For the Week of March 7, 2005
In his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" Edward Gibbon notes that the causes of Rome's problems were not debated at the time. The lead in the pipes and the lack of progress in science were not considered. Instead it was the barbarians at the gates who drew the attention.
So too with the American Empire. History will record that this decade marked the beginning of the fall of America as a great power. As with Rome the causes aren't even being debated, let alone dealt with.
Instead all factions are absorbed by distractions. The Administration plays out its trip of Muslim barbarians threatening our cities, and launches its crusade to force democracy on people unwilling to fight for their own liberation. Its opponents have their own distracting trips, mainly about Vietnam.
The real threat lies within, and neither side is dealing with it.
The strength of America lay in her leadership in science and technology. This was made possible by two factors, its open welcome of oppressed immigrants and its support of academic freedom on a massive scale.
Nearly all our great breakthroughs came with the help of immigrants. Hungry, poor, and huddled masses brought with them a willingness to work hard and justify their experience here. Whether these immigrants came from Europe or Asia, they all renounced their old allegiances and embraced our academic liberty as the tonic it was.
It's not that we're closing our doors to immigrants today. We're not. But we're no longer succeeding in attracting those with world-changing potential.
That's due in part to our rejection of academic freedom.
Academic freedom begins in kindergarten.
It begins with a willingness to let any examination, of any issue, pass freely through the classroom. This has been our historical legacy since the days of Horace Mann.
But no more. Now, in the name of protection, we routinely censor school newspapers. Now, in the name of religion, we routinely censor school textbooks. We closet our children until they're adults and expect them to praise freedom without ever tasting it. We even let millions escape our schools without the education they need to get along in the world. They don't even know the scientific method.
Freedom, at its heart, is the ability to make mistakes, and then to work on correcting them. No one gets away scot-free from mistakes. Whether we're caught or not, we all experience shame, learning and growth from them. But people can't make mistakes if their curriculum is controlled, if tests matter more than learning, and if they're prevented from learning the essence of the scientific method, or kept from their country's own recent history, as our kids are.
We also can't progress if we honor the wrong kind of learning. America has always had a special place in its heart for its entertainers. But never before has this been to the exclusion of other forms of expression. We no longer honor great young writers, let along great young scientists and engineers. Our math and science scores have been abysmal for decades now. That's the rot at the center.
The real threat to America in our time lies not in the Middle East, but in the Middle West, and in the Middle Kingdom. Without delivering either freedom or democracy, as we would know them, China has succeeded in keeping its best people working and growing. So has India. And these are the young people who are now making the future, not ours.
Military might is not the measure of a great nation. Economic might is the measure. China now outconsumes us, it outproduces us, and it's becoming our biggest creditor.
What was a rising threat at the dawn of the century is now the grim reality. Even if we refocused all our energy on the real game, on bringing the production of hardware and software back from China and India, it's questionable to what extent we could succeed. I don't happen to think we need to succeed totally, and I'm not asking that we should. Economic competition, and intellectual competition, are contests where all sides can win. But for all sides to win, all sides must play. And we're not doing that.
For starters, a wise Administration could create new incentives for kids to learn math and science. It could turn its public attention to praising those young people who do break through. It could shine the light at its command on science fairs, on campus experiments, and on research centers.
More important, a wise Administration would emphasize teaching, and pay those who teach our young math and science better. It would teach people to learn, not just to pass tests. It would honor these people, get out of their way, and work with educators to make sure the gifted were challenged, and that everyone became literate.
We don't do that. We haven't done that for decades. In fact our political leaders are on a great crusade against the scientific method. That's really what the whole discussion of "intelligent design" is all about, not evolution but the method by which we do science. All theories are tentative. This does not make them equal. All arguments must be backed by proof and, most important, all useful theories must lead to new questions.
Science does not produce answers. Engineering produces answers, in the form of things that work based on the best scientific theory. In order for science to progress all people must be able to ask questions. They must be allowed to ask all questions, and they must be able to come up with wrong answers. They must be forced to debate those answers, based on science and not politics, in order to generate new theories that work in the world, that engineers might use.
When I was at Rice in the 1970s we were a haven for a scientist named Fred Hoyle. Hoyle worked on what he called the "steady state" theory of the universe, which was losing favor to the "big bang" theory. We honored Fred Hoyle. But we didn't teach that Hoyle's theory was the generally-accepted truth of cosmology. We taught that the big bang had more evidence behind it.
In our time, we're becoming suspicious that, perhaps, there was not just one big bang. There may have been many big bangs, and more to come. God's universe is both simple and complex. We don't have all the answers yet. We never did. Fred Hoyle was not entirely wrong.
But we protect, with our lives, the right to keep searching. And we honor all those who search. We honor them with good jobs, even those whose work doesn't result in marketable products. We let other scientists evaluate their work, free of politics, and honor those whose work rises to the top, knowing that all their theories may be wrong, just small missteps on the way to something grand.
Instead, this Administration has deliberately closed the pipeline of knowledge, allowing students to be taught politics and religion in place of real science. They have even closed their eyes to what our own scientists are telling them.
I'm writing, in The American Diaspora, a novel about a literal expulsion of scientists and engineers to another continent. But scientific progress is more fragile than fiction can make it. The diaspora is now ongoing, in the discouragement of our scientists, and the wheel is already turning, toward the rise of other centers of learning, in both Europe and in Asia.
My generation of Americans has surrendered the future. We can't see the sack of our cities, the ruin of our civilization. But it's out there. Perhaps it is beyond our own horizon, but when the lessons of history are written, in the next century or the one after, all our names will be among the damned.
In partnership with ZDNet, I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout, a new kind of mediator for mobile phone users.
My last non-fiction 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."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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Best of the Week
Nanomarkets, a market research outfit with a beat that looks like tons of fun from here (call me) has a $2,000 report out with a hockey stick chart for plastic semiconductors, estimating the market at $5.8 billion in 2009 and $23.5 billion three years after that.
Former Corante blogger Steve Stroh has the goods this month on Aloha Networks, which is aiming to provide wireless broadband service in the 700 MHz spectrum area. (That's the high 50s on your UHF dial.) Apparently, they've gotten FCC approval to test their services in Tucson. The real test is whether this lives-and-plays with existing users, and Tucson currently has TV at Channel 58.
Last month I wrote about Motorola and its ms1000, a box that delivers true Always On capabilities.
I've found a second Always On platform maker, a smaller one this time. It's called Secure Digital Applications, and their box is called EyStar.
Academic freedom is the great issue of our time, because it's not a one-way street. Just as the GPL carries with it, as one of its "freedoms," the obligation to give back your finished tools under the GPL, so academic freedom also carries an obligation. That obligation is to the scientific method.
As of now, all class action lawsuits must go through the federal courts. The Bushies may be sorry they made this change, because a very big class action is likely to head their way very soon. The action will be against ChoicePoint, which managed to sell 145,000 credit dossiers to criminal gangs.
What does the FBI have in common with Paris Hilton? They're both making news this week as victims of hackers. ZDNet reports a new virus comes in the form of an e-mail claiming to be from the FBI. (Not to be undone, Ms. Hilton herself is the subject of a new e-mail virus, called Sober.K.)
Since the collapse of Lernout & Hauspie, voice has been diminished as a computer interface. But it makes sense. It's hands-free. It requires training, meaning it brings some security with it by default. I continue to believe in it. So does IBM.
There's nothing journalists like better than a good old fashioned catfight. And in tech journalism today it doesn't get any better than Pamela Jones vs. Maureen O'Gara.
With Bluetooth viruses causing all kinds of havoc, and forcing millions to close the open ports on their phones, it seems strange to be writing about a "Bluetooth Network" connection. But that's Wideray.
The last time Paris Hilton featured on this beat, she was leading to the rise of BitTorrent, and crying crocodile tears over the interest we had in a sex tape she made with a (presumably ex-) boyfriend. This time, she's had her Sidekick II hacked and the fall-out may be more serious.
From Medgadget comes word that Always On was a theme of the Demo conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week, even if they didn't use the name. One such exhibitor was Lusora, a San Francisco outfit that claimed to be in the security business, but also introduced a medical device.
As the legislative season swings into high gear, spyware is high on the agenda. But speakers at the VJOLT Symposium last weekend agreed that spyware bills are wrong. Instead of going after the means by which privacy is stolen, strengthen the privacy laws so they cover what bad spyware does.
I was honored last weekend to speak at the Virginia Journal on Law and Technology (VJOLT) Symposium, "Real Law and Online Rights." One of the best speakers (in my opinion), was Geraldine Moohr, who teaches at the University of Houston Law School, a short bike ride from my old stomping grounds at Rice. She based her talk on a paper she wrote last year on copyright criminal law. The short version. It doesn't work.
While Susan Crawford was asking whether Ben Franklin would blog, (and Donna Wentworth was pointing the world to her piece) I was being asked a similar question "would Jefferson file share" at a VJOLT conference in Charlottesville. The answer, in both cases, would depend on which Franklin or Jefferson you were talking about.
The American Diaspora
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in is IBM, for its work with voice, for its work with Linux, and most of all for maintaining its profitability and growth.
Clueless is Microsoft's WGA which will do enormous harm to the Internet in the name of a slight reduction in the piracy problem. Not that Microsoft should give in to pirates. But there are better ways to go after 'em.
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