by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XLVI

This Week's Clue: In The Balance

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This Week's Clue: In The Balance
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
The King Of Yes, But
Strangulation By Law
The Future of VoWi-Fi
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of November 15, 2004

I feel like I'm living in a Harry Turtledove novel.

Somewhere, there's a universe where Al Gore was duly elected. He prevented 9/11 as Clinton had the Millenium Plot, or at least he didn't use it to go after the wrong enemy. America is at peace, a democracy, the light of the world.

Instead, we're ruled by Nietsche fans whose sci-fi reading never got past Robert Heinlein. Nothing against the man but his fiction was, at its heart, adolescent. It was all about big machines, big-breasted lusty women, and supermen who walked like Gods.

Of course, as Asimov wrote (quoting Schiller), "against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." My worst fears have been realized. The usurper has stolen America the way Robert Mugabe stole Zimbabwe. And in doing so he has made America a rogue nation.

One big issue in the last campaign was the idea of a new military draft. Bush promised he wouldn't have one. Kerry said his figures didn't add up, that he would be required to have one. My daughter, a 16-year old wise beyond her years, promised to leave the country in response. I, a loving father, said I would gladly join her.

But on a recent trip to Palo Alto I got a Clue as to how Bush aims to keep its promise, and it's not pretty. It seems DARPA is spending a lot of money these days trying to build vast robot armies who can take over the world without the conquerors getting their hands dirty.

Bruce Hall is one of the recipients of this largesse. He was showing his automatic car. It failed, as did all the other entrants in this year's Grand Challenge , which was to have a vehicle navigate an off-road course without a driver. Hall, who arrived in the car he would enter in the contest, came closest to success. . His mistake was failing to program the idea that, when a tire comes up against a rock, you're supposed to hit the gas hard to get over the rock, then back off to your normal speed. Instead, his program just had the car keep trying to move at 5 mph, and you can't get over the hazard that way.

I spoke alongside Andreas Ollingschlager , a Powerpoint lover who is working on one of those super databases the government loves so much, the one that knows you're about to commit a terrible crime and sends the cops out to get you beforehand.

Many of the speakers came from the world of gaming. The idea here seems to come out of Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game," although the idea was done much better in the horrible Robin Williams movie "Toys." Military strategy is game theory, so have armies of robots run by little kids who think they're playing the game, and let their natural competitiveness (and lack of morality) lead you on to victory.

The Turtledove work that comes closest to paralleling how I'm feeling today is his WorldWar series. (Here's Volume I ) Here, an alien race of lizards invades Earth (intent on extermination and colonization) at the height of World War II. All sides unite against the threat. The lizards use technology from our time against humans who don't know from semiconductors. They have "heavy metal" (atomic) bombs, and their gear doesn't consist of parts, but assemblies.

Their weakness is that they don't adapt. Their world has advanced very slowly over the last several millenia. Their scout ships thought they would be facing knights on horseback. Also they turn out to be addicted to ginger, which acts on them as a super-aphrodesiac, not a good thing if you're trying to fight and if you naturally only mate during certain times of the year.

In this case we're the lizards. We have superior technology that can cause incredible death, that can occupy territory. But we can't conquer a people who don't want to be conquered - as Lord North learned. In the process of forging ahead with this brutal occupation we're regressing, not adapting. We're stubbornly heedless to all warnings about what we're doing, and what it's doing to us.

This is a lesson that should be familiar. This is what happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, what happened to us in Vietnam. Liberation became occupation, and the other side didn't have to "win," merely survive. Radicalism rose until the occupier cracked, literally in their case, figuratively in ours.

And now we're at it again.

The only way to rationalize recent events (assuming for a moment it wasn't Grand Theft Nation) is to note how Americans, throughout their history, have always taken on the attributes of their foes in war, seeking enemies within and fellow travelers, finding scapegoats and innocents to destroy. You know about the McCarthy era, and perhaps you know about the Japanese internment camps during World War II. But we also had the Red Scare of the 1920s (Leopold and Loeb). We had "loyalty oaths" forced on German-Americans (my own people) during World War I. We had the Indian genocide (while claiming they were out to massacre us). We had the Draft Riots of 1863 .

It seems natural that Americans would over-rate our enemies, and to project their worst (perceived) traits onto own people. So as the McCarthyites went after liberals, today we go after secularists.

We go after you, in other words. And me, too. Ironic, isn't it, that the author of the great "Secular Humanist Revival Meeting" should now be in that horde, rhetorical pitchfork in hand? When the madness comes anyone is vulnerable.

I feel, perhaps, most like Art Spiegelman after the towers fell. He had no way to process that event other than through the medium of comics, the medium he most loved. So the only way I've found to deal with the horrors I see following this November is through my favorite medium, science fiction.

And thus I have begun a book, on my Mooreslore blog, called "The Chinese Century." It takes place in our time, all the characters are real men (and women). But, while there are extensive links within the text the action is all fictional.

Perhaps some lawyers will soon be coming to get me. I really don't care anymore. I feel possessed by this work as I haven't felt possessed in many years. While I can't tell you exactly where the novel is going (I don't know myself), it deals with the nature of power, which I strongly feel is economic and not military. It deals with the natural tendency of nations facing great power to organize against it.

It takes as its centerpiece this fact. Empires fall when they confront an intractable enemy directly, when they choose to step to the front line. Britain had to confront Germany, and lost her empire. We followed from behind our oceans and swept the board. Now we have decided to become the front line. Supporters of this policy will claim it's inevitable, that we were attacked - and so we were. But wise men use all their weapons. They don't rely on romance, on robot armies or intimations of Armageddon.

The world will survive this conflict. America may not, and its fate may already be sealed. Evil stalks the corridors of power, banal, relentless, with power it considers infinite to the task.

America has become the bad guy. Who, I wonder, will become a force for good?


Shameless Self-Promotion

In partnership with ZDNet, I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source . Watch for it.

I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout , a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards . Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Takes on the News

The King Of Yes, But

At the Accelerating Change conference I attended at Stanford last weekend the undisputed star was David Brin.

Brin is a science fiction writer, a physicist, a futurist, a skeptic, and a great public speaker. With no PowerPoints and few notes he held hundreds of very bright people in thrall for 45 minutes and made it look effortless.

Brin's theme was the election. For the first time in American history, he said, a President won re-election by running against the Enlightenment, against Galileo, against pragmatism, against the very idea of criticism as a good.

Brin's talk was a therapy session. "We need criticism," he said. "Karl Popper said that if you're not making falsifiable statements you're not making statements." And he could have added, you only learn when you change your mind.

Brin tried to put his finger on the key difference between losers Gore and Kerry on the one hand and the winner, Bill Clinton, on the other. It lay in Clinton's attitude toward the other, toward the Red Staters of his native Arkansas who fear science, technology, and critical thinking. While liberals concentrate on their limits, Clinton praises them, says look at how far you've come, and if you only go a little further in your thinking imagine how much more you can do, for your children. "Stop using guilt, start using praise," Brin said.

Thus Brin made a radical proposal that will never be adopted. "The way to drag them into the future is with love. Every block in New York City should adopt a small town in Ohio, invite them to New York City on vacation, and in return take a vacation there." (Could Paris Hilton really save the world?)

Brin's point here was "We have to stop acting out of our own self righteousness and recognize that we too may be subjects of propaganda." For instance, "In every movie the villain is intolerant, and the hero shows eccentricity, all in the first five minutes." That's how you tell them apart. Suspicion of authority, eccentricity, tolerance of diversity...they're beat into our brains every day, and so we respond to them.

Of course these are Brin's values too. He shared his audience's grief over the current Administration. He called them the "insatiable rich," while liberals are capable of satiation. Liberal society created a diamond of income distribution - a few at the top, a few at the bottom, and most in the middle. The insatiable rich want the feudal triangle - a few at the top and everyone else at the bottom.

But "the most evil thing this Adminstration is trying to do is keep us from knowing what's going on. Only in an open society can we charge into the future." And that open society starts when you accept two words - "yes, but." Yes I get your point, but this is mine.

Authorities who demand yes are bad kings. (Foolish serfs will give it to them and see anyone else as dangerous.) Good kings love yes, but. David Brin is the ultimate good king. He is the King of the land of Yes, But.


Strangulation By Law

A big highlight of the Accelerating Change conference was a demonstration by Linden Labs of Second Life . It is, as its home page notes, "a 3D digital world imagined, created and owned by its Residents."

Second Life lives in a server rack somewhere in San Francisco. Each server represents 16 acres of virtual space, where users' avatars can live, work and play. So far there are about 500, but 10 more are added each week. Think of it as Everquest without the plot.

In Second Life the users own what they create. It's a simple concept, but one that is extremely hard to implement. For instance, the demonstrator couldn't pass around any of the work done in Second Life because Second Life doesn't own it. Thus, he couldn't sign the conference's standard release form, which lets the organizers have rights to what's shown.

In fact most of the questions asked at the demonstration were legal questions, not technical ones. How do you split copyrights? What about royalties? How do you get away with it?

And it occurred to me, listening to these very bright people, that Silicon Valley is being strangled by lawyers, mainly by those specializing in the bogus concept "intellectual property." No decision can be made without complex legal documents. Nothing can be invented for its own sake. A simple concept -- you own what you make -- becomes an inpenetrable legal thicket.

The expansion of patent to all expressions of an idea, and the expansion of copyright in time and power, is killing Silicon Valley. What's driving the Open Source movement isn't the power of Linux as an operating system, but the idea that, if it's free, you don't need a lawyer.

My brother-in-law, a lawyer, was given a needlepoint etched with a quote from Henry VI on his graduation. It was, of course, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." I like Dick the Butcher more all the time.

The Future of VoWi-Fi

VoWi-Fi means Voice Over Wi-Fi.

The movement not only intends to enable you to make calls over a Wireless Internet connection (big deal) but to enable hand-offs between Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular networks (bigger deal).

Folks are real excited. Maybe they should be.

And maybe they shouldn't.

One thing VoIP godfather Jeff Pulver preaches constantly is that VoIP is about more than voice. This is something most folks still don't get.

Voice is a low bandwidth application. Digital cellular long ago squeezed voice channels into a few thousands bits/second, in order to get the most from their scarce frequency space.

What makes VoIP exciting isn't how it cuts through the taxes imposed by governments at all levels on regular voice traffic. What makes it exciting is how it can be combined with other things -- data, whiteboards, video, etc. -- to enable full interactive meetings from wherever you are.

Add Wi-Fi to that and it means you can take a meeting in the city park (assuming it has Wi-Fi) and have as rich an experience as you could in a boardroom.

That is exciting. Putting Wi-Fi on a mobile phone so you can use the broadband at your coffee shop and call to Shanghai for Chinese food, while fun, isn't practical. The food will still be cold when it gets to you.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in are the laws of history, which rightly hold that no life is without struggle, and no empire lasts forever.

Clueless is the United States of America.


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