March 15, 2010

Podcasting outer space, breaking filibusters and... science!

David Brin is a Sentient Developments guest blogger.

I've been recording and posting some brief (for me) monologues on YouTube, starting with

Space Exploration Part 1 - Planning our next steps in beyond Earth ... followed by

Space Exploration Part 2 - Mining the sky: Are there economic incentives out there? ... and then

Space Exploration Part 3: The Big Picture, Where is the excitement? And what about warp drive? Finally, and just posted, there is

Space Exploration Part 4: Ambitious technologies for space: Space tethers, solar sails and space elevators.

More space-related postings will go up soon, plus some fun rants about SETI, andon the (crazy) notion of "cycles" of falling civilizations.

Nature interviews David Brin on scientists writing fiction.

I was also interviewed for the new documentary “The People vs. George Lucas.” I have no idea - yet - whether they used their footage of me appropriately. I attempted to be circumspect and speak well of Lucas -- where he deserved it. For example, I loved the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” and adored “The Empire Strikes Back.” So my disappointment in the films that followed came honestly... leading to my participation as editor and “prosecutor” in the book STAR WARS ON TRIAL. (by far the best and most fun way to explore these issues!)

Those guys at the SETI Institute sure have chutzpah! They plan to tun their first SETIcon August 13-15 at the Hyatt Regency, Santa Clara. “The Search for Life in the Universe in Science Fact and Science Fiction!” Thus perpetuating the myth that they love science fiction.... only don’t mention any possibility that the universe might -- just might -- be different, even slightly, than their standard model. Watch how quickly any alternate scenario is dismissed as “crazy science fiction stuff.” Anybody planning to attend? Oh, don’t get me wrong, it should be fun and interesting in its own right. The topic has fascinated my, all my life and I am glad the are pursuing the worthy search... (as opposed to some of their other, cultlike activities.) But if anyone is interested in some questions to raise....

Denialism includes “denial of progress.” One of the most insidious poisons going around, spread not only by the mad right but also by the lazier and more self-indulgent portions of the left, has been the notion that progress has failed. Even when wagging their fingers at us, in hope that we’ll become better people, Hollywood films like Avatar emphasize guilt and despair as motivators to become better people. Say what? Exactly how is that supposed to work? Instead of ... well, how about pride in what we’ve accomplished and encouragement that we can do more? Directors like James Cameron are sincere. They mean well. They really do want to propel us forward. They genuinely hope their guilt trips will make us better people... while showing in their films a belief that the goal is impossible to achieve! Which makes it all the more tragic that their messages kill the very ambitions they aim to stoke. The ambition to accomplish great things.

In fact, civilization is not vile and useless. Progress happens. It has never been happening faster. See just this one short summary for a partial list of reasons to feel restored faith in our can-do spirit. Of course, the list was compiled by some folks at Cato, who give all the credit to globalization and none to intelligent planning. But the facts still are what they are.

esson number one in human motivation, Jim. Guilt trips aren’t as effective as pep talks that positively reward and praise people for the great stuff they have already done, encouraging them to strive harder to move forward even faster. Go back to school. Re-take psych 1.

Murray Hill might be the perfect candidate for this political moment: young, bold, media-savvy, a Washington outsider eager to reshape the way things are done in the nation's capital. And if these are cynical times, well, then, it's safe to say Murray Hill is by far the most cynical...After the Supreme Court declared that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to funding political campaigns, the self-described progressive firm took what it considers the next logical step: declaring for office....

=== SCIENCE ===

I provided two papers in the psychological research volume Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan and David Sloan Wilson (Oxford University Press). This volume takes on a once verboten topic -- can surficially beneficent or altruistic behavior sometimes be motivated by more unsavory drives like aggression, egotism or even rapacious self-interest? Can it even hurt the one who is being helped? My chapters are: "Self-Addiction and Self-Righteousness" and "A Contrarian Perspective on Altruism: The Dangers of First Contact". Those interested will have to wait at least half a year for Oxford to publish the volume. But make note, now. It will be worth the wait. (It also proves I am still doing science... albeit in the form of continuing guerilla raids outside my formal PhD!)

Not that I disagree... but the study was done by a liberal atheist. ;-) In fact, the lurid headline disguises an interestingly more complex article about whether higher general intelligence is associated with “evolutionarily novel” traits -- or much more recent adaptations -- like nocturnal activity (dependent upon artificial light), complex discourse.

The author argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel. So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals. This jibes closely to my “horizons” model that saitiation trades off against the radius of inclusion, how widely you feel your sense of kinship extends, in space, time, and kind. The satiation tradeoff only works if a person has both certain personality traits (including satiability) and enoigh empathy-imagination.

=== MISC! ===

The worlds first commercial brain-machine interface.

See Mike Treder, of the Institute on Ethics in Technology, write about basics of health care.

Another for the predictions registry... e-readers like the Amazon Kindle. Now see this from EARTH (1989) “That's enough for now. More than enough. Go feed your pets. Get some exercise. I slipped some readings into your plaque. Go over them by next time. And don't be late.” Hm? Anybody know an earlier hit on this?

I wish I could find where I also predicted this! That nerves are only the flashiest active elements in the brain. The so-called “support” cells may be just as important, multiplying vastly the number of “active” elements and making the human brain that much harder to emulate!

And finally, some some political items I had lying around...


I've mentioned before that the New York Times ran an especially cogent article -- Mr. Smith Rewrites the Constitution, by Thomas Geoghegan -- about the absurd filibuster, its unjustified constitutional context, and possible ways around it. It’s one of the most enlightening legal articles I've read. I like especially Gohegan’s recommendation that Vice President Joe Biden simply rule from the bench that his own constitutional powers have been abridged.

On further consideration, in fact, the “Biden Option” could be even simpler than Gohegan suggests. Instead of the vice president using his presiding powers to rule against the cloture process, he can arrange for circumstances that simply bypass cloture, on a constitutional quirk. Here’s how. Simply coordinate enough Democratic Senators in order to arrange for a perfect match of the predictable, lockstep GOP nay vote. Say the result is a 41-41 tie, at which point Biden says:

"The vote for cloture being a tie, the US Constitution takes precedence over any mere Senate procedural rule. I shall now cast the tie-breaking vote. I vote 'Yes' for cloture. The motion carries, and debate on this bill shall close 30 hours hence." BANG!

The great thing about this approach is that it leaves Republicans with no wriggle room at all. Their sole option is to evade the tie, by changing some Republican votes from nay to yea! But the Democrats have far more inherent flexibility. Up to twenty extra Democratic senators may lurk in the cloakroom, ready to descend and vote either way -- to restore the tie or else using those GOP "yeas" to help add up toward a regular 60-vote cloture.

Sure it will be decried as trickery. So?

=== Miscellanea ==

The fundies have made it blatant and open: ”Science fiction is intimately associated with Darwinian evolution. Sagan and Asimov, for example, were prominent evolutionary scientists. Sci-fi arose in the late 19th and early 20th century as a product of an evolutionary worldview that denies the Almighty Creator. In fact, evolution IS the pre-eminent science fiction. Beware!”

See an interesting, if myopic, discussion of why economists failed to see the bubble crisis coming. And sure, none of them mention crackpot theories like my “Betrayal of the Smarter Sons.” I can’t blame them. That one was pretty bizarre, even if it contained some possible validity.

The honest truth is that I suspect other reasons. Oligarchy is an especially pernicious human trend that's rooted in our genes and also in capitalism's very roots. Marx was right that it is the ultimate, recurring threat. He was wrong to say that there aren't solutions that can keep capitalism vibrant, competitive and creative, for generations at a stretch. But those solutions tend to be "captured" by smart proto-oligarchs, much in the way that parasitic viruses and bacteria adapt to attack hosts in new ways.

Right now our immune system cannot adapt to oligarchy-driven distortions because our immune system (politics) has been suppressed by "culture war." Throw in some deliberate sabotage by certain hostile foreign elements and you have a theory that is more than adequate... if far too dramatic for anyone but a science fiction author to concoct or credit.

Too bad, since economic and political thinkers used to ponder a bigger picture. Krugman and Galbraith are peering at individual trees. They do not see the forest.

-- Is the Iraq War over? ---

enough for now....


Jamie A. Thom said...

The World's First Commercial Brain-Computer Interface link should be:

queersingularity said...

Uncritical cheerleading for progress and civilization isn't any better than dismissing the lot of it as harmful. Unfortunately, tremendous suffering has come alongside benefits.