Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Obfuscation: protect privacy by destroying the Web!

Time for a return to the core issue of our time: how shall we best preserve and extend freedom?  Along with freedom's contingent benefits, like privacy?

In the LA Review of Books, Internet Privacy: Stepping Up Our Self-Defense Game, Evan Selinger reviews a slim book -- Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest, by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum.  

Distilled, the core argument is that defenders of freedom and privacy should poison the Web and Net that we now know, by flooding it with disinformation and false data, so that no one -- including powerful elites -- will be able to tell what's real. In other words -- burn the commons to the ground, so smoke gets in their eyes. That'll show 'em.

Let me avow that I actually quite respect Brunton and Nissenbaum and other members of this weird cult, for one reason.  At least in Obfuscation they are recommending a different solution from the standard offerings, which are “encrypt everything!” and “surrender to despair.”  True, the obfuscation approach was first offered in sci fi thought experiments, like Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End and Vernor saw the logical reasons why it cannot possibly work.  Still, at least they are trying to envision something assertive.

To be clear, most of us share the same fear – of a return to the obligate pyramids of privilege and power that dominated 99% of human societies for at least the last 6000 years.  George Orwell terrified us by portraying Big Brother’s tyranny becoming far worse even than feudalism, enhanced and locked-in with technological powers that make resistance futile, forever.  I am often accused of shugging off that threat when, in fact, I am as much (or more) motivated to fight it than anyone else alive.  Motivated enough to ask that rarest of questions: 

“How did we get the narrow window of freedom (and some privacy) that we currently enjoy?”

Oh, there is no end to Cassandras issuing jeremiads and hand-wringing denunciations that the window is closing! Declaring that various elites – government agencies, corporations, oligarchs, criminal gangs – are forging Big Brother’s tools and applying them, as we speak. And these complainers are right! As far as they go, that is. Yes, the revolution and renaissance is in danger! It always has been, with odds stacked high in favor of feudalism’s horrible return.  And yet…

…and yet dire warnings are best when accompanied by perspective. But not one of the modern doomcasters – from Snowden and Assange to Fukayama and Schneier to Nissenbaum and Brunton – not one of them ever casts an eye toward the question that I will now reiterate: “How did we get the admittedly imperfect window of freedom (and some privacy) that we currently enjoy?”

The answer is not “obfuscation.” Nor is it a more frequently prescribed version of the same notion – universal encryption of everything. Our ancestors who set the enlightenment revolution in motion held no truck with such cowardly approaches, that boil down to “If you are afraid of looming tyrants, then by all means hide!”

Across twenty years I have asked fans of cowering in shadows to name one time when that approach truly stymied would-be lords, or helped to maintain a free and open and accountable society. The answer I get is always… always… puzzled, blinking stares, as if the question had never once occurred to them. But in fact, if you examine sixty centuries of tyranny – and the methods used by secret police and despots since Hammurabi – only a handful of their tactics would be even slightly inconvenienced by perfectly-encrypted messaging – or by setting the commons on fire. 

(Oh, and fans of encrypted cowering also ignore technological change.  The fact that agencies and corporations can trivially decipher encryption from ten years ago, so why won’t they be able to parse today’s best ciphers, ten years from now? Revelation delayed is still revelation. Oh, you respond that this time it'll work much better than it ever worked before? You’d really and truly entrust everything to such a slender reed?)

Ah, but solutions only have to sound plausible and logical. What? I’m asking for a history of their proposed approach ever, ever, ever having worked?  Call me a spoil-sport.

In fact, only one thing has ever actually worked, thwarting tyranny long enough to let us have this recent – albeit imperfect – stretch of relative freedom and privacy. The method is called reciprocal accountability.  Also Sousveillance (look it up.) A far more demanding, citizen-centered approach that happens to be the way our parents did it, and their parents, and the founders of our revolution.

It is the very same method that is currently being applied on our streets, as citizens -- empowered by new technologies of vision – assert themselves to hold police accountable.  Using new technologies like cell phone cameras to empower citizenship, instead of oppressing it, they are preserving and enhancing freedom as we speak, not by hiding from the Man, but by militantly and courageously aiming tools of light to hold authority accountable. 

And that is the difference between us, friends.  I share with Nissenbaum and Brunton and Selinger a fear and loathing of potential feudal lords and tyrants. Only I care enough to actually get past the indignant reflex and ask what has worked in the past – and what is working right now. 

Ponder this truth: what has worked is not - and never has been - hiding.

== Is hiding even remotely possible? ==

The new techno romantics all proclaim so, demanding the cowardly approach – hiding from the Man – and loudly proclaiming it to be brave.  But physically and pragmatically, can it actually be done?

In the future, elites will have all sorts of tools to defeat obfuscation.  Linguistic-semantic analysis will detect your statements and ID you, even hidden by a pseudonym. Comparison of multi-path inputs will parse truth from fabulation. Governments and criminals and aristocrats will have means to bypass the bits, eavesdropping on the sonic data as your voice vibrates your window, or they’ll tap and log the strokes you type on your keyboard, from the different sounds each letter emits.

Technologies like facial coding, biofeedback and brain imaging have long been used by companies in the hope of pushing the boundaries of marketing and product development. But their use by political parties and governments is a growing phenomenon, evoking futuristic scenes from the movie “Minority Report,” in which eerily well-informed billboards scan commuters’ eyes and call out to them by name.

I have compiled a long list of biometric traits that are useful or effective at distinguishing one human being from another.  These range from fingerprints and retinal or iris scans to face recognition, hand-bone ratios, voiceprints, walking-gait... all the way to the otto-acoustic sound emissions that many of us radiate involuntarily from our eardrums!  We positively fizz with identifiers. And the romantics who think they will ever be able to conceal their movements in such a future are uber-fools.

Now comes news that just sitting in a room you'll leave a unique panoply of bacteria that can be attributed to you. Everywhere you go... you emit your own unique microbial cloud -- a personalized signature of your own micro biome.

"We all continually emit our own microbial cloud into the air and onto nearby—and not so nearby—surfaces. Now, according to a new study in the open-access journal Peerj, scientists can distinguish the make-up of the cloud is uniquely yours—a personal marker that is as particular to you as your fingerprints or your genome. That’s a biological calling card that could have implications for epidemiology, environmental engineering or even, intriguingly, criminal forensics."

Elsewhere, I talk about a posh gym in New York where a $26,000 membership and a retinal scan lets you into a facility where they measure everything about you… in order to guide your workout. Um okay.  So rich people are paying high rates in order to offer up their bodies to be measured in every conceivable way, so that unvetted parties will have every single biometric ... ah, I see you are getting it.  But do they?

Safety-through-concealment is a fool's fantasy -- even for elites.

I do not say this out of despair!  Rather, in order to rouse you to fight for freedom the only way that has ever worked.  The only way that can possibly work.  And the way that the self-appointed mavens of privacy absolutely refuse to consider.  In their relentless preaching for cowardice… that we all should protect ourselves by hiding… they perform the worst possible betrayal of everything that they claim to stand for.

Pardon me for repeating. I'll stop doing it when I see signs that the point is getting through to anyone, anyone at all.  But hiding will not work over any long-run.  

Sure, protect your passwords as a short term, practical matter.  But over the long term only one thing will keep you free.  Aggressively, militantly empowering yourself and your neighbors to see!

== So what’s to be done? ==

This is why the banks will not go all electronic and abandon their branches.  Bank branches will in future do what they do now, verify your credentials and help you do transactions.  Only in 2050 you will walk in... in-person... and be verified via all of your biometrics, including biomeNtrics (I just coined that!) via cranial sensors.

With that verification, you can then, in-person, clean up the last month's messes and prepare the next month's passwords.

== Someone being useful, at least ==

Much more cogent and well-supported – and hence scarier – is: "6 Spooky Ways Local Law Enforcement Is Watching You: A day in the life of the surveillance state," by Elliot Harmon and Nadia Kayyali, posted on the site of the worthy Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which I urge all of you to make one of your two dozen “proxy activism” NGOs.

Just because I disagree with EFF's set of prescriptive solutions, that doesn't mean they aren't completely right to be shouting and hollering and rousing public awareness of the overall dangers!  I send them money.  You should, too.

Harmon and Kayyali summarize, with useful links, half a dozen ways you are being watched, from social media monitoring and automated license plate readers to surveillance cameras, biometrics and imsi catchers.  Alas though, in the end the problem and drawback is the same.

== And finally… Yelp for People? ==

Of course this had to come. Yelp for people: You will soon be able to rate anyone you have interacted with on this new app: with reviews and 1 to 5 star ratings assigned to "your exes, your co-workers, the old guy who lives next door. You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose."

The good news?  This will light a fire under creating real reputation mediation services, a potential billion dollar business (and I know the secret sauce) – and don’t let anyone tell you that reputation companies already exist.  They are jokes.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The wonders of space: Mars, comets and more...

Time for an update from… space! For example, the Cassini probe, nearing the end of its remarkable journey, has just passed through the plumes of salty water vapor shooting out into space from Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. 

== The Briney miracle of Mars ==

Recent and recurring water flows on Mars? The secret "sauce" that enables this to happen, despite subzero temperatures and low atmospheric pressures is... brine.  High salt/mineral content enables brine-y fluids to survive surface conditions for short periods and -- possibly underground -- even sustain life?  How cool is that? Well, speaking as someone who is already rather brin-ey....

Now dig these pics of a crater on Mars that reveals that this region of the planet - bigger than Texas - features a huge slab of water ice, very near the surface.

Read a fascinating and well-written popular article on NASA's newly released "Roadmap to Mars." It is so good to see progress in the bureaucracy adapting to ideas some of us were bruiting decades ago -- like in-situ production - on Mars - of the water and fuel and oxygen astronauts will need, instead of expensively hauling them all from Earth. (Note this concept was largely absent from The Martian.) It also includes testing our methods with asteroid retrieval projects that could wind up benefitting humanity and Earth more than the Mars missions would!  Certainly it is good to see the plan almost completely leave out our sterile/useless (for now) moon.  Been there. There's nothing (for now) there. 

A stressed moon: Grooves across the surface of Phobos indicate that this Martian moon is (slowly) starting to crack under pressure... over the next 50 million years.

== Comets and more wonders ==

In my last space posting I commented that this last 12 months might count as humanity's best year out there... ever... including the late sixties.  And it just keeps pouring in.

ESA's Rosetta mission celebrated one year at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The latest comet images are magnificent. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy column on Slate reveals a selection of photos recovered from the Philae lander as it approached the comet. More vivid and detailed, with now-named features as small as a few centimeters, as one of the images was taken from just nine meters away!  See the track-path that they now believe Philae followed when it failed to stick its landing and went bouncing across the surface, like characters did, in Heart of the Comet! 

And Rosetta now shows 67/P finally being comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And behaving precisely as predicted in my doctoral dissertation, way back in 1981. Take this recent Philae result: “Scientists suspect the surface is partly shaped by a form of hail that occurs when gas ejections from the comet push out coarse particles that then fall back to the ground.” Yep!

“Rosetta has also discovered that the interior of 67P is extraordinarily light. At least 75% of it is empty space. Scientists speculate that much of its interior material may have been vented into space as the comet has warmed up during previous close encounters with the Sun.”   ice, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide below the surface evaporate and vent into space, carrying with them dust that covers the comet. “Often this produces deep pits into which surface ice and dust collapse, creating sinkholes all over the comet,” said Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientist at the European Space Agency.  

Now, there's the surprising discovery of a high proportion of oxygen molecules in Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko -- which may have originated early, even before the formation of the solar system.

As for the organic compounds found by the Philae lander: Four out of 16, including acetone, hadn’t been detected on a comet before. “It’s not yet known whether the complex molecules found in 67P were made in the early solar system and then incorporated into the comet or formed there later, he said. “Either way, it seems that comets are pretty good places to find the building blocks of molecules which later on could be used for life.” 

Yes, but so far, there are just those two theories.  Either the stuff cooked before the comet formed… or else on the surface, under solar ultraviolet. No one mentions a third idea.  That early comets contained radioactively-melted interiors, within which lots of liquid organic chemistry might take place.  

Geez, what does it take?  We now know between 6 and 12 worldlets in our system with partly molten water zones. Is it truly so hard to imagine the same thing might have happened, four billion years ago, when fresh aluminum26 cooked a trillion iceballs, turning them into bubbling test tubes? But then, it's just a theory.

As Rosetta orbits at a (relatively) safe distance, it is being pelted by dust grains that also confuse its star tracker. Still, scientists are hopeful that: (1) the exhalations from the surface of 67/P might be strong enough to rock the Philae lander into a better position to absorb sunlight and transmit data… without pushing so strongly that the lander is sent tumbling into space… and…

… (2) that the narrow neck of the 67P “rubber duck” nucleus might even break apart, this round, giving Rosetta a ringside seat for a spectacular show!

The closest view is yet to come: Touchdown next September! The historic Rosetta mission will end when ESA crashes (as gently as possible) the orbiter onto the comet's icy surface.

Stay tuned.

And finally....

NASA is regularly haunted by cases of paranoid pareidolia, or folks "seeing" signs of either technology or living things in pictures returned from outer space, especially Mars.  Occasionally, one of the images makes me go "huh?" and wish I could send the rover back, for another look… the way another look finally debunked the long-infamous "Face" of Cydonia.  Or else to check out something I just don't understand.

Now see this article for an image of the "spoon" whose lengthy shadow certainly does seem to suggest more supporting strength of a cantilever than you normally expect from mere rock-- okay, this one piques my curiosity!  Nevertheless, many of the "aha!" UFO style declarations are 99% silliness.  Especially the premise that NASA would first share with us these images then pooh-pooh and suppress talk of legitimate signs of ET life.  Um… why share with us the image stream so quickly, in that case? 

In fact, that is an eminently practical openness on their part. What they want is many keen eyes pointing out stuff to look at! And some of the amateur anomaly spotters have been truly useful.  Though not (so far) when they have pointed at (imaginary) faces and lizards n' such.

Oh and I know some of these folk. They are paladins of openness.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

After Paris, can we be both safe and free?

Of course we are all still quivering, following the attacks in Paris last week that killed 129 people, not so very far from where my wife and I lived for a couple of years, as newlyweds during the 1990s.  Our hearts go out to the brave folk of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité in la Ville Lumiere.  

Of course, reactions vary and I will start this posting by looking at a couple that stand out.  For example…

Anonymous, a loose-knit international network of activist hackers, is preparing to unleash waves of cyber attacks on Islamic State. A self-described member said in a video."We are going to launch the biggest operation ever against you,” said a man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, in French.

Well, sure. But see this in a deeper context. We in the West have been raised by Hollywood's most incessant propaganda campaign -- Suspicion of Authority (SoA), which fills almost every film. (With secondary memes of tolerance, diversity and defense of eccentricity. What? You think you invented those values? You suckled them from media, all your life.) 

Our political differences partly revolve around whether we perceive Big Brother coming from faceless corporations or from faceless government bureaucrats. But both wings cite Orwell.

The Anonymous guys rail at both!  Which is fine... till they see our overall, macro SoA civilization under attack by those who don't share the SoA premise at all.  Then it becomes a matter of rallying together, in defense of the overall meme! Which is what Anonymous has declared they are doing by - for example - going after all the ISIS-related Twitter handles.  All right.  Sure. Go for it, guys.

Meanwhile, in another totally predictable effect of the Paris attacks, western intelligence services are pointing fingers of partial blame at the restrictions they face, in gathering and appraising information. We could prevent these things — they claim — if only they were allowed to see better. In this case, they note that they lost track of the particular cabal that perpetrated the Paris travesties some months ago, when the radicals switched over to communicating via PS4 game machines, which are encrypted. (Late note: this PS4 story is now disputed.)

Of course, just as predictably, the geek community has come out, in frantic rebuttal.  More on this, below.

== Why have there been so few soft target attacks? ==

Now here's a side thought that is rather jarring. Clearly there are things going on beyond our gaze. For example --

I remain perpetually perplexed over how few of these terrible crimes have occurred! Our parents from World War Two would be amazed at how some (not all; certainly not Parisians) fly into panic over losses that would constitute an hour’s casualties from that much-larger struggle.  (Note that, as after 9/11, it is republicans who are screeching in panic, unable to stand the idea of even women and children refugees coming to Alabama, while urban Americans - the likely targets - are much more calm.)

That perspective isn’t meant to minimize 9/11 or Paris! Rather, it provokes one to contemplate how rich the West is, in soft targets like these. Millions of soft targets, literally. The glass-half-full rumination is that we have, in fact, been terribly lucky. Or else, better protected than we can imagine. (Are there fans out there of the show “Person of Interest”?)

That thought spurs several more:

1) The intent of Daesh is -- as it was on 9/11 -- to frighten and daunt "decadent and soft westerners" into panic and retreat... or else into electing oppressive paranoids who might clamp down on the eclectic openness that is our strength.  But as Rebecca Solnit points out in one of the most important books of our time -- A Paradise Built in Hell -- average citizens simply aren't wimps. 

If ten or even a hundred times as many soft targets were hit, we'd simply do what our parents did. Adapt. Be resilient, determined... and win.

2) The amazingly low number of successful soft target attacks suggests that the intelligence services either have powerful means that we don’t know about, or else these terror groups are regularly betrayed by decent boys and girls whose conscience speaks louder than hate. I'd put money on both.

== The Return of the Ratchet ==

But let’s get back to the core issue here. Will the Professional Protector Caste (PPC) use this event to argue for back doors through commercial encryption? Of course they will.  Whether or not they actually need them.

Don’t get me wrong. I am friendly to techno-geeks and cyber transcendentalists. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is near the top of my list of heroic NGOs that I urge folks to join, using the modern power of Proxy Activism to protect and extend freedom. (If you are not a member of a dozen activist proxy-NGOs dedicated to saving the world however you want it to be saved, then shame on you.)

To be clear, I share EFF's central concern — that states and corporations are gathering power through ever-enhancing surveillance vision! 

And yet, I keep pointing out that the reflex nerdish prescription — to encrypt everything! — is foolish and doomed from the start. It plays into the plots of would-be Orwellians. Worse, it distracts our paladins-of-freedom from concentrating on methods that can work… we know because they are the only methods that ever worked, in the present and the past.

Among the dozen or so flaws in the Crypto Prescription is simply this — that fell events like the Paris Massacre will happen, and when they do, each event will undermine the public’s sense of adversarial skepticism toward the Protector Caste. 

Predictably -- and possibly sincerely -- that caste will use each event to demand new powers of vision, as they did after 9/11.  And, in what I’ve called the Ratchet Effect, these powers will eventually be granted, and never completely withdrawn, when panic ebbs.

Am I resigned that Big Brother is inevitable, as the only alternative to crime, terror and chaos?  

Dammit no!  That zero sum tradeoff is evil on the face of it.  Indeed, there is a positive sum way to have both security and freedom … to both have protectors who can see well enough to be effective and ensure that they are seen! And supervised well enough to prevent our watch dogs from ever becoming wolves. 

 It is precisely the method that gave us our current freedom… and that is being used as we speak, to apply accountability to authorities on the street. (Cell phone cameras are the technological engine behind #BlackLivesMatter.)

Alas, it seems so obvious.  Use the method that got us our freedom in the first place!  Reciprocal accountability.  

Let civil servants do their jobs, but so well-supervised that their jobs will be all that they do. 

For the life of me, I cannot conceive of why such an obvious thing proves so counter-intuitive to our very brightest. But the very concept seems to skitter -- like mercury -- across the nervous modern mind.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Facing Climate Change Challenges

I am about to show you, on one simple chart, the essence of how giga-liar denialists have lured some of you into buying their toxin. At just a glance, you'll see why they claim "there's been no warming for 17 years."  And when you sane-conservatives out there grasp how it was done, you will spit and swear at the hijackers of your movement.

But first:

Recently observed on the Pacific coast: a spike in methane bubble plumes. Researchers have seen an increase in the release of methane gas, released from frozen methane hydrates deep in the ocean.  The warming ocean is releasing greater quantities of this powerful greenhouse gas. Note: this is the only aspect to climate change that I deeply fear across the near future, because the effects might possibly be runaway and nonlinear. And if they are, there will be no place for denialists to hide.

== Climate Change Challenges ==

Here's the chart that makes utter-clear how deceitful and stunningly evil are Ted Cruz and Rupert Murdoch and every single shill who used the "no warming in the last 17 years" talking point.  

Did none of you ask: "why SEVENTEEN years specifically?"  Of course you didn't. But the explanation for that specificity is easy. Just look at the chart. 

They chose precisely seventeen in order to peg the "before" comparison on 1998, the hottest year in human history....

... that is, till this year.  And yes, El Nino years like 1998 are spikes.  But a sapient person would look at the chart and let its overall trend lines speak...

...then listen to the brilliant men and women who have successfully modeled climate on six Planets. And those other brainiacs who transformed the old 4 hour weather report into a 14 day wonder. They are smarter than you and me and a whole lot more honest than your cavalcade of liars, on Fox. And they all are deeply worried.

Oh I can't let this go. Look at that 1998 peak again and again, knowing that those who deliberately used "seventeen years" as the before marker for their slopes aren't just arguing.  They are knowing liars who should be repudiated as evil men, not worthy of being considered for political power.

== Did a lurid sci fi flick predict? ==

A cold blob in the Atlantic: Oh the world is heating up all right, especially the oceans, exacerbated by an El Nino year. (In fact, by one measure, this wicked El Niño is the strongest ever recorded.) 

And yet there is one glaring – and frightening – exception. In the North Atlantic Ocean south of Greenland and Iceland, the ocean surface has seen very cold temperatures for the past eight months.  If that region sounds familiar, it should be.  That’s where the “gulf stream” or North Atlantic Conveyor current terminates and plunges to the depths, so that more warm water can keep heading north to keep Europe temperate. (Rome is at the same latitude as Chicago.)

In the garish-exaggerating movie The Day After Tomorrow the disaster was based on exactly this climate scenario… that greenhouse warming sends so much melted freshwater from Greenland that it ends the Gulf Stream's salinity-driven conveyor.  In fact, no one expects results that are movie-sudden. “But if the trend continues, there could be many consequences, including rising seas for the U.S. East Coast and, possibly, a difference in temperature overall in the North Atlantic and Europe.”

More? Watch Greenland melt!  Freshwater pouring into the N. Atlantic at prodigious rates that are actually changing salinity in the North Atlantic, potentially shutting down the Atlantic Conveyor and putting Europe into an Ice Age.  While sea levels rise everywhere. Right. Ignore the folks who know stuff.

(Oh, but again, it could be movie-sudden, if the methane in hydrate ices starts flooding upward, in a torrent of greenhouse bubbles.  And you'd willingly risk that?)

Go look at the map in this article. Those who would dismiss this as “just coincidence” are the same crazy delusionists who deny there’s any meaning in the steady    or the fact that all the humans who can parse the Navier Stokes Equations and make fine gas-vapor predictive models (can you?) agree that we’re endangering our grandchildren and ought to start behaving like adults, gifted with reason and foresight.

== And so many pieces, coming together ==

Among the dozens of consequences that our loony neighbors and crazy uncles desperately ignore?  Revivied ancient diseases. Scientists who discovered a prehistoric virus called Mollivirus sibericum in the Siberian permafrost plan to give the virus its first wakeup call since the last Ice Age (after first verifying that it can't harm humans and animals, thankfully). It's hoped the study could shed insight into ancient dormant viruses that could, it's feared, get another chance at spreading as permafrost retreats due to climate change. 

Alaska’s huge wildfires not only are correlated with climate change, and help to drive it.  They may also presage release of permafrost gases that make things much, much worse.... as ocean acidification may bring us to a tipping point, releasing methane-hydrate ices. The U.S. Navy is scurrying to prep for an ice-free Arctic.  The American West is baking. 

Scientists say California, in its third year of severe drought, hasn’t been this dry in 500 years. And August smashes global heat records as a giant El Nino builds in the Pacific. As oceans warm, some marine species, such as lobsters, are pushing their boundaries poleward

Even if nations stick to the pledges they've already made to battle climate change by cutting emissions, the earth would still heat up by more than 6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to new climate models.

Should all of this make any sane-conservative look up? There are such beings, even today!  They mostly dwell, nowadays, in the US military, where officers cannot afford delusion. A conservative temperament cannot trump science, not when you have a nation and civilization to defend. And so, the US Navy is desperately planning to deal with 12 new Russian bases rimming the often ice-free Arctic, as Chinese fleets have started patrols... 

== And the capper that always sends them fleeing ==

These days I always finish my climate jeremiads with a simple chant: 

Ocean acidification,  ocean acidification,  ocean acidification,  ocean acidification,  ocean acidification...

It is blatantly happening, accelerating and can only conceivably be caused by human generated CO2. And not one denialist-cultist I have met has ever been able to answer. Fox supplies no nostrums or counter-incantations, because none are possible. 

Instead, denialists always, always change the subject, pointing suddenly offstage shouting "squirrel!" Then running away, with hands over ears shouting "scientists are commies!"

Try it on your crazy uncle.

== And finally... ==

Let me finish with something positive... indeed, something that moved me close to tears.

Three elephant bulls’ lives were saved when, after they were shot with poisoned arrows, they made their way to a place they remembered could help them: the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT).  Even more interesting, while the one elephant who led the others to DSWT had never been a resident at the sanctuary, he knew other elephants who had. Suggesting real communication and memory.

Amazing in so many ways. But we've seen it at sea, too, where whales will flee whaling ships but approach other types of vessels, in hope that kindly humans will cut away tangled fishing nets.  

It suggests that many creatures in nature see us for what we are... sometimes killers! But also sometimes helpers. Always powerful! But maybe -- as I depict happening in EARTH and in the Uplift Series -- capable of choosing to be powerful for good.

For now, Earth has only one protector, who might save her from savagely rapacious and shortsighted humanity.  That savior will be calmly logical and far-seeing, courageously science- (and science fiction)-loving humanity.

Animals believe in our potential.  Shouldn't we?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Sci Fi Visons : Gloom vs Optimism

Some brilliant anthologies for your shopping list! These include one about war and one that’s free, one about Star Wars and one by me! 

Your best deal is a free download (thanks to corporate sponsorship) of Future Visions: Original Stories Inspired by Microsoft featuring tales that explore possible impacts of future technology, such as quantum computing, machine learning and other trends gathered from cutting edge research. (Authors were invited to talk to mavens at at Microsoft Labs, but free to tap all kinds of sources. Just released!

With contributions from top science fiction authors, including Greg Bear, Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, Robert J. Sawyer, Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, Jack McDevitt and  — there's also one of my own best recent scribblings -- about the science of prediction. A topic which has long fascinated me.

War Stories of the Future is another sponsored anthology, this time from the Atlantic Council’s contest for fictional portrayals of how future combat might be transformed by rapidly changing technology. This volume is edited by August Cole, whose novel with Peter Singer, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, is now a best-seller. "The collection features stories from best-selling science-fiction writer David Brin (the nature of heroes and warriors) and Linda Nagata (linked ground combat overseen from afar), as well as entries by Ken Liu, Madeleine Ashby, Matthew Burrows and August Cole." I also helped judge the tales that were winners of a special contest exploring the future of defense and security.

Then there’s the the recent re-launch of Star Wars on Trial: The Force Awakens Edition. Your big chance - if you missed the earlier editions - to experience full-on combat between folks who are critical of the quantum-shallow Lucas universe and those unthinking zombies who actually swallow the faux-eastern “wisdom”-claptrap of that awful little green pixie-ovenmitt Yoda...

… but no, we’ll save that rant for this truly fun and pyrotechnic and intellectually stimulating volume!  

Oh, you can also vote on the various charges, like a jury. Innocent... or guilty as charged? And sure, we know many will vote acquittal out of reflex, without reading the arguments. But you won’t! There's also a book giveaway on Goodreads.

All three of these great volumes are coming out this  very month!  But want more?  Well, I saved the best for last. Coming in late winter — will be my long-awaited third short story collection Insistence of Vision, from Studio Digital and The Story Plant.  With a beautiful Patrick Farley cover and some of the best tales I ever wrote… and which you are very unlikely to have read, like “Chrysalis,” “The Logs,” “Transition Generation,” “Mars Opposition,” and “Insistence of Vision.”  Pre-order on Amazon.

== Gloom vs Optimism ==

See a cool story (from The Oatmeal) of courage and dedication that winds up having meaning to all of us… especially science fiction fans, pondering the sour excess of pessimism and reflex dystopianism that has taken over so much of our mythology.  You’ll understand when you learn who the hero of this story turns out to be.

Many of us have been trying to combat the gloom merchants, whose lesson is too-seldom “avoid this mistake” and too-often “give up hope.” I’ve addressed the surprising and infuriationg underlying reason why so many authors and film directors habitually preach hopelessness.  Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project with Arizona State’s Center for Science and Imagination is another effort to beckon sci fi back to a guardedly and caustiously optimistic, can-do spirit.

New Utopians: This article in the New Republic adds to the rebellion: Jeet Heer writes, “The prophets of doom are unusually loud in our time, and almost every vision of the future, whether by sober ecologists or wild-eyed science fiction writers, carries with it the stench of despair. The collapse of civilization has become its own narrative cliché.” It then goes on to profile my dear and respected colleague Kim Stanley Robinson, rightfully, as a central figure in the counter-attack of problem-solving tales of (tentative) utopia. (Though many reasers of Robinson's most recent novel, Aurora, would deem it a shift to the dour side.

 Sure, this essay leaves out the rest of us hope-peddlers and can-do pushers, and it implicitly assumes that socialism is the sole route to redemption. “Robinson’s attempt to keep the flame of Utopia alive in a despairing era has made him a lonely figure.”  Um, hello?  

In another move away from dystopian visions, a relatively new subgenre - Solarpunk - promises to offer more sustainable, optimistic  -- even inspirational -- visions of the near-future, one you might even want to live in. On the Hieroglyph website, Adam Flynn writes that "Solarpunk is a future with a human face and dirt behind its ears."

Getting down to specifics, this article from Big Think argues that: “All Space Colonies Will Begin as Dictatorships…” because the rough and tumble of democracy won’t work where one shattered window can kill everyone. Well… um… duh? Except the analogy of “dictatorship” is silly and harmful. A better parallel is the captaincy of a ship. On a ship, with death just meters away, there must be a captain whose orders are swiftly obeyed.

Yet that is not a 'dictatorship,' because the owners of the ship have sovereignty over who gets to be captain! The owners dictate policy, such as deciding the next destination, while the captain is a “dictator” regarding implementation. That is, unless and untill the owners (who might be a democracy of people aboard either a sea or space vessel or a Mars colony) decide to fire her and pick someone else.

We live in an era of such simplistic metaphors that few people grasp this distinction. That even under conditions that are stressful and dangerous, we can still be citizens and sovereign adults who – ultimately – share responsibility for the course we set.