Tomorrow Happens

...trends slamming at us from the dark

David Brin

David Brin
San Diego, California, USA
October 06
Bio David Brin’s novels have been translated into more than twenty languages, including New York Times Best-sellers that won Hugo and Nebula awards. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed cyberwarfare, the World Wide Web, global warming and Gulf Coast flooding. A 1998 Kevin Costner film was loosely adapted from his post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman. ............................................ Brin is a noted scientist, futurist and speaker who appears frequently on television (Life After People, The Universe), discussing trends in the near and far future, on subjects such as surveillance, technology, astronomy, and SETI. His non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, deals with issues of openness and security in the wired-age. ............................................. David Brin web site: Twitter: Facbook:

MARCH 26, 2011 1:51AM

Interesting Times: Lessons to Learn From a Flood of Changes

Rate: 7 Flag

Remember the curse: may you live in interesting times? Oy!  What a couple of weeks! This was what any given week of 1968 felt like... only 1968 was like this all year long without any let-up. (Example: my father was 40 feet from Bobby Kennedy when he was shot.) Well, at least the music was great...

Anyway, with all the news that’s hitting the fan, it seems a good time to unleash my torrent of pent up political observations and unconventional perspectives.  Hang on, it’ll be a ride.


Here's culture war distilled to its essence.  Saturday we are being asked to perform a pair of contradictory futile gestures, by sanctimony-junkies at both ends of the political spectrum. If I must choose between these gestures, I will hands-down pick the first of them. And so will any sensible person who can do the math. That is, anyone who can see that the planet can’t sustain eight billion greedy humans without some effort at efficiency, innovation, compromise and maturity on our part.

Earth Hour 2011: Turn off all lights at 8:30 pm local time Saturday. It's pretty much self-explanatory.  A gesture. Our family plans to take part. Though this is not how we'll save the world.

In response, the Competitive Enterprise Institute organized Human Achievement Hour for the same time slot, urging us to keep lights, TVs & internet on "to show that you don't support efforts to curb energy use."

First off, the Competitive Enterprise Institute is one of those hilariously-named right wing orgs made up of people who praise Adam Smith, without ever having read him, who yatter about "competition" while sucking up to oligarchs, and who promote Human Achievement without having themselves added a scintilla to human knowledge or progress.  They tout their response as "a celebration of individual freedom and appreciation of the achievements and innovations that people have used to improve their lives throughout history"...

...while ignoring the fact that nearly all the scientists, researchers, innovators, teachers, journalists and others who have made human progress happen utterly despise them and their treasonous "culture war." If we took a demographic survey of those turning off lights, Saturday night, vs those running around the house turning them on, I’d bet $1,000 the first group included a far higher fraction of people who became skilled and educated contributors to Human Achievement.

While activists on the left can sometimes be a bit smarmy and finger-wagging, even politically-correct sanctimonious, those on the right have gone entirely mad. They have inflicted upon us the War on Science and the war on every other caste in society that knows or accomplishes things.  Me?  I plan to turn off the lights for an hour and talk to my kids about how our ancestors lived.  And how Star Trek won't happen by EITHER wasting it all, OR by shivering in the dark. It will come from assertively, confidently moving forward.


"The only foreign advisor we need is Google Earth."
-- a Libyan rebel officer, as heard in an interview on NPR's Morning Edition, 3/25/2011

Yipe!  More on that soon.... But first...


How many people died with fully-charged, sophisticated pocket-radios in their hands, trying desperately to send a text message that said “Help! I am buried at _____”?  How many more will perish, when calamity strikes, time and time again around the world, because victims find themselves trapped in a disaster area where the cell system has gone down?

Are you satisfied with a system that not only can let you down in an emergency, but that is absolutely guaranteed to fail, at some time of dire crisis, when you need it most?  If you aren’t satisfied with that prospect, what do you plan to do about it?

For fifteen years I hectored contacts at Defense, FEMA, Homeland Security and other agencies, urging them to at least study possible fixes to this brittle situation.  One solution that I’ve pushed would cost almost nothing and might be (almost) trivial to implement.  Simply require that all cell phones be equipped to pass along text messages on a peer-to peer (P2P-packet) basis, all the way to the edge of the afflicted zone, whereupon they can be sent on their way.

Predictably, the cell-cos hate the idea, but only for emotional reasons, since it has been shown that actual implementation would be easy. Nor need there be even a slight diminishing of revenue! (Phones that pass P2P texts can be pre programmed to report these transactions, for billing purposes!) Such a capability might even expand the company’s claimed area of coverage, since many “shadowed” or “last mile” regions could thereupon engage in texting.

Let’s be plain here. After refusing to even investigate this possibility, the companies and agencies who have refused to even look into such an obvious fix are culpable. The next time disaster victims suffer or die because they cannot use their phones to call for help, the word to describe these each of lazy executives will be “murderer.”


I consider myself to be one of the “techno-hippies,” like Stewart Brand, who have been pushing the “new nuclear renaissance,” I am not unaware of the drawbacks! But we believe the newest fission power designs are light years ahead of the kind of boiling water reactor that broke down in Japan, quake and tsunami ravaged northeast. With climate change, pollution, energy shortages and dependence upon unsavory petro-princes all in mind, these new designs still seem worth careful prototyping. Indeed, more than ever, so that the crotchety designs of 50 years ago can be retired.

Statistcs are telling.  The number of people who have died, per megawatt-hour of power produced by each type of energy system, are by far highest for coal and oil... and by far lowest for nuclear power. Lower even than solar.  By an order of magnitude.

Nevertheless, the terrifying situation in Japan is rivetting and compels an open mind to new thoughts. Some lessons leap out at us.

First, the horrific behavior of the Tokyo Power company, both before and during the crisis, is an archetype of what can go wrong when a single, monolithic institution is both in charge of critical infrastructure and responsible for its own accountability. This crisis was avoidable. Even in the face of nature’s unprecedented fury.

But the lies and shortcuts taken before the calamity pale next to those uttered during the aftermath. The lessons are clear:

* We should never, ever allow a single agency or company the power to issue reassuring “truths” without competing sources of verification and scrutiny. A demure, respectful society like Japan appears to be particularly prone to this failure mode. In contrast, these independent sources exist along the west coast of the US, in about a dozen of the finest universities on the planet... and hence, efforts by Fox News to drum up panic over a “Japanese radioactivity cloud” failed. (See this further example of top-notch journalism.)  

* Likewise, any new nuclear endeavors... indeed all risky-bold new endeavors of any kind... should be surveiled and monitored by multiple independent groups that include the most devoted enemies of the program! True, these are the most irksome people to have around, when you are trying to get things done. But they are also the ones most likely to leap upon any potential failure mode and make absolutely sure that it is attended-to.  Critics are the only known antibodies against the self-deception of bright guys, who all too easily assume they have got everything sussed.

Here are the twin principles of error-avoiding transparency:
1) Paranoid critics should be given full access to all information and full-voice to all of their concerns. They should then be part of the routine inspectorate that pokes at every complacency.
2) Once their concerns have been dealt with, those same critics must not be allowed to decide whether we move forward.

* Reiterating that point. While improving transparency and caution, we must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges. Here is the one area where the left can be just as jibbering loony as the right. A plague of timidity will not help us triumph over the problems that we face.  However it is rationalized, by dunces at both ends of the spectrum, cynical anti-ambition propaganda is a poison that may kill all hope.

* Clearly, the spent fuel rods that spend five years cooling down in pools next to today’s light-water nuclear reactors are more dangerous than most of us were led to believe. Hence, it is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain. The U.S. needs a semi-permanent nuclear waste facility and the exuses given, for delaying this, are simply dumb.  (For people who don’t give a damn about the world a century from now to howl about some hypothetical leak that might occur in 10,000 years is utter hypocrisy.  

How about betting on our children? I am 99% certain that the cannisters stored in Yucca Mountain won’t have to last 10,000 years!. They will be withdrawn in less than a century, like deposts in a bank!  By descendants who are far more advanced that us and who see those rare elements as unmatched resources for fabulous projects! Why is no one able to even mention this most-likely outcome?

Promise the State of Nevada a 5% royalty on everything and anything ever withdrawn from the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Resource Bank and Reserve.  If they really can think in terms of deep time, they should leap at the investment.


* Canadian regulators announced last week they would reject efforts by Canada's right-wing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, to repeal a law that forbids lying on broadcast news. Canada's Radio Act requires that "a licenser may not broadcast ... any false or misleading news." The provision has kept Fox News and right-wing talk radio out of Canada. (This article is a bit florid. I’d love to hear more about it from a more neutral source. Will someone check and report in?)  

* Congress has finally acted on global warming—by denying it exists. It’s in the grand lawmaking tradition of the Indiana state legislature’s 1897 attempt to redefine the value of pi.  

* See a fascinating statistical analysis of the steep climb, over the last 20 years, in the average number of wives per GOP presidential candidate.  For example, former House Speaker (and fellow science fiction author) Newt Gingich is one of four GOP prospects who has enjoyed three "traditional marriages" in his life. Indeed, an unusually high wives-to candidate ratio may be the most remarkable feature of the emerging Republican field.  I really don’t have anything to add... except that I would love to see a similar chart for democratic candidates, who seem to have been - with the exception of John Edwards, a rather staid and boring bunch. (Let’s be fair. A couple of the candidates cited were widowers... still...)

* A CEO, a TeaParty activist, and a Union member sit at a table. In the middle of the table is a plate of a dozen warm, delicious cookies. The CEO takes 11, then wispers to the teapartier, "look out, that socialist guy wants to take a big piece of your cookie!" 

*See a cute riff of Keynes vs Hayek. Somewhat biased but very thought provoking.  And hilarious! (In fact, both Hayek and Keynes have been proved partly right. Hayek was correct that limited knowledge and personal bias stymie any small group from allocating well over the long run... though his followers seem to think this lesson applies only to government bureaucrats and not to a few hundred conniving oligarchic golf buddies engaged in cheating, interlocking directorates and insider trading! Keynes under-rated savings. But when you need him you need him. And he was right more often than not.)


On another list I've been discussing how Fox Mogul Rupert Murdoch and his Saudi partners manage to pull it off -- to make tons of money at Fox News, despite being hated by a majority of people. The answer is pretty simple. The OJ Simpson Effect says that you do not need t be liked by the majority, nowadays. An ample minority will do. (OJ will never pay for another meal in his life, even though 9% of Americans hate him.)

Blue America retains diversity and divides its attention in all sorts of directions, patronizing diverse news sources.  Red America is cloned from the Olde Confederacy, where a single message was and remains the tribal motif.  By radicalizing the message to ever-greater extremes, Rupert can demonize ALL other competing outlets and keep his base suckling at one and only one teat. His teat.

What a fantastic business model! That is... till the rumblings of a "Boycott Fox Advertisers!" campaign starts gaining traction.  (It is one of several reasons I monthly dial in to get a dose of Beck.  First, in order to stare in awe... and second to re-verify that he is truth-free... but third to learn what products NOT to buy.)

Someday, as happened in 1861, Blue America will awaken. Boycotting Fox advertisers will be the simplest way to end this.

You'll note that Beck is already immune.  Many of his "sponsors" are other Murdoch-owned businesses. Clearly, Murdoch wants him on the air, period. (Ever watched “Network”?)

But the Fox& Friends show is another matter. When you finally get fed up enough, start contacting everybody on the list. Tell any company you find there that you won’t buy from them. Spread the word.


Ever miss the old Soviet loonies, back when the Biggest Lies and tallest tall stories came mostly from the commie left? Well enjoy this throwback old dinosaur.

Capitalism may be to blame for the lack of life on the planet Mars, Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez said.

More soon.  And lordy, don’t let this be 1968.....

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Leonard Nimoy turns 80 today.
Kirk turned 80 four days ago.

"(We) must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges"

Time travel isn't out of the question.
Easily enough done, obviously.
Watch tv.
Leonard Nimoy turns 80 today.
Kirk turned 80 four days ago.

"(We) must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges"

Time travel isn't out of the question.
Easily enough done, obviously.
Watch tv.
Leonard Nimoy turns 80 today.
Kirk turned 80 four days ago.

"(We) must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges"

Time travel isn't out of the question.
Easily enough done, obviously.
Watch tv.
Leonard Nimoy turns 80 today.
Kirk turned 80 four days ago.

"(We) must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges"

Time travel isn't out of the question.
Easily enough done, obviously.
Watch tv.
delete me least 3 times
I may not sell my houseboat after all.
Your good and so many nicely worded issues to contemplate here. I love this... Congress has finally acted on global warming—by denying it exists. Or maybe really I don't.
Are you satisfied with a system that not only can let you down in an emergency, but that is absolutely guaranteed to fail, at some time of dire crisis, when you need it most?

We had major flooding here in 2006. While I was just outside of the affected areas, my ground-line phone was down for over two weeks. Whenever you picked up the phone, you got empty electronic noise, never a dial tone. Apparently some critical circuits were underwater. My crappy, prepaid cell phone however worked just fine (yay, mountintop cell phone towers!). Still, I like your peer-to-peer idea very much. And as you've observed, neither corporate nor government bureaucrats like to have their status quo challenged, even if it would directly benefit them.

The number of people who have died, per megawatt-hour of power produced by each type of energy system, are by far highest for coal and oil...

Could that be due to oil wars, and coal mines run by cutthroats who see workers as expendable?

A plague of timidity will not help us triumph over the problems that we face.

Hear, hear. And neither will a similar plague of cutthroat corporate carelessness. (Does saying so make me a nattering nabob of negativism?)

Canada's Radio Act requires that "a licenser may not broadcast ... any false or misleading news."

Well, that's because Canada is a civilized country. Put another way, what do you expect from a nation with socialized medicine and dirt-cheap hydropower?

As for 1968, I wasn't too crazy about the political assassinations or the riots, but I wouldn't mind seeing progressives get mad as hell, gain the upper hand and keep it this time around. We've let Rupert Murdoch, John Boehner and their ilk have their way with us for much too long!
You give me a little bit of hope somehow thru it all. I read every word. Thanks for the information. I loved 1968 because I was young!!!! That makes all the difference.
Thanks for this post, Mr. Brin. You forgot Ann Coulter's claim that "radioactivity is actually good for you." Right-wing science at its finest....
I posted about Coulter last time.

Seriously, this is phase three of the American Civil War. That is the ONLY way to view it. And as usual, Blue America wants progress and it has been patient for far too long.

The players are almost identical to the earlier phases... Blue America has lost Wisconsin and Indiana... and is maybe gaining North Carolina (fair trade!) If we win this round, we'll have science and education and research and bold ventures and genuine ENTERPRISE (startup) capitalism instead of oligarchy. And eventually we'll have a starship Enterprise, too,

But first, we have to recognize that a "side" that has declared us to be unworthy of ANY NEGOTIATION is not longer willing to look at us as fellow citizens. It (and they) have declared war.
Take a look at

The problems with atomic energy extend far beyond the technological fiascoes of bad design. Rather than apply the necessary supervision and proper maintenance required to see to it to that this caged monster is kept under proper control it is pandemic throughout he industry to neglect even the most elemental necessary expenses for protecting a highly vulnerable public of millions. The people in charge and the assumed proper government application of the declared regulations have proven time and again that they simply cannot be trusted.
To declare that the oil and coal industries are also with no concern for the basic public welfare in the treatment of people susceptible to injury and death is a rather idiotic way to justify the possible huge ravages potential on innocents because of greed and incompetence. The current Japanese situation, far from under control, has now developed to the point that huge sections of the Japanese fishing industry is destroyed out of radioactive contamination and many food imports from Japan are now banned out of fear of radioactivity. The very basic and active ports of Tokyo and Yokohama are now avoided by commercial shipping for fear of radioactivity and ships originating in Japan are now under close surveillance and inspection in California wich discourages shipping of goods vitally needed by industries in other countries for incorporation in their products. This is a financial disaster.

If the mere safety and economy of the final power reactor installation were the only question involved atomic power would seem to be a viable instrument for minimizing ecological pollution and other problems but the mining and production of the fuel and the storage of the spent fuel material are both highly ecologically damaging ahd frightfully dangerous to general human welfare and not in any way satisfactorily solved.

The attitudes of corporate consideration towards damaging processes where the only real desires involve financial profit is nicely illustrated in the career of the much lauded Charles Kettering ( see ). Although this has no direct relationship to atomic energy, the same commercial motivations and government corruption are in operation where big money and corporate power are the drivers to a general world catastrophe. It is a lesson worth paying attention to.
Sorry about the typos.