Time to take a break from politics and worries about the "October Surprise in August". Let's have the latest flood of misc marvels, quirky quandaries and technological teasers.
For starters, an announcement: The winners of the “Uplift” computer graphics challenge have been announced in the video and animated categories.
I’ve spoken before about the still-image entries, many of which were truly wonderful, dramatic and astonishingly vivid. Some of them even related to the topic! (One can’t complain about talented artists following their own muse. Wonderful stuff!) Now see the video entries.
One, by Christopher Bischoff, though unfinished, has the makings of something really interesting. I hope he continues working on it and shows us some more. (It seems the only one that might do, for my books, what half a dozen entries did - spectacularly - for Greg Bear’s book EON, a couple of years ago... that is, actually help to sell a movie. Alas, I have no idea why none of the video teams thought it worth even cracking one of my books.) Several other entries ranged from cute to way-cool. Like the amusing work by Juraj Molcak, 'Adventures of Lifter Joe', which at least uses the verb “lift” - and George Kiparissous’s, 'Uplift', which does have a token chimp. As does the incredibly weird but really well (and creepily) rendered short film by Yiming Lin, Ong Kok Ping and Ishan Shukla called ‘Maternity'.
Oh, and if you know anybody who’d like to get into this field? Well, I have scripts for trailers for Startide and Uplift War.... Unused so far.
------- Solar Sails at last? ---
This summer, NASA engineers will try to realize a dream older than the Space Age itself: the deployment of a working solar sail in Earth orbit. The name of the sail is NanoSail-D and it is scheduled for launch onboard a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket as early as July 29, 2008. Um... about time? Note, the Falcon is the rocket of Paypal founder Elon Musk, also impressario of the Tesla Roadster. Hence NASA had to be proded and offered a free ride, to do what anybody sensible would have done way back in 1991, when I edited PROJECT SOLAR SAIL. (We hoped the run a regatta of privately-made sails past the moon, in honor of the Columbus Quincentennial. Sigh.)
Also. Those interested in interstellar travel, might have a look at Marc Millis Tau Zero Foundation - TZF - or the avowedly more “plebian” peregrinus interstellar (THE PI-CLUB) of Dr. Tibor Pacher. Of course the grand-daddy is the British Interplanetary Society which had pushed for spaceflight for decades, till big governments suddenly rushed into the business in the 1960s, at which point, with great agility, they shifted to speculative work on IS travel.
----- Movies better and worse than expected.
Expectations are half of perception. If you tune your dials beforehand, you can find the good in (say) a joyfully stupid film like “The Fifth Element” (brainless and utterly delightful) or “Get Smart” (surprisingly funny and even above average in the action department.)
Alas, my problem in recently watching “Jumper” was that someone told me it was pretty good science fiction...when, in fact, even low expectations could not have saved my reaction to this horrible dog. Noxious, immoral, illogical and stupid, it falls for every “idiot plot” device while portraying dismally unlikeable people at war with even more dismally unlikeable people... a scenario that can work (e.g. DUNE and the MATRIX) when the authors are aware of what they are doing... and not brain-dead/evil. Just one logical no brainer? Um... teleporters could gain protection at any time, by offering their services to national governments... or even (!) by going public and doing open good with their powers. Much like Hancock. Irony! Though deeply flawed in many ways, Hancock was probably written by one of the few Hwood screenwriters with a brain not fried/paranoid on coke. (Well, Akiva Goldsman does have some neurons. And guts. He does.)
Worst of all is when such a high-budget pile of drivel poisons the well for an entire zone of science fictional premise (e.g. personal “jaunting” or teleportation) that was already there, in excellent novels, like Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION. Bester did something that I often try to do... directly violating the Idiot Plot. He asked -- “what if the new thing wound up being shared by everybody?” Exactly as we’ve shared most of the cool new things that transformed civilization, so far.)
=== A Mess of Miscelany ===
NOTE! Some of these items have better provenance than others. Grain o' salt time...!)
Hospitals and doctors apologizing and fessing up have seen REDUCED malpractice costs, fights and even insurance premiums.
Now, as China prepares to showcase its economic advances during the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, Shenzhen is once again serving as a laboratory, a testing ground for the next phase of this vast social experiment. Over the past two years, some 200,000 surveillance cameras have been installed throughout the city. Many are in public spaces, disguised as lampposts. The closed-circuit TV cameras will soon be connected to a single, nationwide network.
Read the previous two items carefully. One shows the west learning the wisdom of eastern style version of transparency... while the other shows the east using western methods to cling to eastern traditions of control.
--- Rick Rolled to child porn = you're a pedophile, says FBI. Everyone has had it happen to them: a "friend" sends you a link that purports to be something like a cat in an awkward position with a hilarious caption. Soon, however, you discover that the link wasn't to a lolcat at all; instead, you've been Rick Rolled into a porno site. (Actually, it’s never happened to me, but I clipped this link so some of you out there can be warned. Apparently, one fellow got sniffed accidentally linking and won a criminal conviction.)
--- Billboards That Look Back - NYT - 5-31-08 “The cameras, they say, use software to determine that a person is standing in front of a billboard, then analyze facial features (like cheekbone height and the distance between the nose and the chin) to judge the person’s gender and age. So far the companies are not using race as a parameter, but they say that they can and will soon.”
=== Even More Random ===
In recent years, global photovoltaic (PV) production has been increasing at a rate of 50 percent per year, so that accumulated global capacity doubles about every 18 months. The PV Moore's law states that with every doubling of capacity, PV costs come down by 20 percent. Extrapolate those gains out six or seven years, and PV costs will be competitive by 2015... well, maybe. Still, in 2005, production of silicon for solar cells already surpassed production of silicon for semiconductors.
University of Melbourne researchers have shown that a DNA fragment taken from Tasmanian tiger samples (the thylacine, extinct for 70 years) can be added to mouse embryos, where the DNA functioned normally in making collagen. This is the first time that genetic material from an extinct animal has functioned inside a living host. More impressive, from a marsupial into a placental. Ah, but I’ve I’ve said since Jurassic Park -- the “reader machine” (the right egg and womb) is just as necessary as the code itself.
After an extensive search, astronomers say they have definitely found half of the universe's missing normal matter in the spaces between galaxies. The missing part of baryonic matter has largely escaped detection because it is too hot to be seen in visible light but too cool to be seen in X-rays. Dubbed the "intergalactic medium," or IGM, it extends essentially throughout all of space like a cosmic spider web.
Engineers and applied physicists from Harvard University have demonstrated the first room-temperature electrically-pumped semiconductor source of coherent Terahertz (THz) radiation, also known as T-rays. The breakthrough in laser technology, based upon commercially available nanotechnology, has the potential to become a standard Terahertz source to support applications ranging from security screening to chemical sensing.
The doughnut is making a comeback – at least as a possible shape for our Universe. The idea that the universe is finite and relatively small, rather than infinitely large, first became popular in 2003, when cosmologists noticed unexpected patterns in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the relic radiation left behind by the Big Bang.
Straight-line extrapolation shows that China and India, with their faster growth rates, will eventually catch up to the U.S. in terms of pure economic size. But America has a final competitive advantage: its confluence of bright, hungry entrepreneurs and flush, eager investors; and its stable, highly adaptable system. Huh... well, we can hope.
With the help of U.S. defense contractors, China is building the prototype for a high-tech police state. It is ready for export. We'll see. There are other trends.
Despite a court-ordered ban on the teaching of creationism in US schools, about one in eight high-school biology teachers still teach it as valid science, a survey by Pennsylvania State University researchers reveals. About 16 percent said they believed human beings had been created by God within the last 10,000 years.
Researchers at the University of Tskuba in Japan have designed a quantum eavesdropper that can extract information from a quantum message without the sender or receiver knowing. It exploits a loophole: the ability to make imperfect copies of quantum states without destroying the original coded entanglement. Whoops! There goes yet another straw grasped by the encryption transcendentalists!
BroadStar Wind Systems' new AeroCam wind turbine is the first to break through the $1/watt cost barrier, the company claims. Designed with a low profile on a horizontal axis with multiple blades, it looks like an old McCormack reaper!
A new scanning electron microscope (SEM) design by physicist Derek Eastham could achieve a resolution around four times better than existing SEMs--as low as 0.01 nanometers (roughly the distance between a hydrogen nucleus and its electron).
“There's nothing special about the Sun that makes it more likely than other stars to host life, a new study shows. The finding adds weight to the idea that alien life should be common throughout the universe.” Well... maybe. In fact: “The Sun did stand out in two ways: it is more massive than 95% of nearby stars and its orbit around the centre of our galaxy is more circular than those of 93% of nearby stars...But when all 11 properties were taken on board, the Sun looked very ordinary. Robles's team calculates that there would be only about one chance in three that a star selected at random would be "more typical" than the Sun.”
Um... that sounds like begging the question by being pedantic about terminology. In fact, any one or two traits might be responsible for our anomalous conditions. Heaping in a dozen others, just to smear things out, does not make for good science, nor refute the unusual-ness of Sol. Indeed: “They conclude that there are probably no special attributes that a star requires to have a habitable planet, other than the obvious one – the planet must be within the star's habitable "goldilocks" zone, orbiting at a distance where the temperature is not too hot for life, nor too cold, but just right.” And, indeed, this may be a trait that is very much anomalous in our solar system.
Chinese scientists have developed 500-nanometer lithium-ion-battery electrode materials using tin Nanoparticles encapsulated in elastic hollow carbon-nanotube-based spheres, replacing conventional graphite. The scientists have found that the new materials provide higher initial and long-term ampere-hours capacity, prolonging battery life....
Argonne National Laboratory scientists have developed composite battery materials that can make batteries for laptops and cell phones both safer and longer lived, while increasing their capacity to store energy by 30 percent. The new materials are one example of a new generation of lithium-ion electrode chemistries that address the shortcomings...
Highly efficient nanotube-based tile materials that can convert radiation, not heat, from nuclear materials into electricity.
Tomorrow's laptop? (Thanks to Ray Kurzweil for many of these links. Just remember that Ray tends to be... enthusiastic.)
Low doses of hydrogen sulfide (smell of rotten eggs) can safely and reversibly produce a suspended-animation-like state in mice.
Intel and Microsoft plan to fund researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Illinois $20 million to start over and design a new generation of computing systems. The move was motivated in part by an increasing sense that the industry is in a crisis of a sort because advanced parallel software has failed to emerge.
Our skin contains millions of microscopic helical sweat ducts that may act as antennas that reveal a person's physical and emotional state from a distance, Hebrew University researches have discovered. Treating the skin as an array of helical antennas could open up a new method of measuring physiological changes.
Northwestern University researchers have found that a nanoengineered gel inhibits the formation of scar tissue at a spinal cord injury site and enables the severed spinal cord fibers to regenerate and grow.
Popsci.com offers ”10 Audacious Ideas to Save the Planet.” Of course, my “EON” proposal would make this sort of list systematic, persuasive and effective...
Which countries make the grade when it comes to fuel efficiency — and which earn failing marks?
The total number of people online will climb to 1.8 billion by 2012, encompassing roughly 25 percent of the planet, with the highest growth rates in areas such as China, Russia, India and Brazil.
Rresearchers at the University of California at Davis have found that fructose, but not glucose, causes alarming changes in increased intra-abdominal fat. (Arg, I planted so many fruit trees, thinking “it’s organic,” and now what do I do with all the plums?)
=== Hysterical Historical Quotes ===
[The telegraph] binds together by a vital cord all the nations of the earth. It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth. *Charles Briggs and Augustus Maverick, 1858*
[It is] inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service and for news and for entertainment and education [as radio] ... to be drowned in advertising chatter or used for commercial purposes. *Herbert Hoover, 1922*
Television drama of high caliber, produced by first-rate artists, will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the American nation. *David Sarnoff, 1941*
Cable [television] will create great access to information; it will also greatly assist self-identity, democratic processes, educational environments, and community cohesion. *Barry Schwartz, 1973*
Our new ways of communicating [the Internet] will entertain as well as inform. More importantly, they will educate, promote democracy, and save lives. *Al Gore, 1994*
In fairness... this cynicism festival misses the point. Sure, each new generation of electronic communications became drenched with crass commercialism. But, then, most forms of PRINT communication became drenched in porn! Nevertheless, and despite incredibly bad cable TV laws that have destroyed so-called “public-access” and all competition, I have to point out something that nobody else has -- that half of the cable channels you see today are “daughters of PBS”... what else would you call the History Channel, Discovery, Food, Home & Garden, A&E, Classic Movies, and so on? Oh, there’s a cynical answer; good, nonfiction TV is cheap to produce! Look at how little the History Channel pays me (generally nothing) to be a talking head on “The Universe” or “Life After People.” So? It’s an irony! It’s the crap that costs more to make.
---- Keep an eye on India. ---
In engineering studies, the number of students enrolled in full-time, four-year undergraduate degree programs has risen from 250,000 in 1997 to 1.5 million in 2007, and is currently growing at 25% annually. Most surprisingly, the higher-education sector has moved from a primarily state-provided service to private provision within a decade. Ninety-five percent of the above increase comes from enrollment in privately run colleges, which now account for 80% of the total. The storied state-owned Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), which made up 10% of national engineering enrollment in 1990, now account for less than 2% and graduate 5,000 students a year. In brief, the national government has increasingly yielded control over higher education to the individual states over the past 10 years. The states have, in turn, allowed the private sector in, something that the national government resisted when it was in charge. OTOH, recent commodities price rises have hurt India in particular. And it is arguable what fraction of their “engineers” can actually innovate or problem solve. And wealth disparities --- well, let’s hope.
“If we could ever competitively—at a cheap rate—get fresh water from salt water,” observed President John Kennedy nearly 50 years ago, “that would be in the long-range interest of humanity, and would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.” There are now 13,080 desalination plants in operation around the world. Together they have the capacity to produce up to 55.6m cubic metres of drinkable water a day—a mere 0.5% of global water use. About half of the capacity is in the Middle East. (Where energy is cheap.) But now things are changing. As more parts of the world face prolonged droughts or water shortages, desalination is on the rise. In California alone some 20 seawater-desalination plants have been proposed, including a $300m facility near San Diego. Several Australian cities are planning or constructing huge desalination plants, with the biggest, near Melbourne, expected to cost about $2.9 billion.
Wired editor Chris Anderson’s THE LONG TAIL predicted people would go for individualism, rewarding niche producers. But Anita Elberse, a marketing professor at Harvard's business school, looked at data for online video rentals and song purchases, and discovered that the patterns by which people shop online are essentially the same as the ones from offline. Not only do hits and blockbusters remain every bit as important online, but the evidence suggests that the Web is actually causing their role to grow, not shrink. Following the fad. Lets the best push out the merely good. As seen in Kiln People.
Carved out in a barley field, this 150ft wide pattern is said to be a pictorial representation of the first ten digits of Pi, one of the most fundamental symbols in mathematics.
Giant Snake-Shaped Generators Could Capture Wave Power.
Marine fossil records show that biodiversity increases and decreases based on a 62-million-year cycle. At least two of the Earth's great mass extinctions-the Permian extinction 250 million years ago and the Ordovician extinction about 450 million years ago-correspond with peaks of this cycle, which can't be explained by evolutionary theory. Our own star moves toward and away from the Milky Way's center, and also up and down through the galactic plane. One complete up-and-down cycle takes 64 million years- suspiciously close to the Earth's biodiversity cycle. (See my 1980s era article in Analog: "The Deadly Thing at 2.2 Kiloparsecs.")
And from the i-told-you-the-voices-were-real dept. Science Sportsqs writes "The Sierra Nevada Corporation claimed this week that it is ready to begin production on the MEDUSA, a damned scary ray gun that uses the 'microwave audio effect' to implant sounds and perhaps even specific messages inside people's heads." (Got my doubts about this one.)
Project Dragonfly has pioneered inquiry-driven reform to increase public engagement in science and global understanding.
Here’s a rather breathless screed about the so-called “teen pregnancy pact”... a crazy story generated by an irresponsible high school principal, completely false and yet fanned into flames by an insane media machine. The screed is intemperate but entertaining. It also misses the core point. That “Red America” has higher rates of domestic violence, divorce, premarital sex, extramarital sex, STDs and teen pregnancy than “Blue America.”
Repeat as needed. Over and over and over and over. Screeds are less effective than repetition, alas. And this from an inveterate screed writer.
Ask two people to answer a question like "how many windows are there on a London double-decker bus" and average their answers. Their combined guesses will usually be more accurate than if just one person had been asked. Ask a crowd, rather than a pair, and the average is often very close to the truth. The phenomenon was called "the wisdom of crowds" by James Surowiecki, a columnist for the New Yorker who wrote a book about it. Now a pair of psychologists have found an intriguing corollary. They have discovered that two guesses made by the same person at different times are also better than one... the average of the two guesses was better than either guess on its own. ... Second guesses made immediately improved accuracy by an average of 6.5%; those made after three weeks improved the accuracy by 16%. Jun 26th 2008 From The Economist
Even after three weeks, the result is still only one-third as good as the wisdom of several different people. But that this happens at all raises questions about "individuality" within an individual. If guesses can shift almost at random, where are they coming from? One answer could be that they are evidence for the "generate and test" model of creative thinking. This suggests that the brain is constantly creating hypotheses about the world and checking them against reality. Those that pass muster are adopted. Guessing the answers to questions you do not know the correct answer to, but have some idea of what the right answer ought to look like, could tap into such a system. A hive mind buzzing with ideas, as it were, but inside a single skull.
---- The sun usually operates on an 11-year cycle with maximum activity occurring in the middle of the cycle. Minimum activity generally occurs as the cycles change. The last cycle reached its peak in 2001 and is believed to be just ending now. The next cycle is just beginning and is expected to reach its peak sometime around 2012. Today's sun, however, is as inactive as it was two years ago, and scientists aren't sure why. The sun once went 50 years without producing sunspots. That period coincided with a “little ice age” that lasted from 1650 to 1700.
It started as a search for a way to provide cold storage for vaccines in underdeveloped areas. Adam Grosser talks about a project to build a refrigerator that works without electricity or other stored fuels to bring the vital tool to villages and clinics worldwide. Tweaking some old technology, he's come up with a system that works.
... and on a positive note... that will have to do for now....