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Space: where the rewards really are

Contrary Brin - Sat, 05/18/2019 - 20:52
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Before getting into real life space adventures...
The lavish blockbuster Wandering Earth - based on Liu Cixin’s novel - was released (quietly) on Netflix. “The Wandering Earth doesn’t yet appear under “New Releases” or “Netflix Originals” section, though it shows up on the “Recently Added” list when you scroll down. It seems odd to bury this film after the incredible reception it’s received overseas (even worldwide, it’s cracked $700 million), and Netflix’s enthusiasm when the company first acquired it.” And yes, by elevated standards of "high" SF there are some... simplistic or "oh, my" aspects. Hey. They're learning the ropes, fast.

== Space advances! ==

Earth has two “extra moons.” Dangerous rocks! Gold in them thar space rocks! And Fool’s Gold!
First an announcement: NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program (I’m on the External advisory Council) has announced its 2019 grant selections. Your comments are welcome here
News from the future! My headline from 2039 leads off a series by the XPrize Foundation! Theme of this round: The Moon 2039. As you might expect, my "headline" is a bit sardonic. (I’ll be at the June International Space Development Conference in DC, as a lonely voice skeptical of the “Back to Luna!” theme.)
NASA, FEMA, and other national and international agencies and other agencies joined to run a hypothetical asteroid impact preparedness scenario at the International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense Conference, hoping to learn the best strategies for responding to a potential strike, starting from the moment a threatening asteroid is first detected by astronomers.
You can be part of the solution via an NGO that will apply your membership to finding gaps in the way governments are doing Planetary Defense: the B612 Foundation.
And so, this time, let’s focus on those rocks out there!  Newly discovered “moons” of the Earth, an older dustpile, and prospectors’ delight…
== Where the rewards are ==
Okay, here’s some moon-madness. One day - (one!) - after I predicted it, the administration swished from eagerness for a flag-waving, U.S.-only moon-race junket to calling for a joint international effort. (In fact, I predicted it more than a year ago, on-blog.) To be fair, I deem it likely NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is honest and just trying to make the best of a truly awful situation. Still, it all boils down to the same thing. In order to help other nations get their rite-of-passage moon-selfie moment on a useless and utterly resource-barren plain of poison dust, the US will share every technology and skill, virtually for free. We could be joining with Japan to do things no one else can even approach (see below), things that would benefit all humanity and also make us rich. But not on Mike Pence's watch.
But for a pretty thorough update/appraisal plus vivid historical perspective on our gorgeous planetary satellite, see a soon-released book entitled The Moon: A History for the Future, by my friend Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade. Pre-order now! It pairs well with Robert Zubrin’s recently released The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility, portraying the visionary entrepreneurs who are forging a bold future of space exploration, developing reusable rockets, pushing ahead to Mars, the asteroids and beyond... even to the moons of the outer planets.
Just read skeptically in both places – and anywhere else – when folks wave at “lunar resources.” There’s plenty to love about lovely Luna, and even visit. But we’ll get rich elsewhere.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Luna is important over the long run, and even now -- scientifically. And I might be wrong about its sterile, near term uselessness. Hence it’s good that humanity will be checking it out again. Worthwhile science will get done, each time desperately eager tourists land there in expensive rites-of-adulthood. May those preening tourists prove me wrong! (I do think NASA should send a robot to one of those lava tubes.)  But elsewhere I list a dozen reasons why all talk of “lunar resources” tends to amount to just hot air.
Speaking of moons… NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars got lucky last month and spotted not one but two cool eclipses — in less than two weeks, one for each of the Red Planet's moons. Which leads to this reminder: Phobos and Deimos should be mission targets! If one of them possesses usable volatiles, then ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) could fill fuel and water tanks both in orbit and on the surface of Mars, making the economics of crewed landings (and return to Earth) vastly easier.  https://www.space.com/curiosity-rover-sees-solar-eclipses-on-mars.html
And so we get to a special kind of “moon.” It turns out that Earth has several other than big ol’ Luna. We know a class of asteroids that are locked into periodic dance orbits that return them to near-Earth space – the “nearest” of the NEOs (Near Earth Asteroids) and by-far easiest to reach, though none has yet been visited. And Dr. James Benford has pointed out that these could be perfect hosts fir the sort of “lurker” interstellar surveillance probes that I describe in EXISTENCE.
Benford argues for close study of co-orbitals like Cruithne (3753), a 5-kilometer object with closest approach to Earth of 0.080 AU, and 2010 TK7, which oscillates around the Sun-Earth Lagrangian point L4. A number of other such objects are known in a 1:1 orbital resonance with Earth The dancer that comes nearest – 2016HO3 – is just tens of meters across… also known as Kamoʻoalewa — a Hawaiian word for an oscillating object in the sky. 
Now comes news that China plans a sample return mission to this object. Simpler and easier to get to than the Hyabusa and OsirisRex missions (see below), it’s still a very ambitious step that proves the PRC is not just fixated on military endeavors out there or the Apollo wannabe landing of taikonauts. They must be aware (as Mike Pence is not) that the real riches are likely in asteroids. After dropping those samples for Earth recovery -- and getting a gravity assist -- their probe will continue to the main asteroid belt and orbit the comet 133P to characterize its accessible water and other resources. The whole mission will last about 10 years. So far, China has achieved five continuous successes in its lunar exploration program, and they plan to launch a probe to explore Mars in 2020, which is expected to arrive at the red planet in 2021.
Still a leader -- Japan’s Hayabusa mission to explore asteroid Ryugu just keeps doing more wonderful things. After deploying three varied sub-landers, then poking the asteroid for a sample to return, it just blasted the surface to make a new crater, to later sample more pristine matter!  Efficiently and boldly testing methods that may take humanity closer to accessing the vast troves of wealth out there. These are the partners the U.S. should team up with, if we outgrow the current literal Lunacy of joining an insipid “race” back to the Moon’s dusty waste.  Don’t underestimate Japan. They’d be glad to be our helpers in this. But if we drop the ball… they are capable of carrying it alone.
And the U.S. mission OsirisRex is zeroing in on Bennu. The Colorado School of Mines just became the first university to offer master’s and doctorate degrees in space resources, bringing together many fields, including mining, resource economics, robotics, advanced manufacturing, remote sensing, metals/metallurgy, solar and nuclear energy along wwith ISRU or in-situ resource utilization, or using what’s in place.  Colorado Reps. Scott Tipton, a Republican, and Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat, are sponsoring a bill that would establish the Space Resources Institute. https://space.mines.edu/
Confused about how we’ve managed to measure distances and times  across the universe? This animation is truly wonderfully made.  Explained in this article.
Humanity is advancing gloriously! Too bad large and stupid minorities of voters in western nations have let them selves be egged into hatred and all-out war against the very same fact-professions – many of them their own sons and daughters – who are pushing the envelopes of understanding of climate, environment, technology, biology, medicine and the fantastic realm of God’s universe.

. . ...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 core dilemma of our economics

Contrary Brin - Wed, 05/15/2019 - 18:38
Let's dive into some of the most fundamental aspects of the economics you rely upon. And this won't be dry! We'll get to the very heart of it.

First though, a couple of political riffs. Like could Amy McGrath unseat Mitch McConnell?  Look, I touted her to the sky. But like Beto, she did not win her intermediate goal. Still, I am inclined to say – you go grl. Love then money.
This guts a core confederate incantation. States that voted Democrat in 2016 generally rely less on federal funding than Republican states. Thirteen out of the top 15 states found to be most dependent on the federal government voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Ten out of the 15 least dependent states voted Democratic.
Yes, poverty-wracked New Mexico and Mormon Utah are outliers, with Mormons giving serious thought to dropping their loyalty to a party of mafiosi, sexual perverts and traitors. Kansas doubled down on Supply Side insanity and crashed every part of their state’s health.
We'll add a few more political riffs at the end. But for sure you really must read this from the LA Times, listing all the many ways the GOP is trying to crush the power of voters in red and purple states, openly defying citizen rebellions against gerrymandering and concocting truly blatant cheats to prevent citizen empowerment. Seriously, you won't believe the long list of outrages. 

Their justification? Suppression of "mob rule." As opposed to their agenda. Rule by the Mob.


== The core dilemma of our economics ==
Probably the most clear and cogent explainer of economics issues is Robert Reich. This video shows clearly what's happened to wealth disparity in America.* Watch it, if you do nothing else. 

Joseph Stiglitz - Nobel laureate in economics - shows how "capitalism" can be defined the way the Greatest Generation did, under the FDR era social contract, as entrepreneurship where genuine wealth rewards come from delivery of ever-better goods/services under flat-fair-competitive-open conditions while a regulatory system prevents most cheating or evasion of externalities (like labor conditions or environmental impact), while society invests in children and justice and infrastructure to maximize (as F.Hayek recommended) the number of skilled, eager, creative competitors. 

This capitalism of Adam Smith thrived during the Greatest Generation, achieving unequaled rates of growth and opportunity and justice. It was hated by (guess who?) the oligarchy.
Or else capitalism can be defined the way Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and (ironically) Karl Marx and today's youths do - a system of unregulated rapacious feeding off the commonwealth and the future, with secret connivings, self-dealings and unbridled cheating leading to devastation of the middle class and wild market swings in which the predatory consolidate into a new, feudal oligarchy of the kind Smith denounced, while Marx rubs his hands, predicting inevitable (and it is) revolution.
These two experiments, 1935-1980 and 1981-2019 -- were both "capitalist." One showed steady rises in every metric of societal health and social justice and middle class strength. 

The other featured endless demands for experiments in handing over wealth to be managed by aristocrats. Supply Side tax gushers into their maws... and Federal Reserve policies that encouraged binges of unprecedented borrowing. Both were meant to spur the rich to invest in factories, productive capacity ("supply"), jobs, workers and R&D, resulting in ever-higher growth and deficit-erasing tax revenues.

None of that happened. Ever. Even once. At all. (In science that record refutes a theory.) 

Instead, the gushers were spent as Adam Smith said they'd be - on passive, rentier asset bubble inflation and on cheating -- electoral, financial, monopolistic and propaganda. With intermittent bubble-pops and a skyrocketing accumulation of debt. And yes, Adam Smith predicted all of those, and every predicted outcome happened.
One RASR (Residually Adult-Sane Republican) economist I know sees all this, but blames the Fed and only the Fed for low interest rates. But no one held a gun to the oligarchy, demanding they borrow, then put none of it to real economic work. 

Let's put it in terms even a RASR can understand. When it comes to skyrocketing debt there are three parties to this crime:
- the Fed, who offered easy borrowing.

- Republican Congresses who gave the rich gift-gushers of Supply Side voodoo rape.
- the Rentier-CEO-oligarchy recipients of all this, who bribed to twist policy and reaped both rewards.
Today's RASR conservatives blame just one of the three. Arguably the least-guilty. Let's paraphrase the excuse:
“Oh, no! The Fed made money so cheap I just HAD to borrow it to pump trillions into rentier asset bubbles and never productive capital or R&D! It’s not my fault! Those Fed whores wore short skirts and plunging necklines and seemed cheap! It’s all her fault for tempting me‼ Tempting me into.... borrowing! And gambling it all.”
Stiglitz puts it differently than my stark portrayal of looming class warfare. His prescription "begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it."
In contrast I say it as "regulations are needed to reduce the natural human tendency to cheat, plus raising up the max number of competitors, both of them entirely justifiable under Smithian capitalism."
But read his missive. It overlaps with my summary, though without my own (patented) referrals to historical seers like Smith & Marx.

== Politics Redux ==

Lest you run out of examples of Two Scoops’ pettiness and mafia tendencies (as if you ever could; where do you think I got his nickname?) Remember former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe? He spent his adult life chasing badguys for us, but Fox calls him — and hundreds of thousands of other skilled professionals — “Deep State” villains, because they dare to notice today’s cesspool. A consummate pro.
And Trump fired McCabe from the FBI just 26 hours before his retirement was set to take effect, denying him his full pension. And Fox & Foxzoids chortled with glee over this, as when they deny aid to disaster victims in blue states. These may be our countrymen (and we should not behave likewise toward such jerks). But they are not ‘citizens.’ 
Consider the members of Trump's circle who apparently ignored his orders - according to the Mueller Report. Again and again I despair over any Democrat realizing what a political judo-jugular strike can be. In this case, setting aside the details of any particular case, anyone from Biden to AOC could say: 

Across all of U.S. history, no twenty presidents were ever "betrayed" by so many former "great guys." Whatever your politics, one truth shines through -- Donald Trump is a terrible judge of character.


== lagniappes ==
First: Watch 19 vivid seconds as the puppet enters behind them... Remind your RASRs this happened right after MBS and Putin each ordered enemies whacked on the soil of NATO allies.
Amid our Putin obsession remember that the Bush family is a cadet branch of the Saudi Royal House and did their bidding as much as Trump does Russia's. 
This round of the civil war, the confederacy finally got its 1860s dream -- foreign help... and masters. And lest we forget who has benefitted from the deliberate destruction of our alliances... recall this image of Trump greeting Putin.  Good doggy.
Wiley Miller's April 18 Non-Sequitur comic nailed the problem of 60,000 years and the fundamental flaw of capitalism... or feudalism or communism. Those who reach the top - even if they competed fairly to get there - will tend to cheat in order to stay there, and give their sons unearned power over the children of others. 

This - along with our human propensity for delusion - explains nearly all of the horrid litany called "history." It is why geniuses finally innovated methods to divide power enough to force elites to keep competing fairly. Constitutional division. Breaking up monopolies. scientific debate, etc. 

Kings, lords, chieftains and commissars never accomplished what this new method has... and so, all those varied types of mafiosi are now ganging up against the new way. If they win, they won't let it be tried again. And we'll lose the stars.
Wiley's cogent cartoon efficiently make a second point. That it's easy to convince romantics to love their tyrants. In 1861 a million poor white southerners fought and died for their plantation slave-lord class oppressors. As other confederates did in 1778, 1830, 1852 and other phases of the US Civil War. And as they do today, hating (at Fox-behest) the "elites" of fact and brains who gave them everything. Because smart people are the one force standing in the way of a return to feudalism.
And because we keep "stealing" their brightest children.

=====* And this is one reason why I've already decided on one aspect of the race for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020. I have various ranked opinions about the top of the ticket. I'm hoping to learn more about Inslee, for example. And I am SO aboard for Buttigieg 2028!  But the one thing I've decided to be passionate about is Elizabeth Warren for Vice President! She would be unleashed to take that town with unconstrained ferocity... while getting the executive experience she now totally lacks. 

==== Housekeeping note! ====

I have been amazed for years how this blog, one of the oldest on the Web and a comment community that's among the best, has been able to maintain a mostly open comment policy, in an era rife with loonies and anonymous trolls. Every few years I am forced to shut down anonymous postings, when some obsessive jerk decides he has nothing better to do than poop where he's not wanted. You all can still post via your google accounts. If necessary, I will go to moderated posting. Tnaks for remaining among the brightest.. . ...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)

Sunset, With Wife and Cat

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 05/15/2019 - 17:49
Seriously, this photo has everything (photographic-wise, anyway) you come to Whatever for! I’m traveling tomorrow and will be in Los Angeles through Monday, taking meetings and also taking part in the Nebula Weekend, where among other things I will be participating in the mass autographing on Saturday afternoon, which is totally open to the public. […]

Tim Conway Gone

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 05/14/2019 - 13:35
Comedian Tim Conway passed away today, and I posted a thought on Facebook which I’ll share here as well: “It occurs to me that one day every celebrity I ever loved growing up will be gone, and it will feel a little bit like being orphaned.” I will add that at age 50, their ranks […]

The Big Idea: W.M. Akers

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 05/13/2019 - 08:37
In novels, detectives follow the “big cases” — but what about the other cases, which need solving? W.M. Akers considers them, and the person who would chase those down, in Westside. W.M. AKERS: You will probably never solve a murder mystery. You will probably personally investigate arson, a hit-and-run, a kidnapping, a bomb threat, insurance […]

Krissy and Athena, Mother’s Day 2019

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 05/12/2019 - 11:04
My two favorite people on the planet, but of course you know that already. Happy Mother’s Day to you, if you are, or have ever had, a mother.

Putin, Assange, Gandhi and Snowden: the weird logic of civil disobedience

Contrary Brin - Sat, 05/11/2019 - 15:14
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I will give you a riff -- a primer -- on the concept and practice of Civil Disobedience, a vital idea, especially in days of "resistance." So scroll down... but first a few links regarding our present crisis, viewing it from different angles than you'll get in the press. 

For starters, Rep. Adam Schiff tweeted: "The Mueller report includes the results of the criminal probe, but not the findings of the counterintelligence investigation." And Mueller Hints at a National-Security Nightmare. Yes, that shoe has to drop. But even bigger will be… money laundering.
Russian interference proved effective, and the GOP blocks doing anything about it. Do you need a better dictionary definition for treason? Several states are scratching for funds to replaced defective voting machines that cannot be audited and were produced by republican or even Kremlin-connected companies.

If the "good-guy billionaires" were serious about helping with this crisis, they would approach states like Pennsylvania and offer to pay for upgraded voting machines that give auditable paper receipts. Perhaps you will be repaid later, when the GOP cheating mafia is crushed. 

== Hatred of Smart People ==
Want to understand why the GOP pours poison at our intel/FBI/military officers and civil servants? Experts see two years of American political dysfunction as a win for Putin.

And what’s smellier? Whether or not it can ever be proved that the multiple horrifically suspicious multi-hour debriefings Donald Trump has held in secret with communist and “ex” communist dictators were actual agent-control sessions, the effects have been inarguable -- universal harm to our alliances, sciences, institutions, agencies, and every source of strength, public and private, as this article only begins to make clear.
… which has led a member of Trump’s transition team and a lifelong Republican political/legal advisor and professor at the Scalia Law School to say enough is enough.
 == Their best loved trick ==
Any person in the west who seeks a position of influence of any kind should read this article: “What to Do When the Russian Government Wants to Blackmail You — "Russian officials have a long history of using compromising material, or kompromat, as a weapon against political opponents.” They did it during the czarist Okrahna and all across the NKVD and KGB and some of the same guys are using the same tactics, today.
I’ve only been yammering about the likelihood of extensive blackmail in the west for 20 years. But this Atlantic piece offers case studies and practical advice what to do, if you find yourself a target. “The only way we can defend ourselves from dirty tricks is to go public,” he continued, “to beat the attackers.”

Oh, if only the compromised in Washington were to have such guts.
… which, strangely enough, circles around to …
== The essence of Civil Disobedience ==
Amid the tragicomedy of the expulsion of Julian Assange from his Ecuadorian bolt-hole,  this essay is erudite, offering interesting perspectives, while (alas) utterly missing the point about Assange's arrest and likely trial for hacking government computers. He will argue he's protected as a journalist, an absurd position that will only serve to dilute our consensus approval of journalistic sanctity. 

A vastly more pertinent defense is civil disobedience (CD). The essence of CD is much more than just raising a stink and nuisance, in order to call attention to injustice. The concept was well-explained by Thoreau and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and utilized with effect by Daniel Ellsberg. As Edward Snowden has said repeatedly, the practitioner of civil disobedience expects -- and even wants -- some degree of sacrifice and punishment! 

Accepting that expectation demonstrates the protester's courage and maturity of purpose in overcoming a steep opportunity-slope: the deterrence of the law, even one that needs to be changed. A lawful society - by the way - that the CD practitioner honors by assuming it will be implemented with some proportionality. Gandhi and King could never have won in a genuinely murderous tyranny, and they said so. Their methods only work in a society wherein judges and the populace grasp the important concept of a sliding scale, and the fundamental notion that the law sometimes must change.
Such societies -- the 1947 British Raj or 1950s America -- resist the temptation to crush protest... not always successfully, but enough to validate the protestor's faith: that sincere willingness to endure moderate deterrence will be rewarded with... conversation. 

Alas, protestors in China and Hong Kong have learned how risky this can be, when these concepts aren't rooted in real tradition.
Indeed, the very notion of CD is now embedded in U.S. law. Protests that amplify from picketing - to sit-ins that inconvenience commerce - are mostly "honored" with a night in jail. (And those who whine about that do not understand civil disobedience an iota.) Throwing an egg is nasty, but doesn't ruin anyone's life (or month) so a monetary fine and three days jail might happen... though much less, if you convince a jury of your peers that the egging was deserved. And hold that thought about jury nullification.
Edward Snowden has repeatedly lectured on this, saying he expects punishment for his bona-fide crimes... "I just want a promise I won't be killed, then I'll come home to a public trial," he's said. (Note also, while there are aspects that intel folks are rightfully angry about, Snowden's crimes have already satisfied a criterion for CD -- they provoked substantial - if inadequate - reforms in the FISA Courts and other processes.)
In contrast, Julian Assange asserts total victimhood for his righteous actions against a nation (America at-large, not just its varying governments) that at-best lazily and at-worst nefariously concealed heinous actions from its people. An ironic stance, since most of the "heinous" stuff that he screams-at has been... well... disappointing from a thriller-writer's perspective. 

(Note, I wrote The Transparent Society: so I approve of - indeed agitate for (!) - increases in the general, worldwide flow of light! Heck, I cheered my head off, over the Panama Papers, which seemed almost a scene from my novel EARTH! The consortia of responsible journalists who handled that much-needed revelation were both professional and heroic. Alas, it is from that position as a transparency activist that I worry: Assange appears to have done more to poison transparency, than elevate it.)
But back to the core point. A jury trial in the U.S. will give Assange a powerful megaphone, far more vivid than the silly-ass bullhorn he used to drive his Ecuadorian hosts to the verge of diplomatically-immune murder. Let him face a jury and argue for those peers to nullify any Trumpian machinations!
Daniel Ellsberg eventually became a college professor and hero to waves of undergraduates. It's where I expect Snowden to wind up, after he negotiates a CD transition, through moderate punishment. But Assange? His alliance with Putin and Trump showed that this is not a fellow who calculates in the cause of reform. I don't know enough to fully judge, nor am I asked to. But "hero" is not on my list of leading terms for this very strange man.
. . ...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)

Smudge is Here to Announce the Results of the Birthday Pledge Drive

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 05/11/2019 - 10:04
Two days ago I encouraged people to donate to RIP Medical Debt, a non-profit that wipes out medical debt here in the US, and in return I would (if pledge goals were met) write a short story and do an audio version of the story as well. This pledge drive was in commemoration of my […]

50

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 05/10/2019 - 03:00
You didn’t know this because I didn’t say anything about it, but I recently had a brief mid-life crisis, which I thought was about turning 50. And because I was efficient about it, I had it last year. What had happened was, after I was done with my book tour for The Consuming Fire in […]

My Birthday Challenge: Donate to Wipe Out Medical Debt, Get a Brand New Story

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 05/09/2019 - 14:10
(tl;dr — Donate to RIP Medical Debt, which forgives medical debt, then come here and tell me in the comments how much you donated. If the amount donated reaches $5k, I write brand new short story.) RIP Medical Debt is a non-profit organization that buys up the medical debt of people who can ill afford […]

The Big Idea: Wendy Nikel

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 05/09/2019 - 10:45
If you’re a time traveler, keeping the time stream clear of possible contradictions is not your only problem. Author Wendy Nikel knows another one, and it’s at the heart of The Cassandra Complex. WENDY NIKEL: In my previous Big Idea entry, I talked about The Grandmother Paradox and how the title of that second book […]

Spice, Mid-Yawn

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 05/08/2019 - 16:28
So majestic. Truly a magnificent specimen of the common house tiger.

Johnny... Janie and Jamal still can't code... though Ivan can.

Contrary Brin - Wed, 05/08/2019 - 14:09
Are we in the West -- and especially the U.S. -- losing our ability to innovate or command the central technology of our era? The news seems filled with stories about fiendishly clever Russian hackers and tricks embedded in Chinese hardware, while Silicon Valley firms desperately seek immigration waivers to import foreign coders, because young Americans appear generally clueless about skills that we invented.

There are serious problem-solving efforts out there. One is CSforAll, an endeavor that emerged from Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that aims to increase the fraction of young students who are at least exposed to concepts of computer programming.
Now you know this is a pet peeve of mine. Folks are still reading and arguing over my infamous Salon article "Why Johnny Can't Code" which pointed out how BASIC and other introductory languages had quietly vanished from PCs.  (That essay got me more hate mail than even my denunciations of that horrible green oven mitt named Yoda.)
To be clear, I was not singing praises to BASIC! Rather, my target was textbook publishers who - during a ten year window - included TRY IT IN BASIC exercises in math and science and other curricula. Teachers all across the nation assigned as homework little 12-line programs at the back of say a chapter on Newton's Laws, or population biology, or geometry. And every student did them! Because those who didn't have an Apple or TRS-80 at home would find one in the school library or computer lab.

Those little weekly exercises introduced hundreds of thousands of kids to the simple notion that an algorithm can make pixels move across a screen.  And some got enthralled.

Only then publishers stopped including those exercises in textbooks, even as computers flooded every home! Why? Because most students with computers lacked any reliably consistent programming language (PL). Why did included PLs stop? A short-sighted cost-cutting measure? Some misguided wish by IBM to undermine Apple, or vice-versa? We may never learn. 
Nowadays, BASIC, Python, Squeak and several other simple languages could be included trivially, without burden on manufacturers, heck even on our phones!  And textbooks could once again include turn-key, simple, introductory exercises that teachers assign, luring millions of youths into trying their hands at programming. 

And yes, I think it's that simple. Homework. 

== A few bits of good news ==
I suppose the best outcome of all the hoorow over my “Can’t Code” article was that somebody went out and simply solved the problem! -- that is at its most-basic level. A fellow who read my essay thereupon created a cool and easy and accessible Basic site, offering a simple and obvious entry and display system. This one seems to offer the complete package. Accessibility via any mere browser, ease-of-use and instant applicability to simple textbook exercises. Quitebasic is instantly ready to use. See: http://www.quitebasic.com/  
In other words, textbook publishers could, in theory, use that one website to offer teachers programming homework. Of course, I am dreaming.

I'm still hoping that the mavens at Apple, Microsoft, Dell and so on would meet in the public interest, and agree upon a set of perhaps five very simple, introductory programming languages that can be included in their standard operating systems, so that students around the world might have access to the world of computing. How hard would that be? One meeting. Then a public announcement and a challenge to textbook publishers and teachers. Absolutely golden public relations, at virtually zero cost.
== Trying to explain it another way ==

I remain amazed at the low hanging fruit that lies so easily within reach, that no one seems to even glancingly notice. An endeavor to get the next 30% of students doing at least some programming. 

I've struggled for a decade to make a simple point clear, and have come to realize that this simple point seems impossible for very smart people to grasp. (Even now, half of you are fuming, thinking I am praising BASIC. For the rest of you, what follows will be reiteration, so?)

Here's a different approach. A comparison of two eras:
The 1980s &1990s                                                          Teachers used to assign simple programs as homework, not just in AP classes, but in regular math, physics, chemistry, biology... even in Junior High. Those simple, ten line assignments gave millions of students at least a little exposure to what a program is... how pixels move because of algorithms.  And millions did it. Because it was homework!
 2019Today, teachers only rarely assign creative programming homework.  What changed?
The 1980s &1990s                                                          Teachers of physics, chemistry, bio, stats and so on could assign simple coding homework because the assignments were included in textbooks, with support explanations and teacher guides.
2019Today, almost no Middle School or High School textbooks contain coding problems that illustrate concepts from the previous chapter.  What changed?
The 1980s &1990s                                                           Those textbook publishers knew only 50% or so of kids had a computer at home, but most schools at least had a computer lab the kids could use for simple assignments.
2019Today, almost all kids have immensely powerful computers of many kinds, yet textbook publishers long ago stopped including coding examples/assignments, because students are LESS able to follow such simple assignments than they were in the 1980s and 1990s!  They haven't the tools!  What changed?
The 1980s &1990s Every kid who had a home computer -- or access to one at school -- thereby had access to the same, simple programming language. BASIC. It was so universal that textbook publishers were confident that most kids and teachers could find a way to get some simple example assignments done. "Try it in Basic."
2016Today there is no common, shared lingua franca introductory programming language.  Very few home computers, laptops, tablets, game boxes or phones carry one at all!  Or it is buried deep and hard to find. Or it must be downloaded from the web along with complex instructions for installation and activation. A bewildering array of languages, variations, implementations and instructions has left only truly dedicated young people able and willing to plow ahead. 
Sure, for those enthusiasts, it is a golden age, a cornucopia! Modern endeavors like CSforALL will do well by those kids.
 But no textbook publisher will issue assignments amid such a maelstrom! And what most of the folks doing CSforAll forget is that those old homework assignments were what exposed millions of young people to at least a taste of programming!  Homework assigned by teachers not of CS but teachers of physics, chem, stats, bio and so on!
Hence my complaint about CSforAll.  It tries, admirably to develop FUN(!) ways to attract smart young folks into CS!  Yay! It should work great for the 80th to 99th percentiles.
But there should be CS for those in the percentiles 50-to-80, as well.  And those kids will not do it unless it is assigned, in small chunks.  That happened in the 1980s and 1990s!  It could happen again.
How to fix it?  The following could be done rapidly, at almost zero cost.
1. Convene a meeting of just six parties:  Apple, Microsoft, Google, IBM, RedHat, Dell.  (Okay some more.)  Arm-twist them to agree to offer 3-5 standardized educational programming languages on all platforms. Using perhaps 0.001% of their available memory capacity.  Python, LEGO, BASIC... Let them figure it out with advice from educators.
COST: Almost nothing for the meeting. Arm-twist them to meet. Almost nothing for the companies to implement - maybe two FTEs each for 6 months. Could be done before the President leaves office. 
2. Then convene a meeting of textbook publishers.  Apple, Microsoft, Google, IBM present the 5 standard languages.  Arm-twist textbook publishers to include "Try it in Basic" (or python etc) exercises in physics, chem, stats, bio books, so teachers will then assign simple, fun homework, exposing millions to a light does of programming.
3. That's it. Period. No followup needed.  No institutions or budgets or follow-through. No way Congress or anyone else can sabotage it. That's.... it.
And yes, I hammered the simple point repetitively, from many angles. Sorry. But maybe it's important enough.

. . ...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)

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