Thursday, May 28, 2020

Seeking transparency in a threatening world... and answering Harari

First among links and midweek observations: 
Here’s a powerfully cogent interview with Yuval Noah Harari about our current crises. I have guardedly quibbled with some of his points in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and elsewhere. But he is still one of the smartest observers around, unafraid to offer risky extrapolations. Perhaps we'll meet, someday. Meanwhile, do add this to your podcast list… and note the many overlaps with my arguments about reciprocal accountability, from The Transparent Society.

- A friend reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister's Veil,” wherein a New England town is amazed when their preacher takes the pulpit wearing a black semi-transparent veil that obscures all of his face but his mouth and chin from view.  Naturally, I take it in some ways as an allegory for my work on transparency. And for today’s masked life? But in the story it’s not a covid-style face mask. Hawthorne had the veil across the TOP half of the minister's face, as I recall, making it more pertinent to this era of iris/retina/face recognition than pandemic aversion.

- There was no justice for Ahmaud Arbery, shot down during one of his regular jogs through his own neighborhood by father-and-son loonies who went uncharged by law enforcement… till an anonymous person posted video of the horrific event, putting the lie to the accused’s excuses. And I was told years ago that cell cams would make no difference. They are making a whale of difference!

(Late note, the "anonymous poster" was later arrested as an accomplice! Oh the trap of self-promotion!)

== Snowden says “no aliens or contrails…” but crypto’s not delusional?”

- Edward Snowden is an interesting case who few understand. Okay, I don’t either, though I have some insights. First, that he truly views himself as a decent, reasonable and even patriotic fellow, willing to pay a reasonable price for his acts of “civil disobedience,” possibly with his gaze set on the life arc of Daniel Ellsberg . (Prison in your forties and then a hero of campus coeds in your fifties.) Certainly any comparison to Julian Assange benefits Snowden, immeasurably. He’s in the news again:

"For the record, as far as I could tell, aliens have never contacted Earth, or at least they haven't contacted US intelligence," Snowden writes in his recent memoir, Permanent Record.  "Also — Yes, man really did land on the moon. Climate change is real. Chemtrails are not a thing.” He tells radio host Joe Rogan that he “had ridiculous access to the networks of the NSA, the CIA, the military, all these groups. I couldn't find anything," he continued. "So if it's hidden, and it could be hidden, it's hidden really damn well, even from people who are on the inside."

Of course it is conceited to think he actually was at the innermost layer of the onion. Still, it leads to an important point. Seldom parsed is what Snowden resents, what he recommends, what did change as a result of his actions, what he did not  find or reveal, and what he completely fails to understand. There definitely were changes in the aftermath of his revelations, e.g. in compartmentalization, so no single fellow would ever know as much, and in FISA procedures, making them slightly more accountable and court-like. But it is in the lattermost category that I come in, as author of The Transparent Society. For it’s here that Snowden seems utterly clueless.

He believes - along with millions - that our freedom and privacy might be safeguarded by hiding from elites of government, commerce, criminality or fascism. This stunningly stupid notion is backed up with talk of cyber-cypher miracles that would encrypt our lives outta sight… as if a flying gnat cam won’t just waft into your home and watch as you type, or make love. Crypto-faith is not just marlarkey, it has always been mysticism based upon zero possibility it would work. Ever.

How ironic that Snowden himself is an example of the thing that actually does work. Indeed, within weeks (I hope and predict) it will be a flood of revelation and transparency (e.g. the Deutsche Bank records) that applies the light of sousveillance where it’s needed most. And still, when that happens, our would-be paladins of freedom won’t get it — the lesson that light is the way.

 - And while we’re on hackers etc.: The 15 Biggest Ever Cases of Bank Fraud. Wow, a fascinating recounting of thefts and such, showing how much is being stolen by hackers and insiders… and this is not a complete list, by far! And the only long term solution is not “security.” It is transparency.

== Vulnerabilities remain =

- This Los Angeles Times piece reveals how vulnerable our cell systems are to collapse when we need them most, when the towers go down, in a fire or quake. I’ve harped in this for two decades. See my interview in CACM about critical fragilities in infrastructure (reprinted in Polemical Judo.)

- I warned long ago (1997) in The Transparent Society  that ‘Deep fake’ videos could upend an election. This article suggests that Silicon Valley may have a way to combat them. It’s a critical problem, and tech will help, for a while. But over the long run, the answer to “lying witnesses” will be the same as it has been for 6000 years… more witnesses. This means we will likely have to maintain deniability by keeping our own diary-recording-logs of everything we do or say. It needn’t be the end of the world. 

- Meanwhile, a cogent Los Angeles Times op-ed talks about “Rules for a New Surveillance Reality,” and how some big thinkers aren’t giving in to the standard reflex among those fretting about Big Brother. Oh, it’s right to fret! We teeter on the edge of tumbling into the surveillance state that certain rising world powers are already building, at full speed. But it won’t be solved by whining “don’t look at me!” Or trying to pass useless laws limiting technology, ordering a halt to the tide. Or to a tsunami. What can work, because it has worked increasingly well for 200 years, is to insist that we have transparency and the power to supervise all elites who grasp these technologies.
== Again and again… blindness to what works ==

- Got me a message from Evan Selinger, co-author of Re-Engineering Humanity, who writes: “I've been arguing for a ban of facial recognition for some time. Do you really believe in a plausible future when overall the technology creates more accountability than harm? This is a genuine question, David! I'm admitting my bias in advance but am truly curious about your take. Thanks!”

My response:

Dear Evan, I appreciate that you are in our shared fight against looming Big Brothers and those who would draw curtains of darkness across our enlightenment experiment. I volubly and often urge folks to join ACLU and EFF and other shared efforts to preserve the experiment. Despite the tendency for activists like you to dismiss me as complacent about threats to freedom and privacy, I am in fact fare MORE sensitive to this historically-redolent issue, as I wrote in The Transparent Society.

Alas though. It truly is perplexing to me how sincere and intelligent folks imagine they can repress technologies that get smaller, faster, better, cheaper and vastly more numerous and mobile at rates faster than Moore's Law. Seriously, you are able to envision such a thing happening? Banning such exponential tech... with a LAW? One enforced by elites who will thenceforth be protected and shielded by such laws, from any effective supervision or accountability? Even if they start out sincere, such paternalists will always be propelled to use the techs "for our own good."

Banning face-recog is the latest utterly bizarre example of stunning myopia. Every year the programs get more efficient, smaller and spread more widely in dispersed – not centralized – databases and apps. Where you you think that leads? As Robert Heinlein wrote: “A privacy Law just makes the spy bugs smaller or more hidden.” Really, you can envision such a method working? I am a science fiction author, and I cannot imagine any conceivable way to do that. Unless...

...unless my method comes first. If all elites are stripped naked, then such a law might be enforceable, catching violators. Ironically, your approach can only work if I get mine first, and then your approach -- hiding and cringing from light -- becomes unnecessary.

As things are, with Face Recognition out in the open, flaws like racial or gender bias are being detected and pounced-upon, swiftly. That won’t happen if the systems get driven underground or kept by secret elites.

What is most bizarre about this is that the approach I recommend - reciprocal-lateral accountability - is exactly the core of the enlightenment experiment. It is the only thing that ever has worked, that does work, or that ever will constrain the human tendency toward cheating and power. It is the reason why Adam Smith and the American Founders prescribed methods for dividing power among mutually competing groups. And the downward-lateral spread of power and knowledge and sovereignty to ever-broader groups is precisely the only thing that has ever thwarted aristocratic cheating and other calamities. YOU are a product of 250 years of steadily increasing use of that method...

...which now seems to be totally invisible and counter-intuitive to all our brightest paladins of freedom. Like yourself. Alas.

But at least you are in the fight. Bless you for that. 

And hell yes, I approve far more of a fellow like this who is in the fight, vigorously disagreeing and arguing with me about tactics and curious about possible ways that his own might need improving... than I do the arm-chair warriors and 'summer soldiers' who whine and grouse and use every excuse to stay lazy during "times that try men's souls."

And if you are ready to stand up and get involved in the fight for your posterity and civilization, I know a place where you can study either new and innovative tactics...

... or else get tips how to efficiently use your scant time and resources in more traditional ways. Either way, we need you. And the time is now.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Five Covid items you don't (yet) know... plus Bat viruses and Wuhan collaborations and recent science updates

As the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates, infectious diseases can have profound influences on their host populations. Human evolution has unquestionably been shaped by past infections. However, humans have also shaped pathogen dynamics and virulence via a multitude of factors, like settlement, agriculture, technology, rapid long-distance travel, medicine, and global economic integration, continue to shape epidemics and the human host populations. The most recent CARTA virtual symposium explored how infectious agents and humans shape each other’s evolutionary trajectories. The IMPACT OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE ON HUMANS & OUR ORIGINS

== Covid (covfefe?) insights ==
(1) Word has been issued that we need worry less about "fomites" or physical objects and surfaces carrying infectious viruses. Many of you first saw the word "fomite" in my novel Existence which dealt with an unusual (speculative) kind of interstellar virus, and the unusual "surface" that carried it.   

(2) Also spreading is a fact we should have known months ago, had there been pervasive testing - that exposure in outdoor air, especially in sunshine, is much less dangerous than in enclosed spaces and over extended periods. Good to know, but still no guarantee. Keep washing.

(3) You'll hear that it takes a 'minimum dose" of virus to get infected - at least a thousand or so - and that one or two won't do it. I doubt this! We need to recall that the dosage minimum thing is statistical. There are undoubtedly cases in which a single inhaled virus has led to disease and death, because if that one virus got very, very lucky, it will have hundreds of immediate replicant offspring. All right, I am glad researchers estimate a rapid falloff below say 1000, but it's not to zero. Now, having said that, what might happen is that a single point infection could trigger sufficient immune response to deal with the isolated site. One hopes.  

(4) Talk of a widely distributed vaccine by October is misinformation and dangerous. Yes, there are groups with tentatively promising vaccines! And Biden is right that this is a time for lots of international conversation, sharing and cooperation, bringing forward for testing the best ten or so from wherever... exactly opposite to the Trumpist idiocy. And yes, Biden and Gates are right that we should invest now in the factories to mass produce vaccines, when ready. But there is still reason to do the full test program on 100,000 subjects, rather than immediately 100 million.

Remember the 1976 Swine Flu? Gerald Ford's only dynamic presidential action was to rush out an untested vaccine - (for this he gets an aircraft carrier named for him?) - one which triggered a flush of Guillain-Barré syndrome... which spurred the start of our modern, insane-ingrate festival of anti-vax lunacy. We cannot afford a repeat on any large scale. 

Now consider this added flaw in a rushed vaccine. There is something called  Antibody-Based Enhancement... where some viruses take advantage of earlier exposures to related strains, by hijacking the very antibodies your body employed against the earlier strain and then using your own antibodies as penetration aids into your cells! It's why Dengue can sometimes be far more lethal the second time you get it and why Dengue vaccines are used only sparingly. Hence it isn't just the virus that must be visualized. The antibodies we're counting on should be checked to make sure they can't be turned into trojan horses! (The Nanome company makes spectacular molecule visualizing products letting you AR-dive into complex proteins.) And hence, while we can speed up and support science, and enlarge the studies rapidly, there still must be studies.

Get ready for the Covfefe Administration to announce spectacular vaccines (and brag that Two Scoops invented them, himself) before the election, as Sinclair Radio jocks veer from "it's a hoax!" to "we're the scientists saving you!" To which the answer must be "You first!" No seriously. In front of cameras, roll up your sleeves. You first.

(5) Perspective on the project to collect bat samples and study hundreds of species of corona virus, in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While our present troubles may still turn out to have spilled from a careless lab release, it’s worth noting that there are very good reasons for these data collection projects and collaboration - in careful ways has always been and always will be desirable.

(6) Oh, read about the incredible wave of GOP suck-ups ingratiating themselves with Trump by loudly declaring they are taking and touting hydroxy-Q… declaring “If it was bad, Democrats would WANT him to take it!” No, that’s your desperately hate-drenched psychology. It’s not how our - sane - minds work.

== Health: public and personal ==

How to quarantine in ways that will effectively limit transmission while helping the quarantined to experience comfort, not fear - so others will cooperate if their turn comes? And so the un-infected can be released quickly and so that economic disruption is minimized? See “Quarantine Methods Across the Ages.” The case of the cruise ship in Japan is horrific, maximizing both torment and chances of cross infection among the tightly packed passengers. Maybe, in addition to rush-building new hospitals, China should have erected quarantine centers that have the look and feel of resorts? Without expensive surfaces but with basic amenities - including hiking & frisbee golf (much easier to set up than regular golf), and easily divided into secure zones, as each quarantined person processes along one track or another.

Certainly the Japanese should have done this for those poor cruise ship passengers. Business travelers and vital industrial workers could be processed efficiently and with good optics.

And more...   Autism appears to be at least somewhat associated with alterations in the cells that provide the myelin coatings for nerve cells.

We all know we should exercise more. But this article lays out what science knows, as of this year... and it's pretty darn overwhelming. I used to joke that if exercise extends your life by exactly the amount of time you spend exercising, then isn't it a wash? (A joke I usually told in the locker room, while finally catching my breath.) But apparently you make a big profit on the deal, so that's one joke to retire.

America's most widely consumed oil causes genetic changes in the brain: Soybean oil linked to metabolic and neurological changes in mice. Soybean oil. Wean the fried foods habit. Sorry.

== That Can-Do Spirit... ==

A colleague called followers to write me “suggesting David Brin write a graphic novel, about responding to a crisis by folks working together to overcome problems, not sitting around and giving up because we don't make things in the USA any more.” 

In fact, I did that! TINKERERS, explored a wide range of reasons people offer for US industrial decline... 

…then how we'll fix it the old-fashioned way, recovering our talent for poking any problem — as individuals and small groups — innovating with ingenuity, agility and élan.  

It's available online! Not the best art. (Many images were  web downloads. Including Morgan Freeman? Peter Lorre? Seriously?) 

Still, I think you’ll have fun. And it’s cheap! (Free!) And the message is even more fitting for these times, as I and many others try to help "tinkerers" solve our currently critical medical supply shortages.

And did I mention the whole thing is FREE at:

And there’s a curriculum STUDY GUIDE, taking students through the historical and other references. Maybe ideal for a home schooling session?

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Science Fictional News

The Hugo Award nominees for 2020 have been announced. For best novel, the entries include: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow,  The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley, A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine,  Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, and Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. 
Fun stuff. And meanwhile...

Who said the 21st Century isn't different? During the 20th, about every five years, either Atlantic or Harpers or New Yorker would publish a savage slag hit against science fiction. It was a nasty, New York liter-artsy tradition to sneer, smugly, at SF's "febrile fantasies" and rationalize how lions like Atwood, Vonnegut and LeGuin had no relation to such nonsense. How times have changed...

. . . because now almost annually there are features in the top intelligentsia journals extolling the vivid wonders of sci fi -- as in this week's New Yorker collection of essays "The Allure of Science Fiction," though yes, with a twist that now we are being told by some who formerly spurned us that they will now be our spirit guides into this realm that they always knew and loved so. Yeah, okay. Progress is progress and not always - well - without bittersweet irony.  

== A pause to remind you... ==

... that truly historic matters are afoot. First, an alert: Basic Books offers my nonfiction classic on the information age and freedom and privacy - The Transparent Society - for a limited time at $3.49!

And if anyone knows a Congressional staffer or anyone connected to this year's high-level political struggles, I truly believe they would find fresh tactics of real value in my new book Polemical Judo. I'd wager money on that. Seriously, would it hurt to think - just once - outside the usual box? Outside the regular trap of Sumo-grunting and trench warfare?

== Other (great) creators! ==

Here’s an interesting interview with my colleague and SF hero, Kim Stanley Robinson. We agree about almost everything except vocabulary. Whottaguy. 

Mike Resnick passed away in January. One of the greats of Science Fiction – the most-nominated author of all time -- he explored many bold topics like multi-ethnicity and the price of human arrogance, in new and amazing ways, often challenging stereotypes long before that was fashionable. As Roger Zelazny did for Hindu and Buddhist cultures, Resnick exposed many previously insular western readers to legends and beliefs of a wide variety of African peoples, sometimes stirring controversy but always empathy.  He was also unlimited in his range, serving up irony, tragedy or comedy, almost on-demand. 

Mike even contributed a weird-gonzo chapter to my own new SF comedy novel  “The Ancient Ones”  winning him a place in the dedication! A peerless bon vivant at conventions, he would occasionally mis-speak with the over-eager carelessness that sometimes merits correction in us well-meaning boomer males, a trait that’s far less morally fraught and more readily corrected than (for example) backstabbing gossip. As publisher of many anthologies and ultimately the ongoing magazine Galaxy's Edge, he fostered countless new talents. A true prodigy-polymath and friend, Mike Resnick showed us how to grab and shake tomorrow with gusto.

How better to celebrate the wonderful film Galaxy Quest than with a documentary feature? Never Surrender is an entertaining, heartfelt tribute that comes to us (believe it or not) from the same folks behind the wildly popular online Honest Trailers series.  It was - before covid/covfefe - coming to a theater near you. I have my special enthusiasms for the flick. While the entire cast was wonderful, I especially liked Alan Rickman’s role, but above all Tony Shaloub’s wonderful Tech Sgt. Chen.  

Best news of the week, so far. One of the best science fiction (and mystery) bookstores on the planet - Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego - has found the new owners it needed in order to survive into a new decade. You can help by doing some of your shopping at their online site! Much thanks to Matt Berger and Jenni Marchisotto for stepping up and expressing joy at their venture… and to Terry Gilman and her crew, including founder Maryelizabeth Yturralde for keeping the flag flying for so long, in challenging times. Mysterious Galaxy's new home is: 3555 Rosecrans St. Suite #107 San Diego, CA 92110 Subscribe to the newsletter for events!  

== Miscellaneous sci fi related weirdness! ==

Here's the Abbey Road meme that was used to combat Brexit ("Br-stay-in") ... only now we can adopt it to promote sci fi, I think? ;-) "We are Brin???"

Sci fi legend John Varley weighs in – scarily and vividly – about the morons who follow velvet ropes shuffling along in a crowd to the top of Mt. Everest.  He makes great points and is largely correct. On the other hand, what small patch of Earth funnels so much disposable wealth directly from rich idiots to developing nations?

Wanna be creeped out? I’ve recommended before the novel Invasive Species by Joseph Wallace, which gets deserved attention from Hollywood. Murder Hornets, eat your hearts out!  (And stay away from my bees!)

An excellent profile of my colleague Ken Liu, who has been foremost in translating and discovering and bringing western awareness to the wave of fantastic Chinese science fiction authors who a boldly taking the genre in new directions.

One of the most creative and unconventional writers I know is Matt Pallamary who routinely bridges sci fi and Castaneda like adventures in Amazonian or Native American mysticism. See his latest novel – Death: A Love Story.

Ombak is a biannual weird fiction journal, aiming to supply the greatest, strangest fiction Southeast Asia can provide to the rest of the world. The first issue had writers from Singapore, India, Philippines, and Vietnam. The second (launching soon) will have writers from Singapore, Malaysia, India, and the Philippines

Israeli-American science fiction author Ilana Masad reviews Robert Harris’s new post-apocalyptic novel The Second Sleep, set in an England that may be across between A Canticle for Liebowitz, Pavane and  Riddley Walker.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA, Inc.) is pleased to announce that Lois McMaster Bujold has been named the 36th Damon Knight Grand Master for her contributions to the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy. And yes, very well-deserved.

...and finally...

I have a billion Zimbabwean dollar banknote. But will someone collect a few trillion and quadrillion notes for me?

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Your Corona/Covid/Covfefe sideways update

In a moment, much of interest - including startling slides - about the covid-crisis. But first: the Trumpist-Foxite war against all fact professions is zeroing in on a central goal, to crush or eliminate all of the 75 inspectors general in US agencies, for their inconvenient dedication to fact-centered professionalism. See the horrifying progress of this purge... any one incident of which would have enraged any Republican, if a Democratic President even hinted at it.

It seems vital to keep reminding this particular audience of what one of the truest Americans said - with (alas!) prophetic insight about one age-old trend among some of his countrymen:

"Throw in a Depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negrosim, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home, and the result might be something quite frightening – particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington."

Jiminy! Robert A. Heinlein wrote that in the early 1950s! Is there anything he did not hit right on the head? Heck, he even nailed the dominionist "Prosperity Gospel" so popular among Ted Cruz types, promising fervid followers that their "material heaven here on earth" will come by righteously seizing the property of unbelievers. 

Seriously, read his last paragraph (above) again and again to your MAGAs who might be reachable.  Then recall that Heinlein portrayed Nehemiah Scudder taking the White House against the will of a majority, in 2012. (He also spoke of America sinking into "The Crazy Years.") 

Meanwhile... winter is coming. Our latest whistleblower, former top vaccine official Rick Bright, fired by the Trump administration, recently warned Congress that the U.S. faces its "darkest winter in modern history" if it fails to develop a coordinated, effective response to the pandemic. (Late news. Bright is no longer the "latest" fired IG. Two more in just the last week,)

== Covid/covfefe update -- from our unusual angle ==

(1) There is a simple, capitalist/market solution to surging protests against “oppressive” closures of public gatherings like bars and church services. It’s called insurance. Let such groups do as they like, so long as they take out policies to remediate any subsequent outbreaks… and so long as they gather names/addresses of participants/ parishioners/ customers for contact tracing if their event endangers the public with a flareup. Note: except for random compliance audits, the state won’t get that info, only the proprietor. Also…

… if you’re so sure it’s safe, then convincing an insurance company to give reasonable rates should be a cinch, especially since many are run by Republican moguls. Hey! Don’t trust government bureaucrats? Then do it the market way! 


(2) Wuhan reported no new Covid-19 cases since April 3rd*. But six new cases just emerged. So now they plan to test all 11 million people citywide in 10 days. That's what you do if you're serious about getting the virus under control and returning to modified normalcy. We (the U.S.) haven't conducted 11 million tests nationwide during this entire pandemic. 
(* With the usual caveat that you can't believe everything coming out of China)

(3) With our regular alumni reunion cancelled, Caltech posted a zoom replacement seminar day. One talk on Covid clarified some scary things. I will append below several of the slides that are frighteningly self-explanatory. Note that nearly all of the downturn in infection rates in the US is because of New York's success turning things around. Russia, India, Brazil and the U.S. are all scary. Meanwhile Florida and other states are desperately avoiding truth-telling by redefining death-attribution and reporting. It won't work. Because of those inconvenient fact-people.

(4) Two ( five(!)...) previously “negative” sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam just tested positive, upsetting every schedule to get back in operation. The first one failed to report four days having lost his sense of smell. Indications are that one's sense of smell diminishes by the third day after infection with the novel coronavirus. 


(5) Have any of you out there noticed the surge of road repair work going on? Two months (more) ago I proposed the "Pothole Solution" to under-employment while the streets are mostly empty. I guess the idea was obvious.

(6) Hey, why aren't we seeing FOOD TRUCKS roaming neighborhoods, just like the ice cream trucks of old? With flyers they could let every home know a schedule or make orders to be dropped off. Izzit happening near you?

— AND FINALLY… An astonishing number of Sars-CoV-2 (covfefe) traits have made it more insidious than the original Sars-Cov-1 (SARS). The incredibly long and highly variable asymptomatic contagious period is the main reason for its pervasive spread and why mask discipline is vital.

But other things scare me even more and make me deeply worried and (yes) a little suspicious… like evidence of nerve and kidney damage, even when the lungs are spared. And the still unknown answer to the antibody/immunity question. (Seriously? Still? Shouldn’t the recovered be volunteering en masse for hospital duties? Or be flocking to their own bars and church services and events, so we can get an answer to that vital question? Shouldn’t Elon staff his factory with the recovered?)

All those traits - plus the notorious ability of corona viruses to cause immunity amnesia - beggar the imagination when we’re asked to believe this is just an escaped bat-pangolin virus. Just sayin’.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Science keeps moving on! It could give us the stars...( if we don't get idiocracy first.)

== Do humans need uplifting? ==

First off... some of my past sci fi has been more pertinent than I’d want! My Hugo-nominated story “The Giving Plague” deals with our complex relationships with viruses and such, including the several paths a parasite can go down, in “negotiating” with us hosts. Oh, there's sudden movie interest. I wonder why?

Alas, P.Z. Meyers speculates that my novel The Postman may be my most prophetic... re: a plague of selfish romanticism driving "preppers" at both society's low and high ends.

Or else maybe the Uplift Series? Because we badly need it? Oh, but see below. We're getting the tools!

== Uplifting animal news ==

Apparently chimps use Instagram and similar apps really well, swiping and touch-activating etc. Does this speak to their “pre-sapient” potential for uplift, as in my cosmology? Or to the really primitive level that these crude apps operate on?

And octopuses, along with some squid and cuttlefish, routinely edit their RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequences to adapt to their environment. When such an edit happens, it can change how the proteins work, allowing the organism to fine-tune its genetic information without actually undergoing any genetic mutations. "I wonder if it has to do with their extremely developed brains," asks geneticist Kazuko Nishikura. The theorized tradeoff: cephalopods may gain individual flexibility at the cost of slower genetic evolution.

More amazements from nature – scientists have found a species of insect that uses tooth gears to synchronize movement of the rear, hopping legs. 

Jumping jaws:  the trap-jaw ant uses its jaws - that open a full 180 degrees - not just to catch prey, but to jump as well, propelling them at a speed of 140 mph, with a force 300 times the insect's weight. 

Engineering new life forms. A generation ago, religious leaders called it a red line. A no-go zone, arrogating Heaven’s authority. Now? Silence, as the red lines keep getting moved. Scientists are sculpting and arraying frog stem cells into nano-robots that move tiny appendages and swim about, as designed.

Gosh what a fascinating time! Just a few years ago we learned about Denisovans, a human branch as widespread and important as Neanderthals. Both groups contributed partial inputs to our modern genomes... for non-Africans, that is.  

Only now it seems some African populations carry genes from the “ghost population” of yet a third mystery sub-species!  This  interbreeding happened about 50,000 years ago, roughly the same time that Neanderthals were breeding with modern humans elsewhere in the world. Are you jazzed that science keeps inventing time machines?

Toxic love. Yet sadly endearing. A baboon tries to groom and comfort a lion cub it stole, of course dooming the cub. Should pet owners take note?

== Recent research ==

In “strange metal” scientists have managed to get billions of electrons simultaneously entangled into a shared quantum state. We’ve long been able to do this with bosons (photons, phonons etc) in say lasers. But electrons are fussy fermions. Ooh. 

A fascinating method using “carboranes” to trap and extract particular elements from solution, even seawater. The first tested use was Uranium, but there may be others.

Another for the Predictions registry: “Teslasuit’s new VR gloves let you feel virtual objects.” See my story 'NatuLife,' from my collection Otherness.

== Mining the seas? ==

An eye-opening article about deep seafloor mining and resource extraction. Let’s bear in mind that most regions out there are ‘deserts’ featuring very sparse life. Still, we need critical foresight and a default attitude of ecological conservatism or conservationism. Both for posterity’s sake and … well… might the Galactic Club be waiting for some sign we’re starting to grow up?

Consider this paragraph: Ships above will draw thousands of pounds of sediment through a hose to the surface, remove the metallic objects, known as polymetallic nodules, and then flush the rest back into the water. Some of that slurry will contain toxins such as mercury and lead, which could poison the surrounding ocean for hundreds of miles. The rest will drift in the current until it settles in nearby ecosystems.” 

Yes, the image is noxious. Though consider also that it is upwelling of ocean bottom sediments that is precisely where nearly all ocean life derives. The possibility of positive outcomes should not be blithely dismissed any more than negative ones. What’s needed is prudence and incremental approaches and above all, transparency combined with skepticism toward the truth-bending effects of greed.

Much will depend on a factor barely considered in the article… close proximity of test sites to fast or slow ocean currents. Having said all that (partly as a contrarian) let me add that this fine article should both inspire and warn you. We must to well by this Earth. Or we have our likely explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

== Saving the planet across a broad spectrum ==

Ever more it seems that some form of 'geo-engineering' is in the cards. While the biggest threat to the planet is right wing denialism, the left’s puritanism is also bad news, insisting that only draconian reductions in carbon emissions can do any good at all. This argument -- a version of "moral hazard" -- is flawed in several ways.

1) It’s not true. Even if we vastly clamped down on human activity and emissions (as we’re doing now, amid the covid/covfefe crisis) it would not be sufficient in the near term to prevent many climate related calamities and extinctions and a possible methane runaway-release. As sci fi legend Kim Stanley Robinson said just today(!) keynoting for a conference on extracting carbon from the air, "we're well past talking moral hazard and now have to get used to fighting this battle on many fronts."

(See KSR's novel about the consequences of warming in New York 2140, and of course I portrayed the dilemma in my own 1990 book Earth.)

2) Carbon fuel replacement by sustainables and e-vehicles already has huge momentum, driven by ever advancing technology, far more than by puritanism. Over the long run, we should be fine. If we can get across the next few decades.

3) The very notion that we can only do one thing, instead of attacking problems across a broad front, is a pure sign of zero sum fanaticism based upon sanctimonious emotion and not vigorous problem solving. It is proof that even the “good” side that is right about overall problems and goals can still be infested with self-righteous loons. (Though nowhere near as bad as the other side, which has no positive traits at all.)

We can and must do many things, in parallel. And experiments must go forward to see if methods like this - and ocean fertilization — can offer safe and effective amelioration for a problem to the planet and future generations… while the real solutions lose no momentum at all.

An interesting article about the world trade in “recyclables”… or otherwise known as “waste” … now that China is producing so much of its own that it no longer needs any from the West. Progress... I think?