Science Fiction Media and Films -- Some hidden gems

The Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, Nerd Nite, Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia, and the Smithsonian Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation PRESENTS
THE FUTURE IS HERE: Science meets Science Fiction
Imagination, Inspiration and Invention
MAY 16-18, 2014 Washington DC
Presenters include: Patrick Stewart, David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Brian Greene, Adam Steltzner, George Takei, Stewart Brand, Sara Seager, and The Mythbusters! For more information…. TICKETS ARE GOING FAST!
Culminating the first day, the mighty string theorist and science popularizer/author Brian Greene will interview me onstage.

How to regain trust in the NSA era: The IGUS Gambit

How might the Obama Administration best respond to wave after wave of “NSA revelations” that roil and cloud the political waters?
NSA-Snowden-AssangeIronically, almost none of Edward Snowden’s leaks — or those of Julian Assange — revealed anything that was illegal per se. What they have done is stir a too-long delayed argument over what should be legal!  Specifically, the Patriot Act and the ratchet effect on surveillance that always happens when a country enters a state of panic. The post-9/11 alarm is finally fading and — (barring some new, panic-inducing event) — elements of the Patriot Act and pervasive surveillance are now up for public debate.
See page 206* of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom? (1997) — where this cycle of terrorism and increased government surveillance was predicted in precise — and rather creepy — detail.
NSA-WATCHING-WATCHERS Elsewhere, I recently dissected and appraised the forty-two suggested reforms that a commission presented to President Obama, many of which he has instituted or sent to Congress. Here I want to focus on one important, trust-building measure that would make a huge difference.


Money flows that might prevent new World Wars

Syria-Russia-Iran-IraqVeteran U.S. diplomat and Middle East expert Dennis Ross made some interesting points about President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia in an L.A. Times editorial: “Next Test for Obama: Soothing the Saudis.” He referred to the Saudis biggest concern, the rise of militant Shiite Islam and an axis of Iran-Iraq-Syria that now includes an aggressively revanchist Russia. A problem that some have referred to as"World War Four".
Alas, Mr Ross ignores the elephant in the room. That the Saudis are not the victims in any of this. Their relentless push to establish fiercely conservative Wahhabi madrassas all over the Sunni Muslim world helped to create Al Qaeda and most of the 9/11 attackers. Their own textbooks declare the west to be an evil place, to be tolerated only while necessary. Above all, they have striven, since 1948, to stymie peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. By pushing to keep Palestine as an open wound, they ensured only that the Levant region would remain embroiled and steeped in pain, never achieving what the Saudis’ Hashemite rivals once dreamed-of — an alliance between Arabs and Jews that could strengthen all concerned.

It’s not the “One Percent”

Stop referring to “the one percent!” It is a trap. Indeed, it may be a polemical trick, foisted on us all by a conniving oligarchy that does not want to face the ire of a united citizenry.
Those chanting “we’re the ninety-nine percent” only thus empower Fox-pundits to respond that "most of the one-percenters are small business owners, or hard-working doctors and dentists who are demonized by the left for their well-earned success, stigmatized for providing valued goods and services."

And that’s completely true!
Look, you polemical liberals out there, do you really want three MILLION of America’s most productive, innovative and hard-working people to be driven into the arms of the real oligarchs, by tarring them with the same, simplistic brush? Guilt-by-association?
There’s a word for that. It is “stupid.”
one-percentIn fact, according to this article in the Atlantic it is the top 0.01 percent—that’s the uppermost one percent of the top 1 percent—that’s leaving the rest of the top percentile behind, in the dust along with the rest of us. “While nine-tenths of the top percentile hasn’t seen much change at all since 1960, the 0.01 percent has essentially quadrupled its share of the country’s wealth in half a century.”
Alas, what this article leaves out is discussing the one-percent of THAT clade… or the 0.0001%ers. Those are the folks always to scrutinize. Even the father of modern market enterprise capitalism (Adam Smith) said so!
They aren’t all bad, just because they are rich! Indeed, the Silicon Valley billionaires and other entrepreneurs who developed goods and services by working closely with thousands of skilled and free-thinking engineers – these men and women know that it is a relatively flat, well-educated and open “diamond-shaped” society – dominated by a vibrant and empowered and knowing middle class – that creates the kind of opportunities that let them succeed in a positive-sum way. Getting rich while making us all richer. Guys and gals like that are sensitive to how it all would get ruined – will get ruined – if we follow the age-old human pattern. Into feudal-inherited-oligarchy.

FLASH BOYS versus SKYNET – How Wall Street may be even more dangerous than Michael Lewis thinks

Michael Lewis’s new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, has certainly gathered tons of well-deserved attention. He was on the Daily Show and his interview on NPR is an absolute must-listen podcast in which you’ll painlessly (except for an angry gut reaction) learn an awful lot about how Wall Street is (surprise) cheating the rest of us.
Lewis focuses especially on an area about which I’ve inveighed heavily for two years… the perils of High Frequency Trading.
You don’t have time for books or podcasts? Then if you read or even skim any in-depth article this month, make it this one… an excerpt from FLASH BOYS about how the world of fast-pitched Wall Street trading has become rife with computerized cheating, so pervasive that any justification is impossible through the usual rationalizations of “market forces” and “correct price equilibration.” No little guy can win the full value of his trades. No retirement fund manager can use keen insights to maximally benefit her clients without paying a large “tax” or overhead in stolen value.


COSMOS Brings Back the Wonder!

I hope you all have been enjoying the remake of COSMOS(Sundays: Fox Entertainment and Mondays on National Geographic.) While episodes one and two were merely very good — with some stretches of preachiness — we were awed by the third installment, which was stunning on a par with… even exceeding… the Carl Sagan original.
Yes, all right, I’m biased: Edmund Halley has always been one of my heroes and the depiction of comets (so well-executed by show science director Andre Bormanis) seem to have been taken from my doctoral dissertation!
But none of those elements mattered next to the awesome vistas and deeply-moving messages of this exciting and enlightening show, so well delivered by Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you have not watched… and heavily proselytized… this event, then you must have simply fallen into a torpor. Wake up!  It’s time to restore our civilization’s confidence and sense of can-do wonder.


Do We Really Want Political Dynasties?

Way back in 2007, I suggested a bit of theater to put it all in satirical perspective. Picture a black-turtleneck-clad greek chorus holding up alternating pictures as they chant. The first round consists of just one phrase as they hold up one placard, labeled “1980” — that shows the gipper with Bush Sr.
The second round repeats showing 1980, then the same pair again, labeled “1984.”  Then 1980 and 1984 with one more added… Bush Sr. alone in 1988… You can envision each round getting longer as we then add Bill Clinton twice, then Bush Junior twice, each time reiterating a chant that adds one more layer…
That last chant would have shown Hillary 2008. We’d then repeat the whole thing culminating in her second term. Then repeat again for 2016 showing Jeb… and Jeb again in 2020… and then… Chelsea?
Read the whole script here: Reagan Bush, Reagan Bush, Bush Clinton…

Standing Up for Abe Lincoln

I wan’t too surprised when Stewart invited Judge Andrew Napolitano to convey his recent tirade - a real hit on Fox - against Abraham Lincoln. It’s one of the most spectacularly deceitful and perniciously vile rants we have seen in an era rife with vile rants, but on the Daily Show Napolitano was allowed to argue his point with Jon Stewart. Then guest historians (in a faux game show called “The Weakest Lincoln”) shot down Napolitano’s purported “facts” amid a tenor of friendly humor. The judge chuckled amiably. Sure. Fine.  I guess.
Still, I was drawn to recall something I read just last November, referring to how the angry white males of the New Confederacy are now dumping all their former heroes, like Adam Smith, whose version of open-fair-flat capitalism is no longer suited to the right’s narrative… and the leader that their parents loved above all others: How ironic, for this coincides with the passing of the Greatest Generation — men and women who fought down the curse of Hitlerism, who overcame the First Great Depression, who embraced the plan of Marshall, Truman, Acheson and Eisenhower to contain communism peacefully until its fever broke… without nuclear annihilation. All so that their unique nation might live.

Revisiting 300

All right, so the sequel is out… and doing well.  The stylish combat film “300: Rise of an Empire” topped the box office last weekend with  $45.1 million, seven years after the original Miller-Snyder flick “300” became an international hit.  I haven’t seen the new one yet, but two thoughts occur to me:
(1) This sequel covers precisely the parts of the story that I have pushed for, ever since the first “300" came out.
That original film, based on a comic book by Frank Miller, told egregious historical lies, cramming into the mouth of the Spartan general- Leonidas — things that he would never have said.  For example dripping contempt for the Athenian shopkeepers and potters and fishermen who had destroyed an entire Persian army, just ten years before, at Marathon.
Spartans still stung with shame over having stayed out of that fight.  But to have Leonidas rant… while ignoring what was in plain view from his cliff-edge… an Athenian-led navy holding the vast Persian fleet at bay, guarding his flank… that omission in “300” slandered Leonidas and betrayed the audience.
300-MILLERAcross six years, I’ve occasionally written about the travesty that the original “300” perpetrates, not only against factual history but against the very notion of democracy and citizenship and the power of volunteers defending their people, homes and nation. I suggested, that any sequel focus on Themistocles and the Athenian fleet - and on the notions of volunteer citizenship that enabled them to keep succeeding where Startans failed — with flashbacks to Marathon and then moving forward to the glorious victory at Salamis, that saved western civilization…
… which is apparently what this new flick does!  Though with lots of Millerian sneering cartoon-villains, when the real thing was dramatic enough.  Ah well.
(2) I’ll go see it.  What the heck?  In hopes that, maybe, Mr. Snyder has decided to love the civilization that’s been good to him, ignoring the incredible hatred of democracy and enlightenment that pervades nearly all of Frank Miller’s works.


What Should We Be Worried About?

Are we on the verge of an “H2S Extinction Event?” It is one of two ways that the gradual nature of human generated climate change might suddenly do a non-linear takeoff. (The other would be if deep ocean hydrates of methane suddenly reached a critical point and were to “blurp” - along with methane released from thawing tundra, sending the greenhouse skyrocketing.)
 Peter Ward (Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What they Can Tell us about our Future) and other researchers point to several past extinction events on Earth that seem to have been driven by sudden pollution of the atmosphere by hydrogen sulfide gas. This poison is generated in deep ocean anoxic (oxygen depleted) layers that stop getting mixing currents from above, by anaerobic archaeobacteria. The best example of this currently happening is the Black Sea, right next to where the Sochi Olympics just finished.  There, just a few hundred meters below the calm surface, and kept down by a delicate thermocline layer, sits “the greatest repository of poison in the world, by far.” Someday, it will come out.
Three things need to happen, in order for a world disaster (a Green Sky) of unprecedented proportions to occur and two are already underway.
1. A rapid rise in ocean acidity… check. This is the product of human-spewed CO2 that the denialists at Fox strenuously avoid mentioning.  Because there is no response possible. Because the oceans are turning acid at unprecedented rates. No Hannity-obfuscation can hide it… so they never ever ever mention it. And when the topic comes up? They point offscreen and yell… squirrel!
2. Lots of nutrients.  Agricultural and other runoffs from civilization aren’t feeding the healthy fishery food chains, but massive algae blooms, jellyfish and (when it all sinks) blooms of bottom layer archaeobacteria.
3. Failure of the healthy mixing currents that prevent thermoclines from getting too strong, in the great oceans.  From Arctic to Antarctic, currents mix layers and bring oxygen to the deeps. But scientists have long warned of ways that warming might shut down the North Atlantic conveyor… and if that third ingredient happens, we could be in FAR worse trouble than in that silly film THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.

Rising Economic Inequality…Does it Matter?

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows rising levels of income inequality in all fifty states. From 1979 to 2011, the top 1% saw their income rise 128.9%, while the bottom 99% saw their income increase by a mere 2.3%. To see how your state compares…Try this interactive from the Economic Policy Institute.
My friend and fellow futurist/scifi fan John Mauldin weighs in on the rising use of the word “inequality.” He starts with what former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers was getting at in last week’s Financial Times op-ed:
Rising-economic-inequality"The share of income going to the top 1 percent of earners has increased sharply. A rising share of output is going to profits. Real wages are stagnant. Family incomes have not risen as fast as productivity. The cumulative effect of all these developments is that the US may well be on the way to becoming a Downton Abbey economy."


The War on Science - Fighting Back!

I clearly and often make clear that I believe American anti-science romanticism is not restricted to just one end of the hoary left-right “spectrum.” There are nostalgic-cynical grouches at both wings, doing fantastic harm to a civilization that accomplished wonders through our earlier tradition of contingency, argument, experimentation and pragmatic problem solving.  And curiosity. Yes, there are nostalgist monsters at both fanatical poles.
BWar-scienceut let’s be clear, the far-left is not our current worst problem.  The fever on the entire-right is what has plunged us into dire danger for our entire Great Experiment.  And here is one more piece of evidence:
"Less than five years ago, 54 percent of Republicans and nearly two-thirds of Democrats said the human species evolved over time. Today, however, the share of Republicans adhering to modern theories of human evolution has dropped significantly – to 43 percent.”  That’s almost 60% of GOP members who deny evolution on a planet that is four billion years old, in a cosmos of trillions of suns.
No wonder American scientists (and every other knowledge clade; name one exception) have been fleeing the GOP. Thirty years ago, 40% of U.S. scientists were republican.  It is now down around 6% and plummeting.   This is not about capitalism, or enterprise, or freedom or statism or socialism… it is about crazy.


Transparency news… Light battles its way in

US prosecutors are chasing 14 Swiss banks for allegedly helping wealthy Americans dodge U.S. taxes.  Credit Suisse’s private banking and wealth management division has already put aside 175m Swiss francs (£118m) to fight a U.S. investigation into hidden offshore accounts in Switzerland.  The bank has said it was “working towards a resolution” with US authorities but has not given a time-frame of when that resolution might be reached.
My prediction? A deal will be struck.  Swiss and other secret banking havens know the era when they can thumb noses at Europe and the U.S. are passing. Besides, helping western mere-millionaires writhe out of taxes is not where the real action is. The big profits come from sheltering and protecting the seamier side of sovereign wealth funds and stashing loot stolen  from developing nations by local kleptocrats.
Those business lines will be protected at all costs. Even if it means tossing a few hundred mere-millionaires off the sleigh.
transparency-word-cloudWill your light switch turn on you?  Philips, one of the biggest names in lighting (and especially in the new world of low-cost LED lighting), has figured out a way to use light as a communications method.  The wonderful LED bulbs we’re all installing (this is the year; do it!) can’t be used this way…
…but a future generation of them can and will someday be controlled as emitters whose subtle variations can contain signals we won’t notice as the bulbs talk to each other… and to computers far away. The advantages and uses will be myriad!  And any room will be whispering data about us.
Want to stop that?  Good luck.  When will folks cease futile railing against the future and start admitting it is a tsunami.  What we need is not absurdly useless stop signs and whining.  What we need are surfboards.

Are "rights of way" key to better mega-cities? Plus science news!

I have long believed that one key, seldom-mentioned aspect for saving megacities is the problem and opportunity of rights-of-way (RoW).  Any of these megacities could be vitalized by a process that — at first sight — will seem brutal, but that does not have to be.  It is the demolition of — and rebuilding upon — a 200 meter wide corridor extending from the port, to the urban center, then out to the industrial parks and airport and then countryside.

Within this razed band, every major, revitalizing service can then be inserted at very low cost, using simple trenching methods: utilities, sewer systems, water, underground metros and a grand boulevard.  There would also be room for new-innovative services like pneumatic tube delivery of goods, eliminating much of the truck traffic that clogs streets.
Atop the easily-trenched service corridors might not only be a grand boulevard but also farmers markets, booth-bazaars and a slim but beautiful urban park… that incidentally would allow cheap and trivial access to utilities for repair or upgrade, a terrible design problem in most legacy cities.  The land on both sides would skyrocket in usability and value, for more than a kilometer in both directions, a linear approach to urban development that worked so well along Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles.
Rights-of-way-mega-citiesThe efficiency of this system would bring huge returns to investors, despite having to carefully allow for: (1) dealing with corrupt governments and (2) setting aside 1/3 ownership rights in the new commercial frontages to the original inhabitants who were uprooted.  Indeed, the biggest challenge, requiring great care, would be acting covertly in advance to secretly discover and document every person living along the RoW — even in slums and favelas — and vesting them in their shares before local elites get a chance to interfere or cheat… and then providing housing for the displaced until fill-in is completed.

Optimism, Responsibility and… Satire!

== The optimism debate continues ==
The-Rational-Optimist_220xV"Today," Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, “of Americans officially designated as ‘poor,’ 99 per cent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 per cent have a television, 88 per cent a telephone, 71 per cent a car and 70 percent air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these.”
Yes… though Cornelius had tons of servants, and they lacked these things too. But the thing they noticed, above all, was who was servant and who was the master.
But never mind that. John Mauldin cued me over to Morgan Housel over at the Motley Fool who has written a piece called “50 Reasons We’re Living Through the Greatest Period in World History.”  Oh, I fumed at about a dozen of the statistics, sputtering “but… but that ignores….”  And you should avoid complacency too!  There’s still a world to be saved.  Still, the flood of tentative good news suggests that we have some basis for confidence that we can save it….
… or can we, after all?  Why California’s drought may be the worst in 500 years. Denialism is not confidence.  It is being a sap.