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Some Reasons 2016 Didn’t Entirely Suck, at Least for Me

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 12/30/2016 - 15:01
2016 was, globally speaking, and to put it mildly, not the best of years. I will not be sad to see it go. But it’s worth it to remember that no year is entirely irredeemable. People have been passing around this list of 99 reasons 2016 was a good year, and I think that it’s a […]

Some Things I Plan to Do in 2017, Not Work Related

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 12/30/2016 - 13:28
Do I have personal goals for 2017? I do! Here are a few of them, in no particular order. 1. Get more organized. I’m actually good at getting organized; I’m shit at staying organized. Welcome to my life for the past 47 years. For 2017, however, I have three books due and a lot of […]

Work Life 2017

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 12/29/2016 - 09:37
Independent of anything else that might go on in the world in 2017, which is likely to be considerable, mind you, I myself will be having rather a busy year. Why? Well, to begin, here are the thing I am writing/have written that will come out in 2017: 1.  The Collapsing Empire, March 21 2. […]

2016 Top Ten Whatever Posts + Social Media Stats

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 12/28/2016 - 10:35
Time for my annual nerdery about the most visited posts here, and the state of my social media presence. Ready? Sure you are, that’s why you’re here! This and cat pictures. First, here are the top ten posts on Whatever f0r 2016, ranked by visits. Posts with asterisks were originally posted in years other than […]

Transparency: Watching and Watchers

Contrary Brin - Tue, 12/27/2016 - 18:40
Veering back to more important issues...

We are increasingly surrounded by “always-on” devices with microphones that listen for our voice commands. Most require a "trigger phrase" or wake word to begin recording or actively computing responses, but that means they must analyze every sound to parse whether it is that word. 

As if that weren't a murky enough boundary, fraught with possible paths for misuse or abuse, now many devices can team up to follow you around and obtain a great deal of info , using technology, called ultrasonic cross-device tracking. Ultrasound "beacons" emit high-frequency tones (inaudible to humans) embedded in advertisements, web pages, as well as in some brick and mortar stores. Currently, most Android and iOS phones require permission to access a user's microphone and receive these inaudible inputs. 

The Federal Trade Commission evaluated ultrasonic tracking technology at the end of 2015, and the non-profit Center for Democracy and Technology wrote: 'the best solution is increased transparency and a robust and meaningful opt-out system. If cross-device tracking companies cannot give users these types of notice and control, they should not engage in cross-device tracking,” reports L.H. Newman in Wired

In the biggest post-election transparency news... Britain’s new surveillance law will force internet providers to record every internet customer's top-level web history in real-time for up to a year, which can be accessed by numerous government departments; it will force companies to decrypt data on demand. Intelligence agencies also get the power to hack into computers and devices of citizens. This represents the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy.

Despite having lived in Britain in the 1980s and seen the proliferation of camera surveillance then, I still remain puzzled by the blithe acceptance of one way snoopery over there. In contrast to which...

Even the Bugs will be Bugged: I was quoted in this article in The Atlantic: Big Brother society results not from being watched but from one-way observation.

== Light fights corruption ==

The Helvetia Cold War deepens. An automated private system, using public records, has applied itself to tracking planes used by authoritarian regimes flying in and out of Switzerland. The system has been set up to potentially provide evidence of money laundering. "Swiss investigative journalist François Pilet and his cousin Julien Pilet set up the GVA Dictator Alert Twitter bot to track planes registered to “authoritarian regimes,” as defined by the 2015 Democracy Index.The aim is to bring transparency and accountability to the leaders." 

The bot currently tracks the movements of more than 80 aircraft from 21 countries, including Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Since its launch in April, the bot has logged more than 60 arrivals and departures from Geneva International Airport by planes that belong to the regimes, and few had anything to do with legit business or diplomacy. Of course dictators and kleptocrats will find a way around this. The overall kleptocracy problem is only getting worse and it will only be solved with major new treaties imposing transparency on the mighty cheaters of the world. For that to happen, the world's powers will have to fear something much worse than light.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Transparency International (TI) are joining forces in a new initiative. The Anti-Corruption Initiative "will connect investigative journalists turning a spotlight on the secretive shadow economy with anti-corruption activists able to translate complex information into compelling campaigns for change. This project will build on the best of cross-border independent investigative journalism. The already substantial impact of such work can be amplified by activists who use information uncovered by quality reporting to create pressure on governments and kleptocrats around the world.”

I can think of nothing more important… or quixotic, given the entrenched power interests lined up against this.  But it is wholly in keeping with what I’ve said humanity needs, if we are to avoid catastrophe. It's needed for the children of the rich – and poor – to actually benefit across this century.  In The Transparent Society, in EARTH and in EXISTENCE and many other places I’ve emphasized that only light disinfects against error, of the sort that made every feudal state a living hell. 

Alas, my SF'nal powers only see this breaking through if several honest, developing world presidents join together to do something utterly unexpected and unprecedented.

Apparently the attack on Liberia’s internet access was not as complete as at-first thought… though the Mirai-based botnet denial of service ploy was pretty harsh and still seen by some as a rehearsal for a bigger assault upon the West.

For years I have been urging this: “The next U.S. administration should take immediate steps to prevent and, when possible, eliminate computer attacks like one that recently crippled some of the key systems that run the internet, a presidential commission recommended on Friday.”

== Society and the future ==

I was interviewed by Brett King for his Breaking Banks podcast about the future of banking and transparency: Fintech and IBM World of Watson.

Speaking of banks. An interesting article from The New York Times on how food banks, with their somewhat socialist mind-set, incorporated "market" forces to help them allocate food donations not only where they were needed but where they are wanted-most. Apparently, so long as equity and generosity are factors in the general outline, market forces and even competition help to get resources to the right place, efficiently. 

Are we bound for “Mad Max,” “Star Trek,” “Ecotopia” or an Orwellian super government? The answer may depend upon on how information flows across society. I was quoted in this interesting perspective on future governance on Earth. The model presented by Peter Frase in his newly released book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism -- is unusual (e.g. calling Star Trek an example of post-scarcity, abundance-propelled communism).  Both intriguing and a harbinger.  

A Harbinger? Because we will soon start to hear again names that had passed out of familiarity, in the West. Like Karl Marx. Far from being cast into irrelevance, Marx will be discussed more and more – rising back into pertinence – as the Rooseveltean middle class melts away and 6000 years of class war resume.  

The issue Frase raises is whether new technologies will, as in Star Trek, spare us all violent class struggle, by restoring a vast and healthy middle class that encompasses everyone?  Or will a rising feudal oligarchy unintentionally resurrect Marx as an icon for their victims?

== Shallow but sincere ==

New America Weekly devotes whole issues to special topics. This one is about transparency in government -- which has engaged me a bit for only 25+ years or so. Articles include how to make the modern invention of think tanks more effective by being more open:

"In the Digital Age, governance, technology, education, science, platforms, and more are being pushed to become more “open.” Open movements are working to remove barriers that prevent the public from fully accessing these institutions, systems, and fields. Open education, for example, aims to broaden access and increase opportunities for learning. In the United States, open government strives to improve transparency, increase collaboration, and facilitate public participation in our democracy. Open science accelerates the pace of inquiry and discovery in academic research. Underlying each of these movements is one critical need: open use of information."

==Transparency-related miscllany ==

First Apropos to our earlier posting on Whether Government (especially government paid research) is useless, which was reprinted as a feature on the Evonomics site, See this cogent example... A timely article from the BBC lists the advances that led to the iPhone and how government research enabled all of them.

Who is on your side? According to Lindsey Tepe, a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America:"In 2009, the administration made a modest request that each federal agency identify three high value data sets to make openly available to the public; now is the home for government data, housing nearly 200,000 datasets on education, health, energy, governance, and more. Today, every agency that funds more than $100 million in research and development grants has put in place a plan to make that information more accessible."

Other articles from New America Weekly deal with tradeoffs of intellectual property rights and use of personal information, posing vexing questions that are too seldom asked by myopic pundits, as in “what will happen with my data 10 years from now?”...

... and how openness can have unexpected side effects in grassroots democracy. Comments author Heather Hurlburt, "It should be noted that open government did make an appearance in international policy when the Obama Administration launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The U.S. joined an initial 7 countries—now up to 69—in holding civil society consultations, drawing up national action plans, and making commitments to increase transparency in areas from legislation to policing to using town criers to share budget data with the public. In addition to those changes on the government side, OGP has offered civil society groups a spark and a mandate for their work. Still, the appearance of open government as a foreign policy tool abroad has not changed the reality at home. The open government agenda sits uncomfortably with traditional ideas about secrecy and expertise in foreign affairs." 

Heather Hurlburt goes on to describe how: "“Multi-stakeholderism” —the trend toward non-governmental entities, both civil society and private sector, joining national and international authorities at the negotiating table."  And yet, "an irony that the Administration which has made open government a byword at home and internationally has been more aggressive than any predecessor in protecting information in the national security space—and has suffered more embarrassing failures to protect information."

== Final Thoughts ==

Well-meaning dopes. I mean those activists who (1) are right to fret that Big Brother might use surveillance against us… but who then (2) rave that the solution is to hide! To shout at elites not to look at us! Or to somehow conceal ourselves and our information.  

For two decades I've asked these dear people (and they truly are fighting the good fight… in the wrong direction) when has that prescription ever worked? Even once. Ever? In the history of our species?
Each of us fizzes with biometric identifiers! Go ahead and fabricate fake fingerprints. Your unique walking gait might be altered (for a short time) by a pebble in your shoe. But can you change the specific ratio of lengths of bones in your hand? Or the speckles on your iris, or the pattern of blood vessels in your retina?  How about the oto-acoustic tones that many humans emit from their own eardrums, and that can be uniquely identified by sensors? 
Oh but it goes on and on. Spend any time in a well-monitored room and the micro-biota of your farts may give you away. And now researchers have “fingerprinted” the white matter of the human brain using a new diffusion MRI method, mapping the brain’s connections (the connectome) at a more detailed level than ever before. They confirmed that structural connections in the brain are unique to each individual person and the connections were able to identify a person with nearly 100% accuracy.  
This could be good news, in giving us an ultimate fall-back against ID thieves — or very bad news for any revolutionary movement against Orwellian tyranny. So? Never let it get to that point! There is one way to do that.
Shall we trust encryption, as governments acquire quantum computers? Anyway, how will that stymie the mosquito drone that flew into your keyboard last week, recording every letter that you type?
Then there are cameras, getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more mobile at rates far faster than Moore’s Law. If you find a clever way to evade them now, will it work next year, when there are four times as many of them and harder to spot? 
Hiding won’t work. It cannot. Nor will shouting “don’t look at me!”
Only one thing has ever worked.  Only one thing possibly can work. 

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

RIP Carrie Fisher

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 12/27/2016 - 14:07
People reports she died this morning. Obviously she will be remembered for Star Wars — she played one of its most iconic characters, who was a general, a senator and a princess. But as much as I liked her in that role, she came most alive for me when I learned that she was a […]

Read an Excerpt From The Collapsing Empire

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 12/26/2016 - 13:12 has got up the prologue The Collapsing Empire, my upcoming novel. It works as a complete short story in itself. Here is the link to read it. Happy Boxing Day! P.S.: If you like it and want to pre-order it, Subterranean Press can you a signed, inscribed copy (signed and inscribed by me, to be […]

George Michael + A Trump Christmas Carol

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 12/26/2016 - 09:41
George Michael was dead; to begin. And that’s a very sad thing for those of us of an 80s vintage. 2016 has been an especially bad year for musician deaths, and this removal of George Michael on Christmas Day just seems like insult to injury. I was a fan both of his bubble-gum pop Wham! […]

A Seasonal Greeting From Daisy

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 12/25/2016 - 01:01
Daisy ecumenically wishes you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, brilliant solstice, joyous Kwanzaa and all the best for the coming year. And so do I!

Whatever Best of 2016

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 12/24/2016 - 09:54
It is a truth universally acknowledged that 2016 was a monumental shit-show of a year, not only for itself — which would be enough! — but also because it’s now clear that’s merely the beginning of a shit-show epoch, the depths of which have yet to be plumbed, and the best of which one can […]

The ultimate answer to “government is useless”

Contrary Brin - Fri, 12/23/2016 - 19:15
The following ran as a special report in the January 2016 newsletter of Mark Anderson’s Strategic News Service. I post it now, as the right's hate-all-government narrative hits hysteric-histrionic levels. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, recently selected as Trump's director of the Office of Management and Budget, posted “Do we really need government-funded research at all?” Which makes this an existential threat to your lives, and mine.

Does government-funded science play a role in stimulating innovation?
By David Brin
The hypnotic incantation that all-government-is-evil-all-the-timewould have bemused and appalled our parents in the Greatest Generation – those who persevered to overcome the Depression and Hitler, then contained Stalinism, went to the moon, developed successful companies and built a mighty middle class, all with powerful unions and at high tax rates. 

The mixed society that they built emphasized a wide stance, pragmatically stirring private enterprise with targeted collective actions, funded by a consensus negotiation process called politics. The resulting civilization has been more successful – by orders of magnitude – than any other. Than any combination of others.
So why do we hear an endlessly-repeated nostrum that this wide-stance, mixed approach is all wrong? That mantra is pushed so relentlessly by right-wing media -- as well as some on the left -- that it came as no surprise when a recent Pew Poll showed distrust of government among Americans at an all-time high. 

This general loathing collapses when citizens are asked which specific parts of government they’d shut down. It turns out that most of them like specific things their taxes pay for.
In a sense, this isn’t new. For a century and a half, followers of Karl Marx demanded that we amputate society’s right arm of market-competitive enterprise and rely only on socialist guided-allocation for economic control. 

Meanwhile, Ayn Rand’s ilk led a throng of those proclaiming we must lop off our leftarm – forswearing any coordinated projects that look beyond the typical five year (nowadays more like one-year) commercial investment horizon. 
Any sensible person would respond: “Hey I need both arms, so bugger off!  Now let’s keep examining what each arm is good at, revising our knowledge of what each shouldn’t do.”
Does that sound too practical and moderate for this era? Our parents thought they had dealt with all this, proving decisively that calm negotiation, compromise and pragmatic mixed-solutions work best.  They would be stunned to see that fanatical would-be amputators are back, in force, ranting nonsense.
Take for example Matt Ridley’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, deriding government supported science as useless and counter-productive— a stance dear to WSJ’s owner, Rupert Murdoch. Ridley’s core assertion? That the forward march of technological innovation and discovery is fore-ordained, as if by natural law. That competitive markets will allocate funds to develop new products with vastly greater efficiency than government bureaucrats picking winners and losers. And that research without a clear, near-future economic return is both futile and unnecessary.           == The driver of innovation is… ==
Former Microsoft CTO and IP Impressario Nathan Myhrvold has written a powerful rebuttal to Ridley’s murdochian call for amputation. Says Myhrvold: “It’s natural for writers to want to come out with a contrarian piece that reverses all conventional wisdom, but it tends to work out better if the evidence one quotes is factually true. Alas Ridley’s evidence isn’t – his examples are all, so far as I can tell, either completely wrong, or at best selectively quoted. I also think his logic is wrong, and to be honest I don’t think much of the ideology that drives his argument either.”  Nathan’s rebuttal can be found here, along with links to the original, and Ridley’s response.
Myhrvold does a good job tearing holes in Ridley’s assertion that patents and other IP do nothing to stimulate innovation and economic development. (Full disclosure: Nathan is more self-interested in fierce IP protection than I - a patent and copyright holder - am.) Only, in his refutation of Ridley, even he does not go far enough or present a wide enough perspective. 

Myhrvold fails, for example, to put all of this intothe context of 6000 years of human history.  So let me try.
During most of that time, innovation was actively suppressed by kings and lords and priests, fearing anything (except new armaments) that might upset the stable hierarchy. Moreover, innovators felt a strong incentive to keep any discoveries secret, lest competitors steal their advantage. As a result, many brilliant inventions were lost when the discoverers died. Examples abound, from Heron’s steam engines and Baghdad Batteries to Antikythera-style mechanical calculators and Damascus steel -- from clear glass lenses to obstetric forceps – all lost for millennia before being rediscovered after much unnecessary pain. 

Staring across that vast wasteland of sixty feudal and futile centuries — comparing them to our dazzling levels of inventive success, especially since World War II — slams a steep burden of proofupon someone like Ridley, who asserts we are the ones doing something wrong. Or that innovation zooms ahead as if by natural law.
In fact, though well-nurtured and tended markets are remarkably fecund, they are anything but “natural.” Show us historical examples! Kings, lords, priests and other cheaters always — always — warped and crushed market competition, far more than our modern, enlightenment states do. Indeed, owner-oligarchy was the villain in Adam Smith’s call for a more “liberal” form of capitalism. Compared to those competition-ruining feudalists, Smith had little ire for socialists.  In fact, his liberal approach calls upon the state to counter-balance oligarchy, in order to keep capitalism flat-open-fair. 
Our maligned democratic states — while imperfect and always in need of fine tuning — engendered revolutions in mass education, infrastructure and reliable law that unleashed creative millions, maximizing the raw number of eager competitors— exactly the great ingredient that Friedrich Hayek recommended and that Adam Smith prescribed for a healthy, competitive market economy.  

To be clear, those who rail against 200,000 civil servants – closely watched and accountable – “picking winners and losers” have a reasonable complaint! But not when their counter-prescription is handing over the same power to a far smaller cabal of 5,000 secretive and unaccountable members of a closed and incestuous oligarchic-CEO caste.  Smith and Hayek both had harsh words for that ancient and utterly bankrupt approach.
(Question: who actually de-regulates, when appropriate? Democrats banished the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) when they were captured. AT&T was broken up, and the Internet was unleashed by Al Gore’s legislation. Add in Bill Clinton’s deregulation of GPS and Obama's declaration that citizens can record police... and one has to ask a simple question. Does anti-regulatory polemic matter more… or effective action? The 'conservatives' never deliver. Not ever.)
Yes, history does offer us a few, rare examples in the past, when innovation flourished, leading to spectacular returns.  In most such cases, state investment and focused R&D played a major role: from the great Chinese fleets of Admiral Cheng He to impressive maritime research centers established by Prince Henry the Navigator that made little Portugal a giant on the world stage. Likewise, tiny Holland became a global leader, stimulated by its free-city universities. England advanced tech rapidly with endowed scientific chairs, state subsidies and prizes. 
Those rare examples stand out from the general, dreary morass of feudal history. But none of them compare to the exponential growth unleashed by late-20th Century America’s synergy of government, enterprise and unleashed individual competitiveness, the very thing that all those kings and priests and lords used to crush, on sight. One result was the first society ever in the shape of a diamond, instead of the classic, feudal pyramid of privilege – a diamond whose vast and healthy and well-educated middle class has proved to be the generator of nearly all of our great accomplishments.
It is this historical perspective that seems so lacking in today’s shallow political and philosophical debates. It reveals that the agenda of folks like Matt Ridley – and Rupert Murdoch – is not what they claim... to release us from thralldom to shortsighted, oppressive civil servants and snooty scientist-boffins. 

Their aim is to discredit all of the modern expert castes that we have established, who serve to counterbalance (as Adam Smith prescribed) the feudal pyramids under which our ancestors sweltered in constraint.  Their aim is a return to those ancient, horrid ways.
==  Before our very eyes ==
I believe one of our problems is that the Rooseveltean reforms – which historians credit with saving western capitalism by vesting the working class with a large stake, something Marx never expected – were too successful, in a way. So successful that the very idea of class war seems not even to occur to American boomers. This despite the fact that class conflict was rampant across almost every other nation and time.  But as boomers age-out is that grand time of naïve expectation over?
Forbes recently announced that just 62 ultra-rich individuals have as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity. Five years ago, it took 388 rich guys to achieve that status. (See: The 500 Richest Individuals in 2015 and commentary.)  Which raises the question, where the heck does this rising, proto-feudal oligarchy think it will all lead? 
To a restoration of humanity’s normal, aristocratic pyramid of power, with them staying on top? 

Or to radicalization, as a billion members of the hard-pressed but highly skilled and tech-empowered middle class rediscover class struggle?
== We've been here before ==

The last time this happened, in the 1930s, lordly owner castes in Germany, Japan, Britain and the U.S. used mass media they owned to stir populist rightwing movements that might help suppress activity on the left. Not one of these efforts succeeded. In Germany and Japan, the monsters they created rose up and took over, leading to immense pain for all and eventual loss of most of that oligarchic wealth.
In Britain and the U.S., 1930s reactionary fomenters dragged us very close to the same path… till moderate reformers did what Marx deemed impossible – adjusted the wealth imbalance and reduced cheating advantages so that a rational and flat-open-fair capitalism would be moderated by rules and investments to stimulate a burgeoning middle class, without even slightly damaging the Smithian incentives to get rich through delivery of innovative goods and services.  

That brilliant moderation led to the middle class booms of the 50s and 60s and – as I cannot repeat too often - it led to big majorities in our parents’ Greatest Generation adoring one living human above all others: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

(Pose the question to your "make America Great again" neighbors: "When was America great?" Then remind them who the GGs loved.)
Some billionaires aren’t shortsighted fools, ignorant of the lessons of history. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and many tech moguls want wealth disparities brought down through reasonable, negotiated Rooseveltean-style reform that will still leave them standing as very, very wealthy men. Heck, even Glenn Beck can see where it all leads, declaring (in effect) "OMG what have I done?"
The smart ones know where current trends will otherwise lead. To revolution and confiscation. Picture the probabilities, when the world’s poorest realize they could double their net wealth, just by transferring title from 50 men. In that case, amid a standoff between fifty oligarchs and three billion poor, it is the skilled middle and upper-middle classes who’ll be the ones deciding civilization’s course. And who do you think those billion tech-savvy professionals – so derided and maligned by murdochian propaganda -- will side with, when push comes to shove?
== Back to innovation ==
Oh, for an easy-quick and devastating answer to the “hate-all-government” hypnosis! How I'd love to see a second "National Debt Clock" showing where the U.S. deficit would be now, if we (citizens) had charged just a 5% royalty on the fruits of U.S. federal research. We'd be in the black! How effective such a “clock” would be. We deserve such a tasty piece of counter propaganda. (See: Eight Causes of the Deficit Fiscal Cliff.
Closer to the point, consider this core question: how have we Americans been able to afford the endless trade deficits that propel world development? (And make no mistake; 2/3 of the planet developed - sending their kids to school - in one way only: by selling Americans trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed.) 

How did we afford this flood of stimulating red ink for 70 years?
Simple. Science and technology.  Each decade since the 1940s saw new, U.S.-led advances that engendered enough wealth to let us pay for all the stuff pouring out of Asian factories, giving poor workers jobs and hope.  Our trick was to keep the wonders coming -- jet planes, rockets, satellites, electronics & transistors & lasers, telecom, pharmaceuticals... and the Internet.
Crucially, the world needs America to keep buying, so that factories can hum and workers send their kids to school, so those kids can then demand labor and environmental laws and all that.  The job of George Marshall’s brilliant trade-policy plan is only half finished. Crucially, the world cannot afford for the U.S. consumer to become too poor to buy crap.
Which means we must protect the goose that lays golden eggs – our brilliant inventiveness. Our ability to keep benefiting from enlightenment methods that stimulate creativity. And that will not happen if the fruits of creativity are immediately stolen.  There is a bargain implicit in today’s rising world.  Let America benefit from innovation, and we’ll buy whatever you produce. 
Foreign leaders who ignore that bargain, seeking to eat the goose, as well as its eggs, only prove their own short-sighted foolishness… like our home-grown fools who rail against all government investment and research.
It is time to have another look at the most successful social compact ever created – the Rooseveltean deal made by the Greatest Generation, which we then amended and improved by reducing race and gender injustice and discovering the importance of planetary care. 
Throw in a vibrantly confident wave of tech-savvy youth, and that is how we can all move forward. Away from dismal feudalism.  Toward (maybe) something like Star Trek.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

New Books and ARCs, 12/23/16

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 12/23/2016 - 16:10
In just before Christmas and the start of Hanukkah, this set of books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Anything you’d like to see under the tree or aside the menorah? Tell me in the comments!


Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 12/23/2016 - 11:06
Here is a true thing: In the grand scheme of things, I’ve only had three things I wanted to do with my life. The first was to be a writer. The second was to be a good husband. The third was to make sure that any kid I had made it through their childhood without […]

My Problem Right Now

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 12/21/2016 - 14:29
Me: I want to write a long piece on politics today! Brain: Sorry, man. Not up for it. Too much thinking involved. Me: But I have important things to say! Brain: You should have thought about it before you decided to fuel me exclusively on Christmas cookies for three days straight. Me: What’s wrong with […]

New Books and ARCs, 12/20/16

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 12/20/2016 - 17:08
The books keep coming! Here are the latest new books and ARCs to arrive at the Scalzi Compound. Anything jump out at you? Tell me about it in the comments!  

Challenges and Changes

Contrary Brin - Tue, 12/20/2016 - 16:20
Setting aside detailed politics, for now... but not the underlying issue...
Now that intellect and curiosity are threatened species in America, let's all nurture them wherever we can. One method: I often dip in to give brief answers to the curious on Quora. We’ve collected some of these queries - and my responses - on my secondary (Wordpress) blog. Questions like “What has been the impact of science fiction books on readers?” and “Can you name a concept that is rarely explored in science fiction?”and ‘What are some science fiction novels with a memorable protagonist?Others are trying to come up with answers. For example: the Breakthrough Prizes attempts to celebrate the bold accomplishments of scientists as if they are rock stars… and with generous Silicon Valley funding, plus Morgan Freeman presenting, they seem on track! (Thought they've got a way to go, when it comes to red-carpet fashion allure, during the photo sessions.)

In this fascinating look at the last one thousand years, Ian Mortimer’s book Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years offers big-idea perspective on how far we have come, especially by developing new tools as well as a vigorously open society. And science. He writes, "The most significant changes are experienced when society is forced to deviate from its entrenched patterns of behavior."  This review is worthwhile in its own right. Mortimer looks at the tremendous challenges we will face to survive the next millennium.  Or the next few years.

Case in point: see the giant new containment shellthat the Ukraine is slowly sliding into place to cover the fast-decaying concrete “sarcophagus” protecting Eurasia from the poisons inside the Chernobyl reactor.

== Potential game changers ==
Researchers  have created a device that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses sunlight to break it into a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called synthesis gas or “syngas,” that can be used directly or turned into diesel or other liquid fuels. Yeah. Saw this a couple of years ago. Note that this is not so much a plausible way to put a dent in atmospheric carbon. Fact is, the same solar energy, fed into the grid, would prevent CO2 emissions in the 1st place.
It is a potentially useful item, but more to provide fuels for outposts and military use. Also, this tech may be useful on Mars! Some call it an “artificial leaf,” using a special catalyst - tungsten diselenide - and sunlight.  We’ll see. But I rank it as a helpful game changer.
Here's another: A mild electric current combined with an antibiotic can kill multidrug-resistant bacteria by helping the antibiotic to cross protective biofilms. Zaps of electricity may also prove helpful in jumpstarting the blood clotting process to heal wounds.
Remember the Horta, in Star Trek:TOS? An alien creature whose biology was based on Silicon, which has a chemical bonding structure similar enough to carbon that science fiction writers have speculated for a century about alternate biologies.  Alas, there is no simple silicon molecule that merges well with a convenient liquid, like water, nor one that has carbon’s vast flexibility in bonding.
Still, rejoice, fans of diversity!  Researchers managed to coerce an extremophile bacterium to use an enzyme that could catalyze silicon–carbon bonding — if fed the right silicon-containing precursors.

Veering semi-randomly, but optimistically, access to mobile money was influential in lifting 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty -- particularly empowering female-headed families.
== Challenges on the weather front ==
This is the second year in a row that temperatures near the North Pole have risen to freakishly warm levels. During 2015’s final days, the temperature near the Pole spiked to the melting point… It’s about 20C [36 degrees Fahrenheit] warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean…  “It will be fascinating to see if the stratospheric polar vortex continues to be as weak as it is now, which favors a negative Arctic Oscillation and probably a cold mid/late winter to continue over central and eastern Asia and eastern North America.” Watch. Our neighbors who are waging war on science, and every other fact-profession, will shiver and proclaim that their misery proves that nothing is changing.
U.S. Energy independence - one of the Obama Administration's specatcular braggables - has come in the short term from vast new supplies of natural gas... but ultimately depends on the same thing that might save us from the worst ravages of climate change… new technologies for sustainable energy and efficiency and storage.  All of which were blocked, relentlessly but (thank God) ultimately futilely by certain political factions.  Still, we are going to need oil and gas for some time.  And the best transition is one in which America and the West are fully independent from sources in unstable and unfriendly parts of the world.

Well, unfriendly to our civilization and enlightenment, though not to the incoming administration.
In other words, the stunning hypocrisy of those who blocked sustainables, thus keeping us tied to the Persian Gulf ten years longer than we needed to be.  In sharp contrast, note that it was during President Obama’s tenure that we regained independence and gas prices plummeted. (The U.S. has produced more oil and natural gas than any other country every year since 2012.)
In any event, it is a good thing that now it seems that new oil and gas discoveries in Texas will make this bridge of independence secure.  
The even gooder thing?  U.S. Sets Staggering Record with 191% Growth in Solar Power Installations in 2016. In other words, twits, you have failed.  We smartypants will save the world for you, despite you.

==Though smart folks aren't always right ==

The other side, while far more sapient, still has its fetishes and complexes.  Like a prudish utter-refusal to consider a Plan B, to supplement, in case efficiency and sustainables prove insufficient, by themselves.

Of all the schemes to ameliorate climate change through “geo-engineering,” the one with the greatest mix of plausibility and controllability is Ocean Fertilization. Most attention has been applied to adding the key missing ingredient… powdered iron: How dumping iron in the oceans can help fight climate change.
But the concept should be viewed more generally. Essentially you are talking about adding a little land to fertilize water.

This is exactly parallel to humanity's ancient trick: adding water to dry land in irrigation.  With almost identical advantages and failure modes!

Think. When you irrigate a region by adding water from mountain sources to flatlands with poor drainage, you are creating a recipe for long term disaster. Salts build up and you make a desert. On the other hand, when you add water to land and there’s good drainage? Well, there are places on Earth where irrigation has been practiced for thousands of years, without much harm. Drainage is key.

As for the reverse? Adding land to water? Well, minerals washed out to sea by weathering are precisely the way our planet maintains her “Gaia Balance” against the CO2 released by volcanoes and living ecosystems. That and upwelling currents that stir up ocean-bottom sediments. The same deal. “Adding land to sea.”
We are already doing this, big time, with agricultural runoff, and when this happens into bodies of water with poor circulation – the Caribbean, Mediterranean and especially the Black Sea – then eutrophication and de-oxygenization can spread death, as when you irrigate a region with poor drainage, ashore. But when nutrients are added to fast and broad ocean currents – as happens at upwelling zones off Chile, South Africa and the Grand Banks, the result is a fecund burst of life, a vibrant food chain. And, incidentally, some carbon removal from the atmosphere. The magnitude of the latter is under dispute, but even if it is zero, isn’t the experiment worth trying?  If only to get more fish?

Not according to zealous purists, who fear that any form of geo-engineering, no matter how inherently controllable or plausible, is anathema – even the bottom stirrers I described in Earth, that merely boost what nature already does. Why oppose even small scale experiments? Pure prudishness, Because the activists assume that any such efforts might reduce our passion to save the world by reducing carbon use.
Such contempt. See The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the enemies of science by Will Storr.  Such zero sum thinking. The liberal-smartypants-progressive wing does contain some and these helped to propel Trumpist reaction.

Just let's be clear. One side contains some preachy flakes.  The other consists... but I was going to put that aside. For today. 
 == Fascinating lagniappes! ==
This sparrow acts like it has four sexes. Because a chromosome flip created a second set of “sex” chromosomes, beyond the XY pair. One individual in this species can only mate with one-quarter of the population. There are very few sexual systems with more than two sexes.”  No other species was known to have one set of fully operational sex chromosomes and another pair that subdivided the species again on another aspect of mate choice. 
Researchers managed to remove most of the C-14 from graphite blocks storing radioactive waste, and turn it into electricity-generating diamonds.  The nuclear diamond battery is based on the fact that when a man-made diamond is exposed to radiation, it produces a small electric current. According to the researchers, this makes it possible to build a battery that has no moving parts, gives off no emissions, and is maintenance-free.  Though current and voltage levels are low, this is a perfect source for science fictional scales of time. Because C-14 has such a long half life, the researchers estimate a diamond battery would still generate 50 percent of its capacity after 5,730 years.  Wowzer!
Oh, a final Brin-note. The 3rd issue of the i4is journal Axiom from the Institute for Interstellar Studies is now out and it features “an exclusive article by the world-renown science fiction writer David Brin about artificial intelligence: "How Might Artificial Intelligence Come About: Different Approaches and their Implications for Life in the Universe." You can order the issue here.  
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

The Big Idea: Alan Baxter

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 12/20/2016 - 09:12
In today’s installment of “write what you know — and then make something up,” author Alan Baxter describes how to of his loves — fiction and martial arts — combine together in Bound, the first of his Alex Caine series of books. ALAN BAXTER: The Big Idea behind Bound is a collision of two big […]

Golden Hour, 12/19/16

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 12/19/2016 - 18:09
That’s ice on the lawn and trees, sparkling in the sun. Cold. But pretty. (The larger version is even prettier.)

Rogue One, or, the Disneyfication of Star Wars is Complete (and This is a Good Thing)

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 12/19/2016 - 11:16
(NOTE: This review of Rogue One is spoiler-free but I will be allowing the conversion in the comment thread to contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip the comments for now.) As I walked out of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story last night, the male half […]
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