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

Not far from where I live, demonstrators in Murrieta California have been blocking a facility designated to hold families and children who were recently intercepted attempting to cross illegally into the United States. The demonstrators’ chief effect — (other than keeping kids on stifling busses for a few hours, till other centers came online) — was to make a noisy statement about the recent flood of young border crossers. Fair enough. That border youth-surge apparently arose when commercial “coyote” crossing-traffickers discovered and publicized a glitch in the Bush era immigration law, treating children with more legal niceties than adults. The Obama Administration is scurrying to adjust and staunch the flood. But such details are not my reason for raising the topic, today. In fact — — the sound and fury over illegal immigration to the United States has put me in a rebellious and contrary frame of mind! I intend to upset everyone… from left to right… by pointing out that everything you believe about this issue is probably wrong. Indeed, what you believe — about who is better at defending the U.S. border, and maybe a dozen other major issues — may be diametrically opposite to true!

May I bring up climate change?

Recall a while back, when I cited Greg Page, executive chairman of Cargill, Inc., who leads a large group of very conservative agri-businessmen that — despite strong GOP bias — broke with the Fox Party Line on climate -- turning instead to face our desperate need to save the planet.
Climate-changeThey aren’t the only ones! Think. What businesses will be hurt most by the ever rising instabilities we face? 

News item: an insurance company is suing nearly 200 Chicago-area towns for failing to do more to prevent damages it says are linked to climate change. Farmers Insurance is asking the communities to return flood claims from the spring of 2013, which caused at least $218 million in losses. The towns should have done more to fortify their sewers and stormwater drains, the group argues.
So, as the smart-practical conservatives peel away, what is the Fox-Koch end game plan for when obscurant denialist delaying tactics hit the inevitable wall? It happened before, to “cars don’t cause smog!” And when — after 25 years and 20 million lost lives — the Tobacco Lobby finally surrendered and admitted “we lied.” Campaigns that used some of the very same advertising and public relation gangs … I mean firms.
What happens then. Will they declare “we never obstructed!”

Polarization Is Asymmetric—it’s not about physics... but politics

Isaac Asimov once commented"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
Or take this from another commenter: “Everywhere you look these days, America is in a rush to embrace the stupid. Hell-bent on a path that’s not just irrational, but often self-destructive. Common-sense solutions to pressing problems are eschewed in favor of bumper-sticker simplicities and blind faith.”
Hm, replace “bumper sticker” with “snarky Facebook Jpegs.” This depressing article — America Dumbs Down — in Canada’s MacLeans Magazine certainly offers a litany of statistics suggesting that at-minimum, the citizens of the United States are splitting in twain — with half the country going out o’ its ever-luvin’ mind.

Can Citizens Become a Political Force?

Is there one thing that an average US citizen can do, right now, to help end the current phase of America’s ongoing civil war?
may-day-pac-lessigOnly a few days are left in the crowd-funding campaign for Lawrence Lessig’s citizen-centered Super Pac: MAYDAY-PAC. Aimed at changing the playing field, so that raw money is less of a force in U.S. politics.

Mayday PAC was started by my colleague, Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig (co-founder of Rootstrikers and Creative Commons) — a “super PAC” using the power of kickstarted funds from ordinary citizens to fight the power of big money donors that control America’s political system.
You are summoned! To spend one minute – in a minuteman-tradition – to make a difference.  Make a donation  to help reduce the power of influence in politics — they have five days left to meet their goal.

lesterlandStart with the excellent 2013 TED talk by Professor Lessig called “We the People …and the Republic We Must Reclaim" — with over a million views.
Lessig’s ideas are further expounded in his ebook, The USA is Lesterland: The Nature of Congressional Corruption — “a map for a democracy we could reclaim.”
USA-lesterland-lessigSummarized by Lessig: ”Less than 1/20th of 1% of America are the “relevant funders” of congressional campaigns. That means about 150,000 Americans, or about the same number who are named “Lester,” wield enormous power over this government. These “Lesters” determine this critical first election in every election cycle—the money election. Without them, few believe they have any chance to win. And certainly, neither party believes it can achieve a majority without answering the special demands these “funders” make. Our Congress has thus become dependent upon these funders. In this sense, we are now “Lesterland.””
Or view Steve Wozniak’s 3-minute video: America’s Operating System is Broken.

Our greatest be good ancestors

Elsewhere, the topic came up… to what extent is it fair to judge men and women of the past by OUR modern moral standards? And to what extent does that set us up for rebuke by much better descendants?
Certainly some who engage in the modern drug high of sanctimony chide their neighbors partly to lower their own “karma” … but also as a kind of aggression. (See my video on this: cited above!)
And yet the world does need to be saved! And we owe much to heroes who stood up — in days past — to question the “common wisdom” of their own times, when it came to racism, sexism, classism or environmental neglect.
Salk-Good-ancestorThere is a litmus that I apply to historical figures and I am willing to see it applied to myself.  Yes, they were products of their times — as am I.  Hence, what I ask is "did you try to be at least two standard deviations BETTER than your times?"
Did you try — and succeed — to shift the momentum or arc of your times in better directions?  By that metric, Thomas Jefferson gets some added slack and Abraham Lincoln is let completely out of purgatory.  Sure it’s self-serving. This standard lets me continue to eat meat, for example, so long it is judicious and sparing and I keep a nagging conscience affecting how I behave as a much-reduced carnivore. And so long as I am part of the movement to keep applying pressure for better empathy and treatment of animals… plus the technological push for tissue culture meaticulture that may take away the ethical conflict with our evolved natures… I don’t feel too guilt-wracked.
Or is that rationalization? Sure, my pisco vegetarian wife has better karma than I do. She’ll live longer, too! I expect I’ll reevaluate next year… and the next.
Likewise, I fight for a better world hard enough to know that I am trying and I cannot be judged as not having cared… yet I still fly in airplanes, drive a car.  I’m not in this to lord my virtuous nature over others, nor to win your approval.  I am in it to be (as Jonas Salk demanded) a “good ancestor.”

Can the Ocean solve the sky’s problems? Can youth “cure” old age?

Amid all the sturm und drang over climate change, and whether to try “geo-engineering” or ban even discussing such alternatives, it seems that polemics had trumped science. Leaving “progress” to be done in a fly-by-night fashion. Which brings us to —
GEO-ENGINEERINGHas ocean fertilization been proved? Early indications may be spectacular. 

I’ve long favored careful experiments in this one kind of “geo-engineering,” which simply replicates nature by providing missing elements to some of the vast (90%) of ocean zones that are nutrient poor deserts, almost devoid of life. A senseless enviro-puritan reflex has blocked simple, controllable experiments, which are inherently retractable — and which I portrayed way back in EARTH (1989). Frustrated by this eco-prudity, a Native American tribe in British Columbia financed the distribution of 120 tons of iron sulfate into the northeast Pacific, in 2012, hoping to stimulate a phytoplankton bloom which in turn would provide ample food for baby salmon.


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.


Why are the Koch brothers opposing solar energy?

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. 
KOCH-SOLAR-ENERGYPlease 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.
citizen-solar-powerDig 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.

Noah, the Tower of Babel…and Science

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.


Are our politics predestined? Will "progress" reach an end? Plus… More science!

Can a machine tell whether you are liberal or conservative? There have been a lot of articles lately, revealing the light that science has shed upon the way personality and even brain architecture correlates with your politics. This article by Chris Mooney is very informative"We know that liberals and conservatives are really deeply different on a variety of things… It runs from their tastes, to their cognitive patterns—how they think about things, what they pay attention to—to their physical reactions. We can measure their sympathetic nervous systems, which is the fight-or-flight system. And liberals and conservatives tend to respond very differently."
These results span a wide variety of technologies from brain scans to chemistry. Especially interesting (to me) is how eye-tracking technologies zero in on levels of aversion and arousal that correlate with this “whig versus tory” or liberal versus conservative personality divide. Do any of you recall my forecasting exactly this use of eye-tracking methods, way back in SUNDIVER (1980)?


Hawking vs the Terminator! Plus BASIC at 50! Blood Moons! Americans are weird! Plus… more science!

Stephen Hawking, plus physicists Max Tegmark and Frank Wilczek and AI expert Stuart Russell, have penned an editorial — Transcending Complacency on Super-Intelligent Machines — urging caution in research aimed at creating artificial intelligences. As if Hollywood has not already wagged that finger at us, plenty of times, already!
To be clear, Hawking does not (as many in media have misquoted him) say that AI in itself would be humanity’s “worst mistake.” He very clearly states that the mistake would be paying too little attention to our responsibilities in the creation process. Taking insufficient care to get it right.
I know many members of the AI research community and this topic is widely discussed. But how do you take ‘precautions’ to keep new cybernetic minds friendly, when (1) we don’t know which of six very different, general types of approaches to this problem might eventually bear fruit and (2) it is clear that the one method that cannot work is “laws of robotics" of Asimov fame.
I explore all six approaches in various works of fiction and nonfiction. One of the six approaches — the one least-studied, of course — offers what I deem our best hope for a “soft landing,” in which human civilization and some recognizable version of our species would remain confidently in command of its own destiny.
At the opposite extreme is this possibility: AI might arrive that’s deliberately designed to be predatory, parasitical, ruthless and destructive, in its very core and purpose. Alas, this is exactly the approach that is receiving more funding - and in secret - than all other forms of AI combined. And no, I am not talking about the military!


Defying Godzilla… and other "games"!

Godzilla-movie-2014To be clear, I will go to see the new Godzilla flick. I hope it is well-done and I’ll turn down as many dials as I must, in order to enjoy all the roaring and stomping and useless-shooting that’s a metaphor for the futility of war… or the futility of all human endeavor.
Still, let me turn to all you guys out there who are going nuts over this prospect, and ask… really? I mean….
…I mean it looks like just another plodding, invulnerable, tail-dragging act-of-nature. An unpleasant guest. A bully, void of any personality or motive, other than malevolence, trashing up the place in revenge for our effrontery for daring to develop technology, for all its plusses and minuses. A stomping expression of the modern-cowardly obsession with apocalypse and the simplistic balm of hopelessness.
Do I hate all monsters? Nonsense! Frankenstein’s creation is a tear-jerker. And I howl in fury at what Hollywood has done, lately, to the lycanthrope wolf-man, who used to be the bourgeoise, middle class monster! Between the effete, lordly vampires and the innumerable, shambling, proletarian zombies, there was the story of a guy with a mortgage and a wife and kids who won’t listen… and a monthly dread that came with every full moon… what a story! Ruined by recent, coke-addled producers, who turned wolf man into a pack of cheap, white-trash versions of vampires.  So sure, I like monsters.  But I’m picky.
Godzilla-1998-emmerichHeck, Godzilla can be cool! The very first version had some genuine pathos. The 1998 Roland Emmerich version (with Matthew Broderick) featured a female titan who — while huge and lithe and deadly — was also vulnerable, courageous and FAST! And even kinda sympathetic, in her own way. She was in and part of nature, not a stomping-cranky, invulnerable, walking-destroyer-god metaphor.
Oh, sure, the overall Godzilla 1998 flick kinda sucked as cinema. But the monster? She lived by her wits and had understandable motives. The audience felt conflicted and even came to view her as a tragic underdog.
So this new guy-in-a-rubber-suit can take hits from nukes? Where’s the fun in that? Yaaaaaawn….

David Brin's Favorite Science Fiction Films

DB-Sci-Fi-FilmScience Fiction is multi-dimensional and no one criterion can be used to determine a best-of list — those rare movies that take us beyond our familiar horizons on adventures that satisfy every age you contain within yourself, from awestruck kid to sober grownup to mystic dreamer.
Movies for grownups: I wish there were a lot more of these — films in which the director and writer actually cared about the deep implications of their visual thought experiment — their deliberate departure from reality. Works in which the creators paid close heed to logical what-if and (while delivering tasty action, plus biting social commentary) eschewed the lazy, “idiot plot”* assumption that civilization is automatically and entirely worthless. Some institutions actually function! Adversaries have plausible motives and no red, glowing eyes! Protagonists aren’t chosen-ones but merely above-average people with difficult challenges to overcome, in part by using their heads.

Science Fiction II: the literary stuff - Hugos and China and a Latin Beat!

ThreeBodyProblem1The Three-Body Problem is part one of an award-winning trilogy by Liu Cixin— and is arguably the best Chinese science fiction novel ever translated into English. Liu uses the “three-body problem” of classical mechanics to ask some terrifying questions about human nature and what lies at the core of civilization.
The series explores the world of the Trisolarans, a race that is forced to adapt to life in a triple star system, on a planet whose gravity, heat, and orbit are in constant flux. Facing extinction, the Trisolarans plan to evacuate and conquer the nearest habitable planet, and finally intercept a message—from Earth. The Three-Body Problem, due out in October 2014, has been translated into English by award winning writer, Ken Liu.
Special note… TTBP deals very closely with the issue of the Fermi Paradox and whether we should shout “yoo-hoo!” into the cosmos  — a quandary about which I’ve also written, from time to time. (Now see Stephan Martiniere’s way-cool coverfor the coming Tor Boooks edition!)
I’ve long maintained that the health of an enlightened and progressive society is measured by how vibrant is its science fiction, since that is where true self-critique and appraisal and hope lie. If so, the good news stretches beyond China!


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.