Saturday, March 29, 2008

Thanks For The Mindstorms, Arthur C. Clarke

As you probably know, Arthur C. Clarke died last week. What a fascinating man--science fiction writer, author of the novel 2001 on which the Kubrick movie was based, one of the first to promote the idea that geosynchronous satellites could be used for telecommunications, and a resident of Sri Lanka since 1956 (he reportedly moved there to pursue his love of scuba diving).

Most of the tributes to Clarke didn't mention his 1962 book Profiles of the Future, except perhaps to note that it was the source of his most-quoted statement, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." But that book, which I read as a kid, has remained vivid in my mind to this day despite the fact that I haven't even looked at it in at least thirty years. (My dog-eared paperback copy has long since vanished.)

Though a non-fiction book, Profiles of the Future was infused with the mind-blowing vision spirit of Clarke's science fiction. It included a cheeky "timeline" of likely future scientific developments, culminating, as I recall, with "Human Immortality" (I forget what year Clarke predicted that for). On a slightly more mundane note, Clarke predicted an electronically-based "Library of the World" which he thought might be in place by 2005, a forecast which of course was spot-on thanks to the Internet.

Clarke's book also included some other predictions that I've never forgotten because they were so weird, fascinating, and cleverly described. For example, Clarke suggested that biologists would learn to breed animals with near-human intelligence--smart enough, at least, to make them extremely useful to have around. (He predicted we might someday ride to work on horses that we could then tell, "Go home now and come back for me at five o'clock.") I don't think he addressed the question of whether it would be ethical to use such animals as slaves, which of course is what we do with animals today.

My favorite prediction from Profiles of the Future was Clarke's description of a machine that would be capable of completely analyzing the physical makeup of any object, even a living being, down to the atomic level, and then replicating it precisely. This Matter Duplicator (as I think he dubbed it) would have several purposes. It could be used as a teleportation device, since an object or even a person could be "deconstructed" by one machine in New York and then "reconstructed" by a matching machine in (say) Paris based on coded instructions sent over the airwaves.

Of course, it could also be used to multiply material goods endlessly, thereby eliminating human want forever. And on a purely isn't-that-cool level, it could be used to provide anyone who wants one with, for example, a copy of the Mona Lisa or Las Meninas that is absolutely identical to the original.

Clarke acknowledged that creating the first Matter Duplicator would be an enormous technological challenge. He described it, as I recall, as being the equivalent of many Manhattan Projects, and projected the cost as some astromical amount--a trillion dollars, perhaps. But then he pointed out that the second Matter Duplicator will be free, since the first thing we will do with the first machine is order it to duplicate itself.

I hope somebody, somewhere, is working on this project. Forty-six years later, I still have enough of my nine-year-old self inside to find the ideas Arthur C. Clarke was germinating back in 1962 enduringly cool.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fortune Magazine Boldly Endorses Health Care For Everyone Who Doesn't Need It

The March 10th issue of Fortune magazine contains an article titled "Why McCain Has the Best Health-Care Plan." After eight paragraphs explaining how awesome the free market is and how double-awesome McCain is for being the only remaining presidential candidate who worships at that altar, author Shawn Tully then confesses:
The problem with McCain's approach--and it is a huge problem--is that McCain ventures so far toward total laissez-faire liberty that he risks leaving the poor and sick behind.
A health plan that is good for everybody but the sick! What a concept. I guess the editors at Fortune talked it over, realized that the problem with U.S. health-care is that it isn't slanted enough toward the rich and the healthy, and were delighted to discover that McCain wants to keep doing what we're doing, only more so.

I guess in a way you have to give Fortune credit for honesty. I'm looking forward to further articles in the series: "Why McCain Has a Brilliant Approach to Fixing the Economy" ("The only drawback, for those who are really picky, is that McCain's plan could turn a recession into a depression") and "How McCain Will Bring Lasting Peace to the Middle East" ("The only minor flaw in McCain's peace plan is that it involves endless war").

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Divide and Conquer

When the Republicans win national elections, they do it by pulling together a truly bizarre assortment of voters. It includes:

  • Conservative Southerners, many of them virulently anti-gay and anti-feminist, some racist and anti-Semitic, who believe the Republicans will "defend traditional values."
  • Wall Street fat cats and corporate CEOs, many of whom went to fancy Eastern universities and are socially liberal, who like the Republicans' low-tax, pro-business policies.
  • Foreign policy hawks, including the neocons, who favor the Republicans because they are the party of military might and empire.
  • Blue collar workers, white ethnics, and other "Reagan Democrats" who think the Republicans will be tough on crime and supportive of the middle class.
  • Libertarians, gun lovers, militia supporters, and other anti-government types who buy into the Republicans "small government" rhetoric.

Do these groups agree with one another on everything? Do they fit together socially, religiously, ethnically, culturally?

Would the corporate chieftain who raised thousands for Bush and saved billions for his company by shipping manufacturing overseas agree on much with the laid-off auto worker from Flint who voted Republican in 2004 because he saw a picture of Kerry with Jane Fonda?

Would the mom from Mississippi whose kid joined the army to pay for college have much in common with the New York neocon who votes Republican because he hopes for invasions of several more Middle Eastern countries?

Obviously not. In fact, many of these people would be horrified if they really understood the crazy causes they are supporting by voting Republican.

But here in March, 2008, the media and the public aren't talking about any of those contradictions, are they? Instead, we're talking--and talking and talking--about the crazy, angry things said by the former pastor of Barack Obama's church. Because it's so very important that Democrats denounce and distance themselves from anyone in their coalition who has a position or an attitude that makes them uncomfortable or upset!

We have to denounce the angry, militant Blacks, and eliminate them from the Democratic coalition.

We have to denounce the wild-eyed, Chomskian leftists who think US foreign policy is deeply misguided, and eliminate them from the coalition.

We have to denounce the nutty socialists who want single-payer health care, or a more progressive tax system, or stricter regulation of the financial system, or any of those French-style economic policies, and eliminate them.

We have to denounce the extreme feminists who demand abortion rights and Title IX funding and an Equal Rights Amendment, and who see sexism in every nasty article about Hillary Clinton and every harmless joke about women.

We have to denounce people who are insufficiently supportive of Israel or overly concerned about the Palestinians.

We have to denounce the Michael Moore types who want to foment class warfare and believe there's some sort of government-business conspiracy to keep poor and working-class Americans down.

And we have to denounce the liberal activists--all those Daily Kos bloggers in their pajamas who hate America, and those MoveOn crazies who dared to criticize General Petraeus.

If we don't denounce all these left-wing extremists, the media will never take us Democrats or our presidential candidates seriously. The newspaper pundits will attack us, Tim Russert will hound us, and the commentators will bemoan our lack of bipartisanship.

And if we DO denounce them--as our party leaders regularly do, election after election!--we'll lose again in November, having eliminated from our coalition everyone with any passion.

And the Republicans, having quietly agreed--yet again--to pretend that the profound disagreements among their constituent groups simply don't exist, will once again glide to victory.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Empathizing With "The Other"--Yes, It Is Possible

A few sensible comments about Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory political rhetoric:
As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say "That's a terrible statement!" . . . I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack . . . to people who grew up being called names, being told "you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus . . . " And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.
Click here to find out who said it. You may be surprised.


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Monday, March 17, 2008

Libertarians And Their One-Note Melody

Ezra Klein:

I find it impressive that Megan was able to use the financial meltdown to compare liberals who're calling for tighter regulation of a financial market run amok to conservatives who call for warrantless wiretapping. In these tough economic times, it's comforting to know that normalcy can still be achieved.
Actually, the Megan McArdle post Ezra links to is a lovely, chemically pure example of what makes libertarianism so clear, logical, and utterly misguided:
So the left wants me to admit that the current meltdown means that we need oodles more financial regulation, and maybe the death penalty for being a rich idiot. The right wants me to admit that if we don't allow warrantless wiretapping, it will be harder to catch terrorists. . . .

These two things are essentially flip sides of the same coin for me. Government powers come only at enormous cost: to liberty, to community, to the economy, and of course, the financial burden of paying for them. In some cases they are necessary. But pointing to a problem and noting that it exists is not an automatic warrant for me to smash it with the hammer of the state.
Well, I suppose that regulation of financial markets is "the flip side of the same coin" as warrantless wiretapping if both are viewed solely as exercises of government power. But by that token, everything that government does is essentially the same. Public schools are pretty much the same thing as nuclear weapons. The FDA is about the same as farm price supports. Putting drug dealers in prison is interchangeable with Social Security disability benefits.

Megan and many other libertarians are so focused on the "enormous cost" of government that they never move on to ask the obvious questions most people ask whenever they are asked to pay for something: What are we buying? Do we want it? Is it worth the price we are being asked to pay? Is there some better alternative? Rather than get into any of these messy, real-world questions, Megan just says, "Ooh, that sounds expensive," and decides not to use "the hammer of the state," no matter what the purpose, the cost, or the context.

This is about as logical as considering all proposed purchases the same--tickets to a Broadway show, prescription medicine, a vacation in the Caribbean, repairs to the family car. (You might imagine some pathological miser feeling equally resistant to all these forms of spending.) If you were to evaluate everything solely on the basis of whether or not it costs money, you'd end up lumping together things that are totally different--just like libertarians, who evaluate everything solely on the basis of whether or not it involves government power.

Of course, Megan would never admit that she reflexively, mindlessly opposes government action no matter what the circumstances. Instead, she pretends that she is simply doing battle against unnamed, hypothetical opponents who "automatically" want to use the government to solve every conceivable problem. This is a pure straw man. Socialists in the contemporary U.S. are a vanishingly small minority with no voice in the public debate. The only people with knee-jerk attitudes toward government are the libertarians and their Republican allies, whose knees jerk to the right rather than the left.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Why Is Farrakhan Scarier Than Hagee? Look At Their Photos

Kevin Drum speculates as to why the reciprocal embrace of John McCain by hateful, crazy evangelical minister John Hagee--"a white Farrakhan"--has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, while Obama continues to get raked over the coals despite having disavowed Farrakhan's endorsement:
It's funny, but in a way I think this is a demonstration of the condescending attitude that a lot of urban reporters have toward evangelicals. Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations. Basically, they figure that these guys are all lunatic nutballs with weird beliefs, and they're so used to this idea that they give it a pass when it pops into the news. It's just Uncle Bob. You know how he gets. If they actually took evangelicals seriously, instead of treating them like members of long-lost Amazon tribes, they'd pay more attention to stories like this and they wouldn't give McCain a free pass on Hagee's endorsement.
This may be partly right, but I suspect that good old-fashioned racism is a bigger factor. America's mostly-white reporters and pundits, and their mostly-white audiences, are afraid of the Black Muslims because they believe that the Muslims hate them and would kill them in their sleep if they got a chance. Whereas they assume that extreme Christian fundamentalists, while stupid, are not threatening to them.

It's the same logic by which the media, back in the 1960s and 70s, convinced themselves (and much of the citizenry) that Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown were more dangerous than the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

We Democrats Need To Remember Who The Enemy Is

Thanks to Hillary's wins last night in Rhode Island, Ohio, and (in the popular vote) Texas, the Democratic race lurches on. I'm okay with that; Like Kevin Drum, I'm skeptical of the proposition that a prolonged primary battle automatically spells doom to the party.

But I am a bit concerned about how the growing testiness of the campaign may be affecting Democratic voters, as suggested by this bit of evidence from yesterday's exit polls:
The question for the fall is whether there are Clinton voters who won't vote for Obama and Obama voters who won't vote for Clinton. The exit polls don't really answer this question. The closest they get is to ask respondents whether they would be "satisfied" or "dissatisfied" if Clinton or Obama were the eventual nominee. The results tonight do not look good for Obama. In Wisconsin, for instance, only 17 percent of Democratic primary voters said they would be dissatisfied if Obama were the nominee. In Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas, 30 percent or more of voters said they would be "dissatisfied" if he were the nominee. That means that a sizable percentage of voters who backed Hillary Clinton may not back Obama in the fall. But Clinton's percentages were not that much better. They were in the high twenties.
As I've been saying for months, I think we have two fine candidates here, and I would be delighted to vote for either of them. God knows they both rise hand and shoulders above McCain as potential presidents. So I am disturbed by evidence that at least some Democrats are starting to take the inevitable negativity of a two-person intraparty race too much to heart.

In particular--since Obama is still the more likely Democratic nominee, and since Hillary has gone negative more forcefully in recent days than her rival--I worry that some supporters of Hillary are starting to think of Obama as "the enemy" rather than as a friendly competitor.

Hillary herself is starting to show traces of this, as in her sarcastic mockery of Obama's uplifting rhetoric, or in the formulation she started using this past weekend: "I have a lifetime of experience that I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience to [bring to] the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002" (for which James Fallows, I think rightly, criticizes her).

Is it really necessary to give the Republicans sound bites they can use in October? I don't think Obama has said anything equally harsh about Hillary.

And then there is the question of sexism. Hillary has been the victim of a horrendous amount of misogynistic abuse during this campaign, much of it from the media, some of it from Republican operatives. I've written about it over and over again on this blog. But I think it is a big mistake--and just plain false--for Hillary's supporters to blame this sexism on Obama. Yet this is an accusation I have been starting to hear lately.

The list of Obama's "sexist" acts that I've heard people cite strikes me as pretty thin. For example, his remark to Hillary several weeks ago, "You're likeable enough," was a lame joke that didn't work, but what makes it sexist, particularly?

More recently, there was this (I'm quoting a letter to the editor of the New York Times):
I wonder if Senator Barack Obama would have accused a man complaining about unfair campaign tactics of whining. Since the senator is well aware of the power and meaning of words, he must not have minded revealing a sexist and dismissive attitude toward his female rival. Buck Rutledge
But "whining" isn't a sexist word. A five-minute Google search turns up a whole array of recent news stories and columns in which it is used with reference to men, from Mitt Romney to anti-McCain Republicans to London Mayor Ken Livingstone to baseball pitcher Roger Clemens to Mike Huckabee.

It's just not factually accurate to imply that the word "whine" is generally used with reference to a woman. It's not a compliment, obviously. But it's also not sexist.

If Hillary doesn't win the nomination, sexism will probably be a major reason. But that is not Obama's doing--unless you consider him sexist simply for running against Hillary in the first place.

I'm not trying to say that Obama is a perfect person or a perfect candidate. He's not. But of course neither is Hillary. And more important, for us as Democrats, neither Obama nor Hillary is the enemy. The enemy is the hard-right Republican ideology that has brought our country to the brink of disaster, militarily, economically, and socially. And if we Democrats start fighting viciously among ourselves over the next few weeks, the only winners will be the purveyors of that ideology.

Attacking one another personally--and becoming increasingly embittered in the process--is exactly what they want us to do. In fact, it may be their only real hope for victory.

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