Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cool Stuff, brittleness and culture war

First, some lighter stuff -- Derek Benson, the lunchbagdude, draws fantastic lunch bags for his son, every day.  See this one inspired by Startide Rising.  How lucky is that kid!

Sci-fi author Greg Bear to feed Halo fans hungry for details.

See Peter Norvig’s terrific “What if Abraham Lincoln had used Power Point at Gettysburg?”

Best thing I ever saw come from Microsoft.  It's a peek at how they expect the world to work, 10-15 years from now.  How do YOU think they are on-target or off-base?

Self-righteousness redux...  Clay Shirky addresses one of my major themes in discussing his own recent outrage over a “crime” purportedly committed by (one having to do with bias against gays, the details of which do not matter here)... one that Amazon actually did not commit.  ”In 1987, a teenage girl in suburban New York was discovered dazed and wrapped in a garbage bag, smeared with feces, with racial epithets scrawled on her torso. She had been attacked by half a dozen white men, then left in that state on the grounds of an apartment building. As the court case against her accused assailants proceeded, it became clear that she’d actually faked the attack, in order not to be punished for running away from home. Though the event initially triggered enormous moral outrage, evidence that it didn’t actually happen didn’t quell that outrage. Moral judgment is harder to reverse than other, less emotional forms; when an event precipitates the cleansing anger of righteousness, admitting you were mistaken feels dirty. As a result, there can be an enormous premium put on finding rationales for continuing to feel aggrieved, should the initial rationale disappear. Call it ‘conservation of outrage.’”

Of course, this has resonance with my own notion, supported by growing evidence, that self-righteous indignation actually triggers many of the same neural-reinforcement processes that underlie addiction. This was already known about rage and gambling. But since indignation poisons inter-human discourse in almost every field — spoiling our natural, pragmatic, problem negotiating skills — this “addiction” may do vastly more damage than all others, put together.

A noteworthy non-anniversary? --  A fan with the wonderful name Francesca Flynn wrote in, pointing out that May 2009 was the date on the mimeographed circulars printed by Godon, the Postman, in his lie-that-became the-truth.  Funny thing; his potemkin “National Recovery Act” had a similar name to a bill now before Congress.  Let’s hope and pray things never get that serious in our real world. 

Toward robustness -- I have long complained about trends toward increased brittlness in our civilization.  Surely the “war on terror” should have focused attention upon potential point failure modes that could have devastating consequences?  Back during the Cold War, when “thinking about the unthinkable” became a topic of passionate debate, there was talk of “Fail-Safe” -- a design methodology aiming to ensure that crucial systems, if and when they do fail, would fall back into a safe mode that prevents the very worst outcomes. (e.g accidental nuclear war.)  This meant that, should any of our systems controlling nuclear weapons degrade, malfunction or fall into the wrong hands, those systems would at worst do no harm.  But this doctrine has long ago been set aside, sacrificed on the altar of efficiency and so-called “success-oriented planning.” 

This trend - as we’ve seen - can prove terribly dangerous when a Black Swan arrive... the unforeseen event that hits unexpected.  After 9/11 and Katrina, one would think the lesson would be learned.  But the trend continues to be toward ever-greater reliance upon the perfect performance of a caste of expert first responders, with very little allowance for the possibility of massive first-line casualties, or big surprises, or even a nod toward the wisdom of redundancy.  Examples of this growing worry can be seen in the excess-emphasis on professionalism in the military, the over-reliance on zero-inventory “just-in-time” industrial practices... and in the newest hot trend, Cloud Computing -- which offers a long list of advantages, plus some very plausible dangers, should we rush into a system that puts all our information eggs into very few baskets

Also......See a diverting essay by Rudy Rucker about Stephen Wolfram's 'mazing views of artificial intelligence.  "Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine, in that there’s a one-line box where you type in a question.  The output appears a second or two later, as a page of text and graphics below the box.  What's happening behind the scenes? Rather than looking up the answer to your question, Wolfram|Alpha figures out what your question means, looks up the necessary data to answer your question, computes an answer, designs a page to present the answer in a pleasing way, and sends the page back to your computer."

Publicity stunt?  San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric said it was seeking approval from state regulators for an agreement to purchase power over a 15-year period from Solaren Corp., an 8-year-old company based in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The agreement was first reported in a posting to Next100.  Solaren would generate the power using solar panels in Earth orbit and convert it to radio-frequency transmissions that would be beamed down to a receiving station in Fresno, PG&E said. From there, the energy would be converted into electricity and fed into PG&E's power grid.

=== lighting the political lamp ===

NY Times Columnist - and fellow Asimov fan* Paul Krugman - has my respect at many levels.   But he can sometimes miss the big picture.  Recently, Krugman inveighed against President Obama’s purported lack of courageous leadership on the “torture front.” While Obama has moved toward ending shameful practices, shedding light on the past transgressions, restoring the trust of our allies and setting up procedures to prevent repetition, critics maintain that all of this will remain hollow and hypocritical without vigorous prosecuton and punishment of those who either commanded or else executed the travesties.

“What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay.”

Here I beg to differ, appealing to folks like Krugman that they should look at every angle.  Look, I too twinge over letting people have immunity for "following orders." In order to avoid bad precedents, this process should at minimum be confessional, as in South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation process. Bushite immunity doctrines have to be savagely rejected.

But is it possible that Obama is not simply wussing out for political reasons?  Might he have priorities that rank higher than punishing the monsters who despoiled America’s honor, for the last decade?  And no, I am not talking about focusing his efforts on fixing the economy -- even that is less important than Barack Obama’s true, historic purpose...

...which is to end the foul betrayal known as Culture War.  The trumped-up pitting of region vs region, rural vs urban, red vs blue, know-nothings vs science, the future assailed by a mythologized past, and the reflex measuring of all matters  against an insanely simplistic “left-right axis” that no longer even maps onto any sane definitions of “liberal” or “conservative,” anymore.

 This twenty-year campaign to divide America has effectively lobotomized the world’s greatest nation, leaving it bereft of foresight or ability to mobilize its most famous trait -- pragmatism -- toward the solution of a myriad 21st Century problems.  A sensible willingness to innovate and negotiate, shrugging aside dogma in favor of progress, based upon incremental problem-solving that is both hard-headed and good-hearted.  That has been the American genius, for several centuries.  While pragmatic incrementalism has never been easy or smooth, it has ultimately paid off, almost every time.  Moreover, it has never, ever been about faux European silliness like “left vs right.”

 And it has never been more needed than now.

Who would even want to thwart such a magnificent trait?  Only those who find the Western Enlightenment -- and America, its foremost champion -- loathesome.  Heck, I won’t even blame the retro-troglodytes of the fundamentalist/creationist awakening, whose hatred of the Enlightenment is visceral  and deeply psychological. They are adversaries, but sincere ones.  No, let’s go straight to the source -- the oligarchs who have financed culture war via agitprop agencies like Fox News. Those are the real beneficiaries of the Bush/neocon era.  And they are the ones who stand most to be thwarted, if Culture War ends and the nation can get back to business.

Seriously, do you see any other winners, including fundamentalists? Certainly markets, democracy, freedom, even capitalism and the Pax Americana that the neocons claim to love, all of these things have suffered terribly under Bushite misrule.  Only a narrow clade -- a small subset of billionaires -- stand to benefit from a continuation of our national illness.  But they have made it clear, they want culture war to go on.

And that is why Barack Obama must pick his battles.  Think! Any drive to indict and prosecute the “torture memo” writers would be counter-productive in many ways.

1) Obama is trying to rebuild the confidence of a US Civil Service, including our defense and intelligence agencies, who were deliberately savaged during the Bush years.  Having those people continue to think of themselves as Bush Era victims is extremely valuable. No single step is more needed, but it would be rocked back by such a campaign.

2) Attacking right now on the torture front would fall into a trap, allowing Fox & friends to portray it as a “liberal witch hunt” at the very moment when the base of the crazy right is crumbling, with millions of sincere, conservative Americans starting to drift away.

Look, even if we’re talking about some heinous stuff, there is precedent. When The US Government pardoned Jefferson Davis, after the Civil War, this action ran against a massive current of popular passion for vengeance. But the pardon has a practical aim.  Davis had planned to use his trial as a soapbox in which to establish that secession had been legal.  The victorious Union wanted the de facto rejection of that principle to  be accepted as a perpetual assumption, trampling the notion of state supremacy under the boots of half a million parading victors.

Parallels to this era?  Walking a tightrope, President Obama trying to find ways to permanently reject the  horrific moral lapses of the Bush Administration and to shine cleansing light upon them, without going to court trials that would further divide the nation and give rant-platforms to neocons, letting them bask in their favored drug of self-righteous indignation at public expense.  In any event, there are bigger and better fish to fry!

The key point is this:  Why should Obama spend political capital to go after one set of Bush -era crimes, when there ought to be others, just as easy to prosecute, that would bear and supply fresh political capital instead?  I am talking about crimes of direct malfeasance, corruptions and betrayal of trust, e.g. in the vetting of “emergency” government contracts to buddies.  Send up a few dozen on explicitly clear evidence of stuff like this and the shrill cries of “witch hunt” will only rile a fringe, while millions of decent American conservatives continue their veer of revulsion, away from a Republican Party that long ago abandoned any genetic connection to Lincoln, Eisenhower or Teddy Roosevelt.

Those are the crimes we and Obama should be going after, right now. Crimes that demonstrate venality, betrayal, outright criminality and complicity with a program of theft that helped hurt average Americans' livelihoods. That is where indictments will get consensus backing, helping anchor-in Obama's -- and our -- uprising against unreason.


Oh, go hunt down and read this one -- ”The GOP: divorced from reality: The Republican base is behaving like a guy who just got dumped by his wife.” By Bill Maher (LATimesOPINIONApril 24, 2009)  A bit extra-partisan, but worth it for the 2nd-to-last paragraph.

*(PS...Someone tell Krugman about FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH.)

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