Monday, May 02, 2016

The Politics of Divisiveness

As Congress went into recess without addressing even a single serious matter before it -- like fighting the Zika Virus or funding the FAA or finding a way to prevent bankruptcy of the largest U.S. territory (see below) -- we are reminded that for 20 of the last 22 years it has been the laziest, do-nothing and lobotomized national legislature in American history. 

Do not let the presidential circus get you too fixated! Your local congressional and state assembly races may be just as important. Only, at that level your own efforts could even make a difference.

== Political Notes ==

How Red and Blue America Became Two Separate Countries: A well-spoken article by Paul Waldman, describes how America is dividing ever-deeper into blue and red components. Still, I think the point is missed, unless you instead call it what it is. Blue vs Gray.  

Obama can appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court if the Senate does nothing: here's an interesting legal argument that the Senate, by refusing to even hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination is in effect waiving its right and duty to practice “advice and consent.”  It is a strong argument… and it could wind up before the Supreme Court! Only here's the kicker.  If the case first goes to a federal district court that rules in Obama's favor, and then also the court of appeals, then just four present justices could seat Garland.

But no, watch how quickly the GOP Senate rushes to confirm Obama's appointment, after the dems win the election.  Their polemic to: "let the next president choose" will evaporate, as they hurry to deny H. Clinton her pick. 

In Defense of the GOP: Fareed Zakaria offers a fascinating insight about how today’s more “democratic” parties, in which the presidential nominee arises out of passionate primaries, may be less temperate or practical or even representative than the old “smoke filled rooms.” 

Nothing makes this clearer than the fact that Donald Trump, who - before New York - was never liked by more than 38% pluralities in his best states, could come to dominate, because of the passion of that one-third. 

This, combined with Ted Cruz’s passionate one-quarter of Republicans, has forced the rest of us to let a radical half of 40% of Americans to set the agenda.  Zakaria long ago: predicted that the partyless system would be good for “political dynasties, celebrity officials and billionaire politicians.” The front-runners in both parties in 2016 fit this description.”

Of course, when a frothing few can dominate discussion, false narratives abound.  Like the incredible tizzy that illegal immigration has increased under Barack Obama. “Immigration into the United States has slowed substantially in the last ten years. Moreover, that's lead to the English proficiency rise among Hispanics. A greater share of Hispanics today prefer to get their news in English than was the case just ten years ago." 

How to get that frothing minority to start paying at least some slight notice to actual facts? Demand that your Trumpist uncle make it a bet.  Wagers are the only thing that makes these fellows budge. Putting money on it is "manly" and hence you'll get them cornered. Just don't do it with anyone you have to sit with, next Thanksgiving.

Why poor whites chant Trump, Trump, Trump: This article does a better job of going to the heart of the matter: “From the era of slavery to the rise of Donald Trump, wealthy elites have relied on the loyalty of poor whites.” The author, Jonna Ivin, knows what she is talking about, painting a vivid picture of her own earlier life in an Arkansas trailer. Why do poor whites vote along the same party lines as their wealthy neighbors across the road? Isn’t that against their best interests?

The methods used to divide poor whites from blacks go back to slavery days and they worked. Ivins writes, "Poor and working class whites signed up by the hundreds of thousands to fight for what they believed was their way of life. Meanwhile, many of the wealthy planters who benefitted economically from slavery were granted exemptions from military service and avoided the horrors of battle."  

This cozening of poor whites has gone on and on – despite the feudal-style overlordship of Big Families like the scions of Tyson Foods, who manage to both oppress and be admired as good-ol-boys, while they smuggle in undocumented foreign workers to deny jobs to locals. And how do those locals react? By hating the smuggled-in illegals, not Tysons. The thing is… no one ever likes to admit that they’ve been fooled.  The more blatant it becomes, the more desperate most people are to cling to the “side” that has crushed them and kept them down. (Marx called this the instinct of the “lumpen proletariat.”)

And yet, as this well-written essay commences, you grow ever-more willing to see things through the eyes of folks long despised as 'poor-white-trash.' You realize that they have their own story of ancient pain and desperate grievance.  You start to understand both how the Fox-oligarchy updated the slaveholders’ propaganda techniques, and how that deliberate radicalization finally tore the reins out of their hands…

 … to be seized by Donald Trump.

== Fundamentals ==

Republican masters are already adjusting their plans to a likely loss of the presidency, this fall.  Fund-raising from big donors is shifting over to the big campaign funds supporting GOP candidates for Senate and the House of Representatives, and especially State Assemblies... the core locus of power they cannot afford to lose, even briefly.  

One of their top polemical tricks that you'll hear a lot? "Divided government is best! Because then Government is frozen and can't do much and that's gooood!"

As if the last six years of  raging, acrimonious divided government – free of any meaningful legislation, whatsoever - were exactly how a modern republic should adapt to rapidly-changing times. Forgive me for repeating this, but except for a two-year manic phase from 2009-2011, the United States Congress has for two decades been the most lazy and worthless U.S. national legislature in living memory, as well-reflected in opinion polls which rate the institution far below the DMV and circus carnies.  

Under Speakers Tearful John Boehner and role-model-for-all-boys Dennis Hastert, the House of Representatives held fewer hearings and fewer days in full session, passed fewer bills and (despite frivolous rage over Benghazi and emails) issued fewer subpoenas than almost any other across the last century.

To be clear, despite having had total power to do anything they wanted — owning all three branches of government from 2001-2007 — the GOP did not one thing about any ranted agenda items wanted by their tea party ground troops, from abortion to local sovereignty to eminent domain, to gun rights, to reducing deficits or disbanding government agencies. They railed and shouted about those things, but did nothing when they had complete power.

Exceptions. The GOP congresses did take action in four categories: massive tax cuts for the uber-caste, deregulating Wall Street, granting sweetheart deals for resource extractors, and conspiring to keep the true cost of wars off the books. Oh, yeah and Medicare Part D.  That’s five. Period. Note that all of them budget busting nightmares that transformed Clintonian surpluses into artery gushers of red ink. But beyond that? Utterly useless torpor.

A tradition that continues under new Speaker and obsessive supply-sider Paul Ryan, whose refusal to provide funds to stop the Zika Virus, or let the FAA keep airplanes safe, or for his blllionaire clients to face audit, all fall into this grand tradition. See this highly partisan but highly accurate denunciation. “The Speaker of the House is burnishing his credentials for 2020 by doing what John Boehner did best: Nothing.”

And this is their White Knight?

== A little late for oligarch regret? ==

Eep! In Existence, I portray a conclave of zillionaire-lords meeting in the Alps to at least *try* to make the New Feudalism not-stupid, this time, unlike the horrific statecraft and silly rationalizations that aristocratic castes produced, across 6000 years. I wrote that scene as a suggestion, in case the new lords win and repress our brief, two century enlightenment experiment. Odds still favor that outcome. Feudalism always won, in the past.

Alas, despite my suggestion, all signs suggest that this round of proto-feudalists will be as stupidly delusional as every other. Like kings and lords and priests of old, they let flatterers tell them how smart they are.  

Still, is there hope? Shall I lift my head, in wonder, when the archetype beta-minus billionaire (who naturally thinks he’s an alpha) seems to ‘get’ how stunningly awful is the 21st Century Republican Party that he and his brother helped to forge?

“It's a nightmare scenario for Republicans, but conservative billionaire Charles Koch says ‘it's possible’ Hillary Clinton could make a better president than the remaining candidates in the GOP primary.  As far as the growth of government, the increase in spending, Koch said. ‘It was 2.5 times [more] under Bush than it was under Clinton.’”

Um?  And every single other metric of US national health has done better across democratic administrations than GOP ones. Every metric. Every single one. Now think, Charles. What might that mean?

BTW Charles, remember that list of five "accomplishments" when the GOP held every lever of power. Most of those were things that *you* wanted and demanded from your servants. You made this bed, sir.

Friday, April 29, 2016

How to maintain a vigorous, positive sum society… in theory

I’ve long urged folks to go have another look at one of the founders of the Western-Pragmatic Enlightenment, Adam Smith. Lately, Smith has been picked up by ever more economists and thinkers seeking to understand how we’ve gone astray.

Liberals are surprised to discover Smith’s compassion, along with his denunciations of oligarchy and inherited power. Open-minded conservatives and libertarians are reminded that Smith’s recommendation of vigorous market competition can only happen when things are relatively flat-open-fair, but cheaters are only thwarted by rules, by regulation. (The same is true in sports, democracy, science etc.)

Both sides need to be reminded that human beings are essentially delusional, and we prosper best when we are shown – competitively – our mistakes. 

In an article - Stop Using Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology - on the fast-rising Evonomics site, I show how both Smith and Friedrich Hayek offer no support for conniving, monopolistic concentrations of economic power.  For markets, democracy, science, etc to deliver their fabulous, positive sum outcomes, there must be reciprocal accountability.

In response, economist Nicholas Gruen agrees with most of my points, but complains that my emphasis on competition overlooks how much of our system depends on cooperation. Go have a look at his critique.

In fact, I had felt the cooperative aspect to be implicit, since where else would the regulations come from, that keep competitive markets and science and democracy, courts and sports flat-open-fair?  Those regulations – to maintain a healthy and vigorous commons – might be deliberated and negotiated competitively (in the arena called democracy) but they can only pass and be complied-with in a generally cooperative atmosphere and meme of shared citizenship.

(An atmosphere and meme that have been deliberately destroyed in America, rendering the U.S. Congress completely impotent. See below.)

Perhaps I should have commented at greater length about the implicit cooperativeness that allows for the creation of regulations that then empower creative competition.  But this twinning seems natural to me! Cooperation and competition are essential partners – not opposites – at nearly all layers of life that achieve any degree of health.

== How do cooperation and competition depend on each other? ==

At one level, individual creatures – predators and prey – seem totally competitive; yet we all know that a myriad defeats and victories add up to the “circle of life” of a wholesome ecosystem. But it goes farther. We now know that cells inside a fetus’s brain compete with each other, frenetically, to become nerve cells. Most are defeated, but the result is the most effective macro-entity ever formed. Adam Smith described how – when cheating and war and oppression are thwarted – normal human competitiveness engenders so much creativity that wealth pours forth in gushers, engendering the cooperative thing called civilization. 

(Karl Marx quite agreed, though his scenarios cynically assumed that there would always be cheaters, until there was so much wealth available that competition might – suddenly – be dispensed-with.)

What I just described are called “emergent properties.” From the competitive jostling of molecules within our cells, on up, we see subsequent layerings of regulated rivalry spawning an appearance of effective collaboration, in which entities of the next-higher level then commence competing, yet again… and forming what seems to be cooperative… and onward, building order.

Along the way, there are potential traps and pitfalls that cause such agglomerations to fail. When a type of predator or parasite gets too strong, it may gorge on prey and drive species extinct, destroying the ecosystem  it relied upon. Across millennia, ever since we began recording agricultural societies, competitively vigorous men would win local games of power, then seize way too much, cheating for the sake of short-term reproductive success (lordship and harems), stifling competition, thus starving the health of their tribes or nations.  

Indeed, both great Pericles and Adam Smith preached that we must stymie this trap by cooperative design, thwarting cheating, not only for justice and freedom but for the pragmatic reason, that only such limits to power can let flat-fair-open-creative competition resume its generative miracle, making us all better off.

== How all of this applies to Artificial Intelligence ==

This is, indeed, the whole and entire answer to the Problem of Artificial Intelligence… how to prevent AI from going berserk as in Terminator or The Matrix, a concern expressed by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others.

What do we dread about the arrival of new, smarter beings? 

Well, the simplest and most-feared scenarios depict coolly determined and cunning robotic beings conspiring to treat us the same way that human overlords treated peasants... or worse, the way they treated sheep. Seizing the top position on a feudal-style pyramid of might-based oppression.  In other words, we fret the possibility that AIs might behave in the way all-too-many human males have, when tempted by access to overwhelming power!

But any such robot-dominated hierarchy is likely to suffer the same disastrous effects of winnowing system health and delusional-governance which comes about when a predator or parasite is too successful... or when human leaders get strong enough to evade competitive criticism. 

Moreover, this argument is not an artifact of my being a dumb-organic, oldstyle human. Since the competition-cooperation emergent tradeoffs manifest across all levels of organization, from the cell to organs to species and ecosystems and societies - including the only human society creative enough to make AI(!) - it can be presumed that any robot overlord claiming to be an exception is likely -- no matter how "smart" -- to be ... delusional.

This is not about IQ.  It is about wisdom.

== Neoliberalism ==

I know it's gone a bit long. But let's hang in to a conclusion.

This piece appraises “NeoLiberalism,” a powerfully influential political and economic theory that took over the West during the 1980s and still persists with the zombie-never-dying-though-always-wrong Supply Side economic theory and the meme to “hate all government.” 

The insidious thing about NeoLiberalism is that its basic premise is entirely correct: "Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty."

You can see how this fits today's theme. Competition is indeed the fundamental process that allows positive sum outcomes to spill from markets, democracy, science, courts and sports, highly refined "arenas" wherein miracles of productivity arise out of flat-fair-open competition.

The insidious lie of NeoLiberalism is that there is only one enemy of competitive enterprise... government.

That is a towering and stunning falsehood, since Adam Smith would tell you to look (as he did) across 6000 years of brutal, grinding feudalism and see the force that destroyed flat-open-fair-creative competition in 99% of human cultures... inherited oligarchy and lordly-monied cheaters.  The testimony of 60 centuries shows this, despite the Neolibs desperate efforts to distract with hate-all-government ravings...

Oh but some top conservative idea-folks have taken this further, suggesting: Could the GOP be facing an intellectual exodus? Daniel Drezner asks, "Forty years ago, neoconservatives started migrating toward the Republican Party. Is a reverse migration possible?”  

Well… it depends on what you mean by “intellectuals.” Under the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and its relentlessly expressed hatred of science, medicine, teachers, journalists and almost every other clade of knowledge in American life, we’ve already seen almost total abandonment of the right by scientists and others who deal in facts.

Which leaves the airy realm of political theory and fact-free dogma incantation. There you can still find ‘intellects’ willing and eager to defend never-once-right and always-utterly-disproved doctrines like Supply Side Economics.  You’ll certainly see no defections from that quadrant. 

What about other elements of the right? Take the so-called “neocons” of the early 2000s, who concocted rationalizations for 'nation-building wars' in Iraq etc, based on the spells of Leo Strauss. (Noecons only overlap with neo-liberals; they aren't the same.) Where are the Nitzes, Perles, Adelmans and Wolfowitzes, nowadays?  Hunkering in faux-academes like AEI and Heritage, eking out a political dotage, abandoned and disdained even by the Bushite-Cheneyites they helped empower.

== coda ==

Okay, hold on for the stunning aftermath of this riff, which poses a question.  Who said this? 

"It is important to have a national notification system to help safely recover children kidnapped by child predators. But it is equally important to stop those predators before they strike, to put repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives, and to help law enforcement with the tools they need to get the job done." 

Who? Former Speaker and GOP head Dennis Hastert said this after another Republican was caught molesting congressional pages. 

Hypocrisy R Us. His "Hastert Rule" wrecked negotiation in Congress, making it the laziest do-nothing legislature in US history. He made gerrymandering an art and elevated cheating to the norm. His Bush-Cheney era was the father of the Trump-Cruz era. Be proud.

Finally, see: Why Garbagemen Should Be Earning More Than Bankers: How more and more people are making money without contributing anything of value”… again on Evonomics.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Brin's random ramblings! And is a PhD worth it?

For this posting, let's go all over the place! In a semi-random walk of items that share one trait.  They're... well... interesting! Starting with --

A wide-ranging interview – covering future interactions with extraterrestrials and artificial intelligence agents, the Kardashev scale of planetary civilizations, possible means to deal with climate change, ‘Brin’s Corollary’ of cameras ... on MacObserver.

Hear me blather on the Future Thinkers Podcast about transparency, reciprocal accountability and future societies. 

== Random Musings ==

The most Interesting Man in the World is on his (one way) trip to Mars? Okaaaaay then.  Any nominations for a successor?  

Teen pregnancy in the U.S. has fallen to an all time low… though there are substantial regional differences. And the problem is worst in states that prescribe “abstinence only” sex education.

The 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. No Monty Python... the list focuses on American humor.

Does the Web now contain everything? Far from it.  Let me give one example.  Late in 1979, when I was in grad school, our PBS radio station ran a hilarious special called “Unpacking the Eighties.”  I believe the writer/singer/actor was “Jesse” or "Jerry" something.  Over the years I have searched for it. And nowadays, one would imagine someone would have cached it online somewhere… or at least mentioned it! But there’s zilch via any search method I have used.  And mind you that was a media item of some substance, nationally broadcast.

Likewise my brief-run television pilot the Architechs.  The History Channel long ago stopped selling DVDs or downloads. (There were actually TWO pilots, both of them so way cool.) Since HC has no interest in (or memory of) the show, I had hoped someone would have put it up online by now, for all to enjoy.  Especially since the ideas in the Fire Prevention and Escape pilot could save thousands of lives.  Alas, it hasn’t even been done on bit-torrent or Russian pirate sites. Alack. (Not that I am encouraging such rapscallion goin's-on.)

On the other hand... Books that top US college students are required to read: My nonfiction The Transparent Society ranks 6th at Brown! Just below... Karl Marx. Interesting. Anyone know which professor(s) at Brown are assigning it? Nice to know there are intellects out there with great taste.

== Are there too many PhDs? ==

Speaking of academe... one member of my blog-munity wrote: 

"The rise of the Ph.D. is more a cause for alarm than celebration as it reflects educational inutility & creeping credentialism.  Encouraged by poor job prospects in a contracting economy, the Ph.D. candidate forgoes gainful employment & pursues a specialized educational career path which qualifies them for little more than education and research.

University diploma mills churn out a surfeit of Ph.D.'s, depressing the relative value of this degree even further. "Only 12.8% of Ph.D. graduates can attain academic positions in the USA", and "In the UK, almost 80% of people achieving PhDs in science will eventually find careers outside science". See: Does Science Produce Too Many Ph.D.'s? in Discover.

Where this grouchy fellow has a point is that many science graduate student PhD candidates submit themselves to being used as driven labor, 80 hour weeks at pennies per hour, sometimes for magnificent mentors - the smartest and best people our species ever created - and sometimes for slave-driving egotists. (There is a slight field-correlation, with physics being more of the former and biology containing more of the latter.)

To which I reply, so? This is exactly the kind of retro pattern that nostalgia junkies moan for! Master-Journeyman-Apprentice stuff. All the way to medieval gowns in which the newly minted "doktor" gets to wear a monk's cowl! It goes way, way back. You guys should love it!

What's changed is that this path is now open to many, many more (and boy do they come, flocking) -- and the process is more moderated and fair (though I experienced unfairness that made me test the system... and I won, big. Oh, I'd make changes.)

Jiminy Cricket, if there are more doctorates than academic slots, guess what. It's freaking competitive! It's a market and you knew it was when you applied to graduate school. And even so, they come in droves. Why? Because the Big Prize is the best job, ever, in the history of the species! Pushing the envelope of knowledge while nurturing scientific skill and curiosity in both future winners and and those who won't attain any prized professorships...

... but who will go into the job market with clear proof that: "I know how to study a problem to its very core, dissect it and discover something that no one on Earth - possibly anywhere in creation - ever knew before. It may have been a small thing, BUT I ADDED SOMETHING PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN TO HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. 

"That is what PhD means. And sure, that's credentialed. So sue me. Better yet, hire me. For enough to make up for those 5 years as a lab (or theory) slave -- which also happened to be the best and most fascinating and most wonderful years of my entire f***ing life."

Dig it. In 1930 Galbraith and others predicted that industrial productivity would render the 40 hour week obsolete and millions would have to find new ways to occupy their time, outside the tsunami-productive factories and farms. Galbraith looked foolish for a while. But perhaps he was just 100 years premature. And if so?

I can think of worse ways to occupy our very brightest than spending their youths seeking a "credential" that says "I spent some of this time and wealth at the very frontiers of human knowledge."

== And finally... ==

Here's a Tech Trick... Want the simplest way to take a slug of text from somewhere and strip it of all codes and formatting and links, so you just have the text you actually want? I need this all the time and found a great way.  If you have gmail, open a new message, then paste the code-polluted text into the email's SUBJECT LINE. You can then immediately SELECT ALL and CUT and you will have the stripped version of the text, ready to insert anywhere without noxious codes embedded "helpfully."

(Seriously, it is getting worse!  I cannot paste a URL into an email anymore without gmail and /or Yahoo "helpfully" replacing the Http address with the title and thumbnail of the website. Who would want that... ever? I have never wanted it once, ever. But can I make them stop? Also, is there a simpler way to unlink email addresses that Word "helpfully" makes active, without going through multi-step menus?)

Productivity hint! I use QuickKeys, so many complex productivity steps are all one-flick stabs of my index finger onto keys on the numeric keypad. Quickeys saves me at least 15 minutes of lifespan, every single day.  I barely recall how to mouse drag a cursor onto a scroll-down menu, anymore.

...And now you all see what I do with random snippets that don't fit into my normal posting categories. Goulash!  Yum.  Hope you enjoyed it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Looking to space

Homesteading in Space! This recent February, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) worked with NASA, Fox Studios and the National Academy to assemble a gathering in Los Angeles  Homesteading in Space – Inspiring the Nation through Science Fiction, aimed at “imagining how manned space efforts can take us to our neighboring planets, not just for a short visit, but for longer durations.” Co-sponsoring the event was Washington D.C.’s developing Museum of Science Fiction.

In his 2015 State of the Union, President Obama noted that we want to go to space, “not just to visit, but to stay.” That theme carried throughout the LA event. The morning portion – at Fox Studios – featured Ridley Scott, director, and Andy Weir, author of The Martian, as well as Bill Nye, Adam Savage and many Hollywood notables.  The later, UCLA portion, gave perhaps seventy film and media myth-spinners a chance to interact closely, in breakout sessions, with actual space scientists.  I found myself filling both roles!

Said OSTP Policy Director Tom Kalil: I believe that science fiction can provide a simulator for the societal risks and benefits of new technologies. This is useful in the same way that scenario planning helps organizations prepare for the future.”

The meeting was covered in this gizmodo article, with terrific artwork.

Help solve the problems of space exploration: The 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge is happening right now... See the challenges in aeronautics, Mars or techsploration. Join a team and collaborate to innovate, code, and design our future in space.

== Living and exploring space ==

What can we learn from living in space? Col. Chris Hadfield, who logged more than 4000 hours in space, offers his inspiring perspectives about humans in space and innovative problem-solving in his recent book, Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything -- which will help you think like an astronaut... a citizen of our ambitious future.

So, what are some good destinations? A fascinating article by Lee Billings on the tradeoffs re where on Mars astronauts should land. The first meeting on site appraisal – in Houston – brought out the Groundlings and Trailblazers, Conservationists and Burrowers and so on.  A conference I would have very much enjoyed. Though apparently there were no Smackers… folks who’d harvest some comets and just smack the Red Planet real good, slapping it (perhaps) back awake again.  AH… read HEART of the COMET. 

As a next step in its Journey to Mars program, NASA is seeking ideas for deep space habitats to house astronauts during long-duration missions, such as a trip to the Red Planet.

My NIAC colleague Ariel Waldman also has a terrific book - What's It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who've Been There. It received a mention in Oprah Magazine(!) this month: "Houston, we have a winner." 

Of course it won't just be humans -- our robotic envoys will explore on our behalf.... The latest cubesats are amazing.  When coupled with new instruments and new propulsion methods, they may soon enable mere universities to send robotic emissaries – not just to Low Earth Orbit but exploring across the Solar System. 

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) arrived at the Red Planet on March 10, 2006 and has done yeoman's work in the decade since. To mark the occasion, NASA created this video celebrating the MRO's 10 years at Mars .

Phil Plait waxes effusive and poetical about a dustdevil (a twister!) caught with its stereo cameras while exploring the rim of a giant crater. On Mars. For you. 

Interesting list! Space missions that never/almost/barely happened.

Boeing has patented technology to 3D print objects while levitating in space.  

Even more cool is the Made In Space endeavor, which, having won a NASA contract, aims to make zero G 3D printers for use in space.

ARPA-E has granted a contract with Aurora Systems to develop a unique VTOL aircraft that will rise vertically, thrust upward by 24 ducted hybrid-electric fans embedded inside the wings. (In a sense, it is a biplane.)   Cool and next. And aficionados will recognize it from William Gibson's prophetic-gritty "The Gernsback Continuum" -- from his collection Burning Chrome.

Mercury!  What makes so many portions of the innermost planet so dark? (Low Albedo.) It appears to be carbon, remnants of a graphite layer that floated on the surface of Mercury’s ancient magma. Wow, and this while scientists are calling graphene the wunder-material. Calling all self-assembler robots.

Cool to this cosmetologist: JPL and Goldstone managed to radar image comet  P/2016 BA14 on March 22. The comet, about 1 kilometer in diameter, passed about 3.5 million kilometers away, making it the third closest comet flyby in recorded history. Also fascinating.  It has an albedo of about 3%, which is lower than fresh asphalt.

Pluto: another world with an ice-roofed, liquid water ocean?  Meanwhile, on the surface, signs of recent Nitrogen rain and lakes.  If a methane-breathing astronaut from Titan were to visit, she’d evaporate these lakes just by walking nearby!  I guess everything is relative. 

And Pluto's moon Charon may have once had a subsurface ocean that has frozen and expanded, causing massive fracturing of the surface.

A look back at the early days, remembering how we got to space: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon and Mars, by Nathalia Holt honors the hard-working women pioneers of the 1940s and 50s who helped launch NASA into the space age, and win the space race. Holt relates the life stories of the early "human computers" who performed the extensive mathematical and calculating work (with pencil and paper, not silicon chips) which was vital to the success of NASA's early missions -- in that long ago era before we carried computers around in our pockets!

== Further out in space ==

Just as we look to other stars to detect transits of orbiting planets, perhaps intelligent extraterrestrials have adopted the same astronomical methods as us. Therefore, it might be a good idea to identify which sun-like stars are at just the right angle to see our Earth pass in front of our sun from their perspective. Researchers have now mapped a thin band they call the Earth’s “transit zone” that projects along the plane of the ecliptic. Any denizens of that band will be able to see Earth orbit in front of the sun, thus realizing there’s a small rocky world orbiting within the habitable zone of a star. 82 nearby sun-like stars occupy this zone and could therefore be very inviting SETI targets. 

Phil Plait – the “bad astronomer” – can be so interesting!  Here he correlates gamma ray bursters and Fast Radio Bursters and the recent detection of Gravity Waves…. And pieces are falling into place!  

Zowee. See this the spectacular X-ray producing jet from an 11 billion year old quasar and its possible implications.  

Want to go even farther back?  The Hubble Space Telescope has found a galaxy that formed only 400 million years after the Big Bang.

But wait! Perhaps Fast Radio Bursters don’t come from massive collisions, after all! FRBs are bright radio flashes that last just a few milliseconds, and until now have never been known to repeat. But if they do repeat, there goes the neutron star collision theory.