Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Science Fiction & Prediction

Let's take a breath and look longer term.  I am inspired after we watched the (mostly) very good "Bladerunner 2049" flick, last night.  More on that, below.

== Probing the territory in front of us ==

How does Science Fiction do at prediction? From Star Trek to 2001 and The Matrix, this article from The Guardian takes a look at how well -- or poorly -- science fiction films predicted and portrayed the next generation of computers, robots and technological innovation. 

In this essay - Why Science-Fiction Writers Couldn’t Imagine the Internet, Lawrence Krauss (author of the recently released The Greatest Story Ever Told -- So Far: Why Are We Here?) presents game-changing real world technologies that defied prediction -- and contemplates what science fiction is good at, and how it seldom actually forecasts the truly unexpected. Well, sure. Though it’s also important to be aware of anomalies...

Like E. E. Hale's The Brick Moon, published in 1866 which foretold navigation and communication satellites as well as humans living in orbit, or Bernal’s “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” in the 1920s scanning ahead at rotating cylinder space colonies, or Aldous Huxley’s genetic augmentation of humans, or H.G. Wells predicting nuclear weapons and war. 

American short story writer Edward Page Mitchell in the 1880s foresaw instant news transmission, pneumatic tube transport and equal rights for women, along with a steady decline of racism, till a Chinese-American is a major presidential candidate in the 1960s. 

San Francisco author Robert Duncan Milne had a run of fantastic tales from 1877-1899 about radio communications, image-based surveillance, photographic forensics, and surviving solar flares.  (More Brin news about Milne, in the course of time, I promise.)

Krauss kindly credits me with predicting some aspects of the World Wide Web, in my 1989 novel EARTH, along with William Gibson’s cyberpunk versions of the Internet, earlier. But he stops there, claiming that SF missed the super-linked world, for the most part. And, for the most part, he’s right! Still, other exceptions stand out. Take Frederik  Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot, which in 1967 or so portrayed not only a vast world-array of linked computers, but citizens carrying personal assistants in their pockets (“Joymakers”) that advised, got information, took pictures and – oh yes – made calls. 

John Brunner’s 1960s novels Stand on Zanzibar and The Shockwave Rider anticipated not just the internet but computer worms and viruses, as did Gregory Benford’s even-earlier story "The Scarred Man."  Even before that, Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe” had fun with what could go wrong, if we all got semi-intelligent personal AI helpers.

While we are on brilliant prescience, have another look at a Fred Pohl book that I have touted for 20 years, urging members of our intelligence, law and military communities to read, and be scared! Pohl’s The Cool War is mentioned in this article that openly adopts his terminology for a struggle between powers that has warmed up to a desperately dangerous kind of bitter peace. In that novel, nations wage a cryptic campaign of tit-for-tat sabotage, undermining each others’ infrastructure, banking systems and power, a ‘war’ that is never declared and never goes nuclear, but leaves us all spiraling ever downward into failure and poverty.

Cool War... The term has been updated and promulgated by David Rothkopf, editor at large at Foreign Affairs and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and I am glad it is getting wider play, since a Cool War is clearly what we’re in. (A little credit then, for my having pushed Pohl’s book -especially to the Protector Caste- for two decades? ;-)

The new anti-democratic axis that has been forged by Vladimir Putin -- now stretching from Ankara all the way to Manila and supported by another rising power – discusses openly its motive and intent to bring down the “decadent west” with its “fictitious” notions of freedom of citizen-rule.  The sabotage of our political processes has come far and probing feints have measured vulnerabilities in every area that Fred predicted, from the power grid to transport. 

And did you really think that North Korea’s nukes have no part in the overall plan? They allow for a possible EMP strike on North America aimed at knocking us down a bunch, while the larger powers retain “It wasn’t us!” plausible deniability. Read that again. And again while actually thinking about who really controls things, in North Korea.)

I’ve railed about this in both fiction and nonfiction (e.g. The Transparent Society) as well as many talks and consultations. 

Though it can be important to grasp the justifications of the other side! Let’s remember that Putin feels vexed that Obama and Hillary Clinton oversaw (he claims instigated) the revolution that removed the Ukraine from Russia’s orbit, sending that people racing toward union with the West. Putin did not want the masterminds of this setback to remain in power, and he brought out every gun to ensure they’d be replaced by his own favored man.

Yes, we live in a world that seems almost written as a science fiction tale!  Who on Earth would have imagined that Americans might be prodded and propagandized into turning away from our genius at pragmatic negotiation? That we’d let ourselves be talked into abandoning the high art of politics? That a third of our citizens could be distracted into waging all-out war on … science? On every single profession of fact-users who know stuff? And now the “deep state” officers of the FBI and intel agencies and military?

No, no. Let this be a cheap novel.

== The future is better than the past ==

Few of my postings have elicited as much fervent argument – and even hate-mail – as my recent blog about Robert A. Heinlein, an author log categorized as a right-winger by oversimplifying fools. That post reprinted directly from Heinlein’s afterword to Revolt in 2100, in which he expressed desperate worry about a merging of the American right with racism and the nastier tendencies in fundamentalism.

Yes, RAH was definitely a “libertarian” in the older sense that hearkens to Adam Smith and self-reliant individualism, though I doubt he’d find much in common with the version that has hijacked that movement, nowadays. On the other hand, he was vigorously pro-science and intellect and diversity/tolerance, and… well, read his own words, and see how chillingly close they came to predicting our awful, pre-theocracy politics, today. 

Here’s another passage, this time from the penultimate page of his finest time travel novel, The Door Into Summer:

"…the future is better than the past. Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands...with tools...with horse sense and science and engineering.
“Most of these long-haired belittlers can't drive a nail nor use a slide rule, I'd like to invite them into Dr. Twitchell's cage and ship them back to the twelfth century--then let them enjoy it.”

Yeah, sure. There are lefty flakes who qualify as “romantics” and “long hairs!” But look around at who is screaming hatred of science and every other fact profession. (Name one exception.) Look at the revival of fascism and confederatism, two of the most romantic movements ever seen. And… aw, heck.  Let me paste back in here the pivotal paragraphs of Heinlein’s afterword to Revolt in 2100:

“Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not – but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. 

"Throw in a Depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negrosim, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home, and the result might be something quite frightening – particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington."

Oh, yes. Science fiction authors can be off target.  But there can also be prescient.

== Bladrunner 2049 ==

Forgot to do this so I'll be brief.  It's a great flick. Very enjoyable. Grade A for Ambiance, music and acting. A bit lower for plot logic, but I'll get to that another time. Seriously, the fact that I'm not used as a plot consultant more often than I am is ... well... a tragedy for you film lovers!  ;-)

Saturday, October 14, 2017

How they get away with this... and how we can thwart them

The fate of America – and the experiment in a Periclean civilization – should not come down to one man.  No, I am not talking about the President, but Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who, with his eight colleagues, is pondering arguments for tearing down partisan gerrymandering.  

There are intimations that this time, Justice Kennedy may be ready to act against this ongoing rape of democracy. (That anyone could even mouth justifications for such a blatantly heinous and treasonous crime against American citizens should appall any decent mind, whatever their political leanings.) Certainly the plaintiffs have refined their arguments with much better facts and details… and I am told that my own contribution – a potential remedy that is simple, equitable and makes generous allowance for state sovereignty – has been put before one of the plaintiff attorneys. Well… 

… all of that is beside the point. My question is, how could it all teeter on one man? Specifically, what could possibly be going on in the minds of John Roberts and Samuel Alito? 

Unlike their conservative brothers, Gorsuch and Thomas, they weren't chosen in order to be partisan shills. We’re told they are genuine legal scholars whose loyalty to party is secondary. Roberts has even displayed a little independence, and fealty to logic, from time to time. So why is this matter even in doubt?  Can Alito and Roberts actually look in a mirror, siding with this travesty? This crime? Knowing that they'll consign the Republic – eventually – to no recourse other than revolution?

== The warriors resist calls for insane war ==

All the world's despots and fanatics want a U.S.- Iran war:  Trump would get a distraction from his troubles and GOP presidents love ordering troops forward, like pieces in a game. The Mullahs get an excuse to crush their own modernist population. The Saudis and Vladimir Putin get high oil prices and Russia will gain a new, Persian dependency under Kremlin "protection." And others will benefit, too! But not us. Not America or the West or civilization.

Note: under Obama, the U.S. became virtually energy independent. We have no further national interest maintaining a carrier group in that dangerous gulf. Prevent an Iranian bomb? Fine. Then sit back and let demographics seal the mullahs' fate.

And not sane/sober members of the U.S. military, who would be sent to fight it. "The nation’s top military leaders stated unequivocally that they believe the United States should stay in the Iran nuclear deal, staking out a position at odds with President Trump’s only days before he decides whether to certify that Tehran is in compliance with the deal."

God bless the United States Military Officer Corps - who have endorsed remaining in the Iran deal. The final fact-using profession to come under attack from the mad right, who will rue the day. "Deep State" my ass. They are heroes.

== The Union rises: some good news from the front ==

I have been hammering the point that Democrats would be fools to aim all their attention on the clown car craziness in the Executive and Legislative federal branches. At least as important will be races for state assembly and state senate, and the dems must get to recruiting appropriate candidates for those crucial races, right now. Elsewhere I’ve discussed:

(1) Where to find the best candidates for red districts. (And you might know someone appropriate! It is your duty to at least think about who you might help recruit.)

 And finally, the good news:

(3) Apparently there actually are some smart folks out there who have noticed. There have been under-reported results. “Of the 27 Republican-held state legislative seats that have come open in 2017 to date, Democrats have now flipped almost 30% of them -- a remarkable number in any circumstance but especially so when you consider the average Trump margin in these seats in 2016 was 19 points.”

“So, why aren't we hearing more about it? Because state legislative races aren't sexy. Because Democrats haven't been able to win one of the more high profile GOP-held House seats in a series of special elections so far this year.” Though in those congressional races Democrats overperformed -- by a large amount -- Hillary Clinton's 2016 showing in these congressional seats.

Want more good news? Despite the extraordinary challenges the world is facing – from growing economic inequality and climate change to mass migration and terrorism – “if you had to choose any moment in history in which to be born, you would choose right now. The world has never been healthier, or wealthier, or better educated or in many ways more tolerant or less violent,” former President Obama said at an event for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Now if you disagree with that assertion, you are welcome to compare statistics. (You’d lose.) But what’s interesting is the emotional response it elicits, from many on the left and almost everyone on the right – fuming rage -- that anyone would dare to say there’s reason for optimism, or that our efforts at reform for 80 years have born a lot of fruit. 

The gloom on the right is understandable – since every media outlet on that side, from Breitbart to Fox to elite “institutes” has a vested interest in destroying American and Western confidence in our open-egalitarian-democratic-entrepreneurial civilization.

But on the left, it is pure craziness – a fetish to save the world only through guilt trips and finger-wagging, never acknowledging that optimistic-confident people are more likely to take on challenges. This is the biggest factor distinguishing pragmatic liberals from ideological “leftists.” Liberals are willing to acknowledge that we’ve come a long way. And that the effectiveness of our past efforts should spur us onward to take on the vast challenges that remain.

== Okay then, a few are trying to get below superficials ==

On the World Post site, there is much wisdom on offer, but with an underlying layer of obstinate blindness: “…former U.S. President Bill Clinton, summed it: “We know from the human genome that all people are 99.5 percent the same. Some people seem to spend 99 percent of their time worrying about the .5 percent that is different. That is a big mistake. We should focus on what we have in common. And focus on what is common. We make better decisions in diverse societies than in homogenous ones. America’s great advantage is that we are an idea, not a place. We are not an ethnicity or a uniform culture.”

Clinton also warned of the dangers of the nativist narrative that has recently arisen: 
“We are playing Russian roulette with our biggest ticket to the future. Even if you believe we are headed toward the first big change since the industrial revolution with robots and digital technology that will kill more jobs than it creates, we are still going to need diversity. We are going to need creative cooperation. To do that we need some fair back and forth with others not like us. Resentment-based divisive politics is a mistake.” But, as the former president sees it, historical experience suggests it will all work out in the end: “This is just the latest chapter in the oldest drama of human history, us vs. them. But sooner or later we mix and move on.” 

All of that is wise and right and good.  But it misses the point about this resurgent confederacy.

Another article asks why Trump keeps on winning. Sure he accomplishes nothing at all, but gridlock and rigor mortis has always been the right’s principal goal. Demonstrating democracy's futility is the core and central aim of Putin's anti-western axis. So long as his opponents are stooopid - using sumo instead of judo - Trump and his master-backers will win.

Example: the inanity of thinking the alt-right is about racism! What stunning nonsense. Yet no liberal or democrat can see that "racism!" is a distraction, a tar-baby, meant to cling and grab all the attention away from the blatant, central confederate theme... hatred of the fact-using, expert castes.

Even the loudest, screeching white supremicist will vary his racism, getting all friendly with any minority reporter who gives him some attention.  I know this. My father, at age 70, drove to the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho and they fell all over themselves to show him around, posing for pictures to run in an ethnic newspaper. Yes, racism is horrifically part of their incantations! But it can vary.

No. What does not vary is their volcanic rage against smartypants. Experts. Name for me one profession of high knowledge and skill that’s not under attack by Fox/Trump &cohorts? Teachers, medical doctors, journalists, civil servants, law professionals, economists, skilled labor, professors… oh, yes and science. Thirty years ago, 40% of US scientists called themselves Republican, now it is 5% and plummeting. They are voting with their feet, the smartest, wisest, most logical and by far the most competitive humans our species ever produced. 

Yes, I said all this above. (I create these blogs sometimes by accretion, and similar rants can accumulate.) But I will reiterate until I see someone else in high place covering this ground!

The FBI and the US military and intelligence officer corps; all are dismissed as "deep state" enemies. Yes, this is not your daddy's conservatism.  When your screeches of hate are directed at every fact-profession... (have your confed uncle name one exception)... and every fact-checking service is automatically "politically biased" then three things are clear. 

(1) This phase of the confederacy is just like the old one. 
(2) If properly roused to awareness, the smart people (the Union side) will win again. 
(3) Hence it is vital to distract the smart folks from waking up! Distract them with racism when the real agenda is to discredit every fact-using profession and destroy their ability to thwart the confederacy's new plantation lords.

I keep waiting for some democrat or statesman or leader to make this the real issue, challenging the Murdochians:

“Every time facts and evidence are used to refute your lies, you attack the source as partisan. And so I demand right now that you tell us what kind of a neutral fact-checking service you would accept!  Would you agree to help form a commission of great American sages – including revered Republicans like Sandra Day O’Conner – who could help set up a truly neutral way Americans can confront rumors and lies?

“Not just one fact-service!  We don’t want a ‘Ministry of Truth.’ But a template for several competing but above-reproach services that can say about the worst trash: ‘that’s not true’.  We challenge you to help construct this solution! And if you refuse, we denounce that refusal as treason.”

 == From the Hannah Arendt Center ==

And yes, there are islands of sagacity:

We are experiencing a worldwide rebellion against liberal democracy. In Hungary, Russia, Turkey and other countries across Europe, right- and left-wing parties flirt with authoritarian rule. In the United States, President Donald J. Trump channels the voices of the self-described disenfranchised. Representative governments everywhere are shown to be corrupt, inefficient, and undemocratic. The great political achievement of the modern era - stable representative democracy - is everywhere under attack.

Hannah Arendt knew that democracy is tenuous. In 1970 she famously wrote:

"Representative government is in crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens' actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties' tendency to represent nobody except the party machines." 

Yes, but so?  We recovered from the collapse of American citizen confidence that raged during Vietnam and Watergate. We can surge back from this phase of the Civil War. Rise up.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Foxes and chickens: caught in the act

Always passionate and well-spoken, Jim Wright (Stonekettle Station) is well worth visiting online. He is a living lesson in what we need, to survive this phase of civil war and go on to make starships. It's not political litmus tests, but something else that is far more important... an American penchant for pragmatic, grownup, tolerant willingness to talk things out.  Only also, to fight evil when we have no other choice.  See also his greatest hits

And for comparison?  An example of that pure evil. A genuine monster: Listen to Paula White on Jim Bakker's show.

At the opposite extreme is Betsy Rader, a congressional candidate who grew up in “hillbilly” poverty and knows what combination of grit, hard work, values, determination… and help from a decent civilization… assisted her single mom to raise 5 kids on $6000/year... with great results. 

== Caught in the act – but counting on us to do nothing ==

The same voter analytics and persuasion company that coordinated Russian, Murdochian and alt-right efforts to swing the U.S. election has been raking it in, selling their services elsewhere. Have a look. The Kenya Supreme Court nullifies presidential election - over concerns of electoral hackingNote that the data firm Cambridge Analytica, was hired by the Kenyatta campaign to do polling and data analytics.  More on this: Cambridge working in Kenya.
Meanwhile, at home… Hackers prove how trivial it is to break into modern voting machines and change results, using methods already exploited by most Republican Secretaries of State, to order up any result they want… in those red states without paper receipts that can be audited.

This has led to what should be a harbinger… Virginia scrapping its touchscreen machines! Read more on this decision

The Steele Report, Revisited: How much of the infamous document ended up being corroborated elsewhere? A whole lot, it seems. No, not the "pee tape." That part is still unsubstantiated. But monthly these reports gain more verifications or credibility. This detailed and highly informative article, by a 30 year CIA veteran, reveals a lot about the current cold war that neo-czarist Russia is waging against us, far more aggressively than the old Soviet Union ever did.

Those present day confederates who now make excuses for Trump and Putin, in the face of overwhelming evidence of combined war-attacks and treason, have proved their hypocrisy. Thank God for the professionals.

== Foxes and chickens ==

Confederate apologists for Donald “Drain the Swamp” Trump explain away his appointing so many Wall Streeters to his cabinet and sub-cabinet (seven from Goldman-Sachs, alone). The excuse is: “It takes a fox to guard a henhouse.”

Sure. And billionaires have so much money, how could they ever want more? Or to do anything but serve?  

And so, we’ll start a series: “foxes and chickens”, listing how many such examples these selfless servants of the public present to us. First:

Trump has appointed as the head of Dept. of Education's anti-fraud unit, the former head of a for-profit college that had to settle a large anti-fraud case with the Department of Education.

Second, the Oklahoma Republican congressman President Trump tapped late Friday as NASA’s next administrator is one of the Denialists that the GOP have packed onto the U.S. House “Science Committee.”  Jim Bridenstone doesn’t have a formal science background. His last job before being elected to represent Oklahoma’s 1st District in 2012 was as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium.  Ah. No wonder they are canceling almost every Earth observing satellite that might help nail down the facts.

In a provocative and persuasive essay, Brink Lindsey ponders “Why libertarians and conservatives should stop opposing the welfare state.” Instead of trying to roll back the entire welfare apparatus, he argues, libertarians and small-government conservatives should consider leaving useful benefits and sequence in longer-term reforms.

In other words use government for what we know it’s good at, recognizing a problem and acting upon it now, with cumbersome diligence. But then viewing “governmental solutions” to problems as lumbering temporary measures that should – over time – wither away, as other forces, like markets and philanthropy, deal with the root causes more organically and efficiently. This alternate version of libertarianism is closer to its founding traditions – before Rand and Rothbard and oligarchs pushed for the movement to have just one mantra: “Hate only ‘government,’ always and all the time.”

But let’s hear from Lindsey:

“Over fifty years ago, Richard Cornuelle issued a challenge to small-government supporters in his book Reclaiming the American Dream: roll back the welfare state, not by complaining about it, but by outcompeting it. Cornuelle urged libertarians and conservatives to turn their energies to what he called the “independent sector,” building new institutions and organizations in civil society to meet the public needs currently addressed by government: The independent sector will grow strong again when its leaders realize that its unique indispensable natural role in America is to compete with government,’ he argued. ‘It must be as eager as government to take on new public problems.’

“A half-century after Cornuelle wrote those words, the gap between public needs and the capacity of civil society has grown. I have concluded that this fact discloses a failure of libertarian ideas: I don’t believe it is possible for the nonprofit sector to outperform government in protecting people from certain downside risks of life in a complex, highly urbanized, individualistic society. At the very least, though, it reveals a failure of effort. I would be happy for opponents of the welfare state to prove me wrong. But first they have to try.”

Lindsey’s case can be made even stronger, and even more ironic.  Stronger by pointing out that libertarians could use one simple metric, when deciding whether to hate any government program a lot, or merely seek to compete with it: “Does this program increase the overall number of market participants who are healthy, skilled, confident, empowered and ready to compete?” 

Isn’t that what both Adam Smith and the right’s economic doyen – Friedrich Hayek – called fundamental?  The virtues of competition – e.g. consumption or investment allocation – become more wise, far-seeing and error-resistant, the larger the number of sagacious and vigorous participants!

Wisdom fails when allocation “of winners and losers” is done by ever smaller, self-referential groups. And if this is true about half a million diverse, well-trained, scrutinized and dedicated civil servants (‘bureaucrats’), then how much more so regarding a narrow, self-serving and secretive cabal of 5000 golf buddies in a largely inherited CEO caste, who appoint each other onto boards to vote themselves largesse from our corporations?

 Neither of these groups are ideal allocators. But markets can be, if well-regulated and filled with tens or hundreds of millions of persnickety and skilled competitors. At least… so sayeth Smith and Hayek.

Lots of government programs pass the "increase competition" sniff test, by raising the overall number of market participants who are healthy, skilled, confident, empowered and ready to compete.  Public health and education – for all their faults – inarguably altered the fraction of Americans capable of participating. So have most investments in infrastructure. And regulation is not always an enemy of entrepreneurship, as seen in times past when anti-trust laws were enforced. 

If an intervention increases the number of vigorous participants… or equalizes opportunity… then it is far easier for a libertarian to swallow than other, well-meaning liberal efforts to equalize outcomes.

Cornuelle’s version of libertarianism would resist  the outcomes-levelers but greet opportunity–leveling programs differently: “we will set things up so that soon, your clumsy/needed approach to solving this problem will wither away.” 

This approach would urge innovators to come up with processes to compete government’s lumbering interventions out of existence.  Barry Goldwater is said to have wanted this, long ago, proposing changes in the insurance industry that would spur companies to make their clients live longer! By rewarding clients who live safely and well. Ideally, our insurance companies could replace the paternalistic protections of the FDA, FTC, OSHA and so on. There have been recent (timid) moves in this direction, after decades of industry resistance.  

And yes, the Charter Schools movement could be viewed this way. “Yes, we needed public schools to bluntly end illiteracy and create a road upward that all could use. But everyone can see that schools could be much better. Let us try alternatives, now!” Alas, though there are shining lights, most of the charter movement (like most of libertarianism) has been wholly captured by forces of oligarchy, fundamentalism and right wing’ism. It will only achieve its potential when it shrugs off those influences.

The irony I spoke of is one that embarrasses libertarians, though it shouldn’t.  It is in that deliberately-chosen phrase “wither away.” Yes, it is a Marxist term, and it points out one of many overlaps, including the final, end-state goal of both Marxists and Libertarians… a future without coercive elites or power centers or ‘government,’ per se. An era when any individual will feel free and empowered to make alliances and pursue any project, combining talents as she or he sees fit.

This dream is a hell, in the eyes of those who cling to notions of feudal hierarchy – the beast that oppressed all of humanity for 6000+ years. The thing that would-be inheritance-oligarch-lords fear most is that liberty lovers will recognize them as the Olde Enemy. The kings, lords and owners and priests who cheated to prevent the rise of a myriad market participants who are healthy, skilled, confident, empowered and ready to compete.

Government is inherently dangerous and even when it is well-meaning, it can cloy or stifle initiative.  I am enough a libertarian to avow that!  But it is insane to screech “Hate only ‘government,’ always and all the time,” when bureaucrats did very little to crush freedom and opportunity, across 60 centuries.

  Not compared to oligarchs. Not by orders of magnitude.  And that is the one bald fact they are spending billions to ensure you’ll forget.

 == Economics & politics ==

 The Evonomics site is one of the best online. They have taken over my own formerly-quixotic quest to re-study Adam Smith. If he were alive today, Smith would not just be a Democrat, he'd be urging revolution, the way he did in 1776.  See how this economist-historian explains the "rentier" phenomenon and why Supply Side tax cuts for the rich have never, ever had the effect of stimulating investment in productive innovations or factories. 

Let me reiterate. "supply side" has never delivered on a promise. Even once. Ever.

Former GOP Senator Bob Graham about how the supervising Intelligence Committees in both the House and Senate have been allowed to slump into torpor, since he chaired investigation of the 9/11 attacks. The salient trait of this Congress - even more than hyper-reactionary partisanship - is its stunning laziness.

According to some estimates there will be 20 million people moving to Texas by 2050. And many from California will be conservatives upset by not only how Democratic the Golden State has become, but also – face it – by how successful, well-governed and delusion free California is doing.   Many of these grumpy, disappointed conservatives will be making the move across with the help of a company called Conservative Move whose tag line is "Helping families move Right."

But that brings up an interesting point. Ever since W.E.B. DuBois, there has been talk of drumming up a movement for African Americans to move to Mississippi or South Carolina where, IIRC, it might take only a couple of hundred thousand to stage a voter-uprising and transform one or both states!  Someone do the research and report back here, under comments?

Steve Bannon may be slightly less powerful now.  But meet Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologist, Alexander Dugin,  Bannon’s Kremlin counterpart, extolling love of Donald Trump as gushingly as Bannon kvells on Putin.

Meanwhile, the U.S. does nothing while Putin rebuilds the Soviet Union.

All these guys are heavily vested in “cyclical history” and the need for Traditionalism… which of course translates as restoration of Feudalism, with Bannon’s and Dugin’s lords creating dynasties.  Read about how explicitly and fiercely they intend to end the Western Enlightenment.

== The romantic fixation on (nonexistent) "cycles" ==

Aw heck, in hope that this topic will go away at last, more on Bannon: In his favorite book: "The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny," William Strauss and Neil Howe theorize that the history of a people moves in 80-to-100 year cycles called "saecula." The idea goes back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that at a given saeculum's end, there would come "ekpyrosis," a cataclysmic event that destroys the old order and brings in a new one in a trial of fire.

“Bannon's obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.”

Finally. Rick Ellrod offers an interesting rumination on what a number of science fiction authors have said about the basis of civilization. Ellrod reminds me that the following has been the coda on my main web page for longer than I can remember. Almost as long as there has been a World Wide Web:

Ironies abound. The left is suspicious of "competition" and the right hates the word "regulation."  Yet it is by calm, reasonable Regulated Competition that this civilization has given us so much.  A flattened, diamond shaped social order so much fairer and more productive than all the old pyramids of privilege of the past, when cheaters always, always wrecked the fecundity of competitive creativity. 

Cooperation is not the opposite of competition!  We must cooperate - form just and open governments - in order to prevent cheating and spread opportunity... and then fantastically creative competition can ensue.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Three Lessons from Vegas

In the wake of the October 1 tragedy in Las Vegas, our national ritual of lamentation, recrimination and hand-wringing has reached a new pitch. Although even the National Rifle Association has admitted that some (small) lunacies must change, the core issues remain intransigent. We seem forever stymied by the emotion-laden matter of guns in America.

Among the better articles I’ve seen are this one from Slate: “Las Vegas should entirely change the way we think about preventing mass shootings.”… And this one: America's Gun Fantasy: “Three percent of the nation owns half the firearms—to prepare for an ultraviolent showdown that exists only in their imagination,” writes Kurt Anderson. Indeed, liberal goals for gun legislation, like background checks, have retracted, rather than inflated since 2001, when many liberals began quietly to arm themselves.

My own commentary this time will be in three parts. First, I’ll reiterate my top suggestion for what to do about the shooters, themselves. Especially when — as apparently in this case — the aim of the crime would seem likely to have been neither self-interest nor dogma, but deliberate infamy. 

Second, I’ll make crystal clear the deepest reason why the gun-obsessed refuse to negotiate or contemplate even modest or pragmatic reforms -- a reason that liberals are foolish to ignore. Finally, I’ll ruminate about some side issues that may be relevant and revealing about our times.

== Erase the most common motive ==

Violence comes in all flavors, propelled by a variety of drives. Regular or gang-driven crime can be deterred, if we use modern tools to ensure that it will never pay. Sometimes those who are mentally or morally damaged seek rationalization for their rage, under a veneer of dogma or grievance, as in revenge killings or fanatical terrorism. When a kid who has been viciously bullied lashes out, we must share some of the blame, for having allowed the torment to happen, and for not noticing earlier cries for help. On occasion, a soul that is sinking into despair tries to take others down with him.

And a large fraction of mass shooters don’t fit any of those templates. Rather, their lashing out at society seems to be motivated by a frustrated sense of self-importance. A need - after a lifetime of nebbish obscurity - to yank attention from the world. Take the example of Dylann Storm Roof, a white supremacist convicted of perpetrating the Charleston church shooting on June 17, 2015. 

Calmly proud of his actions, Roof went into a fury when his court-appointed lawyers tried to make an issue of his clinically delusional mental state. He made his cooperation with the court and prosecution conditional that his insane actions would not be so characterized in court. His self-image as a crusader for the white race and freedom — who shot down children in cold blood — was more important to him than any chance of a reduced sentence.

Elsewhere I wrote extensively about the “Erastratos Effect,” named after a loony who burned down the Temple of Diana in Ephesus - of the the great wonders of the world - in order for his name to live forever.  Ah, but in fact “Erastratos” is not his real name. The Hellenes erased that and replaced it, so that he, personally, would be forgotten,  showing that we can still learn a thing or two from our ancestors. 

See my posting - Names of Infamy - where I recommend doing the same thing, as a deterrent, in all such cases — for example renaming Mr. Roof “Loony-wimp 17.” (And before you howl about Freedom of Speech, would you kindly actually read the missive?)

Does any of this apply to Stephen Paddock, the Vegas shooter? It’s too soon to say. Down below, I’ll speculate a bit more about what little we know. But in general, it could be very effective to add this element, when someone is convicted or proved to have committed some truly grievous harm to us all.

== The underlying impasse — those gun guys fear a “slippery slope” ==

A majority - though alas not a super-majority - of Americans would gladly go for something reasonable that still preserves our traditional right to reasonable ownership of weapons. (Though for two decades I have been pointing out that the Great Equalizer that’s arming nearly all citizens, today, is the cell-phone camera. See The Transparent Society. Especially p. 160.)

What’s the simplest and most logical reform that could fix so many of the howlingly stupid and harmful aspects of today’s situation?  I’ve long held that we should treat firearms exactly like motor vehicles, with well-regulated training, licensing, registration and insurance. It works superbly for cars! Every day, about 200 million of us use potentially deadly tools for millions of person-hours, with incredible skill and statistically-minimal downside every single day. In fact, we might start by simply renaming the DMV as the DMV&G. Almost every general process and procedure translates, including taking more advanced training before being licensed for more dangerous firearms.

Why can’t we have this? The answer is simple. And if you don’t know… then try actually going out there and asking Gun Folks!  The answer that you get will always be exactly the same. 
And I mean exactly. 
The same, 100% of the time. 

It’s called the "slippery slope." 

Give an inch, and your enemies will smell weakness and take a mile. Then you’ll lose everything.

To this large, vociferous minority, any compromise will inevitably set off a landslide of rapid decay, leading swiftly to state confiscation of all personal weaponry. (In fact, the slippery slope is embedded in almost every meme pushed hard by Fox News for 25 years.)

Oh, sure, there’s not been the slightest sniff of any such desire or tendency among the vast majority of democratic or liberal politicians or voters. Putting aside the yammerings of a small, radical-lefty fringe, there has never been any sign of intention toward confiscation, among those calling for rational, car-like regulation of firearms. The paranoid ravings about this are like Obama’s “UN black helicopter camps for all Christians” — the fulminations of deranged minds.

And yet, pause. Take a breath. Underneath all that, there’s a nugget of truth to the gun folks’ slippery fears

Look at the vast majority of nations and oppressive states, across the last 6000 years, where the kings, lords, priests and their armed thugs did forbid common folk from bearing arms! Moreover, in view of human history, are you sure you can blithely dismiss that concern? Go ahead, and shrug it off, if you like. But you'll not budge them or divide their alliance or draw moderates away from their faction.

No, you are supposed to be the smart folks. Yet you do not even bother to listen to your opponents, trying to perceive if there’s a germ, a core of justification, buried under all the bullshit. And that laziness on your part makes you partly to blame.

Hence, I raise, once again, my proposal for an approach that starts out by acknowledging, rather than shrugging-off the slippery slope concern, and carefully contrives a way to cancel out that fear, leaving compromise possible. It begins by pointing out how incredibly weak their beloved 2nd Amendment is! And how some future Court will, in some time of panic, simply re-interpret its vagueness.  

We have something we can offer them. A better and stronger amendment!  If they’d meet us halfway.

== Ancillary thoughts ==

Those are my two main proposals. And yes, it is frustrating to have to type new postings linking to them, year-after-year, decade after decade, mass tragedy after tragedy.

Wrapping up, let’s veer back to the specific emotion-laden vexations of autumn 2017.

We seek patterns, even when those patterns are simplistic or lead us astray. And so, the October 1st* Las Vegas tragedy sparked immediate questions about terrorism, or the perpetrator’s ties to radical groups. And in this case, speculations about political or religious motives led nowhere. As the New York Times put it: “whatever drove Stephen Paddock to kill has remained a vexing and terrifying mystery.” Agents are interviewing his family and friends. But if there were a single reason, “we don’t know it yet,” the Las Vegas sheriff said, as there was no note or manifesto left behind.

Oh, there will be parties declaring “It’s a mental health issue, not about guns!” And at the deepest level, sure, this is a truism. Over the long run, we must take responsibility for the hurt and the damaged among us, getting better at finding them. Soothing them. Helping them…

…which of course makes the fox-zoids yammering about “a mental health problem” the most unbelievable hypocrites! Hypocrites who then go and cut funding for mental health.

But that aspect is near term. What often comes up in my discussions with defense-types is the problem of “asymmetric technological empowerment.”  The notion that ever more destructive technology is coming into the hands of mass numbers of people, giving disproportionate power to the few, the angry, the insane. Some, like scholar Phil Torres, suggest that this happens to all advanced races. Indeed, it may be the ‘great filter’ that kills off most of them, helping to explain the Fermi Paradox! 

In my defense talks, I show members of our Protector Caste that it is the RATIO of sane to insane practitioners - in a context of reciprocal transparency - that can make the crucial difference in whether we’ll survive the rapid democratization of potentially dangerous technologies into the hands of an increasingly tech-empowered populace. I talk extensively about this elsewhere…

… and highly pertinent is this TED talk of mine about the plague of self-righteousness addiction that has made our society functionally less-sane across the board! Losing the agility and maturity we’ll need in a modern and open and free society.   

But what about Stephen Paddock himself? (Assuming, alas, that we remain more stupid than the ancient Hellenes and neglect to change his name, in righteously-pragmatic deterrence?) So far, he’s a mystery. But one trait already seems to stand out. The one thing he was apparently highly skilled at, across his life. Indeed, the central focus (besides guns) of his life.

Gambling. So far, it seems not to be the usual story of gambling shredding the addict’s finances, family and life. Not a ‘loser’ per se, the perpetrator was a major player. Paddock was apparently among a rare breed, those who were good at it.. until the House adjusts the rules and then you're not. And yet, even so, his brother and girlfriend and others have testified to watching him ride the up-and-down, sleepless roller coaster of thrills and depression at his favored game. Video poker has been called “the crack cocaine of gambling.” The Vegas shooter was a creature of Vegas.

Now, there’s little more to be drawn from this, in any factual way, at least so-far. We’ll have to wait and see if gambling truly was a factor. But you know me. I cannot help but riff off of this into a brinnian micro-rant. This one will be brief, but bitter.

== A steady re-definition of sin ==

Once upon a time, gambling was denounced by conservatives as at-best a wasteful temptation, and at-worst a sin that could lead to crime and shattered families. That was then. Today, shoreline and riverboat casinos are among the biggest employers and tourist draws, in the Deep South. Foreign governments launder mountains of cash through Sheldon Adelson’s anomalously profitable Macau casinos, that he then conveys under his own name to warp our politics. Indeed, most of the other gambling lords give generously. And while they have made the GOP largely their own, they still have plenty of spare change to spread to some receptive pols in the other party. 

Is this puritan conservatism in the 21st Century? We’ve seen them go from “A penny saved…” to deficit spending that is always — and I mean always — vastly worse than democrats. From shunning divorced people to re-electing far more of them than liberals do. From rewarding rectitude to making Dennis “friend-to-boys” Hastert the leader of the GOP for many years… a horrid pervert both preceded and later followed by men who were infamous for their ill-treatment of wives, and women, in general. 

Oh… and from denouncing organized crime to electing a casino-owner/slumlord with open mob ties? No, no. This is not just the party of denialist, anti-science coal barons and oil sheiks. It is not just the party of Wall street and the party of Putin. Never neglect to include the casino titans! And read this: “How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts.”  

All of them share a central character trait that is more dangerous to the republic, to our Great Experiment and to our children and human survival than all the mass shooters and terrorists, whatever they may manage to achieve in the future.  Look at what these mighty interest groups have in common! All are oligarchs who feel they deserve the power that kings and priests and lords wielded across 99% of history. All of them cheat, instead of competing openly and fairly. All of them seek to hammer us back into that feudal pyramid of old, re-establishing an order under which their sons will own your sons and daughters.

For them, guns are a convenient way to stir Confederate-vs-Union passions distracting us from an accelerating oligarchic putsch. And just watch, you Second Amendment folks, how quickly that right will vanish, as soon as the New Feudalism is firmly locked in place.


Addendum.  The great astronomer and science fiction author Fred Hoyle wrote “October the First is Too Late.”  No connection. But I thought I’d plug a great sci fi novel to a generation that never heard of him.