Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Midweek filler -- some of it biting and some way-cool!

For this mid-week posting, let's offer up a series of interesting snippets and links... many of them thought provoking but across a wide variety of topics.

First... some terrific journalism and a real life adventure story! Read this riveting tale of goodguy “pirates” against genuine evil-villain pirates, as eco-vigilantes tail and pursue the most notorious, Interpol-listed rogue fish-poaching ship. “Industrial-scale violators of fishing bans and protected areas are a main reason more than half of the world’s major fishing grounds have been depleted and by some estimates over 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish like marlin, tuna and swordfish have vanished.” Vividly illustrated, this cat and mouse saga has a dramatic conclusion… and a lesson that we need better law at sea.

A major shift in religious tendencies: "The United States is a significantly less Christian country than it was seven years ago. That's the top finding — one that will ricochet through American faith, culture and politics — in the Pew Research Center's newest report: America's Changing Religious Landscape," reports USA Today.  "Atheists and agnostics have nearly doubled their share of the religious marketplace, and overall indifference to religion of any sort is rising as well. Only the historically black Protestant churches have held a steady grip through the years of change." 

Speaking of which, did any of you see the advert for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, - narrated by Ron Reagan - during the last week of the Daily Show? Wow. I am not actually an atheist!  But the message here is not "hate God."  The message is leave each other alone and keep government out of it.

Except -- as I describe elsewhere -- when politicians wear religion on their sleeve and openly declare that specific doctrines will control their use of policy and governmental tools. Including nuclear weapons. At which point, take them at their word. Especially watch out for politicians who avow to praying for the end of the world. 

== smarter people ==

This will be the first year that I miss the annual FiRe (Future in Review) conference — one of the best tech-futurist meetings on the planet. Held this year at a ski resort in Utah in October. Do look into attending, if you are a tech industry CTO or other C level person. Opening night talk will be by Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transport Technologies. Dirk, who earlier worked at SpaceX, has taken this idea and moved it into the world of not just crowd-funding, but crowd-design, with a crew of 200 engineers working collaboratively for stock, uniting their skills to design and build the world's first Hyperloop.  Now, that is exciting.

Is all of this leading somewhere cool? Phil Plait has more fun with the science of Star Trek.  And mostly I agree. Though a couple of nopes might be “maybes.”  Above all, Trek encourages geeks to ask such questions. "Wars" doesn’t do that. Star Wars is vivid, visually gorgeous silly stuff -- with a patina of outright evil that I hope Disney will finally exorcise.

Kind of interesting shows!  TED talks by master illusionists.  A kewl interview with the brilliant Penn and Teller.  And yes, Teller speaks!

== A potpourri of "outcomes" ==

Take that, Blue America - we’re number one! Montgomery, Ala., has more cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia than large U.S. cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Orleans, according to a report released today from a renter’s website. Southern cities such as Memphis, St. Louis, New Orleans; Killeen, Texas; and Fayetteville, North Carolina also made the top 10 of the list. 

What… ALL of the top ten? And how many more? Please dig this well... I did not start this and I am only fighting back, when I point out that Red America is not, as they relentlessly claim to be, "more moral."

I’ll gladly stop talking about such things — along with rates of teen sex, teen pregnancy, divorce, domestic violence, gambling etc… when Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz and Fox News stop yammering lies about how much “more moral” bubba-folk are than all those pencil-neck university types. You’re not. Not by even a single metric.  Not one.  So can it and let's work together like grownups.

Meanwhile, the number of uninsured Americans decreased from 36 million people in the first three months of 2014 to just 29 million people in the same period in 2015. Of the top 10 states that witnessed the sharpest declines in uninsured rates, seven of them have expanded Medicaid and launched a state-based marketplace exchange or state-federal partnership under the Affordable Care Act, while two have established one or the other. 

Oh, but Obamacare was going to destroy the American health system, remember?  Send rates through the roof? Well, insurance rates had been seeing double digit rises all through the decade before the ACA passed, so let’s see how much worse it’s gotten!

“Monthly premiums for California's 1.3 million Covered California customers will rise a modest 4 percent, on average, officials with the agency said Monday. This increase is slightly less than last year's increase of 4.2 percent for consumers who bought policies on the state's health insurance marketplace.  Some consumers could even achieve a reduction in their premium, of an average of 4.5 percent, if they choose to shop around.  "This is another year of good news for California's consumers and further evidence that the Affordable Care Act is working," said Peter Lee, Covered California's executive director.”  And -- "Throughout our negotiations, consumers in California saved more than $200 million."

Okay, here’s what’s going to happen.  The Cult will deny or refuse to look at such facts – (or those regarding Climate Change, or a myriad other wrongheaded incantations) – until the evidence is as overwhelming as a tsunami.  At which point, Rupert Murdoch's spin machine will suddenly announce: “Of course public exchanges and individual mandates work! It was OUR PLAN all along!”

And here is the infuriating irony. When they claim credit for the success of Obamacare... they'll be right! It truly was the Republicans’ own damn health care plan, all through the 1990s and until 2008… whereupon they suddenly reversed and declared it to be satanic, because Barack Obama adopted it, and gave it coooooties.

Trust me, a time will come when they will loudly claim credit for Obamacare.  And you heard it here, first.

=== FINALLY... help me post a grand list of future-oriented sites! ===

This coming weekend I will post one of my major Resource Blogs -- a list of online sites that deal with the future.  From iO9 and the Long Now all the way to the CIA... places where you can reassure yourself that at least some members of your species have prefrontal lobes and are using those "lamps on the brow" to peer ahead.

At least a little. You are invited to suggest your own contributions to the list, under comments.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Risks and Solutions - We need competence

We need to love competence!

Next weekend I will post one of my major Resource Blogs -- a list of online sites that deal with the future.  From iO9 and the Long Now all the way to the CIA... places where you can reassure yourself that at least some members of your species have prefrontal lobes and are using those "lamps on the brow" to peer ahead. At least a little. You are invited to suggest your own contributions to the list, below, under comments.

Today, our first item is simple kvelling over what might be a highlight this autumn. The new trailer for "The Martian..." I'm actually starting to believe (more hope) that Hollywood didn't screw this up. Indeed, is there a market for "competence porn"? Or stories that let folks get high off imagining someone doing cool stuff right?  Rather than just your standard faire -- revenge epics against absurd villains?

== Existential Risks ==

Wow! An Ebola vaccine has shown 100% efficacy in individuals, according to results from an interim analysis. The aim is to “enclose” any new cases by vaccinating those who have contacted a victim plus the rings of contact surrounding them, and so on. 

Will machines get too smart? See The Real Reason Elon Musk Is Worried About Killer Robots.  An interesting article laying out the rationale for what the Future of Life Institutes call for a moratorium on “offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.” Supported by Elon and Stephen Hawking and others, the summons to serious discussion merits sober and direct consideration. The Future of Life Institute will explore possible failure modes re Artificial Intelligence.  (Indeed, I believe I have the cogent and persuasive argument that can get any truly advanced AI system to back off from any simplistic "kill all humans" or turn-everything-into-intelligent goo scenarios.) But again, yay Elon. We need a society that looks ahead.

In fact I have some very unusual takes on AI... for another time.

While we’re discussing existential threats … See an interesting look back at one of the first-ever widely televised debates, and one that transfixed the U.S. with matters of science, as Edward Teller and Linus Pauling confronted each other over war, peace, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

It's Not Climate Change: It's Everything Change: In an extensive essay, Margaret Atwood creates scenarios for our looming future: First, despite all those fallout shelters built in suburban backyards during the Cold War, we haven’t yet blown ourselves up with nuclear bombs. Second, thanks to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on pesticides, Silent Spring, not all the birds were killed by DDT in the fifties and sixties. And, third, we managed to stop the lethal hole in the protective ozone layer that was being caused by the chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants and spray cans, thus keeping ourselves from being radiated to death. As we head towards the third decade of the twenty-first century, it’s hopeful to bear in mind that we don’t always act in our own worst interests.”

It just goes on and on. The denialist cult covering their eyes and ears as "Science Confirms 2014 Was Hottest Yet Recorded, On Land And Sea." But nothing compared to what's predicted for next year's "Godzilla El Nino."  And those who (like Fox and Ted Cruz) use the previous record shattering year - 1998 - as a convenient baseline are cheaters.  Yes, you... no, that liar to your left over there.  Yes, you know who I mean.

Meanwhile, XPrize maven and friend-of-brin Peter Diamandis awarded a prize money of 2 million dollars from the Ocean Health Xprize to a team from Montana which discovered a way to reliably measure the pH (power of Hydrogen, meaning the measure of acidic or basic level in a substance) of the sea in a cost-efficient manner. Though it is already the most-blatant effect of atmospheric carbon pollution.

Oh, but they shout "squirrel!" pointing elsewhere whenever you mention Ocean Acidification, blatantly caused by human generated CO2. But we had it wrong, boys 'n girls. The war on science was not waged in order to delay serious negotiations over climate change.  No. Climate denialism was concocted as an excuse to wage war on science.

== Seeking solutions ==

Three Ways the World's Power Mix is About to Change: I told you so.  Over and over again: “Big changes are afoot for the energy sector in the next 25 years. Coal and gas are headed out and solar and wind are rushing to take their place on a multi-trillion dollar investment bonanza, according to a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance that scopes out the power generating landscape through 2040. The main reason for the big shift in power generation is not likely to be because of a grand climate agreementnational polices or carbon pricing scheme, though. Instead, it comes down to cold, hard cash with renewables offering more power-generating bang for the buck than fossil fuels," reports this article in Scientific American.

Solar power project costs have fallen a whopping 59 percent since 2009 while onshore wind costs have fallen 11.5 percent over that time.”

And curses be upon those who deliberately (and successfully) delayed this inevitable shift. It could have been a decade earlier, but for the coal and petro lords using Goebbels-level propaganda to rile up fools against science and joint action that might benefit our children.  We will all pay the price.  And those of you who fell for that self-serving propaganda-racket, shame on you.  Come back to the light.

Looking ahead... How did the CIA do in its year 2000 forecast for 2015?   Pretty good, in fact. By coincidence, I am consulting and writing for Microsoft’s major effort to develop new prediction methodologies.  

== An Innovation Deficit? ==

Is a New Industrial Revolution Coming...a so-called "Industrial Internet, Industry 4.0 or the Industrial Internet of Things," driven by rapid advances in remote sensors, robotics, additive manufacturing, big data, smart grids, smart cities, and automated transportation? 

Will we continue to see exponential changes in technology? Here's Ray Kurzweil on the "Law of Accelerating Returns," which states that "fundamental measures of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories." And the bible of that optimistic clade... Peter Diamandis's Abundance.

But it won't happen by itself. For smooth sailing into the future....we need investment in ambitious technologies. Even as overseas competitors are increasing their investment in basic research, the U.S. federal government research investment is declining — from just under 10 percent in 1968 to less than 4 percent in 2015 — in critical fields such as cybersecurity, infectious disease, plant biology, and Alzheimer’s are threatening an “innovation deficit.” 

Let there be no doubt. Those who have done this, as part of their War on Science, are bona fide traitors and enemies of America and of the Great Experiment. There is no way that anyone can even call that an exaggeration.

== Increasing Data Speeds ==

A key element is our speed of communication. See this global compilation of broadband download speeds worldwide -- where the U.S. ranks below Iceland, Latvia, Denmark, Bulgaria and Belgium.

Will we be able to boost bandwidth tenfold? Experts say that recent advances in LED technology have made it possible to modulate the LED light more rapidly, opening the possibility of using light for wireless transmission in a “free space” optical communication system. The technology could be integrated with existing WiFi systems to reduce bandwidth problems in crowded locations, such as airport terminals or coffee shops.
IBM claims a major advance in quantum computing that could soon lead to cracking all old encryptions.  (Um, I told you so.  Twenty years ago, even before The Transparent Society.  But you cypher-transcendentalist-mystic guys pay… no… attention... to... reality.)

Italian researchers have created a microscopic device that can supposedly fit onto a silicon chip and produce entangled photons. The researchers paired a silicon wafer with what’s known as a ring resonator — a closed loop that photons enter on one side via a laser beam. They emerge entangled on the other side, where they are captured, opening the possibility of making entangled pairs a normal part of our existing electronic systems.

Another way to increase data speeds: Polarization – (I was once an expert, publishing papers on the theory) – appears to come in“shapes” that go beyond the distribution-sets of linear or circular polarization sorting.  Not only that, but these shapes can be imposed upon a coherent beam and used to expand the amount of information it can carry. “Vector modes are spatial modes that have spatially inhomogeneous states of polarization, such as radial and azimuthal polarization. In this work, the spatially inhomogeneous states of polarization of vector modes are used to increase the transmission data rate of free-space optical communication via mode division multiplexing.” Ow!  I understood all that... but now my head hurts!  Wow.  

Old fashioned life-saving... Blood donors in Sweden get a text message whenever their blood saves someone's life. Not that I needed that -- after my 80th donation. (I just received my commemorative Ten Gallon hat from the blood bank!) Still it might be nice if they did that here.

Finally, in the age-old argument among Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau... at a Skeptics conference, Dawkins spoke of humans’ anomalous “lust to be nice.” I agree sort of.  But it is conditional and contingent.  See my speech on otherness at the Smithsonian. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Battles over Symbols - and how to take back your vote!

First this quirky thing I heard... Has anyone else picked up rumors of hispanic Americans re-registering Republican, in order to vote against Donald Trump in primaries?  Anyone have a link? Or is it a rumor I just started?  ;-)  

Of course the tactic is silly at one level... none of the other GOP candidates are any better from the perspective of Latino Americans.

But at another level it makes plenty of sense.  And here I explain why anyone who lives in a Republican district should register Republican, even if they intend to vote for the democrat in the fall. And vice versa in heavily democratic districts, fair is fair. Except in California where we finally rendered that nonsense moot with sensible top-two primaries.

Seriously. Join the party OF your district!  It is the way to thwart radicals, get back a vote, promote local moderates, mess-up the PACs' calculations, and side-step the gerrymandering criminal theft of your franchise.

== It's never about substance ==

The debate over confederate symbols like the Battle Flag is just one front in our current “Phase Eight of the American Civil War.”  Nor can the New Confederacy complain, since their party made symbolism a locus of 21st Century aggression long before Blue America did — for example by insisting that U.S. aircraft carriers never be named after anyone disapproved by dixiecrats. 

Every phase of our ongoing civil war was demonstrably started aggressively by the same side.  

In fact, as a contrarian-militant-moderate, I will often turn around and offer up a yes-but. Hence, while I agree (yes-but) that the Confederacy was (and remains) a deeply vile treason without a scintilla of moral justification, at any level (especially not 'states rights)… I did stand up for one legitimately proud public use for the Battle Flag — at Civil War re-enactments.  Not only because its absence would be absurdly a-historical. But also because there was one trait of the Olde Confederacy that merited respect, even admiration by its enemies, like W.T. Sherman. (Whose prophetic words could not have been more spot-on.)

What was that one admirable confederate trait? The martial courage and resilience and ingenuity that southern men displayed on the battlefield. Completely independent of their “nation’s” absolutely uniform horrific moral standing was the staunchly brave way that they fought for it. I have no objections at all to southern white chests swelling with pride over great-great-grandpappy’s exploits at Chancellorsville or Chickamauga.

It seems that a transition is gaining momentum, as the Memphis City Council cast its final vote to remove a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a downtown park. The statue, and Forrest's remains, will be moved to Elmwood Cemetery where the Confederate general had originally been buried, according to his wishes, till Klan-associated activists took over a city park for this gesture, in 1905. Forrest was, without any doubt, one of the most brilliant battlefield commanders, not just of the Civil War but in all of history.  He also ordered the execution of 300 already-surrendered and unarmed negro U.S. troops, among other atrocities, and helped to found the Ku Kux Klan. See this passionate article by a Memphis woman who pleads for the South to separate itself, at last, from the Confederacy. And listen to this radio show suggesting a new plaque for the Forrest statue.

Which brings us to the latest skirmish, demands to modify the giant Confederate sculpture at Stone Mountain Georgia. The carving of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson spans three acres and is the largest high relief sculpture in the world — even larger (by surface)  than Mount Rushmore. Atlanta's city council this week urged Gov. Nathan Deal to study additions of famous Georgians such as Martin Luther King Jr. 

I’d go farther.  Keep Robert E. Lee!  Not only did he represent all those admirable martial qualities, but he did us all a service after Appomattox, by quashing any talk of guerrilla war. His actual generalship was just a bit over-rated (a topic for another time.) But this is fine. Stonewall? A truly awful person — a real piece of work, like Forresr — but admittedly a superb battlefield commander. Like Forrest.

But Davis has gotta go. Almost a perfect archetype of an oathbreaking traitor who just before the 1860 election was preaching loyalty to America “right or wrong.”  I propose (and this will happen someday, folks, as the wheel turns) re-carving his face to represent someone else. Proposals? (Not Forrest. Longstreet might do. But I favor repurposing it more broadly across time.  Put in Washington, um. Patton? Yeah, he rode horses, too. Oh, but Patton was a Californian, so he won't do....)

== Big Brother and the Patriot Act ==

In this Wired article on cyber-surveillance, Caleb Garling writes, "In his book Skating on Stilts, former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker examines the numerous ways—air travel, biotech, the Internet—that America has left itself vulnerable to threats. Baker has been one of the most vocal proponents of the Patriot Act—especially section 215, the program to collect telephone records and other digital information. A litany of opponents, including everyone from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Senator Rand Paul, consider the secretive program a gross invasion of privacy—on May 31, the program expired."

Alas, this is a case where all three "sides"… the defenders of government surveillance like Baker and their critics and especially so-called journalists like this one, are wedged beyond all belief, dangerously so.  Perhaps even lethally, for our civilization. All of them, from Rand Paul to Baker to almost every "sage pundit" buy into the notion of a zero sum game. A tradeoff wherein we swap some freedom for some added safety -- or vice versa -- a noxious and even nauseating notion that betrays every fundamental on which we built the world's first positive-sum society.

The astonishing thing is how easy it is to refute this nonsensically romantic notion. In all of human history, no people have ever been as safe as we are, and no people have ever been as free.  The two desiderata rise and fall together, in ways that both illustrate and prove the power of "positive sum."  Yet, driven by righteous dudgeon, it seems everyone cries out for one absolute necessity, at the cost of another.

In fact, let's suppose that the members of our Professional Protector Caste (PPC) do need vast powers of vision and correlation, in order to detect threats to our well-being.  Sure, those same powers could wind up being used against us. 

We are all children of George Orwell, worried about Big Brother. (Whether he might come from Government or plutocracy is the main feature of your fantasies, determining whether you are "left" or "right.") So? In that case, look for the essential thing that will prevent the PPC from becoming oppressors!

 That thing is not blindness. Crippling their ability to see will not make the NSA etc harmless, it will only make them less effective… and more likely to look anyway, in secret.

 What will prevent our watch dogs from turning into wolves? Supervision. Ensuring that we, the people can oversee.  By safeguarding whistleblowers and making the FISA Court truly adversarial and ending blanket gag orders, we are stepping gradually toward a world where PPC abuses will be discovered without interfering in legitimate uses of technology to scan the horizon for dangers.
Will these reforms be enough?  In no way! Far from complacent, I am militant that we must push supervision in many innovative and aggressive ways… that nevertheless also allow civil servants who are judicious and professional… and who genuinely deem themselves to be our servants… to do their jobs.
What I will not listen to, any longer, is so-called wise-men who tell me I must choose between safety for my children or their freedom. People who push that choice upon us only thus prove how deeply, deeply stupid they truly are. They can all -- and this includes most of you contemporary pundits and self-styled heroes of liberty out there -- go to hell.

== On Drone Strikes ==

There are legitimate concerns among liberals about drone strikes and targeted killing as a method of war. But for those on the right to call President Obama “feckless and ineffective” in the War on Terror is the most stunning of hypocrisies.

In fact, there have been far fewer successful terror attacks against US territory, nationals or interests under Obama than occurred under Bush.  And vastly more enemy figures – including Osama bin Laden – have met comeuppance under Obama than the very nearly zero who were tracked down – despite all his posturing and bleating – under George W. Bush. (Who helped every well-connected Saudi citizen flee the U.S. and FBI questioning, the day after 9/11.)

You Fox watchers, get out more.  Try paying attention to actual facts.  But then, if you did that, you wouldn’t watch Fox.

== Apocalypse yearners are not your friends ==

I've spoken of this before and will have a longer post soon.  But the ultimate symbolism junkies are those who so hate the scientific era that they yearn for an imminent end of days. I'll say plenty about the apocalypse junkies in America...

... but now catch a glimpse of how the very same idea propels ISIS and its ilk. "Apocalyptic fantasies are "a major part of the Islamic State's recruiting pitch," says the director of Brookings's Project on US-Islamic Relations.  Indeed the syndrome is eerily similar, with slight differences in the details of the narrative, between the Koran and the Book of Revelation, and especially each side labeling the other in the role of satanic servants.  (As both sides labeled each other in Napoleonic times, and our Civil War, and in the World Wars and so on.

Many of you may be unfamiliar with the BoR, which in fact is the core mythology clung to by a large minority of Americans and -- significantly -- a large fraction of Republican candidates for public office, who openly yearn for events that would violently torture most Americans and then consign them to perpetual hell, while ending forever all human ambition, accomplishment, democracy... and the United States of America.

See this cultural touchstone illustrated swiftly and easily here.  You need to know how deep it goes. 

== The Politics of Culture ==

Colorado gave away free (or near free) birth control to low-income women and teenage girls across the state for 6 years, funded by Warren Buffett's healthy charity. Results? Teen births fell by 40% and abortions fell by 35%, saving the state tens of millions in direct Medicaid costs and heaven knows how much in welfare costs over the next 20 years, but the program still can't get government funding to continue. Add it to the long tally of ways that our partisan divide is no longer about classic "left" or "right."  Rather, it is now about mixed-practical vs jibbering insane.

As I will reiterate, one side of this phase of the Civil War is about symbolism -- we've mentioned flags and Confederate statuary and naming aircraft carriers and loudly proclaiming moral virtue and that everything was better in the 1950s. Let's be fair, in that the other side contains some obnoxiously (PC) symbolism-obsessed fools, too.  Still, most blue americans are far more interested in outcomes.  

Like what actual methods actually reduce teen sex, teen pregnancies, STDs, domestic violence, abortion and so on. And what methods actually make capitalism work better? And which ones actually and scientifically improve the economy and national health?  

No wonder one side hates science, so.  Which brings us to....

In a fascinating Atlantic article, Eric Liu takes up the much-debated notion of “cultural literacy”… or whether the shared background of “dead white male” past facts, accomplishments, mistakes and arguments can have merit and pertinence in a nation and world of fast-changing technologies, ethnicities and styles.  “The more serious challenge, for Americans new and old, is to make a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts. It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, Americans need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. Americans need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that diversity can be most fully activated.”

Of course this relates to my own longstanding emphasis on the “positive sum games” of modern civilization… the only civilization in which positive sum thinking was ever a strong contender for primacy in public and private thought.  

But heck, finishing up this post about symbolism.... This essay adds evidence to the firm rebuttal of every lie about the “cause” for which confederate states seceded.  It was about slavery, and had absolutely zilch to do with “states’ rights,” which they had been happy to trample under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1852, and during the 30 years that southern states controlled the White House.  See also my own essays about this here and here.

Here’s one for the “name an exception challenges.” There is one area where Red America scores better than Blue America. Cost of living.  A dollar goes farther!  And we should hope so, since Blue America sends so many to Red America as government expenditures, far more than the residents pay, in loathed taxes. 

And now... enough for a Monday posting.  Keep moving forward. And to all oversimplifying, symbol-obsessed dogmatists?  There, there.  We'll save the world despite you.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Our best year in space yet!

This time we're looking outward... toward the vast, vast majority of all there is. And after decades of doldrums, it seems we truly are regaining some momentum in space exploration.  Have any of you been keeping track on a scorecard?

Hang on till the end, to read the news from NASA NIAC!

First... Citizen science. Nasa just launched a satellite to judge soil moisture. in order to calibrate it, Nasa needs lots of soil samples. So, they're inviting people to find out when the SMAP satellite is flying over their area, then collect a sample, weigh it, dry it, weigh it again, and report it.

Of course Pluto is still the biggest story. Data  and extraordinary images continue to stream in from the fabulously successful New Horizons mission. Of which we should all be very proud, a pinnacle in one of humanity's best years in space. 

(That is, unless you are one of these pathetic people who proclaim "it's all faked!"  In which case, why take on so many dazzlingly vivid accomplishments to fabricate? With that kind of special effects budget, you could, um, afford real space missions.)

But back to the show! Watch the video: Animated Flyover of PlutoThen remind yourself that this is Pluto.  Say that to yourself while watching the video. It is freaking PLUTO!

And you did this. As a taxpayer and citizen. If you are not thrilled, then you badly need to next watch THIS video! Especially the end. 

And now this coda: "In a coincidence of astronomical proportions, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has conducted the first flyby of Pluto on the 50th anniversary of the first flyby of Mars. NASA’s Mariner 4 probe became the first spacecraft to capture up-close images of another planet when it flew past Mars on July 14, 1965."

Wow, has it been that long since my teenage brain had to adjust to there being no canals (or princesses) on the Red Planet?  I am mollified knowing that New Horizons still has fuel in its tanks and they hope to send her past another Kuiper Belt object, a billion miles further into deep, deep space.

== Had enough Pluto? == 

Nope, there's more. Another Plutonian mountain range!   And cool info on Pluto’s lesser moons.  The much-anticipated “eclipse” study of Pluto’s dark side shows the sun’s halo around the planet, revealing thick and high haze that may come from crystalized hydrocarbons. And closeups in Tombaugh Regio show “flow” shapes that suggest semi-liquid activity - possibly by partly melted Nitrogen ices (!) within the last few tens of millions of years! Signs of geologic activity recently? On Pluto? Oy.

And now what you’ve been waiting for… a tentative map of Pluto proposed place names! And for Charon, too. Pluto features many explorers and discoverers… plus some noted monsters. But Charon?  Charon’s craters and regions are tentatively named for… sci fi characters!  Kirk Crater… Sulu Crater… Ripley Crater … Skywalker Crater… Vader Crater plus some creators of sci fi like Kubrick, Clarke and Butler.  Zowee! 

(Notice the majority of Charon that’s still blurry?  Okay, there’s still time for me and my creations! Help make em classics so the next mission...)

== And Meanwhile... ==

The Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko bobbled and skipped into a shadowed spot, falling out of contact... till it woke up in June as the comet moved closer to the sun. But latest data suggests something, possibly a gas emission, may have moved it again. Philae’s antenna may have been obstructed, and one of its transmitters seems to have stopped working. Well well, some of you recall I predicted this.  The violence of the comet's close passage to the sun will do this.  I hope they got some more good data.  More on 67/P in our next space update.

See this marvelous 3D topography model of the nucleus of 67P.

Had enough yet? We're just getting started. Now see exaggerated vertical relief fly over of Ceres. Ceres is apparently producing a periodic haze over the Mysterious White Spot, suggesting active venting. Looks like it is turning out to be an icy fumarole.

And our spectacularly successful Cassini mission in the Saturn system is still pouring out results.  One of my top ten favorite photos of all time was taken by Cassini's little Huygens Probe whil landing on Titan, clearly showing what Cassini confirmed to be lakes and seas of ethane and methane, fed by rain and by rivers flowing into waxy shorelines. But I want more! So just today, NASA released stunning Cassini closeups of the beautifully ravaged moon, Dione.

And none of this is to mention earlier -- within the last year -- news from Mercury and Venus... and recalibrated Earth-sensing that proves Ted Cruz to be a liar... and a comet sweeping past Mars, caught in the act by our orbiting probes!  And the science from that serendipity is (I hear) amazing.

More from Curiosity and Opportunity, our faithful emissaries to the planet solely occupied by robots. (Can you believe those spectacular successes are almost afterthoughts, in this list?)  And more insights into weird Titan! 

And news of a possible NASA Europa probe that might use methods pioneered at NASA NIAC (where I serve on the external advisory board.) More on NIAC below.

== Look Homeward Angel ==

Want to watch something even cooler than all that? How about a video of the Moon transiting in front of the Earth?  And this is the lunar backside we are looking at! Another gift of the Discovr (Deep Space Climate Observatory) probe, described giddily by Phil Plait, who is just having way too much fun during by far our best year in space since the 1970s and possibly ever.

Discovr sits at the Lagrange Point a million miles closer to the sun, warning us of solar storms (a vital service) but also fulfilling a proposal by Al Gore (one of the century's most-under-rated figures, whose Senate bill freed the Internet for all) that we needed a monitoring station to give humanity a round the clock daylight view of our planet as it turns. Can you believe we did not have this? Until now.

== Solar Sails to Space ==

I’ve served on the board of advisers of the Planetary Society and have long urged others to put them on your list of orgs to join, in making a better world. (Each of us, whatever our opinions, should have membership at least a dozen orgs who - via the miracle of Proxy Activism - then go forth and save the world for us. A modern convenience. Look up the concept here.)  
One favorite of mine? The Planetary Society’s ongoing efforts to accomplish what should have been done at the very dawn of the Space Era, almost a lifetime ago… developing useful, reliable, deployable light sails (or “solar sails”) to send small craft cheaply across the community of planets. Except for one small Japanese deployment, this whole realm has been almost utterly ignored by the major agencies and powers, a blatant case of neglecting-the-obvious that starts to look awfully suspicious. Moreover, the TPS efforts have been plagued by one episode of bad luck after another… like two successive blowups of Russian launch vehicles.  As one of the members of my blogmunity - Paul451 - put it: “Solar sails really are cursed. I call aliens. This is clearly the forbidden technology which violates the terms of our quarantine."

Though now there's tentative good news on this roller-coaster ride... the jinx appears to have struck again. But still, after a series of setbacks and silences, LightSail deployed!

Now that the first stage of this mission is complete, the Planetary Society is preparing their next phase of LightSail, scheduled for 2016.  Partially funded through Kickstarter, this solar sail will be launched into a higher orbit, 450 miles above the surface of the Earth. "There the solar sails will both deploy and catch the sun's photon breeze, sailing on the high seas of the interplanetary vacuum." Sign on to The Planetary Society's kickstarter!

And while you are at it please sign this easy Planetary Society petition online, asking Congress not to (again) slash planetary exploration funding -- and to support a new mission to Europa. 

== Not resting on our laurels ==

Let's hope this is just the beginning. That Elon Musk's SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and others get their legs back under them and get Earth to Orbit far more efficient and reliable... the core element in doing ever-more thing, ever-better.

Meanwhile, Planetary Resources and its competitors… and the B612 Foundation... are pushing forward their endeavors to either harvest asteroids for resources or at least detect and divert dangerous ones. (Seems worthwhile -- just don't touch my asteroid.

And there’s talk of making an inflatable space elevator! (Only 35 years after I broached the idea, in SUNDIVER.  Well better late than never.  Try harder to keep up, guys.)

And NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC) has just released its 2015 Solicitation For Proposals for small seed grants to enable brilliant, ambitious innovators to try out some bold idea.  NIAC is the tip, the entry wedge, and if your concept satisfies the requirements, you might win real money to transform how we live/work/explore outer space. NIAC is especially interested in beefing up its portfolio in Biology, by the way. And women researchers are encouraged to look into the possibilities.  And Yoiu know all this because I sit on the external board.

It all adds up to a great year in space.  Greater even than the glory days of Apollo? I deem that to be arguable!  We are accomplishing so much more, with such spectacular competence that it's happening with the tiny slivers of funding our society allocates to horizons.

Beyond interplanetary? Icarus Interstellar is one of several nascent groups aiming at taking look-ahead activism to the next level… pushing now for humanity to become an interstellar civilization. Join  their Kickstarter campaign and become a Charter Member of Starship Congress 2015! I did, as did Vint Cerf! Also don't forget also Centauri Dreams.

Finally... getting back to why so few of us are celebrating this greatest year of humanity in space... here again is a link to my TED talk about why we are letting anger rule our lives, when there are so many reasons instead to feel rising confidence. 

We are a people who are doing all these wondrous things, exploring our solar system with pennies out of each citizen's pocket... and so many other signs of progress down here on Earth... yet, we are letting dogmatists and indignation junkies of both the right and the left hijack the discussion, spreading fear and only fear of the future.

We are doing all this, and so much more!  We are a mighty folk. A folk of legend who will be subject of songs, in times to come. Call the doom merchants what they are -- ankle weights around the feet of a pragmatic, problem-solving people. Problem-solvers who will go ahead and save the world, despite them.  

And go on to the stars.