lives of the people through economic advancement.  This is by far the strongest counter-attack by the neo-reactionaries and at first sight it does seem to advance their position on one small sector (though no others.) It caused me to make a bold - supportable - counter assertion that these mercantilist-predatory trading nations… along with the more democratic Japan and South Korea… in fact deserve far less credit for their development "miracles" than they claim.   Consider How little of their success was based upon internal inventiveness and how much depended on maintaining a huge balance of payments trade surplus with the United States.  

Walmart-EconomyThis system of uplift-development through trade ("foreign aid through WalMart") has been the greatest force raising standards of living around the globe… and it was permitted, indulgently, by trade systems imposed by Pax Americana after 1945.  No other pax imperium ever did such a thing.  Indeed, Gandhi's #2 complaint about Pax Brittanica was its home-favoring, mercantilist trade rules.  But under Marshall, Acheson and Truman and Ike, we did the exact opposite, and never turned back.

Dig this well, it was a great democracy's CHOICE of a purely optional policy, allowing factory jobs to follow cheap labor and allowing predatory mercantilist behavior to go unpunished while jobs flowed around the world, that led to development in all of those countries.  Yes, they had decent leadership and hard-working people! But the core process was entirely a western innovation originating in a democracy that was so creative and inventive that it could afford 60 years of uplifting trade deficits that dsaved the world. And democracies that even now choose to continue that far-sighted plan.  

In other words, again, the NR boys are blathering nonsense that is diametrically opposite to any sense at all. …and anon...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Libertarianism, Creativity and Silicon Valley

== Can Silicon Valley lead us to "exit" the nation state? =
SrinivasanIn this video, techno-utopian Balaji Srinivasan, the co-founder of Counsyl, a genetic company that does DNA testing, cites Silicon Valley’s disruptive effects on newspapers and the music industry and compares this to the creation of new nations out of the husks of older states. His talk about how to "exit" from the stifling world of "paper" politics and business -- centered in red tape-hampered cities like New York, Boston and Washington DC (and pay-entertainment-plexes like Hollywood) -- is certainly interesting and thought provoking.  Though perhaps not in exactly the ways that he intended.
No, I'll not counter Srinivasan with an offended rant, like this one.  I'll merely point out that Mr. Srinivasan weaves a smugly self-congratulatory fantasy that strokes the egos of his Silicon Valley audience, bestowing upon them a deeply flattering implicit destiny as fathers of whole nations!  How convenient.  It's called cheap-applause.
Alas, he does this without taking up his inherent burden of proof that:
- Western Enlightenment legacy nations are finished performing their historical function -- defending individuals and small enterprises from the predatory savagery that the powerful always (and I mean always) used to crush and eliminate competition from those below them.  It happened in 99% of generations across 6000 years.  Adam Smith knew, described, and denounced the oligarchic-monopolistic attractor state as our worst failure mode (often called feudalism). See: Pining for Feudalism as an antidote to Modernity.
enablerAnd in recommending counterbalancing forces, Adam Smith pretty much invented an entirely new role for the nation state, which had formerly been merely a power tool of oligarchy. It was his basic idea of the state as enabler of the individual that the American Founders implemented -- imperfectly, but well enough for the dream to stay alive and take root.
From the Founders' first act of radicalism -- the breakup and redistribution of British lordly estates -- to the populism of Jackson, to the shattering of slavery to the freedom of movement engendered by railroads… all the way to anti-trust enforcement and civil rights… there have been vastly more uses of government tools that removed shackles from average folk than those that today's libertarians obsess upon and denounce as limiting. And if they disagree? Fine… then show us how things were better under feudalism and tribalism.
Alas, the recent generation of libertarians -- like Mr. Srinivasan -- though blatantly sure of their erudition, clearly know nothing of any of this. They have never read Smith.  They actually believe that, without the legacy state that coddled them, they would bestride the freed-anarchic world like collossi! Like Howard Roark and John Galt. Instead of quickly becoming cannon fodder for lordly wars. Or eunuchs. Or nerd-flavored dog food.
==  And further burdens of proof … ==
- While implying that his goal is the romantic-transcendentalist dream of escaping obligations to any legacy state (in this case the USA, which he compares amid peals of derisive laughter to Microsoft -- (a severe calumny in Silicon Valley!) -- Mr. Srinivasan then describes a series of micro "exit" tactics that do not constitute "exit" from America at all!  All of his examples boil down to no more than exercises in the kind of freedom that Srinivasan and his peers already have, sheltered and nurtured and encouraged by the legacy nation that he -- like an ungrateful, neotenous teenager -- openly reviles.  A freedom to experiment that MADE Silicon Valley in the first place….
- … and that drew his parents and my grandparents and so many other immigrants to these continental shores, in the first place.  Um, what would Occam's Razor make of all this?
libertariansOh, don't get me wrong.  I am all in favor of experiments in decentralization! Along with ever-rising individual and small-endeavor autonomy! I said as much in critiquing and appraising (60% favorably) Peter Thiel's eagerness to create new nation-state entities at sea. (Alas, he got miffed that I - in a helpful spirit - pointed out some inconvenient complexities that would need solving. Sigh.)
As anyone can read in my main libertarianism tract, I too yearn for a gradual but steady movement toward the dreamt-of era that both libertarians and Karl Marx deemed their common goal -- a future wherein states and paternalistic institutions have withered to mere nubs because they are no longer needed, and because all children become skilled, capable and serenely sovereign adults, ready, should they choose, to creatively compete on a level playing field. The natural outcome -- ironically -- if you blend Adam Smith and Gandhi with Ben Franklin and John Muir.
Hey, I want all that too!  It is the distant goal of all of my endeavors.
It would just be nice if winsome libertarian utopian transcendentalists like Mr. Srinivasan were to show even glimmering awareness of the historical struggles and innovations that led to him standing upon the convenient and lavish launching platform for his dreams.  I might then have more confidence in the credibility of his vision, and the plausibility of his design.
== Transparency Miscellany ==
Three years ago, the United Kingdom government established the so-called  "nudge unit" – also known as the Behavioural Insight Team -- to apply behavioral economics to alter people's habits without BigTransparencyregulation. Now it will take its first step to becoming a profit-making joint venture. The nudge unit has become an internationally recognized source of ideas on how to change voters' behavior without legislation, relying upon techniques drawn from psychology and advertising, as well as common sense.  It's not quite as Orwellian as it sounds… well, so they assure us.
As you surf, you are being tracked and that tracking data can become woven in a large web of connected sites. Now Mozilla has released a new add-on for its Firefox browser that will visualize this process as it happens, logging sites that are tracking you and how those entities are connected to other services/tools. I hope some of you will try it and report back to the comments community (below).
== Some redolent miscellany ==
And now, just because there is room, I'll slip in some controversial-politically redolent items I had stored up.
36% of Americans ages 18 to 31 who still live with their parents. That's the highest percentage in four decades, according to the Pew Research Institute.
Here's a wise rumination on the famous wager that Paul Ehrlich lost to Julian Simon, regarding commodities prices in the 1990s… but in fact over two extreme positions on managing our planet.  Two positions that have both proved to be simplistic and just as wrong as they were right.  This essay suggests that pragmatic concern, investment in science and a loose but urgent set of overall goals may be key to our progress toward being world-savers.
Now that the Boy Scouts have changed their policy to welcome openly gay scouts, a new faith-based attempt to create "Trail Scouts" - with a heavy base of religious teaching - is underway.  Go thou and do your thing, says this father of two Eagles.  You could have done nothing that would help to make the Boy Scouts healthier than by the gift of your loony absence.
== More Transparency news ==
Legislation introduced by Senator Al Franken would -- among other transparency measures -- eliminate the gag orders that prevent phone and Internet companies from divulging the number of orders they receive demanding customer data and the number of requests with which they comply.  This is exactly the kind of reform that is needed, increasing our powers of supervision, and there is need for much more, such as making the secret, star-chamber FISA court truly adversarial, with security-cleared but skeptical advocates appointed not just by the court itself, or the security services, but by outside groups, as well.
What these bills should not do is try to actually blind the NSA and other security services.  That is a futile and self-defeating direction that will only set up reassuring fig leaves, while chasing surveillance to go find even darker, more secret places from which to operate… a game of whack-a-mole that we cannot win.
Someone has to say "we care less about what you see than what you might DO with that knowledge, if you can get away with looking at us unsupervised.  We know we will be looked-at. Let's keep that activity in a known agency and fill that agency with our deputized "sousveillance" emissaries, who will look over your shoulders reminding you that you are watch-dogs, and not wolves.
== Ah-ooooooooh! ==
Politics-ZombiesReuters did a nice writeup on my young artist friend John Powers's hypothesis that zombie apocalypse films are all about our middle class fears of sinking into proletarian status… but also anticipation of the sense of liberation we might feel if that proletariate then rose up and wiped out the masters. Yes, even as zombies.  I have before and elsewhere made the point that zombies are the "prop-monsters." (Vampires are the aristocrats and lycanthrope-wolfmen are the mortgage-holding angst-ridden bourgeois, middle class monsters… or they were, before recent flicks betrayed the whole idea.)  Powers's variant on the theme is a bit too crypto-marxist for me to avow completely.  But the notion that we have mixed feelings about the zombie metaphor, and that we'll identify more and more with them if the oligarchic putch continues?  Yeah.  I guess that's right.
Oh, but lest you imagine I am one of those blinkered, dogmatic fools who casts his ire in just one direction, blind to the faults of any side but those he blames for everything…  here is just another reminder that the (far) left, too, can at times be jibbering loony.  School board calls peanut butter and jelly sandwiches "racist." Hey, dopes.
We are better than this left-right baloney. Just as transcendentalist silicon valley geeks need to be able to look down upon the foundation that their dreams were built upon.
Let's all incrementally grow up.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Your next (reconfigurable/modular) Cell Phone… and other science wonders

Here is one of many reasons that I've been trying to get in touch with former DARPA Director Regina Dugan, who now heads the Advanced Technology & Projects (ATAP) group at Motorola Mobility.  One of ATAP's endeavors, called Project Ara aims to make your smartphone modular. It is described as an "open hardware platform" where developers create smartphones with interchangeable parts users can easily swap out. This could empower the user to attach a superior video module, or one equipped with heat or toxins sensors, or devices to boost range... or even the bits and pieces of a Star Trek medical tricorder.
ara1blogpostWe already have modularity in software (aps), why not in hardware? I have long awaited this design approach being taken up by some above-average company, ever since I portrayed it in fiction, way back in 1989… and especially since leading a 48 hour "CTO Challenge"  team that reached the same general design conclusion about ten years ago, at a Future In Review Conference.  The advantages to consumers of this modular approach will be tremendous, allowing us to adapt and reconfigure our phone-centered pocket assistants for a wide variety of purposes.  After all, modularity of software apps is already taken for granted.  Why not hardware?
Heck, there might even be times when you'll choose to leave out the "phone" sub module!
Indeed, this is just one of several cool avenues that I'd recommend, if I ever had access to Dr. Dugan's (fellow Caltech grad) ear.  Those other concepts (some of which I push annually at agencies in DC) include citizen communication enhancements that would make the pocket cell phone vastly more effective in disasters and emergencies, plus some possible alternative form-factor design concepts… but ah, well.  It's a familiar tragedy. I fizz with more ideas that I could ever use.
Anyway, here are a few early harbingers of this approach. Already seen widely are plug in credit card readers.  Now, with just a $10 augmentation a smart phone can become a 175x digital microscope.
How about tacking this onto our cell phones?  A small holographic projection system with a lensless zoom function offers promise of a new generation of ultra-small projectors, cheaper and smaller than other  systems. See something a lot like this in Existence.
== Science Under Siege ==
ScienceUnderSiegeScience is under threat always.  Sometimes from without (the "war on science") and sometimes within. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times describes how the sheer volume of scientific studies in biology has overwhelmed the normal process of peer review and post-publication replication of results.
"A few years ago, scientists at the Thousand Oaks biotech firm Amgen set out to double-check the results of 53 landmark papers in their fields of cancer research and blood biology. The idea was to make sure that research on which Amgen was spending millions of development dollars still held up. They figured that a few of the studies would fail the test — that the original results couldn't be reproduced because the findings were especially novel or described fresh therapeutic approaches. But what they found was startling: Of the 53 landmark papers, only six could be proved valid."
Hiltzik goes on to offer a fascinating look at the inherent contradictions of current -- and some new -- models for publishing scientific results.  This is constructive criticism that must be heeded… just as we should reject the "aha, gotcha!" cries of left-and-right foes of science, who would interpret this as an excuse to dismiss the best and only reliable method human beings have ever found for penetrating delusions and gradually discovering what's true.
Will "open source" be part of the solution? Gapminder World Offline lets you explore the world from your own computer, comparing statistical metrics for different regions, nations, states etc with X-Y axes of your own choosing, from average income to divorce rates to agriculture, housing… pick your correlation and watch it evolve across year-by-year changes!  I saw very early versions of this fifteen years ago at the Rand Corp.  Now you can play with it yourself.  These are just the beginnings of the savvy analytics tools we'll all have at-fingertips in the coming era of agile "smart mobs."  And just in time, too!
== Science under open attack ==
Science-IsOf course, all of this feeds into (alas) the ongoing War on Science.  Take this symptom of how bad it has become, at one end of the political spectrum, where every single Republican member of the House of Representatives Science Committee seems more than eager to bray misinformed lunacy.
The “High Quality Research Act,” sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), would eliminate the peer-review requirement from the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant process, replacing it with new criteria that are significantly less transparent. Smith was a sponsor of the highly controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that threatened to fundamentally change how the Internet works. In Roll Call, Rep. Smith described his vision of science funding -- based not upon the impacts new research may have on the scientific community, but solely whether that research will "create jobs.” He boasted about how much of the House science committee’s $39 billion budget goes to nuclear, fracking and “clean coal” projects. Smith has no background in science.  But then, neither do any of the members of the majority party on the House Science Committee.
Elsewhere I talk about how federally funded scientific and technological research was already responsible for 50% of job growth across the years since 1945. How I'd love to see a second "National Debt Clock" showing where we'd be now, if we (the citizens) had charged just a 5% royalty on the fruits of U.S. federal research, from jets, satellites and telecom to pharma and… um… the Internet. We'd be in the black!
Of course the recent government shut-down was a calamity to science -- a fact that I believe was not seen by GOP lawmakers as a "regrettable side effect" to their lemming cliff-run, but a core and desired "feature."  Scientific American put it succinctly: "In many ways the federal government shutdown was a huge, unplanned experiment in what happens when we give up on science for two weeks. The experiment is now over and the results are still incomplete. But so far, they are ugly." Have a look at the latest, disastrous blow in the War on Science. Then know that this is not about "left" or "right." It's about sanity.
== From the Climate Front ==
Climate-FrontFrom LiveScience: "Plenty of studies have shown that the Arctic is warming and that the ice caps are melting, but how does it compare to the past, and how serious is it? New research shows that average summer temperatures in the Canadian Arctic over the last century are the highest in the last 44,000 years, and perhaps the highest in 120,000 years."
Yes but can we do anything? Here's a topic we've covered before and will cover again; what if we just can't control climate change from the supply side? Can geoengineering help moderate the disruptions from wreaking havoc on our planet and civilization?  This article from NPR moves the conversation a bit and tells more about that "rogue experiment" off the west coast of Canada, last year.
== Science Wonders! ==
Elon's next project, make the James Bond's car-that-becomes-a-submarine come true!
Erik Viirre M.D. Ph.D, of the UCSD Department of Neurosciences, discusses "the Return of Virtual Reality" as the new generation of 3D immersive headsets finally deliver the real thing to gamers, this year.
Researchers have found the first solid evidence that a specific brain region is activated in everyday conversation when people use numbers (or even imprecise quantitative terms, such as “more than”).
Computer vision is the cutting edge now of the advances toward artificial intelligence and robotics.  Read the latest amazements.
collation of interesting predictions from not-the-usual-suspects… architects and social activists and so on. I wish I had more context for this isolated paragraph from Thom Mayne, Pritzker Prize-winning architect, U.C.L.A. professor of architecture and urban design. It is thought-provoking, but with a splash of deliberately obscure postmodernism that I find irksome:
"I would challenge the whole idea of the future as a topic of interest. We’re completely involved in the present. When you’re looking at cities today, at metropolises like São Paulo, Beijing, Tokyo, we can’t grasp the complexity of issues that form these huge aggregates of humanity. The notion of the future in an intellectual and philosophical way would connect to some sort of optimism; I would locate that in the 1950s and 60s, when in the United States there was enormous optimism for the future. We live at a time when, if it’s not pessimistic, it’s not optimistic. The present takes up so much space and oxygen there isn’t a lot of energy left over to deal with future or past. What next? We’re going to internalize this information technology, so we have more space, so we can control this over-investment in the present."
The European Space Agency (ESA) and the EU, together with industrial and educational partners, are developing the first large-scale production methods to 3D-print complex parts made of metal that can withstand temperatures at 1000°C — fit for space and the most demanding applications on Earth.
== And more wonders! ==
Cool. (Literally!) The WISE infrared explorer satellite has found the first confirmed "Trojan" asteroid orbiting firmly in Earth's L4 point, according to the Bad Astronomer -- Phil Plait.
Satellites Titan and Dione, with Saturn's rings in the background. This stunning photo is worth the price, alone.  But interesting facts accompany.
The Walker Library of The History of Human Imagination features multilevel tiers, “floating” platforms, connecting stairways, glass-paneled bridges (inspired by MC Escher), dynamic lighting and music, and specially commissioned artworks that celebrate major achievements in the history of human invention.  The 4 minute video tour is spectacularly worthwhile.  Here's a guy who loves being human.
Does eating chocolate help you to lose weight?  I command that some of you follow this and report back here!
Remember those potato-powered clocks?  Well, they underplayed the potential. Hebrew University researchers have found that a single potato hooked up to a couple of cheap metal plates can power enough LED lamps for a room for 40 days. Apparently, it works even better if the potato is boiled -- and if potatoes are not available, boiled plantain stems work as well.
A cool graphic shows how close various destinations would be to each other, if we fully bbuilt-out Elon Musk's "hyper-loop" mass transit system. Look it over.  Enjoy the dream.  Then consider, it could cost one tenth what other forms of people moving transport cost.
Astronauts return to Earth with atrophied muscles, weakened bones, cardiovascular problems, and some immune deficiencies. And it seems we also age faster in space, too.  We should be building space stations that spin!  And we would, if civilization got its priorities straight… or curved.
Uplift-ArrowAre dolphins friendly? You ask me that? Well, well. I am as openminded as anyone.  But there is this news:
Researcher asks: Is there any reason to think dolphins and humans have a special relationship? Sure, but it might not be a friendly one.
Geez how much more will it take?   "Higher global temperatures increase humidity, which makes wet areas wetter and dry ones dryer. And, increased greenhouse gases and ozone depletion affect atmospheric circulation patterns, pushing storms toward the poles," say scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Finally, the Future has arrived...Advances in materials and computer control mean that the era of the jetpack could finally be upon us. Jetpack users could soon be fighting fires, responding to emergencies, and even saving your life.