Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Moon Landing: 45 Years Later

MOON-LANDING-1969Summertime takes me back to 1969, when -- despite national and international traumas that make today's seem petty -- the world did manage to come together over one topic... how glorious that humankind was forging forth into the Final Frontier.

Yet now, I share with millions of other boomers a head-scratching perplexity. Why don’t more of today’s youth care about outer space?

The easy answer would be to seize upon a simple nostrum -- about each era rejecting the obsessions of the one before it. But then, in that case, why is the very opposite true about popular music? Back in the hippie era, music divided the generations! But today? Well, my kids adore classic 60s and 70s Rock. In a surf shop or bike store, all I have to do is mention a few of the concerts that I snuck into, long ago, and the brash young fellers are at my feet, saying “tell us more, gramps!”

life2moonandbackSo why do they yawn, when we turn to the NASA Channel, or when we talk about colonizing Mars?

Or when we brag about being members of a species who walked on the Moon? For certain, you don’t hear astronaut mentioned on any list of dream jobs.

Puzzling over this quandary, I was reminded of something Norman Mailer said, when he wrote his 1960s tome Of A Fire on the Moon. Mailer had begun researching the book amid feelings of smug, intellectual hostility toward the crewcut engineers and fliers he encountered... only then his attitude shifted when he realized, in a startled epiphany that: “They were achieving not one, but two bona fide miracles.”

Feats that -- when Mailer really thought about it -- struck him as truly Biblical in proportion.

1. They were actually going to the Moon!

2. They were actually succeeding in making such an adventure boring

Mailer’s insight came to mind, while I was talking to kids about the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Of all the predictions* ever made about spaceflight, I figure the least imaginable outcome would have been ennui. The endless tedium of checklists that probably turned off as many kids as the romance of space ever turned on.

*(Speaking of predictions. In a 1959 comic strip Jeff Hawke, the writers forecast that the first human landing on the Moon would happen on 4 August 1969, missing the real-life date by only two weeks. Oh, the lead astronaut was named... Armstrong.)

Of course, policy has had a lot to do with it. Members of the astronaut corps were always willing to accept a level of calculated risk similar to -- if more carefully managed than -- the adventurous pioneers of aviation. Perhaps the public might also have accepted the kind of casualty rates that usually occur on a frontier -- they did in Lindbergh’s time. But politicians could not. They wanted promises of “routine access to space.” And so, the shuttle proved an expensive and awkward mix of overblown promises, lost opportunities, unreasonable expense, relentless nit-pickery and mind numbing sameness. 

2001Not at all what we expected, back when my peers sat in dazed wonder, in the front row, watching Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Nor is that entirely a bad thing. As I point out elsewhere, we may have failed to build magnificent, rolling space hotels and moonbases that frolic to Strauss waltzes. But our civilization is a better one, than the one that was depicted in that film -- a smug and overbearing and fanatically secretive world dominated by patronizing white males. 

And if I had to choose... between a civilization that has improved itself and its sense of egalitarian justice as much as ours has, versus one that had taken a little longer to get its spinning space stations and moon bases... well... Let's just say that the hoary old cliche "it's too bad our wisdom hasn't kept up with our technology" may have it wrong, in ironic and weird ways. (For example, the way that both the mad left and the even-crazier right seem compelled to utterly deny the plain fact that so much social progress has been made! A plague on both cynical houses.)

== We are explorers ==

Others are commemorating this anniversary, of course.  I recommend one article in Salon, by veteran journalist Joel Shurkin, who covered the Apollo missions way back when. (This essay was published after Neil Armstrong's death, in 2012.) The ostensible topic - what Armstrong meant to say when he set foot on the moon, is actually banal.  But Shurkin makes some moving points.

"We should explore space because that’s what we humans do... We explore. We are not content with where we are, we want to see what is over there. It is part of our DNA. When the great explorations of Earth began, there probably were people who told Cook and Magellan and Hudson and Columbus and all the rest that it was a waste of resources or that if God wanted us to find a northwest passage, he would have put up road signs or something. But they went. That’s us."

I nod my head vigorously, but also with a modernist quibble.  In addition to Cook and Magellan and Columbus he -- and the rest of you out there -- should routinely add in names of other, non-western explorers. like ibn Butatta and Cheng-ho and Hotu Matua.  Not only is this simple justice -- and pragmatically it lets you cancel out the "white-male-Euro chauvinist" reflex-accusation -- it also shows that you are one of the horizon-spreaders. Always ready to think outside your old, confining box.

Someone worthy of talking to others about shattering much bigger boxes. About seeking much wider horizons.**

== The Need for Speed! ==

Now consider a few other perspectives. For example: ever since the invention of the steam locomotive, human beings (or their machines) managed, every passing year and decade, to keep traveling faster, at an accelerating rate -- a curve that kept spiking ever more vertical, until we launched the Voyager space probes on their pellmell fling past Jupiter and beyond the Solar System, in the mid 1970s. Extrapolating that curve of ever-greater speed, some expected that we would, by 2010, dispatch probes to distant stars! We might easily have landed humans on Mars, using Freeman Dyson’s marvelous Orion-drive ships. It all appeared as inevitable and obvious as Moore’s Law of computer development seems to a different generation of techie-transcendentalists.

spacecraftOnly then, quite suddenly, the curve of acceleration abruptly stopped -- after 150 years. The Voyagers still represent, in many ways, a high water mark of humanity’s progress in space, culminating and concluding our raucous search for speed. At least, for now.

(Those who believe in an infinite Moore's Law, take note.)

Indeed, millions now look at the Space Race obsession as a mark of earlier immaturity. Sure, we benefit from weather and communication satellites, and reconnaissance-sats spread the worldwide strategic transparency that arguably save all our lives, during the Cold War. The technology spin-offs more than paid for it all and people are moderately proud of robotic space probes like Hubble and Cassini and Spirit and Opportunity.  Moreover, NASA's budget is far smaller than most citizens believe; when polled, they always give an estimate that is far higher.

But, when it comes to dreams of men and women, venturing into vacuum waste, well, you can hardly even find that happening in movie sci fi anymore, let alone our rel-life ambitions.

Certainly, when it comes to the actual Moon itself, I look with skepticism upon any thought of hurrying back there. My own graduate research advisor -- Dr. Jim Arnold -- was the fellow who predicted there might be ice in lightless crater-bottoms, at the north or south lunar poles -- and if it turns out to be true, there may be something useful about the place, someday. Still, despite George Bush's grandiose boondoggle that (thankfully) was cancelled, it hardly seems a useful next destination for us, right now.  Not compared to the riches that await us at near-Earth crossing asteroids, for example. Or that prime piece of real estate that has already caught the Russians' eye -- Phobos. Or the possible abode of life that is Europa.

== But what were we actually doing? ==

And yet, in honor of this anniversary, I want to make two points, in defense of those quaint old missions to the Moon.

First, they serve as a backstop against the gloom and pessimism that seem to be preached by cynics of both right and left, at every turn. How many of the arguments for some ambitious enterprise or another begin with: “If we could go to the moon, why can't we...” 

Damn right. If we could do that... well... we could do a heckuva lot of cool things! If we came up with some good old fashioned, win-win pragmatism and gumption, that is.

Then there is the way that one can connect the Moon Landings to Las Vegas and Disneyland and the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR). Bear with me on this one...

All four were perfect expressions of an indomitable human -- but also crazily American -- determination to do or create things we want, long before any practical technology should have made it possible.  All four were expressions of desire so strong, that all else that was needed was money... just money. Oh, and in the case of Las Vegas, a lot of water. 

The VCR was like the moon shots? Did you ever open one up and watch as it clanked and whirred? What a brilliant, elaborate, insanely complicated Rube Goldberg device! Mass produced so cheaply that almost all Americans had several. It allowed hundreds of millions of people to watch what they wanted to watch, when they wanted to watch it, before any  sensible or efficient digital technologies were available to make it so. 

Get it now? And the lesson? That we are deficient today only in that one thing -- sufficient desire to overcome our stoked up, artificial resentments and get back to working together again, on something cool.  

It is that desire -- and the accompanying genius at pragmatic problem solving -- that the dogmatists and ideologues have killed in us. And that is the real reason we stopped adventuring in space.

== Finally... Apollo may have saved us..==

 I believe the Apollo missions helped to create some of the most important art in human history.

That's a bold and strange statement. But let me dare to define effective visual art as some work or representation that subtly changes human beings just by the sight of it, transforming hearts and minds without verbal or logical persuasion.

By that reckoning, the 20th century featured two hugely effective works of visual art, both of them gifts of physics! 

First, the terrifying image of the atom bomb altered forever our little-boy romantic attachment to war, beckoning us instead us to grow up a bit in dealing with this new and awesome power to destroy. Defense became the business of serious grownups. Even (especially) among soldiers, war itself is now seen as evidence of failure - an urgent and risky measure arising out of inadequate diplomacy, preparation or deterrence. Sure, there were logical reasons to make that shift.  But art helped it along. The image of that mushroom cloud seared us.  It persuaded, without pallid words.

Ah but then there was the second image that changed us, deeply and forever. That great and transforming work of art was a gift that arrived at the very end of one of the most difficult years any of us can remember - 1968 - twelve crazed and frenetic months that brought most Americans -- and most of the world -- to the brink of exhaustion and despair. Yes, great music washed over us in a veritable tsunami... as did tragedies, war, invasions, assassinations, riots, betrayals, and fed-up demands for transformation.

Only then, a final token arrived -- like a gleam of hope shining at the bottom of Pandora’s Box...when the Apollo 8 astronauts brought home -- just before year's end -- that first perfect image of the Earth, floating as a blue marble in the vast desert of space. A picture that moved even the most cynical hearts and changed forever our outlook towards this fragile oasis world.

I'm willing to argue that this image -- an artwork purely created by humanity’s boldness and ambition... and the chaste innocent truthfulness of science... that transformed us more than anything else. Perhaps making us better, more responsible citizens and world-managers

But also -- one can hope -- possibly sending us down roads that will make us more ready and more worthy, until that day comes when our childrens’ children reverse things yet again, spurning cheap, indignant cynicism in favor of fizzing, confident eagerness, leading them once again to resume chanting:

“Let’s go!”




== ...addenda... ==

1) For more on the process of "horizon expansion" or seeking "otherness"... see my big TED-style talk at the Smithsonian - "Will we diversify into many types of humanity?"  (Follow the slides on Slideshare!)

2) Mark your calendars for one year from today… Pluto!  "We're arriving at Pluto on the morning of the 14th of July 2015. It's Bastille day. To celebrate we're storming the gates of Pluto."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Media Challenge FAA Drone Ban -- and drones conveying beauty?

MEDIA-DRONE-BANTomorrow I will offer comments on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  But first, let's catch up on some important issues.

Drones have already been used on several occasions in the US to document the news. Last week, a storm chaser in Arkansas used a drone to record the havoc wrought by a tornado. But the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been very slow to adopt rules for private and corporate drone use and has taken a draconian zero-tolerance policy on its interim ban on almost all such uses. Now, a number of media companies, including The New York Times and The Associated Press, accused the Federal Aviation Authority of violating the First Amendment.

Is this a difficult problem? Sure! Just imagine a future city scape abuzz with irritating mechanical vultures -- delivery owls and snoopy eye-spies, swooping about, colliding with buildings and each other and power lines, causing blackouts and raining shattered, glowing parts on all below… at minimum, city use should involve devices capable of situational awareness and detection of collision hazards and minimum separation rules. But dig it - we will only get there if the experiments can proceed in a few cities to see what really happens!

Start with Houston. They don't give a darn anyway….

== Drones, androids and robots bring you the news! ==

ROBOTS-NEWS Will human journalists become obsolete? I participated in an online (HuffPost) panel discussion about the latest trend... robotizing the news media.  Here are just a few examples of the trend.

Japan Unveils  It's First Android Newscaster. Not exactly uncanny, yet.  But they're busy. With an expected 7% drop in population, their interest in automation is very high.

AP Will Use Robots to Write Some Business Stories.   - 4000 robo stories in the time it takes human writers to do 300. Shades of Max Headroom! The following couch discussion of this is... fluffy and made me want to replace the panel with robots!  Another News Outlet Is Using Robots To Write Stories...

Apparently most sports stories have come to us this way for several years.  (I suspect decades, even generations.)

== And more drones...  ==

Drones… everywhere!  Illustrating what has sometimes been called Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law… that cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile faster than ML. Now… watch how the flying cams are getting far more rugged, using a simple gimbal in a cage approach!  Watchbirds here we come, yippee.

Oh, but see the very end of this blog for one of the best links you'll ever click, brought to you by a drone.

== The insurrectionary recourse? ==

citizen-uprisingAll the ructions and revolutions overseas raise an earnest question: could it happen here? Dialing in closer: is it still even theoretically possible for a mass citizen uprising to topple the government of a modern, western state? Mr. Harry Bentham makes an earnest effort and raises a few interesting points in “Does Modern Tech Render the 2nd Amendment Redundant?

Alas, his appraisal winds up being rather shallow, simply reiterating his arm-waved and evidence-free assertion that a mass uprising, armed with civilian rifles, could naturally and easily overcome forces of the modern state. Mr. Bentham leaves aside any discussion that:

- Any mass civil ruction will likely feature as many armed civilian "tories" as "rebels."

- Local police have lately been heavily up-armed to close to military levels. Their loyalties in a crisis would complicate matters.

Jefferson-rifle   - Everything depends upon the morale and attitudes of the troops. If they retain strong connectivity and identification with the populace, they will be unreliable instruments of repression.

These and other factors were discussed in my own treatment on this issue -- The Jefferson Rifle: Guns and the Insurrection Myth -- where I appraise whether modern westerners -- and Americans in particular -- still retain an "insurrectionary recourse."

Even more important, I explain carefully why attachment to that ideal is THE driver behind the refusal of the Gun Lobby to consider even modest compromises.

Fireworks== Finally... drones and sheer beauty 

I cannot recall when last an item of media so delighted me. I am... for once... speechless. Though proud to live in ...

...oh, just click this. Full screen. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Brilliant innovators - hopeful signs

First a reminder that a number of TED-style or interview talks are up. THE FUTURE IS HERE: Science meets Science Fiction Imagination, Inspiration and Invention was a lavish event last May in Washington DC, presented by the Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Here’s a link to my talk: Otherness: will we supply our own new diversity? (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!)

Also “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?” My talk at TEDxUCSD finally offers a public version of this disturbing notion I’ve been discussing for years — that an unseen addiction is destroying our civilization.  (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare! )
While we're at it: You can catch more sober reflections on all the Great Big Topics on the TV show "Closer to Truth" - with episodes ranging from SETI to religion to ESP to human destiny in the cosmos. I am interviewed on some of these matters, but I am mere comic relief among the truly brilliant folks like Francisco Ayala who share their wisdom and insights with you.

Finally -- watch a podcast from the planetary Society about coming solar sail missions! There will be several important light-sail missions in 2016! Watch Bill Nye and others (yes... including me).

Now... on to those great innovators!

== Innovation will save us ==

Dean-kamen-slingshot-waterYou cynics out there had better not read this article about one of the heroes of our age, Dean Kamen, whose new water-distillation machines may provide healthy supplies to hundreds of millions of needy people, slashing disease rates and even preventing war. Kamen’s knack for making money while attacking “impossible problems” goes way back. His FIRST Robotics League has made nerdy inventiveness cool and high-status and fun on thousands of high school campuses. Guys like him — and Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and others — prove that it’s not about left-vs-right. It is about deciding to be confident problem solvers, helping us all to win positive sum games.

NEXT: What was the federal government’s role in starting the shale-gas revolution? There is much ado in the press over the arrival (long expected by some of us) of cheap natural gas and renewed supplies of domestic petroleum, developed inside North America. The prospect of U.S. and Canadian energy independence is shaking up political dynamics all over the globe and (among other effects) helping to fuel a new renaissance in American manufacturing.

What seems bizarre is how this has become a crowing point for the Right. The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal regularly runs opinion pieces that criticize federal efforts to advance energy technologies and their commercialization… and completely ignore the past federal role in research and stimulation and infrastructure, that made the shale boom possible. See this piece in Physics Today. Can you spell h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y?

The gas industry itself has spoken on behalf of federal research efforts. “The DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it,” said Mitchell Energy’s former vice president Dan Steward. “You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”

== Inheritance of acquired… nervousness? ==

My colleagues Greg Bear and Mark Anderson have been among those who for years have suggested that Darwinian puritanism blinds us to certain ways that Lamarck might have been at least a little bit right. That some acquired characteristics can be passed to the next generation. Now comes experimental validation of their suspicion… in a way that many of us always knew in our gut. That trauma can get passed down the generations.

FEAR-PARENTSSee this report: Can We Inherit Fear From Our Parents? In a laboratory experiment, traumatized mice appeared to mature normally. It was only when researchers subjected them to behavioral tests that differences became apparent. The traumatised mice appeared to be reckless, wandering into bright, open spaces that mice usually avoid. Yet they also appeared to be depressed. When placed in a tank of water they gave up and floated instead of trying to swim to safety.

“When males from the traumatised litters fathered offspring, their pups displayed similar abnormal behaviour even though they had never experienced trauma. The pups’ insulin and blood glucose levels were also lower than in normal mice – a symptom of early life stress. The offspring seemed to have inherited the effects of their fathers’ trauma. Furthermore, the next generation, that is the grandchildren of the original stressed mice, also showed abnormal behaviours. How could trauma be transmitted down the generations?

“The researchers analysed the traumatised fathers’ brain tissue, specifically in a region called the hippocampus, where memories are formed. They noticed larger than normal quantities of tiny RNA molecules called microRNA. Like tiny switches, these molecules are known to turn the activity of genes on or off.

“An abundance of this microRNA was also detected in the traumatised fathers’ sperm and in the brain tissue of their offspring. Could it be that the microRNA was somehow imprinted with the experience of the trauma, transmitting the memory to the offspring? To answer this, the researchers extracted the microRNA from the sperm of traumatised mice and injected it into embryos. The pups that developed from these embryos displayed the same behavioural and metabolic abnormalities as the traumatised fathers, while pups injected with RNA from un-traumatised fathers did not. It was strong support for the hypothesis that the sperm RNA was transmitting the experience of trauma.”

== More science ==

Thorne-Zytkow-neutron-starred supergiant that contains, in its bowels, a neutron star? The existence of such an object was first proposed by (my friend) Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Anna Zytkow, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK. Now there is a strong candidate to be an observed Thorne-Zytkow object. Amazing.

Goodbye High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). Conspiracy theorists have accused the program of doing everything from mind control to global communications jamming. Now bulldozers await as the research program (on interesting things, not mind control) wraps up.

Exobiologists surveyed more than 1,000 planets for planet density, temperature, substrate (liquid, solid or gas), chemistry, distance from its central star and age. They developed and computed the Biological Complexity Index (BCI) suggesting 1 to 2 percent of the planets showed a BCI rating higher than Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a subsurface global ocean that may harbor forms of life. With about 10 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the BCI yields 100 million plausible planets. At a glance, it seems a shallow conclusion, in part because Kepler results skew heavily toward massive planets orbiting close to their stars. And because Europa-style moons have no need for a Goldilocks Zone and hence may be pervasive.

Neuroscientists have suspected for some time that the brain has some capacity to direct the manufacturing of new neurons. Now generative neurons that stimulate stem cell production of more neurons have been found.

TheGapIn The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals. Psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a “definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose.” Says Ray Kurzweil: “Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children, and human evolution, he surveys the abilities most often cited as uniquely human—language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind, and mental time travel—and finds that two traits account for most of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: Namely, our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on scenarios, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. These two traits explain how our species was able to amplify qualities that we inherited in parallel with our animal counterparts; transforming animal communication into language, memory into mental time travel, sociality into mind reading, problem solving into abstract reasoning, traditions into culture, and empathy into morality.”

Let Phil Plait show you (and explain) the stunning and strange surface of Saturn’s moon, Phoebe.

== Amazing, if true. ==

HP’s new computer technology can manage 160 petabytes of data in a mere 250 nanoseconds.

‘There is something about the brains of high-IQ individuals that prevents them from quickly seeing large, background-like motions.’ Very interesting re differences in brain function. Interesting grist for deep pondering… or else (as I’ve seen)… we’ll see this used by dogmatists proclaiming “see? Smart people must be stupid!”

Papyrus-plant-bookfascinating article in Salon, from the book Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars” by John Gaudet, describes how the papyrus plant gave ancient Egyptians the ability to make boats and use their water world.

Finally, a glimpse at male-female vocabulary differences showing we still have a way to go.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Everything leaks - get used to it.  Use it. Also: is Skynet coming?

== Will Wall Street give us Terminator? Others weigh in ==

AGI-artificial-general-intelligence A few years ago, I posed a chilling hypothesis, that AGI — or “artificial general intelligence” that’s equivalent or superior to human — might “evolve-by-surprise,” perhaps even suddenly, out of advanced computational systems. And yes, that’s the garish-Hollywood “Skynet” scenario leading to Terminator.

Only I suggested a twist — that it would not be military or government or university computers that generate a form of intelligence, feral, self-interested and indifferent to human values. Rather, that a dangerous AI might emerge out of the sophisticated programs being developed by Wall Street firms, to help them game (many might say cheat) our economic system.

Indeed, more money is being poured into AI research by Goldman-Sachs alone than by the top five academic centers, put together, and all of it helping to engender systems with a central ethos of predatory opportunism and parasitic amorality.Oh, and did I mention it's all in secret?  The perfect Michael Crichton scenario.

Barrat-Final-INvention Now comes a book by documentary filmmaker James Barrat — Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era — reviewed here on the ThinkAdvisor site -- Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan? — in which Barrat discusses a scenario sketched out by Alexander Wissner-Gross, a scientist-engineer with affiliations at Harvard and MIT, that seems remarkably similar to mine. Opines Wissner-Gross:

“If you follow the money, finance has a decent shot at being the primordial ooze out of which AGI emerges.”

Barrat elaborates: : “In other words, there are huge financial incentives for your algorithm to be self-aware—to know exactly what it is and model the world around it.”

The article is well-worth a look, though it leaves out the grand context — that “emergent-evolving” AGI make up only one category out of six different general varieties of pathways that might lead to AI. To be honest, I don’t even consider it to be the most likely.

But that has not bearing on what we — as a civilization — should be doing, which is taking reasonable precautions. Looking ahead and pondering win-win ways that we can move forward while evading the most obviously stupid mistakes.

Secret schemes of moohlah masters — that’s no recipe for wisdom. Far better to do it all in the light.

== Everything leaks ==

Heartbleed: Yes It's Really That Bad.  So says the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Heartbleed exploits a critical flaw in OpenSSL, which is used to secure hundreds of thousands of websites including major sites like Instagram, Yahoo, and Google. This article in WIRED also suggests that you can redouble your danger by rushing to trust fly by night third parties offering to fix the flaw… and meanwhile, "big boys" of industry aren't offering general solutions, only patches to their own affected systems.

The crux? (1) change your passwords on sites where financial or other vital info is dealt-with, then gradually work your way through the rest, as each site offers you assurances. (2) try not to have the passwords be the same. (3) help ignite political pressure for the whole world of online password security to have a rapid-response component (not dominance) offered by a neutral agency… one that is totally transparent, neutral and separate from all law or espionage "companies." And…

Everything-leaks…and (4) might I ask if you've noticed that this kind of event happens about twice a year? And it has been that way since the 1980s? Each of the events a scandal in its own right… hackers grab half a million Target card numbers… or Microsoft springs a leak… or Goldman Sachs… or Equifax… or Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange and Edward Snowden rip off veils of government secrecy… and pundits howl and the public quakes and no one ever seems to draw the correct conclusion --

that everything eventually leaks! And that maybe the entire password/secrecy model is inherently flawed. Or that there is another, different model that is inherently far more robust, that has only ever been mentioned in a few places, so far.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers remain a vital part of reciprocal accountability. I would like to see expanded protections that simultaneously expand reciprocal accountability and citizen sousveillance… while allowing our intitutions to function in orderly ways.

Whistle-blower-lawsNow this announcement that the Project of Government Oversight (POGO) install SecureDrop… a new way for whistle blowers to deposit information anonymously and shielded from authorities trying to root out leakers. As author of The Transparent Society, I sometimes surprise folks by straddling this issue and pointing out that the needs of the bureaucracy should not be discounted completely! Or by reflex. Whistle blowing falls across a very wide spectrum and if we are sophisticated citizens we will admit that the revealers of heinous-illegal plots deserve more protection than mewling attention junkies.

Still, there is a real role to be played by those pushing the envelope. Read more about Pogo here.

Then again... Facebook can now listen in on your activities with a new audio recognition feature for its mobile app that can turn on smartphones’ microphones to “hear” what songs or television shows are playing in the background. Sounds cool… um, not.

== What does it all mean? ==

Everything Leaks.  It boils down to:

"Can you name any month, in the last 25 years, when there wasn't a major information leak in the news?"

information-leaksEvery few months it is some massive loss of customer information from a major bank or retail outfit... or government agency.  And every time, there are shouts of outrage and demands that info-gatherers be more careful.  Do you ever hear anyone mention another possibility?  That Everything Leaks?

One definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.  Sure, in the short term we should all - individuals, companies, governments - strive for better security. (Are YOU certain your home computer or laptop or tablet is not a taken-over portion of some hacker-botnet? You may be part of the problem.)

But over the long run, the real trick will be to create a world in which even leaked info cannot harm us.  An open and increasingly tolerant world might achieve that, as I describe in The Transparent Society.  It might not succeed -- the odds have always been stacked against our Enlightenment Experiment.  But it is the method that got us here, the the only glass-half-fill civilization.  And it is the only method that stands the slightest chance of working.

== Brandeis the Seer ==

The famous dissent in Olmstead v. United States (1928)To , by Justice Louis Brandeis, is a vital mirror to hold up to our times. Take the most famous part of eloquent dissent, regarding a seminal wiretapping case:

Brandeis-criminal-law-olmstead“Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher,” Brandeis concluded. “For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means — to declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal — would bring terrible retribution.”

Which brings us to Andrew O’Hehir’s article on Salon, recently, using Brandeis as a foil to discuss – and denounce – some recent polemics against Edward Snowden and his journalist outlet, Glenn Greenwald. To be honest, I found O’Hehir tendentious and sanctimonious, but there were some cogent moments that made the article worthwhile, especially when he shone some light on the incredible prescience Brandeis showed, in his 1928 dissent:

“If Brandeis does not literally predict the invention of the Internet and widespread electronic surveillance, he comes pretty close," for Brandeis wrote, “The progress of science in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wire-tapping ...Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home.” Brandeis even speculated that psychiatrists of the future may be able to read people’s “unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions” as evidence. O'Hehir notes, " far as I know we haven’t reached that dystopian nightmare yet. (But if that’s the big final revelation from the Snowden-Greenwald trove of purloined NSA secrets, you read it here first.)”

== Transparency media ==

Anyone care to review this for us? Post-Privacy and Democracy: Can there be Moral and Democratic Development in a Totally Transparent Society? by Patrick Held. It provides arguments why the end of privacy or at least secrecy might be inevitable given our individual demand for technology.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Immigration Fury: one of many cliches you believe - that are “opposite to true”

Not far from where I live, demonstrators in Murrieta California have been blocking a facility designated to hold families and children who were recently intercepted attempting to cross illegally into the United States.  The demonstrators' chief effect -- (other than keeping kids on stifling busses for a few hours, till other centers came online) -- was to make a noisy statement about the recent flood of young border crossers. 

Fair enough. That border youth-surge apparently arose when commercial "coyote" crossing-traffickers discovered and publicized a glitch in the Bush era immigration law, treating children with more legal niceties than adults. The Obama Administration is scurrying to adjust and staunch the flood. But such details are not my reason for raising the topic, today. 

In fact --

-- the sound and fury over illegal immigration to the United States has put me in a rebellious and contrary frame of mind! I intend to upset everyone... from left to right... by pointing out that everything you believe about this issue is probably wrong. 

Indeed, what you believe -- about who is better at defending the U.S. border, and maybe a dozen other major issues -- may be diametrically opposite to true!

== Our previous example of an "opposite" ==

BUDGET-DEFICITThis contradiction re immigration (which I'll get to, in a moment) isn't the only one.  Amid an era in which "discourse" consists primarily of argument-by-facebook-jpegs, I got a lot of positive vibe for an elegantly clear graphic, a while back, showing that the U.S. budget deficit suffers a positive 2nd-Derivative (2D) — that accelerates toward skyrocketing debt — during almost every year of every Republican administration since Eisenhower. 

In sharp contrast — and contrary to every “truthy” slogan we’ve been taught — the 2D of federal deficit spending improves or decelerates during almost every year of every Democratic presidential term.

Why are our basic assumptions so perfectly opposite to actual fact? Both parties have "rhetoric constituencies" -- armies of reflexive voters who have no influence over actual legislation, but who must be told what they want to hear! Even if it is completely different than the effective agenda of the party's true rulers.

In the case of fiscal responsibility, this clash is obvious. Progressives, clutching a long laundry list of causes that need addressing right now, don't want to be told that borrowing must be handled judiciously and responsibly. So their party's record of actual fiscal prudery is something that Democratic leaders scarcely mention. And it is pretty obvious why GOP leaders want to talk loudly about balancing budgets, to distract Republican ground troops from their actual record, pouring deficit spending into the open mouths of the party's owners.

US-ExportImportBank-Seal2Or take another glaring example in today's news. The right's sudden attack upon the U.S. Export-Import Bank.  Mind you, as a Smithian libertarian, I actually dislike the institution, whose primary justification is that "every other country is doing it and we'll cripple ourselves, if we stop."  

Hm, well, I would make it a high priority to treaty-negotiate away the practice.  Still, how ironic that the tea-partiers are targeting an institution that (in fact) is completely self-financing! There is no "tax-waste" going on, at all. The underlying motive, then? That many of the exporting companies - like Boeing - tend to be technological and therefore Democratic-friendly.

== Back to immigration ==

But let's return to today's core topic. Our absurdly wrong cliches about immigration. Let me put it plain. 

Democratic presidents always beef up the U.S. Border Patrol and reduce illegal immigration, while GOP presidents almost always cripple the Border Patrol and open the floodgates of illegals. It is right there in the budgets and manpower figures, with one exception --

-- that G.W. Bush started down the usual GOP path, slashing Border Patrol funding during his first 6 months in office… but then had to increase it, prodigiously, after the traumas known as 9/11.

WAR-ON-REASONIf you actually thought about it, you would understand why both parties’ actions regarding immigration run diametrically opposite to their reputations and rhetoric. Dems actually benefit from LEGAL immigration, which increases the potential numbers of loyal union members and eventual voters. Hence, in fact, democrats have always been softies about increasing the flow of fully sanctioned and documented immigrants. Again, it is legal immigration that democrats have always favored.

Unions do not want illegals undermining wages… which is something the top GOP masters do want. Again, just so your mind cannot evade the cognitive dissonance, dig it well: democratic presidents beef up the Border Patrol and are actually pretty fierce with deportations. This was true of Carter, Clinton and Obama. 

If you hate the ethnic changes taking place in America, fine, but go after the dems for legal immigration, which they did open wider, and stop obsessing on the much smaller illegal influx, which democrats actively combat and which your own party has relentlessly aided and abetted. 

(But if you are that kind of person, logic is wasted on you, anyway.)

Do you start to see the picture? How often what the parties do will run diametrically opposite to the malarkey they feed their rhetoric constituencies? And more the fool you are, for falling for it. 

Go listen to Weird Al sing "Everything you know is wrong." Acceptance is the beginning of the road to openminded recovery.

== Another "opposite" ==

Deregulate-WordMore examples? The same cognitive dissonance between cliched expectation and reality can be found in “de-regulation of excessive government bureaucracy.”

Which party talks and talks and talks about that? About eliminating overly burdensome and competition-reducing rules and agencies? Which one wants to ease the burdens of over-regulation? You think you have that sussed?

 Ah, Republicans do talk about de-regulation, incessantly. But does the GOP ever do anything about it? Even during the many years (e.g. 2001 through 2009) when they held every lever of power -- executive, legislative and judicial?  Go on, name those great de-regulatory feats that came about during those years. Take your time and be thorough. We can wait right here till you get back....

(Be sure - while you're at-it - and ponder the half a trillion dollars in no-bid "emergency" contracts that the Bush-Cheney Administration signed with family-crony companies. Ah, the party that favors free-market competition.)

In fact: ironically, it was the democrats who disbanded the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) that Ayn Rand deemed the worst example of “captured” government, helping railroad moguls to collude and destroying market vigor. It was democrats who disbanded the horrid old Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and restored airline competition. 

Democrats performed the single greatest act of de-regulatory unshackling in human history, when they unleashed the wild-open Internet upon the world, with almost no supervision or regulation at all! (It was Sen. Al Gore's bill that did that.)  Not to mention lesser events, like Obama opening U.S. space-launch services to competitive bidding. Or the largely-liberal-led efforts, in many blue states, to rein in - at long last - the horrifically insane regulatory madness called the War on Drugs.

democat-deregulationIn fact, Democrats did nearly all of the major U.S. deregulations of the last century... except in one industry.

Finance. Wall Street and banking. I will grant that Republicans have actually put their de-regulatory rhetoric into practice in that one sector. Not once but many times.  

Now, some critics have claimed that regulation of finance is desperately necessary to prevent collusion, cheating and massive raids on our economy. Adam Smith as much as said so. Indeed, rampage raids on our wallets -- with accompanying market collapse -- did happen right after every GOP-led slashing of supervision in securities and finance, especially in the 1920s, the 1980s and the mid-2000s. A cynic might conclude that's the goal! But let us at least admit that this is a counter-example to my assertion - that Republicans never actually de-regulate. Securities and finance: there is an industry where the GOP did follow up their rhetoric with action.

And let me further avow that democrats are also the fellows who eagerly rush to apply new regulations! For every time they slashed an agency or rule, they surely compensated by legislating two, somewhere else.  Liberals are like that. And sure that's one cliche truism that does have some validity. I do have a libertarian side and it squirms when I see progressives declaring a need for solutions! Then following that with a demand that each fix be... well... meddlesome.

Elsewhere I have attributed this frenzy of erecting - and demolishing - tweaks upon society to a matter of personality.  Democrats and liberals are not so much statists as they are manic, constantly having to do something about problems!  Yes there are problems. Still, the manic trait is at-best... grating.

Moreover, personality explains why Republicans grumble so much, but never actually do anything, leading the laziest and most useless Congresses in U.S. history.  They are the depressive side of our national bipolar disorder.

== Why does no one ever notice? ==

Rhetoric-symbolismAnd so the question is raised… why do all the pundits and journalists and pols and online yammerers never even glance at any of these horridly opposite-to-true cliches?  

Again, the answer is simple. Rhetoric and symbolism always trump fact-based appraisal. 

Left wingers do not want to face the fact that democratic presidents are strong at the border and fiscally cautious, and sometimes retire obsolete programs. Tea Partiers would rather rail against illegal immigration -- a problem that their party leaders have always fostered, because it seems less racist and nasty to go after undocumented law-breakers than the much larger legal flood, which the democrats did set in motion!

We are slaves to cliches. And the news media is complicit.