Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Science progress and updates

It's science Wednesday! A report offering proof that we remain a vigorous, exploratory, vividly smart and fact-oriented civilization, despite efforts to crush all of that.

All right, you knew this was coming… if you subscribed to my Psi channel. Scientists Demonstrate Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans, through non-invasive sensors.

News showing all is not hopeless, if we invest (as historian Toynbee demanded) in our “creative castes” –

Better access to hydrogen? Pulsing electric current through a layered molybedenum telluride catalyst has allowed researchers to almost double the amount of hydrogen produced per millivolt of electricity used , helping make clean hydrogen a potentially valid fuel, especially if this can be combined with super-proliferation of things like Elon’s solar roof.

Separately! Another potential game changer – announced last March: solar cells that produce hydrogen as well as electricity.

== What we eat ==

Bear with me – this is all related: Universities starting to ban beef from their campus menus. This is something I’ve long spoken about and portrayed in Earth (1989) And yet, I am actually surprised how quickly the meme is taking hold, this very year. If all of this had come just two years earlier, it might have helped prevent the deliberate fires in the Amazon, this year. 

The campaign will gain steam, faster than any of us expected. Here’s a video denouncing factory farming. And yes, of course I expect to be a convert. Oh, but is a ‘healthy’ diet also better for the planet? It appears so. 

A new algae-based Eos Bioreactor is capable of sucking in as much carbon dioxide as 400 trees. But rather than consuming an acre of forest land, it measures just 63 cubic feet—smaller than a traditional telephone booth. Hypergiant plans to make its design open source, allowing businesses and individuals to build variants for easy integration in homes and offices spaces. The growing algae can be harvested and used as a high-protein food source, biofuel, or textile. Now if this can scale up to use sunlight falling on the south sides of urban buildings, we could see a major game changer!

What could combine all of this? Cities where tall buildings use the sunlight falling upon their entire sunward-facing sides, feeding in CO2 plus agricultural or sanitation effluent, getting hydrogen, algae and clean water. Exactly the technologies we’ll also need in space. If your corporation is planning to build a big edifice soon, consider talking folks into incorporating bio-reactive or urban-farming components along that sunward side.

And meanwhile, despite frenetic assistance from Republicans, the obsolete and poisonous coal industry keeps plummeting as states and power companies find cheaper, cleaner sources. Will Trump’s failure to deliver on this promise hurt him in Appalachia? Not likely. His voters care only about symbolism.

Oh, you cynics who wallow is gloom, will you admit that your snarls are based simply on laziness? How much simpler if there weren’t just tons of good news. Sorry, but there’s kilotons. And if you can’t participate alongside the innovators, at least you can get active politically, and help block the monsters who thwart science at every turn.

Another prediction happening: in Earth (1989), I portrayed Sea State using power-generating kites. Now Google’s “X” team at Makani has moved closer the day when a kite massing far, far less might generate as much power as a massive windmill tower.   One use here is offshore platforms, potentially floating ones, or getting small island nations off diesel generators.  Later, much more.

== Yipe! ==

Remember that nasty nuclear accident in northern Russia, a couple of months back? Here’s an interesting dissection of the kinds of "nuclear rocket” that Russians may have been testing in Archangelsk, before the explosion. And yes, such desperation plus incompetence combinations are really scary.

Note also it was one of three disasters just that month. Watch this amazing footage from the munitions dump going off in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Mythbusters eat your hearts out. Are we witnessing signs of a “cool war”?  Read the Frederik Pohl novel by that name. Seriously. 

The alternative is that the plague of utter incompetence that brought down the USSR hasn't changed much. Except competence at messing with others... as they are messing with us.

And just as dangerous. More powerful a greenhouse gas than methane, just one kilogram of Sulfur Hexa Flouride SF6 leaking from the electricity industry warms the Earth to the same extent as 24 people flying London to New York return.

== Biology Time! ==

Forget Spider-Man! I want to see Naked-Mole-Rat Queen! These guys (mostly gals)  are… amazing. And what a super-hero title. Say it a few times.

Aaaaand… Scientists in Japan have reported a new method which allows them to separate mouse sperm carrying an X chromosome from those carrying a Y chromosome, meaning that sperm can be selected based on whether they will result in female (XX) or male (XY) offspring when used to fertilize an egg. This is very mixed news. Yes, in culturally macho countries this will exacerbate the male-excess already caused by selective abortion and will be much harder to stop.  The result 20 years later could be a major fertility decline, helping save the planet(?) but also creating a huge pool of frustrated, mateless males. Dangerous… unless technology comes to the rescue. You know what technology I mean.

Bizarrely consistent with the old notion of "recapitulation," anatomists have found one of the oldest, albeit fleeting, remnants of evolution seen in humans -- muscle attachments seen in very early fetuses that we last roughly 250 million years old - a relic from when reptiles transitioned to mammals. Fascinating. And consistent with something else that I theorize may have happened at that same time... speculated in my story "Chrysalis," available in Insistence of Vision.

Why creative experts may be better at imagining the future: Dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC): Involved in social directed thought such as determining or inferring the purpose of others' actions. As part of the default mode network it is primal for “distal” or distant thinking about the future as well as empathy. The medial prefrontal cortex was activated when visualizing proximal  near term events. 

Platinum grains and such support the notion that there was an extraterrestrial impact or comet air burst that caused the Younger Dryas climate event, 12,800 years ago, leading to a mini ice age about the time that giant animals such as mastodons, mammoths, saber-toothed cats and ground sloths disappeared from the Earth. Well, contributed, maybe. But not too long before there had been real ice ages. The suddenness might have amplified the effects. But I still put money on a different kind of stony impacts. Spear-points. 

== Miscellany! ==

From the brilliant Stephen (“Mathematica”) Wolfram -- just published: Adventures of a Computational Explorer (assisted by a blurb from yours truly ;-) “Most of the pieces I wrote in response to some particular situation or event. Their topics are diverse. But it’s remarkable how connected they end up being. And at some level all of them reflect the paradigm for thinking that has defined much of my life.
It all centers around the idea of computation, and the generality of abstraction to which it leads.

One more for the prediction registry? It Slices, It Dices, It Binds, And Stops Bugs: Dental Floss Is Your Secret Multitool.” Yeah. In The Practice Effect, my hero uses dental floss to tear down a wall and escape from prison.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Ban the pesky cameras? Before we all agree, consider what works.

First an update: Like millions, I fret about our calamitous political schisms increasingly resemble civil war. POLEMICAL JUDO, offers many perspectives on our crisis that you’ve never seen. Over 100+ tactics to help defend our Great Experiment. Now in both e-book and paperback.

Get  free sample chapters. Scan the table of contents, for a breadth of modern issues covered in unusual - perhaps sometimes science fictional  - ways! If 1% of the ideas might prove useful, shouldn't some be tried? (Priced super-low, because it’s more important to see these methods get into the right hands than to make a buck.)
Do help spread the word... and Amazon plaudits are welcome.

== Seeing should not be believing ==

Okay, it's a fraught era, all right, and one that some of us predicted. As if straight out of Earth and The Transparent Society — “Google just dropped a trove of visual deepfakes “free to the research community, for use in developing synthetic video detection methods.” The dataset includes 1000 “before” and “after” videos in which the faces of people were swapped with other people’s faces.” In the long run, we will document all our lives for simple self-protection.

Seeing isn’t believing: How to spot manipulated videosStraight from my chapter* “The End of Photography As Proof of Anything At All…”  The Internet is increasingly populated with false and misleading videos. These researchers set out to develop a guide to label altered videos and hold creators and sharers of this misinformation accountable.

And San Francisco recently banned facial recognition technologyMight the city’s ban on the technology set a nationwide precedent? How is this supposed to work, when both hardware and software get better at exponential rates. And cameras get faster, cheaper, smaller, better and more mobile quicker than Moore's law? There are already face recognition cell phone apps! Nothing will keep all elites from having this, though by law you might prevent average folks, for a while. How is that supposed to help, again?

== Right Diagnosis -- Deadly Wrong Prescription ==

The cause gains momentum. These privacy activists are vigorous and rightly concerned about misuse of surveillance tech -- standing on the Capitol steps scanning 13,000 faces for recognition, wearing signs demanding "Make this illegal!" Oh, these are good folks, with right-on concerns about the coming surveilled world that could easily turn Orwellian. Right problem! ... But absolutely and spectacularly wrong solution! A prescription that is not only technologically and historically clueless, but that plays right into the hands of every would-be Big Brother.

I debated this very topic last week on NPR's "To The Point" with Warren Olney.  The ACLU attorney - Kade Crawford - was smart, cogent, admirable and agile... though she also utterly misses what history tells us -- that it's no use 'hiding' from elites. What works -- the ONLY thing that has ever protected freedom and, yes, some privacy -- is when average citizens can maximally see, thus holding elites accountable.

Why do you think Putin, Trump and Fox desperately seek to preserve al kinds of secrecy? The sole fallback position of today's GOP distills to "Don't Look At Us!" Tax returns, staffer testimony, Trump's bragged-about "Great Wall of NDAs"... when will our paladins of freedom at ACLU and EFF (join today!) ever grasp the core truth of human nature -- that all enemies of the enlightenment are terrified of light?

We mustn’t be the ones giving them excuses to blind us, while retaining in secret all the powers we foolishly “outlawed.” Listen to the stimulating debate on NPR.

== They are already watching you... so look back ==

Oh, you ask: "Who is EFF?" The Electronic frontier Foundation (I’m a member and you should join) is an NGO that vigorously gathers information about those who are gathering information about us. That’s the side of modern, e-activism that is utterly essential and it can work. And articles like this one show it, in action, as the authors reveal the depth and breadth of surveillance tech used by law enforcement in San Diego.

Indeed, it is a daunting list, from body-worn copcams to face recognition (FR) to cell-phone spoof “stingrays” to license plate readers and doorbell-cam ‘sharing’ and drones, it’s clear that the sum total could be used by a top-down state to control or oppress, as this very sum of converging technologies is being used today, in China. Most cryptic and mysterious is the Palantir data analysis system, which unabashedly aims to empower mighty elites at the expense of citizens. 

“Between the busiest border crossing in the United States, a large military presence, a major port, a booming tech and cybersecurity industry, and elected officials who campaign on government innovation, it’s a wonder that San Diego has yet to become a Big Brother hellscape. Or has it? Perhaps the process was so gradual that no one noticed.”

And so we come to the point where I always part company with my dear friends and colleagues and paladins of freedom at EFF. For I have never known one of them to look in a mirror, and notice the phenomenon that they are seeing there.

By all means, read this summary! Be aware. Then refuse to panic. YOU go look in a mirror while you are flush with suspicion of authority (SoA) endorphins… and recognize THAT you are reacting that way. 

Good. Nurse that voluptuously urgent sense of SoA militancy! But also know that a majority of your fellow citizens share it. And if we together choose to supervise the elites controlling these technologies… and use them ourselves, then yes, there is a chance. Our only chance, but a real chance to stay free.

== On privacy and cameras ==

Sean Carroll - on his Mindscape podcast - interviews my colleague Ramez Naam (The Nexus Trilogy) about reasons for optimism that humanity can (tho not necessarily will) solve many of the crises that we face. Mez kindly cites me in the final 16 minutes… though I think I’ll give up trying to explain to folks that David Brin does NOT think “privacy is dead.” 

Sure, only one thing will save some privacy for us — along with freedom. We’ll retain both, providing we all get to see nearly everything. Which would mean (and no one ever gets this) that we’ll catch voyeurs and spies and peeping toms who try to barge in on us, and be empowered to hold them accountable with MYOB! (Mind Your Own Business.) It's what all of us do, when we dine at restaurants! Glancing around to ensure no one if leaning/listening in.

But aside from that… Mez gives a truly fine interview that will leave you inspired and motivated to help those good trends save the world.

== Why tech suppression won't work ==

Brin’s corollary to Moore’s Law is in effect, as the cameras get smatter, better, faster, cheaper and more mobile/numerous every year. Now: The “World's smallest camera is size of a grain of sand.” Just the sensor part, which fits at the tip of a thread for surgical uses. But the notion you’ll be able to “hide” is nonsense. You are better off protecting freedom and (some) privacy by letting everybody see.

And sensors can be helpful: when a bicyclist hit his head in an accident, knocking him out, his Apple Watch detected a “hard fall” and called 911 with his location. The watch also sent a text to the man’s son to let him know his father had suffered a fall.

Stop fearing the future! Yes, many daunting problems and even minefields lie in front of us. DO peer ahead and warn! Science Fiction plays a big part of that and I have offered lots of warnings!  But almost every solution that could possibly work will require confidence! Confidence in us and the tools of elightenment.

== Bringing us full circle ==

Which takes us back to my new book filled with tools!  POLEMICAL JUDO - offers scores of tactics potentially useful right now! If only someone out there gets it read by someone in the right position to apply them. 


* in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Science fictional futures: news & updates

First... one of the best surviving science fiction and mystery bookstores left in the west is San Diego's Mysterious Galaxy. It looks like they may have to close without a new owner or investor. If you have any leads, refer them here... or to me.

I've been busy, all right. In addition to my e-book on political tactics you never see in the news*... we're almost ready to announce something that many of you have written to ask for over the years --both an e-book and POD paperback of The Ancient Ones, my sci fi comedy novel...

...and our own e-book re-issue of Sundiver! Stay tuned.

And yes, many of you have written in or commented on the huge new popular online game Death Stranding, and yes, well, some things are obvious. "If you’ve ever read David Brin’s novel, or seen the 1997 Kevin Costner film, The Postman, this shares a similar premise. The only difference of course would be the supernatural elements,"notes Adam Beck in Hardcore Gamer.

A new anthology Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow includes 14 speculative stories from such accomplished authors as Paolo Bacigalupi, Emily St. John Mandel, Annalee Newitz, Carmen Maria Machado, and others. By turns funny, alarming, and inspiring, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow is a thought-provoking excursion into the futures we would and would not want to live in. 

== Science fiction and the news ==

Congratulations to this year’s winners of Hugo Awards:

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal — Best Novel (And I recommend highly.)
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells — Best Novella
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow — Best Short Story
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho — Best Novelette
Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers — Best Series

And in this world...

Los Angeles recently ended its insistence that all tall buildings have heliports. Ironic! Because uber and other are designing networks of hover cabs to ferry users between rooftops.

Forget flying cars. How about wooden ones? New “Metallic Wood” could lead to Super-Light CarsIt’s as tough as titanium, but light enough to float in water.

In The Uplift War, there’s a riot scene (that readers call a laugh riot!) in a chimp bar called the Ape’s Grape, wherein the tables are made of straw and the beer bottles out of paper, only partly for reasons of cost/ecology… mostly to limit damage, because a nice riot is one of the objectives, every evening! Now Carlsberg brewery is developing paper beer bottles. Eco driven for now. But expect the fun-to-damage ratio of bar fights to improve mightily!  

Another prediction happening: in Earth (1989), I portrayed Sea State using power-generating kites. Now Google’s “X” team at Makani has moved closer the day when a kite massing far, far less might generate as much power as a massive windmill tower.   One use here is offshore platforms, potentially floating ones, or getting small island nations off diesel generators.  Later, much more.

One more for the prediction registry? It Slices, It Dices, It Binds, And Stops Bugs: Dental Floss Is Your Secret Multitool.” Yeah. In The Practice Effect, my hero uses dental floss to tear down a wall and escape from prison.

My Hugo nominated story “The Giving Plague” is reprinted in an anthology (along with many originals) of science fiction about health care!  Some stories in VITAL explore advances in treatment for serious and emergency conditions; imagine a healthcare system that is simpler to navigate and cares for the whole person, or envision a world where the average life expectancy is 200 years.

A fun story by my colleague Ted Chiang has a title “The Great Silence,” that I coined in my 1983 general review article on SETI, before the mystery of the missing aliens was even called the “Fermi Paradox.”  The subtitle: “A parrot has a question for humans,” pretty much cues you in to the well-written little tale. And the narrator has more to say than the poor parrot quantum-messengers in my novel Existence. The plaint of a soon-to-be extinct sapient bird and species isn’t rancorous, though moving.

Along similar lines see “What the Dead Man Said,” a new short story about climate change, migration, and family secrets, by Chinelo Onwualu.

And from the sublime to the deliberately ridiculous…  ‘Alcohol in Space: Past, Present and Future’ is now available — including a story (*hic!*) - of mine own. Collected by Chris Carberry, with a forward by Andy Weir.

A new film “Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is me!” tells the story of 13 ability-diverse global citizens as they explore their identity through artistic expression and making a home for themselves in the VR Metaverse.

A simple proposal that could change a generation. These new e-sports leagues are just now setting up their rules. So why not require that the players POWER their own devices with exercise? As long as it's a level playing field, so to speak, with allowances for age and handicaps, it would add another dimension! It could be part of game play. Above all it would set an example that these new e-sports don't have to be slovenly and destructive of physical health. It might inspire a whole generation to at least move a bit in both the real and virtual worlds.

Chinese Director Says He’s ‘Truly Sorry’ for Sci-Fi Flop. Teng Huatao, the director of “Shanghai Fortress,” on Saturday expressed his “extreme sadness” over myriad memes joking that the movie had “closed the door” on expectations for Chinese sci-fi. While such films have performed poorly in recent years, the runaway success of February blockbuster “The Wandering Earth” had ushered in a surge of excitement and optimism about the genre’s future — that is, until now.

More soon!

* And yes, my new e-book POLEMICAL JUDO sets our current crisis in many perspectives you’ve never seen, offer ing100+ tactics to counter the would-be destroyers of our Great Experiment. Free sample chapters! And the paperback is now available for Print-on-Demand.

Maybe someone will pick up some of these tactics and win some victories for us.