Saturday, May 31, 2014

Steering our outrage in wrong directions

Secret-Science-Reform-ActThe “Secret Science Reform Act” considered by the House "Science" Committee would require the Environmental Protection Agency to make public all data, scientific analyses, materials and models before promulgating any regulations. 

Does that sound like some "transparency" that I would easily support?

Always sniff for the evil lies that underpin anything that comes from the present House "science" committee.  In this case note that there is no accompanying requirement for industry to make data public or to waive privacy rules.  In fact, the same bill clearly states that EPA may not publicly disclose any such information. Hence, this Catch-22 uses faux transparency to -- in-effect -- prohibit the EPA from doing anything at all. Ever.

Wow… and I thought the House "science" committee was run by troglodyte science-hating morons. Clearly they include at least a few troglodyte science-hating geniuses… or else (more likely, given past behavior) the morons have a pub-relations genius on their staff.  (They do!  Several veterans of the successful 30 year campaign to obfuscate and delay any regulation of Big Tobacco.)

== Remind you of anything? ==

This kind of maneuver is identical in its nefarious trickery to "voter repression" laws in many red states that require registered voters to present levels of ID that our parents never had to show and that are often hard to come by for the poor, minority, young, married or divorced women and so on. Coincidentally -- surprise -- these are often (lo and behold) democratic-leaning demographies.

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

voter-repression-lawsBut -- and here is a very big "but" -- if these laws weren't aimed solely at stealing elections for the GOP, the states in question would have accompanied the new regulations with measures aimed at helping their citizens to comply with the new burdens.

States routinely give "compliance assistance" to major corporations, when new regulations apply to them. But apparently not one red cent has been appropriated in any red state to help the poor, or young, or women, or minorities to get the required ID, a move that would also help them in so many other aspects of life.  In some cases, simple access to ID might them to STOP being poor.

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

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

==The American Revolution's Biggest Misconception==

If you watch cable news or heed Facebook-snarky jpegs, you might believe the Big Grievance that provoked the American Revolution was "bureaucracy" … and a tax on tea.

What… you actually believe that? Bureaucracy?  And a tax… on... tea?

American-revolution-misconceptionActually read. The grievance -- the Big One -- that Ben Franklin spent 7 years in London fighting, was that British king and lords and oligarchs owned 60% of the land in the colonies and refused to sell it or even let it be taxed by colonial legislatures, resulting in economic stifling.

The other Big Grievance was against parliamentary laws that forced all trade to pass through a few ports and monopolist corporations owned by the king and lords.

Above all, those lords were monopolizing political power, refusing to allow the colonies to send representatives to Parliament -- the ultimate gerrymandering.

Oh, that's not the narrative today's oligarchs foist through their cable propaganda mills. It's not the story they want hard-pressed middle class Americans pondering right now… not if your aim is to rebuild that feudal social structure. It's no wonder the New Oligarchy uses its media shills to focus on a tax on tea! 

Because that lets you ignore the real similarity with those times. The fact that lords and monopolies were denounced by Adam Smith and by the Founders. That the Revolution was against their unbridled power while denying us representation that might let the people change the rules.

Sorry, "tea" guys. You folks are the lord-loving Tories.  On every issue.  Down the line.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Brave Citizenship beats a Scorched Earth Policy

scorched-earthMost of us in the west were raised with legends, myths and movies that taught Suspicion of Authority (SoA).  Thanks to the great science fiction author, George Orwell, we share a compelling metaphor -- Big Brother -- propelling our fears about a future that may be dominated by tyrants.

Whether they emerge from Big Government or a corporate oligarchy or the traditional feudalism of inherited wealth, it is the end result most of us dread… a return to the brutal, pyramid-shaped social order that dominated 99% of human societies -- only now empowered by fantastic powers of technological surveillance and enforcement.

Finding ways to escape that fate - and instead preserve this narrow, fragile renaissance of freedom - is the common goal of activists across the spectrum. Though we are hobbled in this effort by the "spectrum" itself, whose artificial divides make us deride potential allies, proclaiming simplistic, spasmodic prescriptions.

Nowhere is this sad reflex more prevalent than in the lobotomized modern debate over how to handle information.

== The Indignant Reflex ==

Peter Watts is a very good author (Blindsight and the upcoming Echopraxia) and a clever fellow. But when he weighed in, recently, about privacy and surveillance, his core argument was nonsensical, even in its own context. The Watts manifesto for a "Scorched Earth Society" is satisfyingly militant-sounding -- enough-so to excite the tech-dazzle showman, Cory Doctorow, praising Peter from his Boing Boing pulpit, and Angelique Carson, who blogs at the site of the International Association of Privacy Professionals (whose recent conference in D.C. I keynoted)

Peter Watts begins his grand declaration with an absolutely right-on premise -- that one-way, top-down surveillance makes people fearful and paranoid. It can foster an intimidated public. If the gaze-from-above grows pervasive, the sole likely outcome is some orwellian nightmare.

I agree! Top-down, uni-directional surveillance by powerful elites -- governmental or corporate, criminal, foreign or even technological -- will be intolerable and inevitably lead to tyranny. I dread that Big Brother scenario as much as anyone… indeed, probably more so… and I am militant in seeking ways to oppose it. We share this common theme.

Watts-data-destructionAlas, like so many others, Peter thereupon declares that the sole solution will be to hide from the mighty! To use frantic (though always vague and ill-defined) methods of concealment to prevent elites from looking at us:

"Don’t just offer data protection, especially since you can’t guarantee it...Offer data destruction instead."

In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, well-meaning folks will proclaim variants of this general approach -- concealment -- as the sole recourse by common folk against abuse of surveillance by corporate and government and criminal hegemons and would-be big brothers…

…even though it cannot possibly succeed, is illogical, has no historical examples of ever having worked - even once, ever - and is not the method that gave us the appreciable (if partial) freedom and privacy we now enjoy. And in that word "offer" (above) you can find layer after layer of ironies.  Who is expected to offer this anodyne?

In fact, that prescription is only the first half of the Watts manifesto.  The contradictory second half is even more appalling -- a stunning series of incantations that boil down to the following:

Our failure is ordained and rooted in fundamentals of human nature. Freedom is a fluke. Give up!  

Go ahead and read the intelligent and articulate - though deeply-relentlessly wrongheaded - Watts missive. Also Ms. Carson's posting; If you can't protect data, Burn it to the groundThen come back here and continue below, for my reply.

== Predator/prey… vs positive sum citizenship ==

The Watts position - that some of us might preserve a little freedom by hiding - may be shared by nearly all activists, but it is romantic twaddle that makes no sense on a dozen levels.  Starting with the fact that information is infinitely duplicable at almost zero cost, and it leaks like hot hydrogen from a clay jar.

delete-commandSeriously, find me one time and place where blithe assurances of data-leakproofing or data-destruction proved reliable, across thirty years. Or ever. You want to base your freedom on assurances that you can "destroy" data?  Do you trust any "Delete" command to reliably and actually "burn to the ground" any single thing that was ever turned into bits and transmitted across fiber or wires or through the air?

Really?  I wish the "right to be forgotten" folks would show us how, physically and technologically, they envision this happening.

But implementation is not Peter's concern, so let's address the matter on the level he chose -- airy metaphors and theory.  He begins by dissing yours truly, deeming my calls for sousveillance - looking back at power - the impractical dreamery of a person with no grasp of biological truths.

"The dude's a physicist," Watts says about me, "so I suppose he can be forgiven for thinking that it's a good idea to get into a staring contest with an aggressive territorial 200 - kg mammal who regards eye contact as a threat display. Speaking as a biologist, I really can't recommend it."

Ah, well, aside from chuckling at the somewhat churlish appeal to professional credentials, might I still demur? (Note: did Watts offer his readers back links to my real arguments, as I did for him? Such simple gestures reveal whether your belief in reciprocal accountability is genuine, or hypocritically feigned.)

But let's dig into his biological assertions. Anyone who has held extensive discussions with animal behaviorists, such as Sarah Hrdy, will know that if you cower and avert your gaze from a higher status creature, you thus declare "I am yours to beat up, at will, or even to classify as prey!" By cowering, you confirm the bully's inherent right to stare and to control. If you then try to thwart his stare by hiding, you will only be a criminal, denying him what you have admitted is his, by right.

On the other hand, if you look back, he sees you asserting equality.

Sousveillance-over-surveillanceAnd yes, that can be dangerous! That is, it can be dangerous, if you are alone, in primitive conditions of dominate or be dominated. Conditions that we invented enlightenment civilization specifically to overcome.

Indeed, if you look-back jointly, along with thousands and millions of fellow tribesmen, the alpha is going to think twice about predation. He or she or they will pay heed to agreed process. This fact compounds if you manage to enlist other powerful social forces on your side.

We know this because it is what happened, not in airy-fairy metaphor-land, but in our real and palpable Great Experiment, which finally took civilization to a higher plane than gorillas and feudal lords.

Why do these fellows never, ever -- even once -- refer to the big fact?  The elephant in the room. The fact that they are - at present - among the most-free humans our species ever saw? I am fine with seeking and even prescribing ways to save freedom and enhance it!  But how about we start by looking at what has worked, so far? This positive-sum, win-win, have our cake and eat it society is profoundly imperfect!  Except compared to every single other one in history, that is. Shouldn't we begin by asking what methods got us here?

Alas, this back-appraisal is the last thing they ever consider.

== Steps forward ==

Nor do they notice that forward accomplishments continue! Enhancing freedom in positive ways, by assertively facing down authority. Indeed, there are as many steps ahead (for them to ignore) as there are setbacks to be denounced irately.

Sousveillance-truth-brinConsider the most important civil liberties matter in thirty years -- even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be "settled law" that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places. No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of "sousveillance" or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about.

It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth?

A fantasy? In Rialto California, all 70 of its uniformed officers have been required to wear active video cameras when interacting with the public, and the results have emboldened police forces elsewhere in the US and in the UK to follow suit.  After cameras were introduced in February 2012, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers' use of force fell by 60%. Most officers, skeptical at first, have adapted. In response, dozens of much larger constabularies are starting their own experiments…

…but Peter Watts would rather compare us to jungle apes than to citizens of a vast and sophisticated commonwealth who, across 250 years, have repeatedly used exactly this approach to wrest gradual-imperfect reforms and freedoms from previous aristocracies. Yes, by all means focus also on the bad news! The dangers and slides back toward feudalism! We don't have Star Trek or the Culture, not yet.

Only dig this well; the only thing that ever has worked is deterrence.  The lesson since Rodney King is that cops beat-up people less, who might plausibly file an evidence-backed complaint that will be believed and result in discipline. Indeed, the civil rights marchers of the 1960s relied upon the crude television cameras of that era to not only tweak the nation's conscience but to keep the marchers, themselves, alive!

Funny how this physicist would expect a biologist to notice the core biological fact, that light means life.

Politicians fear most the combination of a free and active press read by an active citizenry. That is why there's now a concerted putsch to demolish both the press and citizen confidence. If they did not fear us, why would they bother?

== The whistleblower examples are not exact ==

Whistle-blower-lawsPeter Watts cites Manning, Assange and Snowden as folks who were punished for looking back.  And indeed, at the fringes, where they operated, there is a murky realm where we need to talk, converse, argue over many complexities. Their cases are murky because they knowingly did violate laws that had been passed by due-democratic processes and ratified via acceptance by the populace.  Moreover, very little of the NSA/State/etc shenanigans that they revealed was actually illegal by statute.

Yes, Snowden especially revealed to us that we need to re-evaluate what's legal and change those statutes! But if you study Gandhi and King and the rhythms of civil disobedience, there is no promise that whistle-blowers get off, scott free.  I want enhanced whistle blower protections! But the only way we will get them is if we demand them.

In other words, it has to come down to my methods, after all.

Indeed, not one of the privacy protections on the table today will work worth a damn, unless they can be inspected and sousveilled.  Without reciprocal accountability and transparency, such measures might as well be written on toilet paper.

== What works? ==

What actually works is a limited set of processes:

1- Divide power.  It is easier to look back at 600kg gorillas when there are bunches of them, glaring at each other. This is the key enlightenment innovation! Split government into mutually suspicious branches. Encourage rivalry between corporations and between the private and public sector.  Get some of the aristocrats on our side (e.g. Gates-Buffett).

Then create NEW elites that are able to play hardball.  The greatest invention for freedom in our lifetimes has been the rise of NGOs, orgs like the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amnesty International and so on, who take the dues of millions of meek, individually-helpless members, then use that money to hire top paladins and lawyers, ready to stare down gorillas.
(And if you, dear reader, are not engaged in this method...sending in those dues… then you are a hypocrite to complain about freedom's demise.)

2- Sousveillance. Catch scoundrels.  Strip them. Expose them. You may be a transparency-hero whistle-blower... or just carry a live recorder whenever you deal with your town's planning clerk. Every time light wins, it teaches the mighty to limit the number of their henchmen and to worry about their loyalty.

3- Thwart Collusion. Watch for elites getting cozy with each other or regulators getting "captured" and expose the conniving.  Siccing elite "gorillas" on each others' throats is our core methodology. The core method of cheaters is for the gorillas to connive.

4- Stop whining and believe. That we are no less capable than the last ten generations were, at ratcheting the Great Experiment forward. That equipped with new tools, we might make Big Brother impossible.

All of these approaches were hard won by very smart ancestors… whose lessons are utterly ignored by the likes of Peter Watts, who would rather proclaim that we are helpless under-gorillas or slaves of neural reflexes  that force us, forever, to be obeisant slaves.

== Burn it all down? ==

RECIPROCAL-ACCOUNTABILITY What a lovely metaphor. Burn it down! How snarky-satisfying in its simplistic prescription! How voluptuous in its Bakuninist wrath!

But to reiterate: Watts cleverly obsesses on the tooth and claw of nature, bemoaning our inherent limitations, while...

(1) offering no solution - because the data cannot be "burned."

(2) He utterly ignores the methods of reciprocal accountability that gave us the freedom we now enjoy and that empowered him to spread his simplistic and un-helpful metaphors.

Look, I do not expect to win this argument.  I've learned that the reflex to whine about power is vastly stronger than the will to pragmatically appraise and innovate new ways to utilize tools that have worked for 250 years.

Reacting to Peter's essay, Michael Rush commented: "It seems to me that his observations have more to do with evolved psychology than with strategy.  Humans often have a hard time even maintaining eye contact with one another.  I think it may be an important point that while sousveillance may be our only/best chance against abuse of authority, it may go somewhat against our instincts and therefore require extra effort (which may be why you have seen so much resistance to the idea since you first proposed it)."

== It gets worse ==

I mean, jeepers.  Here's a lovely Watts-bit: "We're also familiar with how cops react to being recorded by civilians — or even worse, to the suggestion that we "look back" by sticking cameras in their cars . Over in LA they 've already done that, only to find that vital bits of that cop-watching equipment keep going mysteriously missing. Apparently, the police don't like being spied on."

cameras-smallerWhaaaat?  Peter, have you ever heard of... um… Moore's Law? Must these with-it tech whizz authors assume things will be the same next year and the next...

… when cameras are getting smaller, cheaper, more numerous and mobile faster than Moore's Law? And IPV6 will give separate addresses to each of the thousand dirt-cheap penny-cams you'll buy on a $10 roll and stick up -- invisibly blending with the chewing gum -- almost anywhere?

Not interested in the future? Then how about in 2013 - the very year that a citizen's settled-and-absolute right to film police was proclaimed. 

 Yes, Peter, that proclamation was answered (as I predicted in The Transparent Society (1997)) by a plague of cell phones getting "accidentally broken" by police!  So? Okay, that's a totally predictable phase. I'm glad that Watts and others perceived it, yay.  Or rather, yawn. We all expected that.

But didja bother to ask about the next step beyond that? The upshot, after cops start 'accidentally breaking' folks' phones? That next step appears never once to have occurred to them...

….when, within the same year, we saw a man in an orange prison jump suit, being sentenced for deliberately breaking the cell-cam of the man he was arresting… while stupidly assuming no other cameras were within view.

Are these guys really science fiction writers, if they didn't see that tertiary phase coming?

Watts spoke anecdotally of his own, personal traumas with authority, and I'm with you, brother.  I have stories of my own. But which of the following might have rescued him from a beating at the border in 2009? Futile efforts to erase data about himself? Lecturing gorillas about gorilla nature?

Or a citizen in another car, shouting at the border guards: "I'm transmitting live images of this!"

== It boils down to ego ==

You know what hurts?  It isn't watching smart guys who share my fear of Big Brother reflexively proclaiming "resistance" methods that are inherently futile and that will only play into Big Brother's hands.

LIGHT-STRONGERIt isn't their laziness, opining on a major issue without bothering to read or study or understand the topic, in-depth, or bring in 6000 years of historical context, or consider alternatives as anything but straw men.

Or the shallowness of assuming that their opponent-of-the-moment must have studied the issue just as little as they clearly have.

No, what grates is their assumption that they have some kind of moral high ground, as proud paladins of freedom, just because they grumble with sour-stylish verve.

Fellows, I have been fighting this fight longer and harder than you have.  And Big Brother is worried about my methods.  Not yours.


== FOLLOWUP Breaking transparency news ==

Worrisome? An Apple patent that might enable police to shut down cell phones in an area? Would this neutralize the recent court and Obama Administration declarations that citizens have a perfect right to record the police? The most important civil liberties decision in 30 years… and it could be rendered moot if all our sophisticated smart phones shut down in a crisis area.

All right then fight it by spreading more vision! Buy up old fashioned cameras and dumb phones! 

Encourage neighbors to perch digicams on roofs and window ledges. Do not let any 600 lb gorillas monopolize sight!

Did I ever once say I was relaxed about this fight? I am on the same side as the fellows who are dissing transparency and accountability.  I wish they would join us, fighting for light, the only thing that has ever - and that can ever - work.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why are the Koch brothers opposing solar energy?

Before discussing "bad" elites, let us always remember we have allies, among the movers and shakers.  For example: General Stanley McChrystal (ret), in a TED talk, makes a brief but cogent "military case for sharing knowledge," surprising all with his call for overall transparency.

MCCHRYSTAL-TED-sharingOf course there are a million ramifications and complexities that cannot fit into a TED talk. It is a complex world and our Protector Caste has genuine needs for tactical (short term) secrecy. But needs all-too easily become excuses for bad habits that are self-defeating over the longer term … and that could ultimately lead to Big Brother. 

As I regularly argue, during twice yearly trips to DC, there must be an ultimate trend toward an open world, and that secular trend must be the core goal toward which tactically secret methods (ironically) propel the world. Gen. McChrystal makes about as strong a case as you could in a ten minute TED.

"I am more scared of the bureaucrat that holds information in a desk drawer or in a safe than of someone who leaks, because ultimately we'll be better off if we share."

Oh, for a more in-depth appraisal of this new era, see (of course) The Transparent Society.

== Those who want to shut down both light and enlightenment ==

koch-solarThe Yiddish word "chutzpah" means gall and utterly arrogant nerve. It should be re-spelled to "koch-spah" after this news… that the ever-meddlesome Koch brothers are now funding a major campaign against state efforts to ramp up solar energy.

It would be one thing if they limited their attacks to ending tax rebates and minor subsidies for solar and wind… hypocritical, given how much they have benefited from vastly larger oil-gas-coal subsidies, tax breaks and almost free access to resources on public lands.

No, they are also targeting "net metering" which is the law allowing a homeowner who owns a rooftop solar unit to sell excess power back to the utility. 

Please read that again. The Koch brothers do not want you selling your excess power to the market. Their beef is with filling energy markets with millions of little-guy producers. Their "institute" proclaims that its aim is to "preserve the public utility power company concept" -- a state mandated monopoly system in which single companies control all access to energy. Some enterprise capitalists! Some libertarians! (Read in the New York Times: Koch Attack on Solar Energy.) 

But let's dig deeper to the heart of it. WHY are the Kochs (and their Saudi partners) doing this right now? 

Because solar energy is taking off. Because the efficiency and durability of photovoltaics have been skyrocketing, in part because we had the wisdom to use some mild incentives to boost an important new industry, the way the U.S. Postal contracts stimulated air travel, in the 1920s, or public roads spurred the rise of the automobile.

Only with this difference: renewable energy systems are improving far faster than airplanes or automobiles did, in their nascent days! And more spectacular tech advances loom on the horizon, that the Kochs can see coming fast.

Dig it well. They would not be doing this if renewables weren't taking off and a looming threat to the brothers' bottom line. Millions of autonomous citizens, generating and selling their own power is no longer a sci fi pipe dream. It is coming true fast…

...and parasitic dinosaurs are bellowing.

== focus where it hurts ==

Let's get down to absolute fundamentals that ought to spur any person with libertarian - or liberty - leanings: what must shrink is ability of oligarchy to "capture" and corrupt government. 

Given how deeply committed the Koch brothers are, to meddling and altering our elections, we might want to show it goes both ways, by becoming aware of which products in your neighborhood store augment their Georgia-Pacific empire:

Koch-ProductsKOCH BRANDS: Brawny, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern, Soft 'n' Gentle, Dixie cups/plates/etc, Sparkle/Vanity Fair/Zee napkins.

NON-Koch BRANDS: Charmin, Cottonelle, Scott, Bounty, Viva, Hefty cups/plates/etc, Kleenex/Bounty/Scott napkins.

Hmmm. Print it out. Keep it next to your shopping list. Make up your own minds.

== Bad Democratic Oligarchs? ==

This article in the Washington Free Beacon, Oligarchy in the 21st Century, pushes the meme -- and with some fascinating anecdotal support (!) -- that democrats do oligarchy too!  

This fellow asserts that they do it just as much as republicans do! And indeed, the essay is worth reading, with some informative moments… except for a conclusion that is warped and sick and just plain wrong.

Actually, it's kind of sad, revealing something dark in this writer's core, that he assumes rich democrats must have the same reasons for donating to liberal causes as wealthy donors on the right.  To him, the only conceivable reason that a rich person would donate money would be self-interest, cheating and greed. But the narrative does not wash when Bill Gates and Warren Buffett publicly proclaim "my class should be paying higher taxes."

There is another possible motive -- one that this fellow appears to be incapable of even imagining. That the liberal-rich might be motivated by love of a country and civilization and middle-class society that was very good to them.

== Military Matters ==

The US Navy is showing off, announcing the deployment on-ship of a close-defense laser system and the imminent shipboard testing of a railgun system.

140410101202-navy-railgun-story-bodyYou might recall the dramatically exaggerated depiction of a railgun in one of the Transformers flicks. Railguns use electromagnetic energy known as the Lorenz Force to launch a projectile between two conductive rails. The high-power electric pulse generates a magnetic field to fire the projectile with very little recoil. Many sci fi tales have portrayed rail guns used either in space combat or as great big electromagnetic launch systems, hurling cargoes from the Moon or even from Earth. The development of smaller scale guns for the military was an intermediate step, necessary in several ways.

Combine all this with the Navy's new Zumwalt class destroyer and you can see how advanced a service got that was not crushed and half-ruined by a decade of brutally self-destructive and pointless land wars of attrition in Asia.

Here's a thought-provoking essay on how empires -- mostly spread by military means -- do allow (for all their faults) greater safety from violence and opportunities for trade and development. There are feedback loops and ironies. I do not agree in all ways! But interesting.

Defend civilization, especially the ways in which ours has been unlike any others.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Noah, the Tower of Babel…and Science

A lot of efforts have been made to appraise the Bible in terms of science and vice versa. For example, I've had fun showing (to a conference of transhumanists, no less!) that the book of Genesis clearly states we were meant to be scientists and co-creators and that "nothing is beyond us."

Noah-Film-2014PosterIndeed, it can be illuminating to plumb the Bible -- one of the keystone books of western civilization. Moreover, it gives you the ability to stun, surprise and gain a back-brain door into the minds of some of your deep-steeped neighbors. And so, in light of the recent Russell Crowe film, let's pause and sample the story of Noah.

Now of course, it is somewhat like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. Past scholars, uncharitable toward literalist believers in "biblical inerrancy," have calculated the needed size of the Ark, for example. Were even just all known mammal species shoved aboard, shoulder to shoulder -- you'd need a hundred modern aircraft carriers.

In fact, this argument has had results! Creationist "scientist" Ken Ham conceded -- in his recent debate with Bill Nye -- that evolution (yes "evolution"!) must have radiated all the species we now see, from a seed population that rode upon the Ark! I cannot believe this major concession got so little play in the media or among devotees of either religion or science. It is a real shift in ground.

Noahs_ArkSo, all right, following Ham's clever dip-n-dodge… Noah only carried two of every GENUS and not species. I'm not sure even that will suffice… but however you may groan over this bit of back-pedaling, you also have to be impressed with the agile footwork! Okay, so evolution is real. But it only happened after the flood. Jumping Jehosephat.

Take a look at this article: Creationists Need Faster Evolution than Evolution on Skeptic Ink, who claims that creationists are "using evolutionary theory to support Noah's Ark. Sad."

(For you science-y types, here's the capsule from Skeptic Ink"There are 2,798 HLA-B alleles in the human population. If these originated from the 8 individuals on the ark (assuming all were heterozygous), the mutation rate for the gene must have been one every 2 years (from the day Noah stepped off the Ark until the present). But this mutation rate for the HLA gene wasn't matched by mutation rates for other genes. We don't have 2000 alleles for eye color or blood type or other genes in the human body." In other words, no possible set pif genetic mutation rates can match this story against what we now see going on, in the cells and chromosomes of living creatures today.)

Kaspar_Memberger_(I)_-_Noah's_Ark_Cycle_-_3._The_Flood_-_WGA14802Okay.  Then something else occurred to me. Let's say the entire human population, including guiltless babies, were drowned in a fit of angry pique by a questionably-balanced deity who was not setting a very good parental example, that's for sure. And let's further posit that the wives of Noah's three sons must replenish the Earth with humans. Less than ten generations later, you have cities and Babel-towers being built. What's the math on that?

Well, if each woman is very very fertile -- and extremely lucky -- let's generously figure ten surviving offspring. (Extremely generous, for that era, but let's go with it.) Five of those ten are daughters who can make human beings. (For our purposes, only females matter.) If each generation can multiply the number of fecund females by five, then ten generations of continuously lucky folks, who breed like rabbits and lose almost no babies at all, will give you close to ten million people! Wow.

Tower-of-babel-bible-languageOf course, that calculation is at the extreme high end. See this analysis, where other scholars suggest there were 900,000 people around to start building the Tower of Babel and perhaps as few as 36,000. In which case you get a completely different set of math quandaries…

…like how much physical volume of stone or rammed earth could be stacked upon a tower, in just the century alloted, by such a small population that also had to grow food and live "by the sweat of their brow"? By the time you get to 20,000 feet, the sheer amount of stuff… neglecting compressional and other engineering forces… could not have been hauled by 100x that population -- equipped with trucks! No wonder Talmudic scholars decided (in the 7th century) that the word "tower" must have stood for some kind of machine or high technology that had been lost to time, one that enabled human wizards to fly to heaven's gateway. Okay, that's kinda sci-fi cool, I admit, especially for the 7th Century! But a topic for another time. Let's get back to Noah.

the-dove-sent-forth-from-the-ark-1866One suggestion by the talmudists that's very interesting is that the human species that was wiped out by the Flood was different than ours. That the flood-reset wasn't just moral but genetic, with Noah's family being fundamentally different than his water-doomed neighbors, not just morally but as a matter of speciation. (One sage suggested that people before that point "had no thumbs" until Noah's new sub-species introduced that novelty. Can anyone find a reference?)

Hmmm. well, the mind roams at this point, picturing a humanity 1.0 that might have been really unpleasant by nature… (what? worse than us?)… in which case, is the questionable morality of the Flood eased, at all?

Alas, that raises a counter question about the fallibility of a deity who had to revise His design. (Not a problem, by modern reckoning! All ambitious projects undergo revision. It is only a quandary - ironically - to the obsequiously devout, who insist on zero-fallibility, a completely unnecessary trait of a creator and, well, a hard piece of flattery to live up to!)

imagesOf course, all this calculating misses the point… that the literalist inerrancy folks are wrong, on a truly manic scale. Standing upon a tower of evidence, we know the ages of the Rocks of Ages. We know the universe is vastly greater, older and more beautiful than their cramped, cover-the-eyes-and-ears frenzy permits them to see. But even if you take the stories at face value, problems abound.

For example, if the Babel dispersal happened around 1800 BCE (about the time of the Thera explosion of Santorini, a thought provoking coincidence!) then a seed population of maybe 100,000 would have had to bear successful babies at a prodigious rate… while walking very quickly… in order to spread to the corners of the globe and diversify into the countless tribes who we know to have dwelled in countless far-flung locales. Most of which we know to have been occupied already, long before 1800 BCE. Indeed, by that date, Egypt had already been operating for quite some time… and their language did not change as a result of any tower.

But it's that successful birth rate that has me confused. At what point did the accelerated replenishment cut off, with the world's women losing that reproductive lucky streak, tumbling into the long era of filth and pain and childbed-fever and still-births and miscarriages and infertility and death, death, death that we know to have been their lot, both from written records and from mummies and bones?

It must have been an abrupt transition -- a terrifying and dismaying one… from a blithe expectation of long lives and ten healthy children, into a maelstrom of horror and bleeding and mourning. Yet no records or even stories tell of such a devastating shift. Nor do I know of any any theological musings to explain why the rebuild of population since the flood was so rapid, then abruptly limited by pain and death after death. Was this another punishment? If so, it seems nastier than any flood.

One group inconvenienced by these points of math is the Mormon community. If (as calculated) there were about 340 years between the flood and Babel… and if the Babel crisis precipitated the barrel-migration of a Hebrew tribe (Jaredites) to America… then the building of populations in the Americas becomes almost impossible to contemplate, especially with no Ice Age Bering land bridge to make things seem plausible. But of course, the same quandaries afflict any other faith that insists on interpreting the legends of illiterate shepherds as physically precise accounts…

...instead of allegories that still convey powerful lessons, to this day.

And so, that is where I will leave things. First, because there can be no resolution, because biblical literalism is simply wrong and also because it insults any chance of a God worth our time and attention, portraying Him (her?) as too vicious for words to describe…

Maxwell-equations-light… instead of as the vastly subtle Creator worshipped by Einstein, who concocts a vast cosmos of stunning complexity, diversity and extant -- a universe truly worthy of respect. A God who -- Albert would tell us, if he were here today -- must have gotten things started fourteen billion years ago by uttering the stunning beauty of Maxwell's Equations, in order to command…

 "let there be light."

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Looming Gilded Age: Capital, Affluence & Influence

piketty-capital-coverIf books could kill, the attempted oligarchic takeover of America would be dead this week and Wall Street would be flushed clean of villains, leaving a healthy and vibrantly flat-competitive capitalism, in its wake. The best seller lists swarm with fact-filled appraisals that should sway any portion of the population (that reads) into action.

For example, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century became a Number 1 bestseller at Amazon, around the same time that Senator Elizabeth Warren released her book A Fighting Chance -- about how Washington works, and fails to work.

Another hot book is Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, the latest from Michael Lewis on the most recent form of mass-scamming on Wall Street. (I've written about this important book, elsewhere, pointing out how even Lewis missed the worst implication of High Speed Trading, that it might - in a weird way - lead to no less than human extinction!)

Affluence-InfluenceAnd now -- Martin Gilens's Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America was an award-winner in political science last year. His new tome “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” conclusively proves that elites get their way in public policy, far more readily than the People do.

Duh, you say? So you shrug that it is obvious? Alas, your complacency is death to democracy.

Picketty's may be the most important of these books, zeroing in - supported by clear statistics - on how America's seventy year, post WWII vacation from class war has clearly come to an end. That long, prosperous truce -- the most productive and liberating and egalitarian time in all of human history -- can only be re-established if we first have to guts to recognize why it finally failed.

It is still possible to reform with moderate measures, like those one hundred years ago that Teddy Roosevelt used to restore and safeguard the middle class against a looming Gilded Age… or those that half a century later led to the flattest and most socially mobile continental society in history, with a booming middle class and the greatest surge in entrepreneurial growth and startup capitalism, in the wake of that other Roosevelt*…

ClassWarLessonsHistory…or else if such moderate, re-tuning reforms don't come, as Elizabeth Warren warns in her book, we may tumble back into the normal human mode of 6000 years, a pyramid-shaped society of aristocratic rule in which the only options remaining to oppressed masses will resemble those used by the mobs, in 1789 France. (See my earlier posting, "Class War" and the Lessons of History.)

Truly smart rich folk would see that trend, and thereupon join leaders like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, fighting to maintain a middle class civilization… where they just happen to be rich, but not lords. The tech moguls and creative types are behind Buffett and Gates.

(I portray some discussions about this taking place among trillionaires, in the 2040s, in EXISTENCE.)

Alas, those who got rich via resource extraction from public lands, or by inheriting it, or through predatory Wall Street manipulations, seem to want to be like Louis XVI lords. Their behaviors and public statements stunningly resemble those of the Bourbon First Estate. Their reactions to Picketty et al, via messengers like Paul Ryan, are not about negotiation or finding moderate reforms. They clamor, in full frontal attack mode, a no-compromise stance of absolute determination.

As my friend the epic producer of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski paraphrased recently (with his flair for drama), in The New Aristocracy, they appear to be saying: "We will be your lords. Feudalism is back. Live with it."

== What about those reforms? ==

Lessig-PACProfessor Lawrence Lessig -- one of the archetype Rooseveltean reformers -- has introduced a SuperPAC, Mayday for the Republic, with the stated purpose of destroying SuperPACs. His plan is to raise enough money from small donations to "buy Congress" and destroy the oligarchical donor system from the inside. (The goal is 5 Mayday-aligned House reps in 2014, then raise enough money to "buy Congress" in 2016.)

Terrific. Give your support.

But as you know, I go to an even more basic level -- transparency. And so is a free database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government… aiming to be the antidote to… Big Brother. get it? Pretty much the epitome of citizen-crowdsources sousveillance. This must grow.

Better yet, fight complacency and do what really counts, by reminding all of those who are tempted to sit out the coming mid-term elections:

"It's the Supreme Court, stupid."

== YOUR bill for foreign tax dodges ==

U.S. taxpayers would need to pay an average of $1,259 more a year to make up the federal and state taxes lost to corporations and individuals sheltering money in overseas tax havens, according to a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "…ordinary taxpayers end up picking up the tab, either in the form of higher taxes, cuts to public spending priorities, or increases to the federal debt,” USPIRG said."

In total, the U.S. loses $150 billion in federal revenue and another $34 billion in state revenue annually because of money parked in tax havens. That’s almost 5 percent of total federal revenue.

Um… can we let that sink in? that's $1,200 out of YOUR pocket, every year. Is this "transparency thing" still an abstraction to you?

See where I explore this (Money Flows that Might Prevent New World Wars)...though I do it more entertainingly in EARTH!

== Am I a "liberal? ==

ReclaimAdamSmithSome out there interpret my opposition to an ongoing oligarchic putsch and the new American Gilded Age as evidence that "David Brin is a Liberal" -- despite the fact that no one alive mentions (or touts) Adam Smith more than I do.

Yes I do support liberals (though not leftists) nowadays, for the most part. But that is entirely because of the New Confederacy's blatant abandonment of the old, conservatism of intellects like Buckley and Goldwater and the GOP's open declaration of its intent to ensure that governance fails.  Their agenda of a return to feudalism and the War on Science. In fact, I yearn for the return of a "smithian" libertarianism that might serve as a foil and intelligent balance to reformist liberalism.

If that sounds a bit obscure, then let's just keep returning to that oligarchic putsch -- the skyrocketing wealth and income disparities that seem to be a natural, toxic byproduct when cheating (an inborn human tendency) starts to spoil and ruin the brilliance of smithian market competition.

If we are returning to that age old failure mode, it makes no sense to feel rage -- this is the most natural thing that humans do, when they get power!

We can fix it. Without the insane oversimplifying radicalisms of "all capitalism is evil!" or "all government is evil!" or similar, loony symptoms of "fused political spine disease"… the inability to turn one's head and see flaws in all directions.