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In Which This Cat is an Accurate Metaphor For My Brain at the Moment

Whatever (John Scalzi) - 3 hours 56 min ago
Me: Hey, brain, I think I’d like to write a Whatever piece. Brain: Eh… I’d rather not, thanks. Me: But people are clamoring to know my opinion about many things! Brain: Are they? Really? Me: I assume so! Brain: Then they’ll still be clamoring later, won’t they? Me: But — my thoughts on politics! Brain: […]

In Which I Yet Again Massacre an Innocent Song From the 80s

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 12/09/2018 - 00:47
In my quest to ruin every 80s song with a glitchy, spooky, questionably sung cover version done in one take, here’s Depeche Mode’s “Somebody.” Yes, this is what I do with my Saturday nights when Krissy is out with friends. Enjoy. For comparison, the original:

We can't own information

Contrary Brin - Sat, 12/08/2018 - 20:05
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A cogent and interesting article from Forbes - Privacy is Not a Property Right in Personal Information - examines the well-intentioned “privacy reforms” implemented to some degree in Europe and pushed in the U.S., that would grant individuals “ownership of their own data,” plus the right of portability, to choose where it is to be stored and used.

As the author – Mark McCarthy - shows, this is a well-motivated… and utterly stupid approach to addressing a very real problem. The age-old problem of asymmetry of informational power, with elites like the rich or corporations almost-inevitably absorbing every bit and byte and fact about us, to use as they wish.
Look, I absolutely share that fear! It is why I wrote TheTransparent Society, because there are potential solutions, using the very same technique that has already worked increasingly well for 200 years. In contrast, the “data ownership” proponents cannot point to a single time in the history of our species when the citizens of a commonwealth commanded their elites “don’t look-at or know about me!” with even a scintilla of success. Again, that never happened. Because it cannot possibly work.
I’ve been dealing with this “don’t look!” fetish for 25 years, and they never learn. Ten years ago there were howls to banish and make illegal face recognition systems! And if that sounds quaint, well, talk of that vaguie “reform” is back, alas: It’s time to regulate facial recognition and affect recognition,” says Kate Crawford, a researcher at Microsoft. And yes, every worry should be considered. Yet, talk of curbing such technologies never forces the tide to go back out. Nor will any restrictions hamper elites, in the slightest. 

There is an alternative approach, the one responsible for all our freedom and progress. And it is always considered last.
In The Transparent Society I point out that all our great, positive-sum “arenas” - like markets, democracy, science and justice - thrive amid openness and light, but wither when shadows prevail. Forbidding others to know things is inherently aggressive and threatening, especially when they might view you as one of the dangerous elites they worry about.
And sure, I avow that yes, letting the mighty simply vacuum up everything about us, while they get to do mysterious things with our information, benefiting or even conspiring… heck, that’s a sure-fire path to Big Brother. So what's to be done?
There are some approaches that might work! Say, if hundreds of thousands of citizens were to pool their data rights in ways that could exert group efficiencies and group market power. This is simply an extrapolation of the greatest social innovation of the 2nd half of the 20th Century, the NGO. So we already know something like it could work.
Even more cogent is the suggestion by Jaron Lanier that we should not so much own our information -- creating a mythical and preposterous notion that you can exclude others from ever touching it -- as retain strong interests in it. A right to get feedback data on how it is being used, by whom, and to get paid micro-royaltiesif some corporation or elite entity benefits from using it.
But the fundamental remains the same. We are not made safe by hiding from power! It never worked and it won’t work in the future.
What gave us this window of freedom was not preventing surveillance, but insisting on sousveillance… looking back at power. Stripping the mighty naked, so we can supervise. Because it matters much less what they can know about you than what they can do to you!
And – as we have learned on the streets with our cell-cameras -- the only and best way to control what others – even the police – do to you is to let them know that even the watchmen are being watched.

== The Crux ==

How do you "own" something that -- when it (inevitably!) leaks -- can be infinitely duplicated at zero cost?

Is the word "ownership" even remotely applicable?

Even "control"?
== News from the Transparency Front ==
Microsoft intends to develop two blockchain products designed to give consumers greater control of their personal data. One is an encrypted personal data store, or "identity hub," a combination of a user's personal devices and cloud storage; their permission would be required for third parties to access it. Also a "wallet-like app" that people could use, among other purposes, to manage these permissions to their data, including the ability to revoke them when desired. Decentralized identifiers (DIDs) do not require a central authority because they are registered on a distributed ledger. IBM, Accenture and RSA are working on similar concepts.

Fine. Go ahead and try. There may come a first time - in the history of our species - when a general approach to equalizing power via concealment will work.
Microsoft also aims at a system to allow a high volume of low-value payments, perhaps like the micropayments systems I have been pushing for almost a decade, which would then have the potential to smooth our commerce, save journalism empower creatives and finally end the era of domination of the Internet by advertising. Here's a good goal.
In a related development San Diego startup LunaDNA, which aims to create a community-owned database of donated genetic/health information for medical research, has filed with securities regulators to issue shares to people who provide their data, building  a credit union like co-op around an anonymous genomic and health database. People who donate their DNA/health data would get shares based on the value of the data, which LunaDNA calculates based on current market value. For example, a full human genome nets 300 shares.Three weeks of fitness/nutrition data gets two shares. "If LunaDNA ever makes money from fees charged to researchers who tap into the database or drug discovery royalties, shareholders would get dividends."
Another such venture is “” whose app would let peoplespecify how their medical data can and cannot be used. Pharmaceutical companies could potentially pay each user $10 a month for access to their data, Etwaru says. The drug companies would also pay for access.
Combine these developments and we move toward a world predicted slightly in Neal Stephenson's SNOWCRASH but more significantly in Web philosopher Jaron Lanier's notion about personal data. To date, there have been three notions about our information future. 

== Three Notions ==
(1) We are spinning into a dystopian age when the mighty elites will know everything about us and the little gal or guy will be helpless pawns. Naturally, this is the future we see depicted in a lot of sci fi films and novels because dystopia makes drama trivially easy. Besides, this is clearly where a world mafia-oligarchy wants us to go, so some paranoia is justified!

 All decent folks who want to preserve freedom and individual opportunity rightly oppose this death mode for the Enlightenment. But in opposition, we've seen some pretty simplistic notions.
2) A wild west notion of all information floating free and thus empowering the masses. Yes, at a very simplistic - and hence dumb - level, this conveys the notion of generalized accountability that I tout in The Transparent Society. Sure, I'd rather err on the side of everyone seeing! Because all our great enlightenment systems -- markets, democracy, science, justice courts and sports - all of them wither and die in fog or darkness. But the arguments in favor of transparency are more subtle than this. And yes, humans want some privacy and control. And any decent civilization will include those things.
3) Paternalistic walls. Alas, the vast majority of smart, sincere paladins fighting for freedom and rights and against the dystopian age almost all reflexively turn to demanding laws that restrict information flows. Supposedly empowering citizens to declare "you cannot know this about me!" Enshrining "ownership of my own information." It all sounds so positive and freedom-y, that no one -- certainly in Europe -- ever dares to respond: "Not only can that not possibly work, at any level, but it is exactly what elites and oligarchs want most -- walls, guarded by law and the state, within which they can connive and reach out to control." 
Alas, every last error that I just described can be found in well-meaning initiatives like this proposed "Internet Bill of Rights," which would have none of the intended benefits and a whirling myriad of horrific, unintended consequences. 
I mentioned Jaron Lanier's notion that merits repetition. It was not that we should own all information about ourselves, but that we should have strong interest in our data, and get to benefit from anyone who uses it... much in the way that patent laws weren't originally meant to prevent use of inventions, but to ensure the inventors got paid a fair share, so that sharing would make sense to them.
Which brings us back around to the stunningly foolish assertion that any kind of political agitation - or even law - can possibly thwart the arrival of easy-cheap face recognition. Again, the fear of sliding into an Orwellian surveillance/control state is genuine and terrifying! Alas, it is trivialized and lobotomized by those who think they can stymie the "surveillance" part, by howling at the mighty "don't look at us!" 
It is the "control" part that can still be prevented, via the method we used with increasing effectiveness for 200 years -- answering surveillance with sousveillance. 
== An Addendum... and Alert... on "war with Iran" ==

John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have long sought war with Iran. Now, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has repeated an earlier threat to block ships from leaving the Persian Gulf if the U.S. government continues to seek to block Iranian oil exports. Rouhani’s comments came a day after the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf on Monday, ending the longest period the U.S. had gone without an carrier in the Gulf over the past two decades.

Examine the pieces. The US Navy has been trying to ramp down tensions in the gulf, and especially to keep its most valuable assets out of a friction zone and potential death trap. By clamping on the Iranian economy and ordering the USS Stennis into the gulf, Pompeo, Bolton and the Bannonites are setting a stage for what the Saudis and Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu all desperately need, an international distraction from their own troubles. 
A “Tonkin/Reichstag/Gleiwitz/Sarajevo/Remember-the-Maine” “Incident” (look them all up!) is something that our professionals in the military/intel/diplomatic corps have skillfully forestalled, till now. But for how much longer? 
Especially when even the Iranian mullahs would benefit from a brief, colorful, pippety-poppety “tomahawk war” that does no major harm, but gives them an excuse to clamp down on their own millions of young liberals? Of course, the top winner of such a dog-wag is blatantly obvious. Only one man can possibly rake in all the marbles… when V. Putin steps up to spread the Russian umbrella and “protect our neighbor.” At which point Russia gets the Persian satrapy it has sought for 300 years. Thanks to Vlad’s agents in the White House.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

The Color of the Sky On My Homeworld

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 18:14
As I am occasionally asked what it is. It’s this! Have a great weekend, everyone.

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018, Day Five: Charities

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 09:28
For the last four days, the Whatever Gift Guide 2018 has been about helping you find the perfect gifts for friends and loved ones. But today I’d like to remind folks that the season is also about helping those in need. So this final day is for charities. If you’re looking for a place to make a […]

Regulation - and freedom

Contrary Brin - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 14:48
We are heavily regulated… and it shows how free we are! 
Oh, if only we had civics education!  Take the standard libertarian complaint about how heavily regulated Americans are, listing the vast numbers of laws and rules on the books. (A number that nevertheless went down under VP Al Gore’s “Re-Inventing Government” reforms and always goes up under Republicans.)  

One explanation often offered is that modern life crams so many people close together in a technologically complex era. And yes, that's a contributing factor. But the impression then is that our ancestors must have been more “free.” 
You know it's not true. Just close your eyes and envision life for 99% of our ancestors, as serfs or peasants or laborers for an endlessly boring series of lords and estate-owners and priests and kings, whose power was capricious, overwhelming. You think you have it worse? Go attend any city council meeting and observe the impudent shouting by local citizens, arguing fearlessly and indignantly over one detailed rule or another. 
It’s true we face more rules, in the raw number of specific acts (mostly stupidities or crimes) that are forbidden! But there is a huge reason for the complexity of our laws. And that reason is not higher population or the extra intricacy of modern life, nor nanny-state meddling. 

The reason for the vast number of modern rules is that we are vastly more free.

== What??? ==

Consider that most human societies operated under one central (and zero-sum) principle:
“Whatever is not specifically allowed is automatically prohibited.” 

In the past, a cop or priest or thug would approach you and demand “Who gave you permission to do that?” Unless you were a lord, you needed to show it was allowed. There was no need for a lengthy rule-book. The law was: “ask for permission first, or die.” 
In sharp contrast from 99% of human history, our current fundamental (positive-sum) premise is the opposite:

“Whatever is not specifically prohibited is automatically allowed.” 

If no one is being endangered and no harm is being done, you can demand the state’s officials prove to you that it’s forbidden. (Granted, you should demand very carefully if you are black. Alas, still. Have that cell cam turned on. Hands-free. Then keep pushing gently at the envelope.)

That is why our laws are so complex! Because what’s forbidden is the exceptions to a generality that’s freedom. 

EXAMPLE: those of you who have taken flight school know about the “upside down wedding cake” control zone around airports where you must report in and obey traffic controllers. The complexity of the shape of this zone arises for a simple reason, and it is not that rule-makers are meddlesome fuss-budgets. 

The air traffic control zone is complex because regulators carved away every chunk of sky they did not need to regulate. Because they shared the same instinct. Most of those serving on the rule-making committees were themselves private pilots. And the thought was always: "Is it really necessary to report-in here?" (See it explained in detail.)

Yes, you are suffering cognitive dissonance, right now. Well, stretch your mind (it’s what you come here for!) Dig it again. U.S. air traffic maps are far more complex… more “regulated” … precisely in order that pilots should be more free.

There are zillions of such examples. Here's another place where I discuss the  "miracle of the four-way stop-sign intersection." And I wish every one of you would do the experiment that I recommend there. Go to the nearest 4-way stop sign intersection and just watch, for a while. And be amazed.

Again: “Whatever is not specifically prohibited is automatically allowed.” And hence, that means there must be more rules that specifically prohibit a lot of special cases amid a vast sea of liberty. A sea that you never notice, the way a fish ignores the water!

It's tragic we don’t teach Americans that this is their core assumption, so they never parse it out. And hence, you get libertarians who reflexively pour hate at the very civil servants and fairness rules that Adam Smith himself recommended, as counterweights against the real enemies of freedom across 6000 years - those kings and priests and owner-lords. Nor is it just Americans who would benefit from greater understanding. 

Alas, by neglecting to talk about such basic fundamentals, we raise generations who cannot acknowledge the freedoms they take lazily and ungratefully for granted.
== Restoring civics ==
Good news? See where some states have started to address the “Civics Gap” that actor and activist Richard Dreyfuss has long campaigned about, with his “Dreyfuss Initiative.”
Even better news, it is a mix of red and blue states, passing rules that high school students only graduate if they can pass the same test as an earnest immigrant seeking citizenship. 
Every foreign student at U.S. universities should be taught about this! How about requiring a civics class of every foreign undergrad and graduate student? China keeps close tabs on its students and plants a “Confucius Center” next to more than 100 U.S. universities, to maintain indoctrination. But we don’t need to convert anyone, just send them home with some ideas in their heads. 

Especially the fundamental meme that “Whatever is not specifically prohibited  -- and for reasonable reasons that were deliberated openly -- is automatically allowed.”  

What a memic seed! We need to start using our advantages in the peaceful battle of ideology between authoritarianism and the enlightenment experiment.

== Time to discredit Supply Side Voodoo? ==
I've elsewhere spoken about the passing of President George H. W. Bush. But let's put aside the gruesome horrors of his catastrophic foreign policies. I agree that domestically he was a gentleman and stark contrast to the present Republican Party. He sought to address problems through an art called "politics" and signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, plus assertive measures that cleaned up our rivers and seriously reduced Acid Rain. And while he knuckled-under to support the increasingly insane-predatory GOP tax policies, he did -- once -- give those policies their proper name -- "Voodoo Economics."
Impervious to evidence or facts, today's Republicans clutch so-called "Supply Side" theories that have been 100% disproved by 30 years of diametrically opposite outcomes. Take the latest news:
“Large pharma companies spend more on share buybacks to boost share prices (and stock options — the main way that executives get paid) than on research and development. Pfizer, for example, spent $139 billion on share buybacks and dividends in the past decade — and just $82 billion on research and development in the same period. (The chief executive’s pay was also a reported $27.9 million in 2017.)” See “Big Pharma is hurting drug innovation.”
Dig this. The GOP Tax Bill was one more Supply Side deliberate lie, promising that the trillions fed to corporations and their high-caste owners would go directly to R&D and productive capacity (increasing "supply.") Not a single Supply Side prediction or promise ever moved the needle even a little toward coming true. Ever! (No wonder they wage open war against science and all other fact professions.)
Instead, as Adam Smith himself predicted, gusher influxes of wealth to aristocracy do not get spent (by most) on research or production, but rather on "rentier" or rent-seeking asset bubbles. Except for an entrepreneurial few, it is always, always true.
And in handing over this asset-bubble fix, we the taxpayers are plunging into debt. (Deficits always accelerate during GOP rule and always at least start decelerating unde democrats. Always.)
Now, as we see with today's news of an inverted yield curve and a stock market reversal, clearly one of these asset bubbles is about to crash. In this case, the bubble was inflated -- without generating any actual wealth, R&D or productive capacity -- by a trillion dollars spent on stock buybacks -- a practice that our parents in the Greatest Generation wisely outlawed... back "when America was great!"... and when the WWII generation's favorite human was named Franklin Roosevelt.

And finally....
The former Polish Defense and Foreign minister describes in detail the methods by which the Kremlin is - right now - waging active ‘hybrid wars’ of conquest against Russia’s neighbors, rebuilding the Soviet Empire.
California, already by far with the best election laws in the nation, is pioneering a new process in half a dozen counties that may offer a glimpse of the future.
Oh, but now the East Wing – the Office of The First Lady, which does not exist in any legal or Constitutional way – publicly calls for the firing of a national security advisor. OMG seriously? 

All I can do is repeat the ever-applicable mantra: “WODI!” or “What If (Michelle) Obama Did It?” What hypocrites.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018, Day Four: Fan Favorites!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 09:42
  For the first three days of the Whatever Gift Guide 2018, I’ve let authors and creators tell you about their work. Today is different: Today is Fan Favorites day, in which fans, admirers and satisfied customers share with you a few of their favorite things — and you can share some of your favorite things as well. This is […]

The Big Idea: Arwen Elys Dayton

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 12/05/2018 - 10:34
You want to give your children to have every advantage… but how far would you go to give them those advantages? It’s a question that Arwen Elys Dayton is intensely engaged with in her new book Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. ARWEN ELYS DAYTON:  About a week ago, a researcher in Shenzhen, China, named He […]

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018, Day Three: Arts, Crafts, Music and More

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 12/05/2018 - 08:45
The Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018 continues, and today we move away from books and focus on other gifts and crafts — which you can take to mean just about any other sort of thing a creative person might make: Music, art, knitting, jewelry, artisan foodstuffs and so on. These can be great, unique gifts for special folks […]

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018, Day Two: Non-Traditionally Published Books

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 12/04/2018 - 09:20
Today is Day Two of the Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018, and today the focus is on Non-Traditionally Published Books: Self-published works, electronically-exclusive books, books from micro presses, books released outside the usual environs of the publishing world, and so on. Hey, I put my first novel up on this very Web site years ago and told people to […]

An Interesting Fact About The Consuming Fire

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 12/03/2018 - 15:38
Last night on Twitter someone recounted a convention panel he’d been to, where the panelists were (jokingly) annoyed with my writing speed and publishing frequency. To which I replied, “It’s a good thing they don’t know I wrote The Consuming Fire in two weeks. That would not help things.” To which I got more or […]

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2018, Day One: Traditionally Published Books

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 12/03/2018 - 08:43
Welcome to the first day of the Whatever Shopping Guide 2018 — My way of helping you folks learn about cool creative gifts for the holidays, straight from the folks who have created them. Today’s featured products are traditionally published books (including graphic novels and audiobooks); that is, books put out by publishers who ship books to stores […]

Some Observations on Bestseller Lists, December 2018

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 12/02/2018 - 18:11
The first part of this will be a transcription of some tweets I made earlier today (transcribed to fix some spelling errors), and I’ll follow that up with some other thoughts. First: The tweet transcription: Watching some authors indulge in theories about why their stuff doesn’t make the NYT bestseller list and it’s the usual […]

Human Morality: from Mexico's Solution to GHW Bush to AI(!) to Climate Change to SETI

Contrary Brin - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 15:45
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-This time we'll dive into the nature of morality, whether aliens might share some of our basic codes... and not share others. But first, let's clear some pressing items... 

There's been fervid discussion of my previous posting on "things the new, Democratic-run House of Representatives can accomplish, even with a hostile Senate and President." As it happens, there are plenty, like rescinding the 2001 War Powers resolution, restoring the requirement that a president get Congressional permission to go to war. Alas, Blogger ate my followup Part Two, about actual legislation, but I have hopes to restore it soon.

In the news: 

Today Mexico gets a new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Here's a link to my August piece respectfully recommending a simple procedure - he would not need any legislation - to rip the guts out of corruption in his country. Single-handedly he could set an example that would spread around the world. 

Also today we note the passing of a fellow who was the only Republican vice-presidential nominee ever remotely qualified for office... and boy was he qualified, on paper! As president he later was known for decorum, calm, deliberation and personal decency (remember such Republicans?) He also -- because of lickspittle obedience to oligarchic masters -- did more damage to America and the world in just one term than any other president of the 20th Century, setting the stage for a renewed -- and much hotter -- version of the Cold War.

 == A soft landing for AI? For Blockchain? ==

Getting more than we bargained for: here's one of my best interviews about Artificial Intelligence and ways to get a "soft" singularity. Good questions and editing by Paul Thies at Thomson-Reuters. My proposal regarding AI is (alas) not offered anywhere else, though it's the only one that can possibly work... because it already has worked, increasingly well, for 200 years.

I’m on the advisory board of several ICOs or “initial coin offerings”… groups creating blockchain tokensthat are supposed to serve a useful function inside a digital community, with (officially) no outer world promises that would violate securities laws.  I am known as the “grouch” you want on such an advisory board, reminding these folks to stay out of jail! 

And in that spirit, let me offer you all a glimpse of this exciting opportunity. Follow the trail… for a surprise.

== ... and for climate change? ==
My friend neural scientist and author William Calvin has given amazing talks on how the arrival of extreme weather events is a harbinger alarm. He reminds us when “a mega heat wave struckEurope in July 2003. It killed 70,000 people! A hundred times more than any 20th Century event, like the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed 739. A statistical freak? Well, one in a million does occasionally happen, you know...

...only it was not a one-off! Seven years later, two time zones farther east, another mega killed 56,000 Russians, ruined a third of their food crops and helped propel hunger in the middle east. "The chances of both being random? One in a million million. So, forget statistics: we have a new player in action, a real game-changer lacking a track record to help us judge risk by conventional means.”
Calvin continues: “About ten years ago, billion-dollar-plus floods started occurring four times as often— not counting coastal flooding from hurricanes. Those billion-dollar windstorms that rip off your roof? Or cause baseball-sized hail? Their numbers tripled after 2006…”
“The jet stream used to stay up at Canadian latitudes most of the time…Now its path is frequently seen to dip down south, sometimes to Texas and Florida. It acts as a road block, so that weather cannot move on. If the sun is shining, no clouds arrive to cool things off and the heat keeps building. If instead it just keeps raining, floods result.” Or else, in winter, it allows a needle of arctic-bitter cold to spear south, as we saw last year. (And Fox declared the cold “disproved global warming.”)
The beneficiary? As arctic cold spills down the Mississippi Valley, polar ice vanishes giving Russia  a dozen new ports and control over a valuable new shipping lanes.
As hurricane seasons worsen and wildfire seasons widen, even some Republicans have noticed. In possibly as a sop to the RASRs (residually adult-sane Republicans) who still teeter inside the GOP tent — meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, an expert on extreme weather, has been nominated to the long-vacant position of presidential science advisor.  Extreme weather would seem to be a pertinent and Droegemeier’s former colleagues say his views on climate change align with those of most scientists. Alas, the Donald Trump who railed that “glaciers are advancing as never before!” probably will never meet with him.
My own riff on Climate Denialism is about the fundamental illogic. It's one thing to say: "If 1% of scientists still have doubts then there are questions." It's another thing to claim: "No public policy actions should be taken, just in case 99% of scientists turn out to be right, after all." Join millions using their voices and everyday choices to tackle the climate crisis. The Climate Reality Project. i
Okay, on to the main topic...

== Natural morality? ==
A major argument in the SETI/METI community concerns morality -- whether aliens will have any like ours. Or weirdly different. 

We can point to values that were common among most human societies, like not-stealing and not-lying and most of the Ten Commandments, or TC. (Though apparently whole bunches of them performed human sacrifice, torture and infanticide.) Even when it comes to TC-basics, one can quibble. Not only are those recorded societies human, but nearly all were agricultural or else warlike. Some (a few) feminist  anthropologists contend those two activities favor male-strength, hence patriarchal moral systems. Certainly, there are science fiction thought experiments by Charnas, LeGuin, Yarbro, and many others (including my own Glory Season) that portray female-led civilizations having more communal and less-coercive moral systems. There likely will be such experiments… though I suspect there weren’t many in the past.
What about other species? Certainly higher animals have displayed two of our strongest interaction traits, one positive, the other negative… altruismand revenge. I didn’t have to anthropomorphize to show chimps and dolphins doing both. It’s already in their nature. 

Something more basic seems to pervade the realm of creatures who are sub-sapient -- the moral code of quid-pro-quo. Tit for tat. You do something for me and I’ll do something for you. It’s been observed in lions and penguins, lemurs and parrots.
This is one reason why METI aficionados who want to “beam the Internet skyward” are plumb loco. Any advanced aliens out there may or may not have a broadly inclusive sense of altruism, like a modern liberal person. (We can hope so, though it would be dumb to stake our destinies on it.) But if quid-pro-quo is a general rule, then aliens out there will understand trade. Commerce. Buying and selling. And what is the only thing that can be traded across the vast gulfs of space?
Information, coded in photons. Art, music, inventions, literature, culture. Those are our trade goods! And while I oppose METI for lots of reasons, if we pick up a signal showing we’re known, then the jig is up, and we might as well send them some samples of what we have to offer in trade. 

Samples! Not everything off our shelves! 
There may be no greater criminals across all of time than those who give away every scrap that we could have traded for wonders.

== Human morality is different? Toddlers Like Winners, But How They Win Matters ==
Unlike other primates, human toddlers watching a competition don't appreciate victors who shove rivals out of the way. Even little kids prefer high status characters who aren't bullies. As this article points out, even at 20 months, our babes have a different, more subtle moral compass than even our closest relatives, like chimpanzees. Moreover, tellingly, it is not the morality of feudalism, the system that a few cheating males always imposed in most continents, across the last 6000 years.
I have a theory about this, that I name “Niven’s Rule,” after my friend Larry Niven, who illustrated the concept in many stories, though never saying it, explicitly. 

“A sapient species will start off with a moral system centered on how their un-sapient ancestors ate.”
- If you meet high-tech herd herbivores out there – like Niven’s “puppeteers” – they are likely to be paranoid.  

- A descendant of pack carnivores will likely have huge empathy within the “pack” or later tribe/nation, but none for those outside. 

- Heirs of stalking carnivoreswill probably have wide/broad empathy – a tiger must envision the thinking of the deer – but very little sympathy

- God help us, if we ever meet descendants of solitary-omnivorous-infanticidal nasties like bears.
Us? We come from stock who were gregarious, omnivorous tree dwellers who then dropped down to roam the plains, slow but with the greatest long range endurance of any land animal. Expert throwers and singers who like to be interdependent in a tribe, but also can and do spend long periods alone. Oh, and we teamed up with dogs, sharing food. Flexibility appears to be the theme. And I wonder if any of this bears upon the Fermi Paradox.
It encourages me to ponder that our infants already dislike bullies and cheaters. (May we transport and amplify this lesson, into our politics!) But remember that even our ape cousins don’t share that new variant on morality. If we do finally go forth out there, as teachers, we may have a big job cut out for us.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Whatever Holiday Shopping Guide 2018 Starts Monday!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 11/30/2018 - 11:57
Every year as the holiday season begins I run a shopping guide for the holidays, and over the years it’s been quite successful: Lots of people have found out about excellent books and crafts and charities and what have you, making for excellent gift-giving opportunities during the holiday season. I’ve decided to do it again this […]

I Meant to Write Something Today But Got Distracted By Cats, So Here’s a Photo of Krissy

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 11/29/2018 - 19:34
Which I think is probably more pleasing than anything I’d write today anyway. And yeah, I was actually distracted by cats, as I took them to the vet for checkups and shots. While the Scamperbeasts are the first to admit that going to the vet is not their idea of a good time, they know […]

Virtue Signaling and Other Heresies — Hardcover Available Early!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 11/28/2018 - 11:56
For various reasons, the signed limited hardcover edition of Virtue Signaling and Other Heresies: Selected Writings From Whatever 2013 – 2018 arrived early at the Subterranean Press warehouse. And when it arrived, we thought: Why make people wait until December? So: If you’ve pre-ordered the book, it’s now shipping to you. Thank you! If you […]

I’ve Been Busy the Last Couple of Days With Projects I Can’t Tell You About Yet, So, Here, Enjoy This Cat Picture

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 11/27/2018 - 16:31
It’s Sugar, doing a not terrible job of blending in with the living room carpet. Also while I can’t tell you about the projects I’ve been working on I can tell you that it has required giving copious notes, and also notes on notes, and if it all comes together you’ll probably be happy, unless […]

What should the House do? Part 1: Veto-proof actions... then aim for a thousand vetoes

Contrary Brin - Sun, 11/25/2018 - 14:31
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Okay so the Democrats got one half of one-third of the U.S. government. Can they actually do anything, opposed by a GOP-controlled Senate and a White House ruled by a vindictive toddler? In fact there are many possibilities, if someone gave the new House leadership brain-boost pills. 
That snark is only partly deserved. Nancy Pelosi and her team have already crafted a top priority bill for the 116thCongress. “HR1” will push for many of the electoral reforms I’ll discuss below. Mark Pocan (D-Wi) said that HB1 will reestablish voting rights for all, specifically outlawing the interstate cross check system and removing barriers to being able to cast a vote. 
(HR1 for the 115th Congress was the treasonous Tax Bill that stole from our kids, sent debt skyrocketing, raped the middle class and gifted more than half a trillion dollars to top 0.001% elites, who were supposed to spend it all expanding “supply” through investments in R&D and industrial productive capacity. As with all “Supply Side” promises, this one was instantly broken - most of the largesse went to stock buy-backs, a practice that the Greatest Generation wisely made illegal.)
== A new “Contract With America”?==
Senator Bernie Sanders, the sage uncle of the Democratic Party’s left wing (and so much like my own Dad that hearing his voice makes me plotz!) has come out for his party to declare a Progressive version of Newt Gingrich’s brilliant 1994 manifesto – the “Contract With America,” laying down in detail what the party and movement will aim to achieve. 
(I called for something similar in both 2006 and 2017. About 1/3 of Newt’s “contract reforms" were, in fact, reasonable! And hence were dropped the instant Gingrich was replaced by Dennis “friend to boys” Hastert. Most of the rest was pro-feudal service to oligarchs. But polemically the Contract was golden.) 
Benie’s list is about 50% things that all decent and modern/sapient citizens would want! The other 50% are rather socialistic and only feasible if we first get our fiscal house in order. Moreover, we must grit our teeth in expectation that Foxheads will shriek “the Commies want to bankrupt us!” How ironic when, in fact, our headlong dive into fiscal insolvency is entirely the GOP’s doing.
Sanders isn’t the only one with an agenda  for the Democratic House. According to the KL Gates (financial industry) Newsletter, Democratic priorities will include: reforms to ease financing of low income housing… "plus a focus on cybersecurity and FinTech, as well as a coordinated effort to stem President Trump’s regulatory relief plans, particularly with respect to the rule-making and enforcement activities of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.”
Alas, there is a core problem with all of these ambitious aims… that even controlling the U.S. House of representatives, the Democrats cannot actually enact any of these things. Not even one of them, given an obstinately GOP-controlled Senate and a veto-wielding sillyperson in the White House.
So, let’s get practical, hm? What can be accomplished just by the House all by itself? Actions that it can do alone, that would have direct and immediate effects? Or at least score real political points?
== What the House can do, even by itself ==
Number one, of course, is investigations. No longer controlled by oligarchy-shills like California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, House committees will go on a tear, issuing subpoenas, grilling witnesses and demanding answers. The whole nation is dialed in on this one. My chief concern is protecting the lives and independence of these men and women, who will be endangering everything Vladimir Putin worked for.
That much is obvious. But I'll talk more about subpoenas, soon, with a surprising proposal that would shake Washington to its roots.
Number two, revoke the 2001 War Powers Resolution. To the best of my knowledge, the votes that gave George W. Bush carte blanche, just after the 9/11 attacks, were not bills or "law." The House and Senate separately declared that it was the sense of the majority of the members not to oppose the president applying his powers as Commander in Chief, sending troops into violent action overseas.
This means that each chamber may withdraw its own resolution at any time! The House does not need Senate approval to declare that it is re-asserting the constitutional power of Congress over declarations of war.
It wouldn’t be easy for President Trump to oppose this in the originalist-oriented Supreme Court that he worked hard to create. Here is what James Madison, the central designer of the U.S. Constitution, said about having Congress, not President, make any decision to go to war: 
“War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honours and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast: ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”(Helvidius no. 4)    Nor will you likely see much demurral from senior members of the U.S. military officer corps, who are both devoutly constitutionalist and deeply skeptical of being ordered into impulsive quagmires, as happened under both Bushes. (You liberals out there desperately need to revise your stereotypes about the brave and highly intellectual men and women officers who are our bulwark, the third best-educated clade in modern American life. Indeed, their meticulous attention is probably what has -- till now -- prevented a contrived "event" from triggering the Stupidwar-with-Iran that the Saudis, Putin and Rupert Murdoch all fervently want.) 
The House of Representative could do this on the very first day of the 166th Congress. They should do it. They must.
Number three, restore the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Newt banished the highly respected OTA for one reason -- the same reason why Donald Trump has refused (for the first time in 70 years) to appoint a White House Science Advisor -- because the neutral and non-partisan experts in OTA kept saying "that's not really true" to propaganda assertions then pushed by an increasingly insane Republican political caste.  Hence, no action would demonstrate the Democrats' fealty to fact-centered professions - from science to journalism to the Intelligence Community and Officer Corps -- than re-establishing the office. And I believe it can be done without Senate cooperation.
The new OTA should incorporate some of the design parameters I included in my FACT Act, using diversity and competitiveness to neutralize inevitable claims my Fox n' pals that it is a biased arm of the Democratic Party. One element would be to invite every member of Congress to appoint one science advisor and a statistician from his or her home district, to be both a personal aide and a supervisor of the new OTA. There are lots of ways to scotch the spew from all the places who thrive on lies. But it should begin with OTA.
Number 4, permanently empower individual members and the minority party. Here's another reform that the new Democratic Majority in the House could do right away, without interference from the Senate or President. And it would score huge points with the American people, curing our politics of the nastiest curses of partisanship! But it would take guts and a truly long view.
We all saw how Rep. Devin Nunes toadied to Donald Trump by refusing every request by Democratic members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to question pertinent witnesses. Back in the first nine decades of the 20th Century, minority members of committees used to be treated with some respect and chairmen sometimes let them have investigatory powers. But not since Hastert. Not in this century. And sure, the GOP is girding itself to whine and moan - hypocritically - about being treated the same way they treated the dems... 
...unless, DP majority learns to perform political judo! Think about it! Someday, you'll be in the minority again! In fact, history suggests the DP will have this power only briefly. So, is there a reform Nancy Pelosi and the leadership might institute, that would change all this permanently? 
I know a way. Give each member of the House one subpoena per session, that she or he can impose on anyone, compelling two or more hours of testimony before a chosen committee! And give these member subpoenas priority over those issued by chairmen. 
Yes, this means Republicans would get almost two hundred subpoenas to use across the next two years. That's 400 hours of inconvenience, if they choose to use it that way. But will they? Or will each member jealously guard her subpoena, hoping to apply it in some way that looks effective to the folks back home? 
Think about how Democrats would have loved to have this during the last 8 years in the wilderness! And how they may need it once again. Think about how this would push back against partisanship, by vesting power back in the members themselves, only some of whom are party attack dogs. Others? Well, encouraging individualism ain't such a bad thing. And setting the precedent means we'd never have congressional committees utterly whitewash, as we saw done by traitors like Nunes.
What's to stop the Republicans from abusing this power as minority party... then ending it when they get the majority again? Again think:
It will look great that Democrats confidently and fairly ceded this sensible reform to the nation... and it would look bloody horrible if the republicans first USE it and then yank it back when they're in charge.
Would that necessarily stop them? Not by itself. But this is a long game we're in. And making dogmatic-horror partisan shills look bad is gonna be job #1 for the democrats, this term. Get used to that! Live with it. Use it. 
And so, we come to actual proposed legislation. Bills that probably won't get by the Senate and Trump, but are guaranteed - nonetheless - to make them look truly awful
== These bills won't become law? Draw in those vetoes! ==
We've discussed four actions the Democrats in the House can perform without needing cooperation from the GOP-controlled Senate or the kindergarten White House. Next, the dems should offer up bill after bill, each of them offering some small, distinct and blatantly reasonable step toward sanity. 

Forget giant acts of legislation that will never get past the Senate and that give Foxites ammo to reinforce confederate will to "resist wild socialism." Try those social engineering things in California and New York, etc. Your job in the 116th is narrower, so focus.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, you should concentrate on very basic justice. Trot out bill after bill that makes so much sense that some GOP senators might have to vote for some, or risk political suicide. And when Trump vetoes them, he will die by a thousand cuts! Here are examples:
- Limit expenditures on Presidential trips and Secret Service to just twice the annual rate spent on President Obama. And family members only get protection at home, not on personal business trips. If Trump squeals over that, follow by asking why?
- Quadruple the charges for use of Air Force One on political ventures.
- Require that presidential meetings with foreign leaders be recorded and include at least one interpreter vetted/approved by the FBI, CIA and the Council for Foreign Affairs. Require that the Secret Service detail include speakers of languages that might be used with the President.
- If a person claims that an IRS audit is in progress, allow the IRS to state publicly whether or not it’s trueand whether full disclosure is likely to do harm. Allow the IRS to  narrow the scope of any investigation so that non-pertinent portions of a tax return may be released by the taxpayer without harm.
- Restore the Special Prosecutor Act.

- Make the job of White House Science Advisor one of several that will be filled automatically in a non-partisan way, offering the President a choice of a dozen proposed by the National Academy, and choosing one at random, if he fails to do so. 
- Whistleblower protections! Especially a system to reward “henchmen” who tattle on truly terrible things. 

- Declare that any state enacting Voter ID or registration limiting rules must appropriate funds to effectively help the poor, minorities, the young and elderly to get the needed ID, to comply with the new restrictions.  Instead of inveighing against a’’ voter ID laws in principle – a trap which makes it look as if Democrats want voter fraud. But compliance assistance (always demanded by businesses, when faced by new regulations) is another matter. Voter ID states must open more centers to help the poor, instead of closer DMV offices. It must be adequate to ensure voter participation by any group does not decline, or that state is in violation of the 14th Amendment.) 

- Pass a narrow DACA bill that puts any decent GOP Senator in a moral bind, forcing some of them to go along.

- Transparency in political donations by elites. 

- Actually "drain the swamp." Offer up reforms that limit revolving doors and K Street graft etc. Then dare the Senate not to go along.

- My FACT Act... Well, I do keep trying.

Each of these proposals is narrowly targeted to seem so fair and obvious that it ought to be non-partisan. Polemically, this was the root power of Gingrich's "Contract." Picture putting Republican senators in a position of opposing such things! And then justifying it.

== The "list" has only just begun! ==

I'll soon offer part 2 of this list of suggestions to the new House of Representatives... pragmatic measures that might reform the Electoral College without an amendment!  Or spread the practice of rank choice voting, which would let you purists vote for your true love without screwing the nation, as you did in 2000 and 2016. And much more.

Some of you likely recall that I've done this before! And not one of the proposals I made in 2008 got even the slightest leverage, alas. (They are still good suggestions!)

Today, I concentrated on things that even just one chamber might accomplish, as we bide our time till the real transformative election -- our Gettysburg in the foresight year, 2020. Counting on our skilled officers and civil servants and a myriad decent citizens and allies to keep Western Civilization alive till then, against attacks -- covert and open -- by its enemies.

Till then, dear Congresswoman and Congressman, get used to the fact that the next two years will be frustrating. If your goal is to pass major bills on Health Care or Universal College or other major items on Bernie's "contract," good luck.

But meanwhile, today's list offers some highly targeted things that just might have real, pragmatic effects!

We are counting on you not just to be moral and right and decent and genuinely patriotic.  Please also be smart.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

New Books and ARCs, 11/23/18

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 11/23/2018 - 15:21
Just in time for Black Friday, here’s this brand spankin’ new stack of new books and ARCs for your potential reading consideration. Anything here you’d brave the crowds for? Tell us all in the comments.
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