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The Big Idea: David D. Levine

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 07/12/2016 - 09:25
When Hugo-winning writer David D. Levine went looking for inspiration for his debut novel Arabella of Mars, he chose from some eclectic sources, from a Grand Master of fantasy to one of the most acclaimed nautical novelists of all time. How does it all fit together? Levine is here to tell you. DAVID D LEVINE: […]

Activism, and Whether I Do It

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 07/11/2016 - 20:33
My pal Monica Byrne (who is, incidentally, a fabulous writer), asked me the other day if I would consider myself an activist, and if so, would I call myself one publicly. It was an interesting question, especially since I’m at least partly known for having strong political and social opinions, and sharing them via this […]

Cat Picture! Plus! Award Nomination!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 07/11/2016 - 18:00
First: Look! Here’s Spice! Looking very much like she’s walking away from a movie explosion. She’s not. But the explosion is very much implied. I’ll note that every time I post a picture of one or the other of the Scamperbeasts here, someone generally says, “Wow, they’re not kittens anymore.” They’ve certainly grown up quite […]

Endearing visages

Contrary Brin - Sat, 07/09/2016 - 18:56
Recent events in the news are filled with transparency implications, from the dramatic videos of questionable shooting by a few police to horrendous sniper attacks on police to late news about attempts to destroy video records... and all of them, every last one of these items points in the same direction.  But let me ponder my words very carefully and get back to you all on this.

== The Robots won't have to conquer us physically ==

I’ve been pondering Artificial Intelligence or AI a lot, lately, with several papers and reviews pending. (Indeed, note who is one of the ‘top ten people followed by AI researchers.’) One aspect that's far too-little discussed is how robots are being designed to mess with human emotions.
Long before artificial intelligences become truly self-aware or sapient, they will be cleverly programmed by researchers and corporations to seem that way. This - it turns out - is almost trivially easy to accomplish, as (especially in Japan) roboticists strive for every trace of appealing verisimilitude, hauling their creations across the temporary moat of that famed "uncanny valley," into a realm where cute or pretty or sad-faced automatons skillfully tweak our emotions.  
Human empathy is both one of our paramount gifts and among or biggest weaknesses. For at least a million years, we've developed skills at lie-detection (for example) in a forever-shifting arms race against those who got reproductive success by lying better!  (And yes, there was always a sexual component to this.)
But no liars ever had the training that these new, Hiers or Human-Interaction Empathic Robots will get, learning via feedback from hundreds, then thousands, then millions of human exchanges around the world, adjusting their simulated voices and facial expressions and specific wordings, till the only folks able to resist will be sociopaths. (And sociopaths have plenty of chinks in their armor, as well.)
Mind you, this is not quite the same thing as passing the vaunted “Turing Test.” An expert – or even a normal person alerted to skepticism – might be able to tell that the intelligence behind the smiles and sighs is still ersatz. That will matter about as much as it does today, as millions of voters cast their ballots based on emotional cues, defying their own clear self-interest or reason.
Will a time come when we will need robots of our own to guide and protect their gullible human partners?  Advising us when to ignore the guilt-tripping scowl, the pitiable smile, the endearingly winsome gaze, the sob story or eager sales pitch? And, inevitably, the claims of sapient pain at being persecuted or oppressed for being a robot?
Will we take experts at their word when they testify that the pain and sadness and resentment that we see are still mimicry, and not yet real? Not yet. Though down the road, of course...
== From the Transparency Front ==
An impending rule change would drastically increase law enforcement’s authority to hack into computers. Look into EFF's fight against this. I support such paladins of freedom... even though over the longer term I deem it utterly futile to make freedom's defense dependent upon restricting what others know and see.
That won't work over the long run. Never has, and technological advances ensure that it never will. My emphasis has always been on improving our vision.  

Note that this very fight is only happening because our government is stripped naked enough to have to tell us about such proposed rules!  Ponder that. 90% of our fight should go to the stripping and supervision... or "sousveillance" ... and not so much to staving off an inevitable tsunami of light.
For reasons that I give elsewhere – and that the press and media entirely ignored – 2013 was the best year for U.S. Civil liberties in a generation. Now comes news that may or may not be almost as good, as Congress passes the FOIA Improvement Bill aimed at renewing and upgrading the venerable and essential tool for citizenship – the Freedom of Information Act. “OpenTheGovernment.orgcommends the efforts on the part of Congressional leaders, staff members, and open government advocates who have been working to push the FOIA reform legislation that is critical to ensuring government accountability.”
“The FOIA Improvement Act includes important provisions that OTG and our partners in the open government community have been working for nearly a decade to codify into law, including: codifying the presumption of openness for future administrations; harnessing technology to improve the FOIA process; limiting, to a period of 25 years, the ability of agencies to keep internal deliberations confidential; and increasing the effectiveness of the FOIA by strengthening the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS).”
My response is mixed. Sure, what we see on the surface looks good, and if President Obama (who in 2013 declared that citizens have an ‘established right’ to record the police) signs it, then there probably aren’t many little poisonous details in the fine print.  Still: (1) I await word from other openness paladins about this - those who read the document in detail. (2) We need far more, including legislation to systematize a graduated process for whistle blowers. And (3)… I remain deeply suspicious of anything passed by this Congress, one of the laziest, most dogmatic and worthless in the history of the Republic.
So be glad, tentatively. But stay wary, citizens.
== From Facial Recognition to Crypto Wars ==
From The Atlantic: How Russia's New Facial Recognition App Could End AnonymityFindFace, an app launched by a Russian startup two months ago, lets its users identify strangersfrom pictures of their faces. It does so by matching the photos against profile pictures from VK—also known as VKontakte—a Russian social networking website similar to Facebook.  This article hand-wrings over whether the modality will come to Facebook.  But the real lesson is: “get used to it.”  Stop standing in the rising tide with your hand out, screaming “stop!”  That is not adaptability.
Elites will see. If we handle this right, so will we.  And then we’ll have to wrestle with how to behave.
Case in point.  U.S. law enforcement officials have – according to Strategic News Service head Mark Anderson – confirmed that intelligence agencies based on the Asian mainland are engaged in “Operation Bedbug.” State-owned, state-influenced, and state-controlled interests have embarked upon the largest acquisition of hospitality properties – especially American hotel chains -- ever seen.  Western diplomats and businessfolk who travel to that great nation across the Pacific have long realized that anything they bring along – especially into a hotel – is likely to be snooped and every bit of stored information copied. Anderson asserts, with some cred, that the hotel chain buyouts in the U.S. are aimed at empowering the same kind of activity along our west coast, especially wherever big tech conferences are held.
At FBI headquarters in July, the head of FBI counterintelligence, Randall Coleman, said there has been a 53 percent increase in the theft of American trade secrets, thefts that have cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the past year. In an FBI survey of 165 private companies, half of them said they were victims of economic espionage or theft of trade secrets - 95 percent of those cases involved individuals associated with the mainland government.”
These properties include the Montage, Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Rosewood, Waldorf, Starwood and many others.
I’ve long taken an unusual position on the Crypto Wars… the struggles by activists to scurry into hand-crafted corners of encrypted "safety in shadows" would seem both romantic and utterly silly, over any extended period of time, given that every week we see news of some purportedly impervious digital wall leaking. And every single encryption from a decade ago can crumble like sugar in hot water, under assault from the computers of a decade later.

Officially, elites express worry about strong crypto. Intelligence agencies have long warned that increasingly encrypted communication will create a crisis "going dark" that will make it impossible to track terrorists. But it's long been my impression (I give it 60%) that these protests are more for show.

(What would you do, in their shoes, if you knew that 'encryption' was a honey pot that you could lure activists into?)

 Elsewhere I've described the vast panoply of biomentrics that fizz and roar from every human body. Now? A new study indicates that new technologies such as implants in items ranging from “toasters to bedsheets, light bulbs, cameras, toothbrushes, door locks, cars, watches and other wearables,” will give the government numerous opportunities to track suspects and "in many cases reconstruct communications and meetings."
The solution is not and will never be seeking some way to limit what Big Brother - or any other elite - can see.  If you think that can work, you truly are so deeply delusional that I wonder how you can drive.
One method can work and has worked.  It is even more militant (!) than demanding that elites “don’t look!” And it turns technology from our enemy to our friend. Instead of whining impotently “don’t look at us!” we can demand of all elites “strip down to your shorts!” So we can see what they are doing. Because in that case it won’t matter what they KNOW about us, because they won’t be able to DO anything bad to us.
Oh, ye who are now sneering “that can never happen”? Tell that to the folks out on the streets, using cell phone cams to hold police accountable.  When Obama and the courts declared that to be our absolute citizen right, I knew we were going to win this thing. Though the transition would be rough.
 Do Body Cameras Really Work? A fascinating and balanced review studies the effectiveness of various kinds of cameras on crime and police and pubic behavior. The author finds signs for optimism that the promises will come true, but so-far the path seems bumpy, with the cams not instantly creating a panacea solution. Like me, he expects the positive trends to augment over time, as more officers do better policing and behave better, aware they are being recorded both by their own body-cams and by a tech-empowered public. But transitions take time and experiments should be handled in ways that are scientific, even skeptical and openminded to variation. 


These concerns grow stronger as we learn that new software may let law enforcement tap any networked camera that isn’t password protected. A new surveillance system CAM2 reveals the location and orientation of public network cameras, like the one outside your apartment. “Beyond the specter of universal government surveillance lies the risk of someone hacking the system.” To which I respond… Yes… and you expected… what? 
Cameras keep getting smaller...RoboBee micro sensor-drone weighs 4-thousandths of an ounce and can fly and now – perch against almost any surface using controlled electrostatics. 
A new challenge to government secrecy: A member of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), based at the National Archives, describes the mind-boggling dimensions of ever-increasing government secrecy. “The volume of the federal government’s classified “digital information assets” is growing at an astonishing pace.” This is not (for the most part) a reflection of any conspiracy or Orwellian creep.  Rather, the process of declassification requires human reading and expertise, while the volume of digital information for them to judge grows at the exponential rate of “big data.”  Even well-intentioned civil servants and journalists cannot keep up. 
The article offers some pragmatic proposals how we can cope. Some ways to speed declassification have even been offered by... the CIA.   
And here's an interesting item. Four states — Minnesota, Nebraska, Massachusetts and New York — have considered adopting “right to repair” amendments, which would update existing laws regarding the sale of electronic equipment. Amending these laws would make it easier to fix your devices and would help reduce “e-waste.”  It has become clear that many companies, even ‘goodguys’ like Apple, have connived and worked hard to make repair darn near impossible. Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:14.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-font-family:Times; mso-fareast-language:JA;}

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Dallas

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 07/08/2016 - 09:13
I was there earlier this year, for the first time longer than the time it took to get from one side of DFW to the other. I had a fine time there with friends and fans, and made some wonderful memories. My heart is there today. I’m done with this week, I think. See you […]

Police and Me and Philando Castile

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 07/07/2016 - 14:14
Here’s the thing: I’ve been pulled over by the police before, mostly because I’m speeding, but at least once because of a broken tail light. When I’m speeding, I usually know that I’ve been speeding, so when the police officer asks me if I know why I was pulled over, I say “probably because I […]

Optimism, Pessimism, and Hypocrisy

Contrary Brin - Wed, 07/06/2016 - 13:00
Maintaining the image of two alien races, unable to even ponder learning from each other, a site maintained by Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal called “Red Feed, Blue Feed” claims to present Liberal Facebook vs Conservative Facebook rants side by side… and let YOU decide! 

At a glance, it clearly supports the Fox narrative, that we must choose between extreme narratives(!!!) And heaven-forbid actually negotiating with each other, finding middle ground like adults. 

This dichotomy-of-demonization is how politics -- one of our civilization's key problem-solving methods, along with free markets and individual endeavor -- has been deliberately killed in the United States. And it reveals the foremost (among many) reason why Rupert Murdoch is the principle enemy of any calm, rational and grownup American republic.

Let me restate that to be clear. If you believe the sole Murdochian agenda is to support an ever-more extreme confederate right-wing, then you only perceive the surface. Sure, the lobotomization of American conservatism commanded by Rupert and Clear Channel svengalis certainly did lead to today's frothing, hydrophobic GOP phenomenon. 

But no. The actual purpose is made clear by Red Feed, Blue Feed.

To destroy politics as an pragmatic, grownup American approach to negotiating and resolving new solutions to onrushing 21st Century problems. Stop focusing only on surfaces and slogans! Look at the actual, actual effects.   

The opposite of the Murdochs is not eloi liberalism, that is now rife with its own cynical dogmatists.  The opposite of crippling pessimism is...
When Did Optimism Become Uncool? In the New York Times, Gregg Easterbrook, author of “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse,” points out the corner into which we’ve painted ourselves, emphasizing and exaggerating bad news while frenetically ignoring any good. An irony since the latter arguably far outweighs the former. 
Subjectively - to heed all the carping and grousing from every end of the spectrum - we are in terrible times, with a “glass” that is nearly empty. Objectively, the glass turns out to be significantly more than half full.
Easterbrook writes, “Job growth has been strong for five years, with unemployment now below where it was for most of the 1990s, a period some extol as the “good old days.” The American economy is No. 1 by a huge margin, larger than Nos. 2 and 3 (China and Japan) combined. Americans are seven times as productive, per capita, as Chinese citizens. The dollar is the currency the world craves — which means other countries perceive America’s long-term prospects as very good.“Pollution, discrimination, crime and most diseases are in an extended decline; living standards, longevity and education levels continue to rise. The American military is not only the world’s strongest, it is the strongest ever. The United States leads the world in science and engineering, in business innovation, in every aspect of creativity, including the arts. Terrorism is a serious concern, but in the last 15 years, even taking into account Sept. 11, an American is five times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist."Is the middle class in dire straits, as Mr. Sanders contends? Yes, inflation-adjusted middle-class household income peaked in 1998 and has dropped slightly since. But during the same period, federal income taxes on the middle class went down, while benefits went up. Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution has shown that when lower taxes and higher benefits are factored in, middle-class buying power has risen 36 percent in the current generation.“Is American manufacturing in free fall, as Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump assert? Figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show industrial output a tad below an all-time record level, while nearly double the output of the Reagan presidency, another supposed golden age. It’s just that advancing technology allows more manufacturing with fewer workers — a change unrelated to foreign competition.”To be clear, while I agree with most of Easterbrook’s points, and even with much of what the king of optimism - Peter Diamandis - says in his book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, that does not make me a Pollyanna without deep and fretful worries!

  It is not their lack of purchasing power that is demolishing the American middle class, but their perception that they’ve lost their central standing in American life.  To Trump supporters, the blame falls on rising immigrants.  To anyone sensible, it is blatantly because an uber-oligarchy has seized the reins, using lies like Supply Side “economics” to justify their hell-bent drive toward feudalism.To re-parse Easterbrook’s point, things aren’t anywhere near as bad as we’re saying in mass media today… but they are nowhere near as good as they’d be if, say, high-velocity money were circulating through excellent middle class jobs repairing a decaying U.S. infrastructure… a flow vastly more (obviously) beneficial than trillions in outright gifts to the rich have been, since Reagan. 

And of course, that is exactly why the Republican Congress refuses to fund infrastructure repair.Read the original article. Especially where Easterbrook lays into liberalsfor buying into these sick-alluring pessimism trips: “while addressing issues such as inequality, greenhouse emissions and the condition of public schools — will require optimism. Pessimists think in terms of rear-guard actions to turn back the clock. Optimists understand that where the nation has faults, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”Easterbrook concludes, “The lack of optimism in contemporary liberal and centrist thinking opens the door to Trump-style demagogy, since if the country really is going to hell, we do indeed need walls. 

"And because optimism has lost its standing in American public opinion, past reforms — among them environmental protection, anti-discrimination initiatives, income security for seniors, auto and aviation safety, interconnected global economics, improved policing and yes, Obamacare — don’t get credit for the good they have accomplished.”Recently Warren Buffett said that because of the “negative drumbeat” of politics, “many Americans now believe their children will not live as well as they themselves do. That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.”
Of course, one of the key books to arm you simmering optimists, so that you can finally rise up in rage and take back civilization from cynics of both right and left, is Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  You will come away filled with righteous wrath against those who are weakening our can-do spirit, just when humanity seems on the verge of solving so many problems.

Oh, and a final note for this section: Nicolas Gruen on Adam Smith: “Smith was the original theorist of my subject—emergent public goods—explaining how language, culture and markets are all public goods; how they are an emergent property of life itself.  (Later, by design, we got) new largely government provided public goods enhancing public order, financial stability, scientific knowledge, public health, transport , communications and standards like weights and measures.” - Nicholas Gruen is Head of Lateral Economics, based in Melbourne. 
== Those who thrive on ultimate pessimism ==
I’ve long maintained that we should encourage the “henchman effect”… where villainous cabals are ruined from within, when some lackey gets fed-up and decides to tell-all. The Panama Papers leak is a major recent example.  Many would cite Edward Snowden. Better legislation could entice whistleblowers down pathways that both protect and offer the benefits of orderly due process.
Is the Alt-Right for real? The latest example worth pondering came when Colin Lokey confessed to Bloomberg that he had been running a supposedly populist online site called Zero Hedge that was actually a front for two wealthy financial analysts.  “Lokey was required to push certain basics: “Russia=good. Obama=idiot. Bashar al-Assad=benevolent leader. John Kerry= dunce. Vladimir Putin=greatest leader in the history of statecraft.” 

For Zero Hedge, Syria was a special obsession, a sign of the essential strength of authoritarian regimes and the weakness of democracies. (e.g. “Putin Is Winning the Final Chess Match with Obama.”)  In other words, ballsy-blatant propaganda to discourage citizens believing in themselves or our democratic Great Experiment.
(In fact, this cult of Putin-worship is hilarious.) 
This article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells (from the New Yorker) talks about the layers under Zero-Hedge. Uber-rich dudes who got their lucre parasitically, attempting to rile the rabble while skulking behind a populist mask, with Lokey as their ghost-writer… all of it in a core element of the movement that’s been called “alt-right” — which cranks the Limbaugh-Fox ethos to Trumpist levels and then beyond, to open and overt racism. Alt-right exists mostly online, and so it is shrouded in pseudonyms, but I know some of them personally and have found that their agenda goes all the way to weird — not just contempt for democracy and all its tainted works, but nostalgia for royalty! Yes, for kings n’ such.
The article hits things on the head, when it blames some of the raging assholery on a giggling eagerness to discover what they can get away with, like extolling Holocaust themes. But the drives go deeper. Both bored and resentful of the generous, gentle civilization that gave them everything, these fellows go beyond insipid ingratitude and hatred of fact-based innovations like science. Their deepest motivation is masturbatory fantasy. Knowing that a few males in the past got such things, they envision themselves owning harems, and draw consolation by declaring hatred of the kindliness and generosity they grew up in, but that now prevents them from enslaving nubile females and getting their due.
Of course, anyone who has met some of these fellows knows the truth.  That none of them would be post-apocalyptic kings… or top dogs in a dog-eat-dog world. Nor would they even likely become bitches. In truth, only one word describes what their role would be, these pimply-dreamy-whining ingrates.  Kibble.
And more....
Abortion rates have dropped dramatically in the past 25 years to historic lows in wealthy countries, but dipped only slightly in poorer developing nations, according to a global study published on Wednesday.  In other words… if you generously help to uplift poor women, the problem begins to solve itself. Educated and confident and empowered, they need or demand abortion with ever-greater rarity.
This incremental reduction is anathema to those who need the abortion issue as their one claim at moral high ground. It only reinforces their demand for total prohibition because “even one is too many.”  

Only… in that case why is every single abortion-limiting piece of legislation recently passed in Red America … incremental?  Nibbling at the credentials of abortion providing clinics and forcing women to drive farther, but having very little effect on rates? Sometimes hypocrisy lies in such details.
In Business Insider, Nick Hanauer reports on a new study of “78 years of minimum-wage hikes have produced zero evidence of the "job-killing" consequences headline writers want us to fear.”  See: Raise Wages, Kill Jobs? Seven Decades of Historical Data Find No Correlation Between Minimum Wage Increases and Employment Levels.  

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Announcing Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 07/06/2016 - 11:20
So, hey, here’s something that should make at least some of you happy: I’m putting out a story collection through Subterranean Press called Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi. Just as the title suggests, the eighteen pieces that are included in Miniatures are very short — the longest is a smidge under 2,300 […]

Three Things That Arrived Whilst I Was Away at Westercon 69

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 07/06/2016 - 10:39
They are, from left: The Hungarian version of Redshirts, with a fairly awesome cover; A proclamation from the Ohio House of Representatives congratulating me on my Governor’s Award and telling me that by all indications I’m pretty nifty, which is cool; The SF Masterworks edition of Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin, for which […]

Secret bankers be warned: "Panama Papers" were the first shots of a "Helvetian War."

Contrary Brin - Sat, 07/02/2016 - 19:07
Here's a long one -- a major posting about the coming war that no one seems to have on their scopes or horizons. Although this scenario was loosely described in fiction, it may take the world's powers by surprise. And it will not need their permission. A few small nations could decide on this desperate course, tomorrow.

Let's start with last month's headlines -- and hence "old news." The spill of confidential records from a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca & Co., was called “the Wikileaks of the mega-rich.” Despite revealing only the tip of a very-dirty iceberg, the Panama Papers shine light upon a vast network of powerful people around the world who use shell corporations and secret, offshore accounts to dodge taxes, or evade sanctions, or to launder money.  Mossack Fonseca is one of the leading creators of shell companies, according to the Center for Public Integrity.  Released files include data on 214,488 "offshore entities" involving individuals in 200 countries and territories.
Edward Snowden, the 2013 CIA-NSA leaker, comments that the “Biggest leak in the history of data journalism just went live, and it's about corruption.” Cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin were implicated as well as the prime minister of Iceland. “There are dictators, members of the Japanese Yakuza, the Sicilian mafia, Russian mobs, weapons dealers, drug dealers, and pedophiles,”according to this report. Governments rock and boardrooms vibrate in the aftermath. 
The anonymous whistleblower behind the Panama Papers released a statement – passed along by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists - explaining his rationale and offering paper originals of the documents to law enforcement agencies, in return for immunity. More significantly, he indicts the web of deceit that makes a mockery of every "free-and-open market" justification for capitalism.
And yet, the most surprising thing of all would have to be… the shock expressed by so many. Seriously? That current levels of secrecy are unsustainable? Year after year – without much help from law or government – whistleblowers grow more bold. Disclosures get bigger, leading inevitably to one likely end, or another:
Either the world will see a steady, secular trend toward ever-more light shining into formerly dark places – or else the world’s elites will find excuses to clamp down, as the mighty did in every past human society, plugging the era of leaks the only way that it can be, through fierce repression. 

The choice is binary. Either Big Brother forever, or Big Brother never.
== The Great Heist of National Wealth ==

Let’s step back and deal with this the way that I am paid to do, with scenario and metaphor. Almost a decade before I wrote The Transparent Society, my novel EARTH (1989) foresaw a traumatic event occurring around the year 2025.  The “Helvetian War” would start to unfold when a dozen newly-democratic but poor nations grow tired of asking politely for the return of trillions of dollars that were looted from them by former, kleptocratic leaders. The war scenario may be fictional, but the cassus belli is all-too real.
"Global Financial Integrity recently found that developing economies lost $7.8 trillion in cash from 2004 to 2013 because of maneuvers like those allegedly perfected by Mossack. Illicit outflows are increasing at a rate of 6.5% a year, twice the rate of global GDP growth," says Time Magazine journalist Rana Foroohar, adding that this drain might prove a contributing factor to the slowing economies of many developing countries, which could set off a global recession.
The problem is global. Ukraine is seeking ways to recover vast amounts that senior officials stole during former President Viktor Yanukovych’s four years in office. “Even taking a conservative estimate of the scale of fraud for just VAT and public procurement, one ends up with a figure of $30 billion.” 
I would add that stopping this plunder could make a crucial difference between hope and despair, between life and death, for tens of millions of children. People are becoming more aware of the impact of corruption and how much it actually costs Africa, for example. The Panama Papers revealed that one company in Uganda avoided $400 million in taxes in an oil deal. That represents more than the country's annual health budget.
To be clear, this pandemic of secret, kleptocratic vampirism is the great lake of lucre that banking havens are most determined to keep secure and off limits from prying eyes. 

Did you ever wonder why Switzerland and its smaller peers caved-in recently, without much of a fight, tattling the names of rich Americans and Europeans with tax-evading accounts, tossing them from the sleigh? They did it in order to placate big, First World nations, bribing the U.S. and E.U to leave alone the havens’ other, much bigger and more lucrative business – catering to klepto pools and ‘sovereign wealth funds’… some of which have been laid bare in the Panamanian leaks. But only some. 
Take the case of former Nigerian military ruler Sani Abacha, who led Nigeria between 1993 and his death 1998 and is suspected to have looted up to $5 billion of public funds during his reign. As of April 2016, Switzerland agreed to return more than $300 million of funds stashed by Abacha. Not satisfied with eight cents on the dollar, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari – elected on an anti-corruption platform - is demanding greater international cooperationin returning more Nigerian funds hidden abroad, including another $7 billion that Nigerian auditors claim was looted between 2006 and 2012 “We are looking for more cooperation from the EU, United States, other countries and international institutions to recover the nation’s stolen assets,” Buhari recently said.
Of course this is the tip of the iceberg and a solution must be found by developing nations, themselves – first by cleaning up their own political and civil servant castes, but then by joining together, finding innovative ways to demand redress. An inevitable coalition that I portrayed (perhaps over-dramatically) as the “Helvetian War.”
We’ll get back to that scenario in a bit. But first, some of current details. We know that more than 100 news organizations have studied the leaked 2.6 terabytes of data from Mossack Fonseca & Co. -- once only known among the global elite, the fourth-largest law firm for offshore tax havens. The bared files go back 40 years.
== It started some time ago ==
But this is far from the first such leak. In fact, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has a rich database on offshore companies and their clients. Past spills include the April 4, 2013 “Offshore Leak,” connected to code name Hidden Agenda, which revealed:

...“2.5 million documents: the registration data of 122,000 offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands; lists of people who have made use of offshore companies; copies of personal documents including passports; correspondence; and information on banking transactions and other databases related to world-class politicians and businessmen, major companies and banks.” Then as well, teams of journalists vetted the documents with remarkable cooperative discipline and coordinated confidentiality, proving yet again that their maligned and beleaguered profession is capable of amazing skill and professionalism.
Of course conspiracy theories abound. At the time of Offshore Leak, there were murmurs that it mostly shredded the banking haven credibility of the British Virgin Islands, which had created a nested network of more than a million shell corporations. The fact that BVI’s rivals benefited from this loss of trust made some wonder if that had been the goal, all along. Similarly, the Panama Papers case has some assigning blame on rivals of Mossack Fonseca & Co, or else adversaries of the Panamanian regime. Because many cronies surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin have used shells to squirrel away hundreds of millions, might this all be a put-up job, intended to justify “regime change” and oust Putin? That scenario, absurd to the point of hilarity, has actually been bruited extensively by U.S. right wingers, who maintain a “frenemy bromance” admiration of the Russian strongman. Alternatively, there is the ‘not-completely-crazy theory’ that the Russian regime itself leaked the Panama Papers! In order to stir resentment of western media, one supposes. Seriously. 
Indeed, let’s bear in mind that Mossack Fonseca is actually a pretty small outfit,when it comes to the larger world of crypto money shelters. The Tax Justice Network (TJN), a U.K.-based nonprofit, estimated that nearly 75 percent of all offshore private wealth is either directly or indirectly concentrated in the hands of the world’s top 50 private banks.
Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, whether the data spills come from some whistleblower’s conscience or machinations within elite castes, the lesson is the same.  Our experimental civilization – this rare departure from the normal human pattern of hierarchical authoritarianism – is almost always a net beneficiary of light. It generally suffers grievous harm when shadows reign. 

Those are the salient traits of our era.
== Pertinent to home ==
With that bald fact made clear, is it time to view all this in proper terms – as an existentialmatter? Nations and borders may not be at stake, but the very nature of this civilization is. And let’s not forget those tens of millions of children.
Suppose people around the world, especially in democratic but poor nations, started looking at matters that way. Who might be the belligerents in a “Helvetian War”? 

Well, start with a list of the top ten countries providing secret banking services. Yes, Switzerland— despite many ballyhooed “transparency reforms” — still is tops by far, along with Hong Kong, Singapore, Luxembourg, Cayman, Lebanon and Bahrain.  Also on the list, for the way several states like Delaware offer shelter loopholes… the U.S.  Indeed, one transparency attorney explained the relative lack of American names in the Panama Papers quite simply.  “Yanks don’t need Panamanians to set up their shell corporations. We have Delaware and Nevada.” 
Quoting Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times: “More than a century ago, Delaware sought to attract businesses by allowing companies to write governance rules that shielded management from liability and eliminated standard protections for shareholders. Today, the state is the legal home to 1.1 million companies, 95% of which have their principal location in another state or country. Tens of thousands of businesses list the same Delaware addresses, home to their incorporating agents. The businesses registered in Delaware include 65% of Fortune 500 companies.”  
“You’ve heard the expression ‘follow the money’?” said John Cassara, a former agent for the U.S. Treasury. “Well, when the money trail leads to a Delaware corporation, it is almost a dead end for law enforcement.” Similar rules are found now in Nevada and several other states seeking to raise revenue for the state “by creaming off fees from large numbers of companies incorporating there — and the consequences be damned,” according to a 2015 report by the U.K. Tax Justice Network.
In response, President Obama has pushed forward a measure long in preparation, but till-now stymied politically -- a rule forcing U.S. banks to vet the real identities of any individuals who own 25 percent or more of corporate entities that open bank accounts, as well as any individuals exercising control over those entities. American banks are supposed to “know their customers” who open accounts. But banks have not been required to identify customers who set up accounts in names of shell companies. The new rule, “would clarify and make absolutely clear to our financial institutions that they must know and understand the beneficial ownership of their customers.”
Oh, that’s a modest measure, compared to what is obviously needed… starting with a ban on U.S. states acting like the Cayman Islands. Still, Americans need to bear this in mind during the coming elections. One party would clearly move on this issue, albeit too timidly and slowly. If pressured, it might even act significantly, with a bill demanding clear audit trails to every living human being that benefits from any shell company.
The other party has fiercely blocked any action for decades. And it can be relied upon to keep protecting hidden wealth with all its might.
== Flags of Convenience ==
Shell companies aren’t just ways to dodge taxes, or rob developing nations, or launder ill-gotten gains. One of the most egregious and outrageous versions has long helped the unscrupulous to evade responsibility or accountability to basic standards at sea.
Starting shortly after World War II, Edward Stettinius, who had been Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of State, bribed the government of Liberia into a sweetheart deal, whereunder ship owners might register their vessels with a minimum of supervision or fiduciary care, escaping accountability to the U.S. Seaman’s Act and other regulations. Many have heard of the “Liberian ship registry,” but few realize that American aristocrats still siphon off many of the profits and benefits from this dodge through the original shell company that Stettinius established to offer this cheat, splitting revenue with the Liberian government. Since then, others swarmed into this lucrative, if shady, business. Panama, the Seychelles and many other small nations offer “flags of convenience. ”
This practice doesn’t only apply to ships that move. The drilling platform Deepwater Horizon – which blew out catastrophically in 2010, flew a Marshall Islands flag of convenience, easing the way for lax safety enforcement and helping lead to harm inflicted on the planet we all share.
In many cases, the flag state cannot identify a ship owner, much less hold the owner civilly or criminally responsible for a ship's actions. As a result of this lack of flag state control, flags of convenience are criticized on grounds of providing an environment for conducting criminal activities, supporting terrorism, providing poor working conditions for seafarers, and having an adverse effect on the environment.” A 2004 Report of the UN Secretary General reported that "It is very easy, and comparatively inexpensive, to establish a complex web of corporate entities to provide very effective cover to the identities of beneficial owners who do not want to be known."
Are you convinced yet that my “obsession with transparency” might be one that you and your fellow citizens ought to share? That rising consensus is what happens under my fictional scenario in EARTH, when – around the year 2025 -- the charismatic leader of a developing nation gathers a dozen other democratic presidents and prime ministers to make an joint announcement. 

That enough is enough. That the trillions siphoned by earlier kleptocratic rulers could save tens of millions of lives and give countless children hope. Moreover, those who shelter and help to hide the stolen lucre are complicit, just as liable as the original thieves.
And therefore… 
== What is to be done? ==
Oh, but that imaginary scenario is still too much of a reach, so let’s go back to reality for a bit longer. 
“According to my estimates there's about 8 percent of the world's wealth — almost ten trillion dollars — in tax havens, and 80 percent evades taxes, meaning only 20 percent is duly reported,” says economist Gabriel Zucman.
In other words, the current burden of taxation – to maintain the world’s roads and schools, police and armies, health systems and infrastructure – is carried by folks like you and me. You know. Saps. 
There should be nothing surprising about any of this. Look across the last 6000 years of recorded history, there has never been a time when a society’s elites did not include many who aimed to preserve and enhance their top status – maintaining a hierarchy-pyramid of unearned and inherited privilege -- not by fair competition but by cheating. They were human, after all, and this temptation appears to be an embedded part of human nature.
But that’s the whole point of our new, 200 year enlightenment experiment! We have succeeded (imperfectly) in freeing competitive systems (markets, science, democracy etc.) from the worst and quickest and most blatant forms of cheating – at least we have, compared with every other society that ever existed. (Not compared to, say, Star Trek, of course.)

As a result – and despite those imperfections – the rule of law has let us flourish in more prosperity and freedom than all the pyramid-shaped, feudal nations. Combined.
Of course, this only forced cheaters to find innovative ways to cheat. These new methods are more risky and convoluted than the old one (hire a bunch of thugs with swords and take everything from peasants.) But they are progressively succeeding, as we speak.
Our difficult task, maintaining a civilization of empowered citizenship -- the "diamond-shaped social structure" about which I often speak – requires constant effort, not only to fight each generation’s oligarchic putsch, but also to avoid the opposite calamity of monolithic socialism… which has always led to just more feudalism under a different vocabulary.  A different, socialist-sounding priesthood.

Our quandary was well described by the famous historians Will and Ariel Durant, in The Lessons of History. 
"…the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.” 
The irony in all this is that our greatest need, at present is not redistribution of wealth.  (Though note that the American Founders seized and redistributed up to a third of all the land in the original 13 colonies.) No, we can probably accomplish enough of a reset simply through transparency!
Suppose we planetary citizens manage to sway our most moderate and decent governments to prioritize the limiting of “shell companies.” By applying their still-potent First World clout, they might achieve a globe-spanning treaty, under which such shell companies may only go two or three deep before the true “beneficiary owners” – living humans – must be identified. Would this not gift our children with a vastly better and more accountable and transparent world? Note that this requires no confiscation at all, only light and accountability.
Sure, shell corporations are only the tip of the iceberg. A mere lava-trickle from the world’s super volcano of dangerous, cryptic trillions. A more general case can be made for a Transparency of Ownership Treaty, under which the following principle becomes a core element of worldwide law:
If you own something, you must openly point to it and say “I own that.” 
Anything that remains unclaimed, under at-most a couple of transparent shells, goes into a pool to pay off the world’s crushing burden of debt.  Moreover, you know that a lot of wealth would go unclaimed, by those who “own” it nefariously.
There is precedent! Look up the land reforms that Peru executed, under sway of the brilliant economist Hernando de Soto Polar, which vested in poor farmers clear title to land they had farmed for generations, enabling them at last to offer collateral for loans that in most cases vastly increased productivity, lifting peasants out of poverty. In a rare example of happy collaboration, both progressives and libertarians saw their hopes fulfilled, by thinking outside the foolish “left-right axis.” Losers? Drug cartels who could not contest these vestings with “I own that” claims of their own. Another example of a general principle… that bad men avoid light, so the rest of us should be drawn to it.
Concealment of wealth is the worst, but not the only cancer gnawing at our enlightenment bones.  In this insightful article: They Don’t Just Hide Their Money. Economist Says Most of Billionaire Wealth is Unearned. The concentration of wealth from rent-seeking,” Didier Jacobs continues the efforts of the brilliant Evonomics site… not to hate capitalism but to save it from the recurring failure mode denounced foremost by Adam Smith! 
There are signs that the political caste is realizing all of this.  German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has proposed a major step - an international network of registers that list the actual owners of companies. If company registers listing the owners of firms were networked internationally, it would (at least purportedly) then be possible to find all the people hiding behind offshore companies. He said the Panama Papers were ratcheting up pressure on those that had not joined, such as the United States, to sign up. 
Okay then, suppose the planet’s nations agreed to a Transparency of Ownership treaty – discussed in more detail here. Not one honest person, not even billionaires, would be much inconvenienced.  Indeed, tax rates for citizens who currently file honest returns should go down! Because we are the saps who now pay extra to cover dodgers and parasites.

Okay, we're ready. To talk about the war. One that is inevitable, if we fail at reform.
== Helvetia delenda est ==
No, you Latin scholars, I am not calling for the events described as backstory in Earth destruction of Switzerland and all the other banking havens that are complicit in the manslaughter of tens of millions of children, who might be saved by the return of klepto-stolen trillions. 

That story was fiction. In order to make that distinction, my novel uses instead the ancient term Helvetia, to represent only evil practices which must die. Earth was a dramatic exaggeration. In real life, the “Helvetian War” would never devolve into such violence, reducing the Glarus Alps to irradiated slag.
But the backstory to the backstory…
Picture that charismatic president of a developing nation and her colleagues, explaining to the world that they had exhausted every other option, in courts and international fora and the arena of public opinion. Moreover, since the secret bankers’ obstinacy was no less than complicity in outright murder of millions of children, a dozen poor nations had therefor agreed to call this cassus belli, or grounds for war.
Not a war aimed at conquest, or the death of even a single enemy soldier or citizen! But war in the very legal sense that allows belligerent nations to act aggressively against the interests of their foes.To seize, for example, ships or planes owned by nations who had become rich off parasitical banking practices and the suffering of the poor. To demand other assets be handed over by third parties. To blockade or shut down ports and to wreck business deals by threatening the interests of any company doing commerce with “the enemy.” 

All of that would be legal under millennia-old rules of war! 

Above all, this would empower the aggrieved countries with a powerful psychological weapon, depriving their foe-nations of something they’ve long relished – a reputation for centuries of 'peacefulness.'
I never wrote this backstory in any detail. But in my author’s mental screening room I envision the consortium of poor nations issuing letters of marque, empowering people all over the world to act on their behalf. Not to kill or injure a single Helvetian or Banking-Axis citizen, but to attack the enemy’s offices and other interests around the world with stink bombs,making clear their guilt-by-association-with-nausea. And there are so many other imaginative ways that “war” might be waged in this new-modern way. Not by rationalizing the crude and ancient meting out of death, but using the still-standing laws of belligerence to make a point. 
You will no longer help to murder our potential and our hope and our kids, with impunity.
Give it all back.
== Sticking to the plausible ==
Yes, I get it. Even after preparing the case, I cannot lead you out that far.
Only, did you read the Durant quotation, above? If we cannot solve the problem by cool, negotiated and rational legislation, then where do you think all this can possibly lead?
There are possible compromises, in fact. If those hiding the loot of Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu Sese Seko were to reveal it, then the Philippines and Congo might agree to keep the actual cash in Swiss (or Cayman etc.) accounts, simply swapping names! Those poor nations would then be able to use the money as collateral for development projects aimed at uplifting the poor. A win-win.
Alas, the banking havens are led by humans, and hence they won’t agree to anything so sensible, not unless they see real pain coming their way.
And so, let’s reiterate what is fundamental in all this. Year after year – and without much help from law or government – whistleblowers grow more bold.  Encouraged by each Panama Papers-style leak, and by new technologies of information copying and sharing… and possibly by what-if stories like the Helvetian War, the trend is unstoppable, short of a worldwide Orwellian tyranny.
We need strong protections for whistle-blowers. But they will come forth, with or without such laws. The conscience of a new generation will be different than its parents’. The sons and daughters of struldbrugbankers will not want the guilt.  Some of them will tell. And a few is all that it will take.
Again. Either the world will see a steady, secular trend toward ever-more light shining into formerly dark places – or else the world’s elites will find excuses to clamp down, as the mighty did in every past human society, plugging the era of leaks the only way that it can be plugged, through fierce repression.  

The choice is binary.
Either Big Brother forever, or Big Brother never.

====

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. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

New Books and ARCs, 7/1/16

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 07/01/2016 - 16:22
Just in time for Canada Day and the 4th of July, here’s a fine collection of new books and ARCs that have come into the Scalzi Compound. Which of these would you like to spend a long weekend with? Tell me in the comments!

View From a Hotel Window, 7/1/16: Portland, OR

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 07/01/2016 - 11:07
I’m here in town for Westercon 69, where I am a guest of honor, doing panels and readings and signings and loungings about and eatings and sleepings. If you’re in the Portland area, you should come down for the weekend, especially as it is very likely for my reading I will be reading new work […]

Expanding our view: Science and technology and unimagined possibilities!

Contrary Brin - Thu, 06/30/2016 - 15:01
Okay, this is going to be one of those spills of one cool (r amazing or scary) thing after another!

Hubble finds universe is expanding 9% faster than expected! Astronomers keep refining their measurements of Cepheid variable stars and type 1a supernovae, resulting in the best-yet determinations of the age of the universe and the Hubble Constant showing how fast the whole shebang is expanding. And now, in addition to Dark Energy and Dark Matter there is talk of Dark Radiation.  Wowzer.  The more you know….
Updating the Periodic Table: Nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og) are the newest elements - atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 - on the Periodic Table to receive names.  The first three are named for where they were discovered. The last for professor Yuri Oganessian, a pioneer with achievements including the discovery of superheavy elements.  
Looking ahead.... In his latest book, The Inevitable: Understanding the Twelve Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, tech guru Kevin Kelly provides an optimistic road map for our near future, showing how the coming changes in our daily lives — from virtual reality in the home and on the street to robots in the workplace, from an on-demand economy to ever-present tracking, as well as artificial intelligence embedded in nearly everything we manufacture — Kelly proposes these trends can be understood as the result of a few long-term, accelerating forces; by embracing these coming changes, Kelly says we can better steer toward a positive future. You can watch Kevin Kelly discuss these major trends at the SXSW conference.

Thinking beyond Asimov's laws: This article discusses how to plan for a future with ethical robots.
Continuously rising: One simple, 40 second gif shows you the simplest path of global temperature rise since 1850, in a way that automatically adjusts for season. You can see the effects of industrialization accelerating, especially in recent years. Seriously, there's plenty to argue about, like how to adapt and fix and (in some cases like Florida) let go. So why are we still pretending there's room for argument about "whether"? There is no whether, only worsening weather. And denialists are direct harm-doers to our kids and our future.
== What we are... Where we've been ==
If the Guinea worm is pushed into extinction this coming year, then it will be just the second human disease to be eradicated after smallpox.  And former President Jimmy Carter will deserve a lot of credit for the accomplishment, having eliminated a painfully debilitating illness that afflicted 3 million people each year, when he left office. Said the 91 year old Carter: "I'd like the last Guinea worm to die before I do."
Sci fi sometimes creeps up, then pounces!  Top scientists recently held a closed meeting to discuss building a human genome from scratch....
...a topic explored in more detail in the recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History, by Pullitzer Prize winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, who offers insight into our modern quest to understand our genetic heritage, how we are shaped by our DNA... and how modern science is now picking up the tools to reshape our genes and those of other creatures.
Indeed, journalist Jennifer Kahn ponders whether new CRISPR genetic tech opens up the possibility of altering entire species forever. “How will this new power affect humanity? What are we going to use it to change? Are we gods now?” A fascinating TED talk.
Researcher Yang Hu thinks food affects tolerance. He found that people from rice-growing provinces such as Guizhou, Fujian and Sichuan, where a large proportion of farmland is devoted to rice paddies, are significantly more accepting of premarital sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality, when compared with those from wheat-growing provinces such as Jilin and Shaanxi. This may not be about nutritional value, though. “For centuries before the prevalence of modern machines, rice plantations relied heavily on close cooperation between farmers for the provision of irrigation, while wheat tended to be managed by people working alone. The need of cooperation for the production of food—a necessity for survival —in rice-growing regions may have helped to cultivate a higher level of interpersonal dependence, mutual understanding and tolerance.
Chinese scientists suggest that complex single-celled organisms may have appeared on Earth up to a billion years earlier than previously thought. 


A new book by Peter Ward and Caltech professor Joe Kirschvink, A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth, challenges many of our ideas about the origins and evolution of life. New research indicates the monumental importance of catastrophic events in shaping our planet (the "Great Oxygenation Event", Snowball Earth) as well as the development of life... for our ancestors had to deal with "fire, ice, hammer blows from space, poison gas, the fangs of predators, pitiless competition, lethal radiation, starvation," as well as war, plague and ever-changing ecosystems, each event leaving "its mark in the total sum of DNA now extant."   
A French cave contains a ring of broken stalactites arrayed in a way that could only be intentional… and has been dated to 175,000 years ago. Long before any other known form of art or construction. Wow.  
Eating the right amount of dietary fiber from breads, cereals, and fruits (appears to) be the single largest factor in helping us avoid disease and disability into old age.  
== Tech updates ==
The RoboBee micro sensor-drone weighs 4-thousandths of an ounce and can fly and now – perch against almost any surface using controlled electrostatics. 
The proposed “hedgehog” asteroid rover uses a unique flywheel system to propel itself with great simplicity… an endeavor that we funded at NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC.)  
Here's the original video for the first CTO Challenge at FiRe Conferences.  The first of them, dealing with the "cell phone of the future." Now, a decade later, British researchers and Google each claim to have independently developed revolutionary concepts for Lego-like modular interactive mobile devices. But see our slides from 2007!
Adidas is set to release limited edition shoes made out of plastic harvested from ocean waste-pollution.
Soldiers need better hearing. To pick out sounds of danger… and to reduce the impact of harsh noises. These earbuds promise to do both

Onward! With confidence (and some caution and compassion.)  Ever-onward.  . . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

What is the Great American Novel?

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 06/30/2016 - 14:43
As part of my Los Angeles Times critic-at-large gig, I was asked — and answered — the perennial question: What is the Great American Novel? And not only did I answer this question, but so did eight other of the critics-at-large, in the process suggesting a number of books that make for an excellent reading […]

Let’s Talk About July For Just a Second

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 06/29/2016 - 23:04
And what I want to say about July is: Hey, I’m still not done with the books, so I’m probably going to stick to the semi-hiatus schedule a little bit longer. It seems to be working reasonably well for me, and in particular trimming comment threads back to two days has made things substantially more […]

New Books and ARCs, 6/29/16

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 06/29/2016 - 17:40
Hey, you like books? I like books. Here are some books and ARCs that recently came to the Scalzi Compound. Which of these is calling your name? Tell me in the comments!

The Big Idea: Bob Proehl

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 06/29/2016 - 10:47
In today’s Big Idea, for the novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds, author Bob Proehl ponders not only the stories that we have to tell, but the stories we choose to tell — and why the difference between those two matters. BOB PROEHL: My book, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is about comic book conventions. It’s about a […]

A Girl and Her Dog

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 06/28/2016 - 23:03
And both of them pretty happy. It’s a fine summer so far.

Trump, Tribalism and Diatribes

Contrary Brin - Tue, 06/28/2016 - 18:27
Both Fareed Zakaria and 538’s legendary Nate Silver have issued apologias and post-mortems for having failed so utterly to predict Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.  Interesting reading.  And yet they seem determined to double down on mistakes.
For example, Silver lists three general reasons.
1. Voters are more tribal than I thought.
2. GOP is weaker than I thought.
3. Media is worse than I thought.

Oh, certainly these have some general truth. And yet, does Donald Trump’s triumph in GOP primaries reflect on all “voters”? Or on the 6% or so of qualified U.S. citizens who cast ballots in his favor in primaries, so far?

  More significant is the fact that another 4% or so backed raving reactionaries like Ted Cruz, with very few supporting the mainstream GOP pols whom Rupert Murdoch is used to having at his beck and call.  Sure, Trump is appealing to “tribalism.” But he has swayed a subset of a subset, so far.  

It will only be fair to impugn American voters, in general, if the supporters of Bernie Sanders prove too “tribal” to see the practical value of joining the general democratic alliance.
Is the media “worse” than Nate Silver thought?  Oh sure. But the tribes supporting Donald Trump are not swayed by general media, rather by a subset that was fine-tuned, at great expense, by the Murdochian machine, by Clear Channel svengalis and by Heritage/AEI  incantation-rationalizers. After inciting millions into a resentful, grievance-driven froth that includes a bilious war against science and every other “smartypants” profession in American life, the owners of that specialized wing of media now blink in astonishment at what they have wrought. Having whipped their horse into a populist frenzy, they cannot believe it when an expert rider hopped aboard their already-raging beast and snatched the reins right out of their hands.  

(As happened to the so-smart 1930s German Junkers lords who thought they could control racist populists because “we own the newspapers.")

Nate Silver blames the “weak” GOP on a failure of coordination, ignoring the fact that the 21st Century Republican Party was - until very recently - the most tightly disciplined political entity in the history of the republic.  

For a couple of decades no major GOP officeholder dared utter a word that did not comply with talking points issued by Roget Ailes. And woe unto any who violated the (Dennis) Hastert Rule by negotiating with democrats over matters of public substance. It was for that sin, rather than his divorce scandals, that Newt Gingrich suffered exile into the political wilderness. (And contemplate Newt's possible revenge.)
Sure, that formerly tight discipline appears to have been shattered, this year.  But look underneath. House and Senate republicans are still marching in utter lockstep, with no one breaking ranks, except a few gutsy senators daring to diss Trump. As far as policy is concerned? Sticking to the GOP method of doing almost nothing for the republic? Anything at all?  No change.

No, Nate, the fault does not lie in GOP "failure of coordination." My own theory is that Murdoch and his ilk deliberately bent their wills and massive resources to re-igniting our 250 year old, ever-simmering American Civil War. "Red" America is gray, and we have been down this path before. And settikng this match was not just treason.  It was spectacularly stupid.
== How does Donald Trump do it? ==

Scott (Dilbert) Adams has analyzed how DT's most outrageous or fact-free statements aren't meant to convince, they are designed to move the Center of Narrative, so that we're arguing over how muchor little DT has exaggerated a core truth. The essence is "there must be some fire under all this smoke I am blowing, right?"  Now see an even closer analysis of Trump's polemical method, which is brilliant. While it seems he's babbling, a simple word analysisreveals fiendish precision.
Watch this video! Share widely this appraisal of how Donald Trump’s polemic is so skillfully planned and executed, down to the number of one, two and three syllable words. A brilliant svengali! It will not persuade a single fervid Trumpist. But it can affect fence-sitting conservatives. Above all, it will show the True America of Jefferson and Franklin and Clemens and decent argument and of science and of people who can talk at a tenth grade level... that this truly is a fight worth taking very seriously.
After that amazing decryption of DT’s method, Nerdwriter then analyzes how news media and politicians and citizens helped make the Trump phenomenon. Though I'll warrant only for the 40% who are confederates. The greater number of blue/Union Americans will send him packing as we did Jeff Davis. 
See this: a guide to the almost-endless list of conspiracy theories espoused by Donald Trump.
== Vice Presidential choices ==
Recently I posted my own quirky take on the factors that Trump must consider in picking his running mate... a choice made far more problematic by the fact that few seem to want the job... and that whoever he does select may betray him for political advantage, either before the election or else - in the unlikely event they win -- very soon after. If you haven't seen these almost-scifi scenarios, go see how plausible they are, and how closely DT himself should pay attention to the minefield.

In this parsing of possible Democratic VP picks, I lean strongly toward Al Franken. Also Virginia’s TIm Kaine. Both reach out beyond their obvious traits, are sharp-witted and truly substantial minds.
As for the other veep choice? Okay I'll dip back in, since it is so fascinating.  This article from The Washington Post shows how, with Trump, the spread is so wide, it’s like an entire Dr. Seuss bestiary -- alas most of it similarly nonsensical.  Does he want his veep choice to help shore him up with the establishment? That is starting to seem likely. Only then that will mean he’s NOT planning a hard veer to the center. If he does veer toward the middle (and I elsewhere called that a potential benefit for the country, if (say) the GOP presidential candidate were to publicly drop insane voodoos like supply side and climate denialism) then in that case he’d need a veep from the radical right who would protect his base, while he performs his centrist feint.

A deciding factor between those two options? Donald Trump always thinks of #1 first. And picking a mainstream, establishment republican politician would be political - perhaps even real - suicide.  Follow the logic. If he chooses an establishment republican who is in Rupert Murdoch’s pocket (meaning nearly all of them), then the gopper lords could solve their Trump Problems by getting rid of DT on any pretext, after the inauguration. Forget the “JFK” scenario. Just impeach him! On any excuse at all. Most dems in Congress would go along (possibly foolishly) so Murdoch would not even have to supply his own majorities.  And then? DT fades into an historical footnote. Your establishment puppet is in and you get all the Supreme Court picks and possibly a re-election.What a perfect plan! What on Earth could prevent it? DT will provide some pretext, early on. And the dems would never have the discipline to stand back and tell Paul Ryan: "do your own dirty work." Indeed, if the election looks lost, this betrayal could happen a month or so before the November polls.  (Okay, I repeated some of my earlier argument. But see it all laid out clearly here.)
This is why - for his own protection from both kinds of lynching - I am putting $5 on him nominating a maniac.

Though given how DT thinks?  A woman for sure. He’ll think that helps. Wait. Did I just describe Sarah Palin? Eep!  Far better… Ivanka Trump?  Oooooh. This year is giving me a headache.
== Paul Ryan embraces Trump ==
This stunningly Orwellian puff piece for Paul Ryan proclaims: “Paul Ryan in many ways is the antithesis of Donald Trump; he’s everything that Donald Trump is not. He’s a decent human being. He is a conservative. He is steeped in public policy. He cares about ideas. He’s a person who conducts himself with civility and grace in public life. He doesn’t put down his opponents.  He’s aspirational in his message and philosophy. He’s inclusive. He’s an admirable human being, and Donald Trump is not.”  
What stunning malarkey! Mr. Ryan may be softer-spoken, but he has been an utter partisan warrior on behalf of the pro-oligarchy madness that has transformed American conservatism from a movement containing some real intellect, respect for science and willingness to engage in adult negotiation into what we now see – a frothing frenzy of fervidly intransigent dogmatic hate-peddling.
The last Republican leader to actually engage in “politics” – or argument aimed at advancing policy in service to the American people – was Newt Gingrich who – while a sometimes-offensive culture warrior – would also pause now and then to negotiate with Bill Clinton, getting actual bills and debt-reducing budgets passed.*
Gingrich was toppled by a cabal of neoconservatives led by Dennis “role model for all boys” Hastert, Tom “convicted felon” DeLay, Tearful John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who combined to establish the Hastert Rule that any Republican who ever again negotiated with a democrat would be harshly punished. Their dedication to electoral cheating – e.g. gerrymandering – was unprecedented even in Tamany Hall days. 

The Congresses they led were not only the most dogmatic but also the laziest and most worthless, not even trying, feebly, to pass long stated Republican goals – not even when the GOP owned all three branches of government and could do anything they wanted (2001 to 2007).  All that passed during that span were gifts to Wall Street and the uber-rich and resource extractors. That… is… it. That and utterly absurd wars.
The rest of this insipid rationalization by Mike DeBonis is worth scanning if only to make sure that you don’t exist in an isolation booth. You blues are better than confederates because you are willing sometimes lift your gaze to hear other sides. At least you should be.
More from Ryan: “It’s a question of how to move ahead on the ideas that I — and my House colleagues—have invested so much in through the years. It’s not just a choice of two people, but of two visions for America,” Paul Ryan said today in endorsing Donald Trump. But unlike every other commenter or pundit, I care less about  surfaces like this endorsement than the utter gall of Ryan, contending that he has a "bold and clear vision" of ambitious actions on the GOP agenda.

What a towering liar. Okay, this bears repeating. The Republicans have held the House for 20 of the last 22 years and both houses for 16. For 6 years (2001-2007) they owned every single branch of government, Congress, the Courts and the presidency and could have passed anything they chose.  What did they choose... from their long, long list of ranted grievances?

Did they deregulate or banish any departments? Not a-one. (In contrast, democrats have deregulated many things, the ICC, CAB, AT&T, GPS and the whole freaking Internet.) Did twenty years of GOP Congresses cancel environmental regs? Did they do a push on abortion?

Nope, except for the Bushite disaster trillion-dollar wars, all they did was pass gusher arterial wealth transfers into the open maws of Wall Street, bankers, resource extractors and other parasites. That... is... it. NAME another major thing they did with all that power!

Again, because no one else will say it -- the last five GOP-run Congresses have been the laziest in the history of the republic. Members spend nearly all their time fund-raising. Or passing futile-bizarre retractions of Obamacare. They achieved not only record breaking lows in legislation proposed or passed, but lows in the number of days in session, hearings held, subpoenas issued.  And if you subtract frippery Benghazi and Email hearings, almost none at all.

The utter nerve and Chutzpah of Ryan, to use an "ambitious agenda" as his reason to support that screaming svengali Donald Trump?  Hypocrisy exponentiated, as we would expect from an apprentice to Dennis "role model for all boys" Hastert, convicted felon Tom De-Lay and Tearful-John Boehner.

When I assert they are all traitors, that is political polemic. But when I call them, lazy perverts, that is a matter of record.

== Splitting parties ==
Conservative columnist Thomas Friedman calls for a “New Republican Party” to become the healthy center-right movement in America. He’s not the only one. Elsewhere I describe how Jennifer Rubin, the “Right Turn” columnist for the Washington Post, has said similar things, citing Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb) as a (rare) example of sanity on that side, who might serve as a crystallization seed for such a reborn conservatism, rising from the well-earned ashes of the mad confederacy ignited by Rupert Murdoch.
Alas, if Friedman and Rubin and their ilk weren’t so blinded by stereotypes, they’d realize that the party they’re calling for already exists. It's HALF of the Democratic Party.

Let me explain. Today's Democratic Party is not a center right party... It *contains* America's center right party.  The DP is - in fact - the entire spectrum of moderate politics in America. It is where people who truly want to argue and negotiate pragmatic mixes of state and private and corporate views gather to try to concoct solutions to 21st century problems. Want to see this in every detail?  Look at California, where the 3/4 democratic majority has resulted is far more vigorous debate, not less. The far-more-moderate-than-national republicans in the state assembly are very influential, using their votes to horsetrade between the DP's liberal and moderate wings.  Oh and by the way, California under Jerry Brown is the best-run, cleanest and most effective state in the Union.

Hence the DP is ill-disciplined and hard to typify… a good thing!

In effect, the Democratic Party is the House of Commons and the GOP is the House of Lords and when the Lords have a majority they have just two priorities - to perform rip-offs of the people and (2) to prevent politics from functioning at all.

If the GOP vanished tomorrow, Thomas Friedman's wish would instantly come true as the DP would then almost instantly split in half. San American moderate conservatives would get a party that loves science and the Earth but is also pro-enterprise and flat-fair business competition... one that argues like adults with the somewhat pink wing of slightly socialists.

If the GOP vanished tomorrow. Oh, not till November.  Then make it so.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

The Big Idea: Rob Boffard

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 06/28/2016 - 10:20
In today’s Big Idea, author Rob Boffard explains how a quartet of animated Testudines inspired him for his novel Tracer. And what, pray tell, is a Testudinata? Just you wait. ROB BOFFARD: It all started with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m thirty-one now, and for the past twenty-five years or so, the Turtles have been […]
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