Monday, October 18, 2010

Astronomy, SETI, science, transparency and wonders!

DragonflightScience fiction is one of the most "American" literary genres, because, like America itself, SF has a relentless fascination with change. In fact, I believe that this trait - rather than technology - is what most distinguishes SF from fantasy.  (It is certainly why Anne MacCaffrey, author of the “Dragonrider” series, proclaims quite firmly that “I am a science fiction author; I don’t do fantasy.”

Societies, families, and individuals have always lived on shifting sands.  When just a few of your comfy assumptions are rocked, you may find wisdom and solace in a closely-focused literary view. But if you want or need a bigger picture -- to ride the tsunami that change has become in modern times -- then literary science fiction turns the reader from a hapless recipient of change into an explorer.

The "what-if" thought experiment is the purest expression of a courageous mind.  Because authors hurl, and readers accept, the ultimate challenge to empathy --

-- not just putting on the shoes of your neighbor, but stretching your empathic power to other places, times, cultures and states of being.  To put aside the comfort food of familiarity, repetition, nostalgia or the myopic here-and-now... and instead reconnoiter the vast range of things that (for better or worse) our children might do and become.

Despite the simplistic banality of Hollywood sci fi, there is more to science fiction than garish, clanking monsters.  It can infect children with the dangerous mental habit of imagining things different than they are. And a surprising majority of scientists, doctors, astronauts, engineers, teachers, diplomats and world-changers all grew up devouring SF.  It can stir discontent with past and current injustice and then go on to warn of dangers on - or just beyond - the horizon.

A habit of questioning all dogmas - even those that your parents taught you - can makes science fiction seem dangerous, even to lit-professors, who cannot force the genre into slots or pigeonholes.  Because an SF author - once slotted - may bend all of his or her energy and considerable imagination to the project of breaking out.

It is the literature of rambunctious questioning.  And to the extent that Americans loved it -- we thrived.


The Astronomy Now site  has a 6 min piece about the debate that was hel in Britain a few weeks ago, at the Royal Society’s new Kavli Conference Center.  Featured are clips of Dr. James Benford & me on our side (urging that the issue of “messages to aliens” be discussed in more open fora) and Dr. Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute, on the other.  Of course nothing was resolved.

The most significant outcome? A straw poll of the attendees at the conference overwhelmingly and almost unanimously asked that the Royal Society and the AAAS support our appeal for international symposia on the issue, bringing in the world’s greatest sages from fields like History, anthropology, biology, philosophy etc into a discussion that may ultimately include -- and affect -- us all. 

Oh... and in related news....

Richard Dawkins speculates about extraterrestrial life in this video.

NASA Ames reveals DARPA-funded "Hundred Year Starship" program, with $1 million funding from DARPA. Announced at a Long Now Foundation event, the program is aimed at settling other worlds.


That 90 minute audio interview I gave last month, for Jay Ackroyd’s BlogTalkRadio (in conjunction with an event on Second Life), is now available on podcast. 

UK firm crowdsources security camera monitoring so you never know who's watching:

"Back in 1996, writer and scientist David Brin wrote "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to choose between privacy and freedom?" a tale of two fundamentally similar yet very different 21st century cities. Both were littered with security cameras monitoring every inch of public space, but in one city the police did the watching, while in the other the citizens monitored the feeds to keep an eye on each other (and the police). These days, many UK police forces monitor their city streets with cameras mounted on every corner. Now, for a fee, a private company is crowdsourcing security surveillance to any citizen willing to watch, fulfilling Brin’s prophecy in a sense.”

Augmented Reality?.... Try diminished reality!

And? Pope Benedict XVI said on Thursday that the media’s increasing reliance on images, fuelled by the endless development of new technologies, risked confusing real life with virtual reality.  (Um... go to the Jesuit church in Rome and see the trompe l’oeil ceilings (fool the eye) that they are so proud of! dang. It was the immersion 3-D mind-blow of it's day!) 

 Fascinating possible alternative way to collect solar energy in the stratosphere and deliver it to the ground

Fun stuff!

A fabulous leap in the use of the Codona Coronagraph to block light from a distant star and see Jupiter-scale planets, as close as 5 au to their sun. 

See a great image of the tree of life and evolution in action. Look carefully and see how the tree suddenly THINS at certain extinction times (notice the dinosaurs vanish) but life soon fills in the gaps.  This really is terrific... even if it does prejudice by implying we are the "most evolved."

Cool video: Imagining the tenth dimension

A cartoon comparison of Huxley and Orwell Orwell feared those who would ban books; Huxley feared there would be no reason to ban books, for there would be no one to read them…

Five times we almost nuked ourselves by accident.

Fifty ideas to change science: Artificial life : biologists will make artificial cells, enzymes, stem cells, induce photosynthesis in the lab…you need a subscription to read the whole article.

=== WANT MORE? ===

A test of truthiness: Fascinating to see how memes spread across the web, passed from peer to peer. But how can one tell what ideas are grass roots and which are spread by political campaigns or corporations? Truthy, based at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing attempts to chart the diffusion of information & misinformation on Twitter – by tracking keywords and retweets.

At Carnegie Mellon, a computer named NELL (Never-Ending Language Learner) is busy uplifting itself: scanning info 24/7, calculating, categorizing – learning language as humans do. A step toward the semantic web and possibly true artificial intelligence?

The Lunar X Prize (backed by Google) will grant $30 million to the first privately funded team that lands a robot rover on the moon. The rover must travel more than 500 meters and transmit video and data back to earth. Deadline is 2012

Be sure to see Comet Hartley 2 (discovered in 1986). It should be visible with binoculars, appearing as a greenish smudge near Cassiopeia if you have dark skies. This comet will be targeted by NASA’s Deep Impact probe (EPOXI) for a flyby in November – coming within 435 miles of the comet.

Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford, once issued a challenge to young researchers: Concisely explain your research topic in an “elevator pitch”: Imagine riding an elevator with a friend who is bright but not a scientist. Explain what you do, what it means and why it matters – all before reaching the 15th floor. A worthy challenge in communicating science to the general public – who does pay the bills, after all. 

How will technology impact personal liberties? The ACLU is analyzing sci-fi plots to plan its future battles over individual freedom. Its report, Technology, Liberties and the Future, draws upon science fiction for worst-case scenarios to study possible civil liberties violations that may result from advances in technology: omni-surveillance, cloning, gene splicing, nanotech, cyborgs, AI…

Is it censorship if the government buys the entire first printing of a book (Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart), in return for the publisher’s agreement to destroy ever copy?

Kenyan tinkerer builds plane from scratch, using a Toyota engine and a wooden propeller, wings from aluminum siding.

An animated look at Changing Educational Paradigms

Danny Gold’s new movie: 100 voices A journey Home: the revival of Jewish culture in Poland

Check out this assembly of sculptures of human ancestors -- ranging from Australopithecus to Homo erectus -- amazingly realistic reconstructions created by French artist Elisabeth Daynes, fleshed out from casts of skulls. See her website with details on the reconstructions and methodology:

Our most precious resource, water, is increasingly being privatized. Global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, and demand will soon outstrip supply. The rights to divert water are a sellable commodity, but will markets deal with this problem equitably -- or pit industry against drought-stricken countries –  water haves against water have-nots…

A Moh’s Scale of Hardness for science fiction: how ‘hard’ is the science – is the story consistent with the laws of physics – and are the fictional extrapolations plausible? Click to expand the categories at the end.  My opinion?  Eh.


Anonymous said...

Is it censorship if the government buys the entire first printing of a book (Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart), in return for the publisher’s agreement to destroy ever copy?


It's censorship if anyone does it. Censorship is not just limited to governments.

François Marcadé said...

It is Censorship, I agree. But not all censorship are necessarily illegitimate and Censorshipo to protect current Special Operations seems pretty legitimate to me. Further it seems that the US Government went very far to ensure that the author and the publisher were not wronged by its failure to apply censorship earlier.

The problem here is that Censorship is such a loaded word that writing is already making a moral judgement.

ZarPaulus said...

I've noticed that in many Fantasy stories the world seems to be in some sort of Medieval Stasis for thousands of years. Though Space Opera is little better.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Kind of off-topic here, but I'm researching the ability of different government/social structures, particularly militaristic or authoritarian regimes, to advance scientifically and technologically for a hobby project.

Doc, you've said in the past that the Nazis were not doing science, just producing engineering examples, yet others I've talked to have pointed out scientific developments the Nazis produced. Many of them were horribly unethical, but advancement of knowledge did occur. A prime example that is given to me is that the Nazis were the first to prove that smoking was bad for you (they subjected thousands of political prisoners to extreme levels of tobacco smoke to do it, but they did prove the negative effects of smoking). Then, too, there is the startlingly advanced technology they had, some of which was a couple decades ahead of everyone else.

If you have the time, can you elaborate on why you think the Nazis weren't doing science? If I remember correctly, you have said that what they were doing was largely just feats of engineering, that once the 3rd Reich was in full-swing little actual science was done.

I understand some of the classic arguments for oppressive/authoritarian regimes not doing science, or doing poorly at it, such as how governments whose very existence and stability depends upon deception and untruths has difficulty with a process that is the practice of truth in one of its purest forms.

I am having trouble meshing this with the facts of reality, however, particularly the high level of technological advancement demonstrated by the Nazis in WWII. If the Nazis weren't doing science, how did they manage to get so far ahead of everyone else in the war?

rewinn said...

Stratosolar slideshow link didn't work for me but this did: I'd be interested in learning whether the cost estimates are realistic. If a pilot plant were "only" $50M it might be worth trying.

Jonathan S. said...

I wonder if the first use of Diminished Reality will be specially-programmed sunglasses that automatically prevent the privileged from having to actually see the homeless in the streets...

senst: Twitter abbreviation for the past tense of "sense"

ZarPaulus said...

One of the comments for the diminished reality video suggests using it as "adblock for real life", might act as a "meme-shield" too. Though I did see shadows where the removed object was and the bathroom scene missed the reflection in the mirror.

Gilmoure said...

ZarPaulus said... I've noticed that in many Fantasy stories the world seems to be in some sort of Medieval Stasis for thousands of years.

Yeah, I've noticed that as well. For all these folks who are so in to quasi-historical settings, they don't seem to see just how fast things have changed. Ok, sure, Egypt kept the same sort of culture going for a few thousand years but once you get to 1,500 BCE, things really begin to move.

I wonder if the whole fantasy/agrarian/heros over common folk is a reaction to basic future shock? A year or two ago, there were some posts on the differences between Liberal and Conservative mind sets, where one type welcomed change and the other had a fear reaction to it. Would be interesting to know where someone like Prof. Tolkien would be in this analysis.

One interesting fantasy show, Avatar; The Last Airbender, shows an agrarian world at war as one group starts to use industrial processes in relation to war. The cool thing is that the follow on series, taking place 80 years later, shows near as much a change in life and you'd see in our world, going from 1917 to 1997. These are folks who definitely see the human race (even with weird powers) as adaptable and fluid.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Yeah, I think a big part of that is that people don't realize just how different civilization and technology was between 1500 BCE, 500BCE, 500 CE, and 1500 CE.

That, and it's a quick way to add a deep sense of grandeur and vastness to a universe, by making the civilizations extremely old.

Jonathan S. said...

Well, in classic fantasy, they'll also often have extremely powerful races (elves, dwarves, and the like) who have lifespans measured in centuries, or even millennia. That will tend to slow things down a bit, if they are considered to be dominant over humankind.

No excuse for space opera like the Star Wars expanded universe, though, where, for example, the technology used by the Galactic Republic some 4000 years before the movies (as seen in the [i]Knights of the Old Republic[/i] games) is in many cases more advanced than that used by the Republic in the prequels, or the Empire in the first trilogy.

David Brin said...

Ilithi, what IS it about Nazi mystique. Even people who loathe them seem drawn to respect their varied prowess.

But dig it. Most of their successes weren't due to their cleverness or prowess... but the stupid obstinacy of their enemies. SOme argue, controversially, that Blitzkrieg was derived from the proposals of british military analyst Liddell Hart. In any event, the panzer tanks of 1940 were inferior to French or British ones and they had their asses saved only by incredible stupidity of French generals. And the lucky break that their anti-aircraft gun was a great ad hoc anti-tank gun, too.

Stalin's wholesale murder of his own officer corps was 50% of the luck needed for the eastern front of 1941 to work... and by 1943 the russians were pounding the nazis flat.

When it comes to innovation and science? The vaunted tiger tanks used more parts and resources than three normal tanks, and they fried when three Shermans ganged up on one. Likewise, the V2 was an ornate contraption that helped to shorten the war, because twenty planes could have been built from what it took to fly just one ton of explosive to near London.

I say "near" because the brits had captured ALL German agents in Britain and turned them all into a huge disinformation machine. Missiles that hit London were reported as undershoots, and soon ALL were overshooting by a comfy margin.

In fact, there were bits of excellent engineering, e.g. the V2. and the ME 262... now THAT was impressive... and excellent submarines. But nowhere near as much as you'd expect from the country that had been the world's leader in all aspects of science before the war. They were in complete awe of the B-17 bomber, and the p51 fighter, or the wooden Mosquito, that could be built in carpentry shops and piano factories!

They knew how important radar was... so why did they lag so far behind? Simple.
All of their advances... yes, even the V2... were INCREMENTAL. They could improve a design endlessly... and enlarge it...

...but new things, like the microwave cavity resonators that let the brits put radar aboard planes to hunt down subs at night... that sort of thing almost NEVER happened under the Nazis.

Have you seen what Werner Heisnberg tried to use as his prototype nuclear reactor? It's a wonder he didn't poison half of austria with the damned horror, a stupid mongrel design. Austria was saved by the heroes who blew up the heavy water plant in Norway and kept him from turning it on! As for heavy water, they thought they needed it because when they tried carbon, their experiment sucked so badly they MISSED how simple it would be, to use carbon rods. (Thank God.)

Nazi science was doodoo. Indeed, the Horror-Experiments were dismally stupid beyond compare. Even that smoking thing. Crap! That wouldn't convince a smoker of that day to quit. He'd just say "of course if you get too much of a good thing..."

FAR more effective would be if they had run a stat anal of all the soldiers in a US division... how fast they can run and death in combat... vs smokers vs nonsmokers

Tony Fisk said...

My Dad's complaint about WWII Brit. tanks: good chassis with useless pop guns.
Russian tanks were actually very well designed.
The Panther seemed a much more lethal mix than the Tiger which, in Normandy was often left 'embedded' in a field: very hard to winkle out on the ground but, with a Typhoon on call, whose pilot might decide that he wanted to offload his unused ordinance before heading back for a refuel, they didn't last long.

Another area where Nazi attitudes blinded them to their failings was, of course, their much vaunted 'Enigma' encryption. The Brits (and Poles) had cracked this from the outset, but the Nazis never accepted this, despite some blatant clues, and a few concerns raised by under staff. It is possible that Canaris was deliberately squashing these.

Tacitus2 said...

Nazi science is such an icky topic. But if necessary..

Recall that scientific development in Germany was under a considerable burden. The Versailles treaties banned certain military technologies, and even when Hitler came to power and ignored the restrictions they never really caught up in many areas. Secondly, the Great Depression hit Germany harder than many countries. A generation of science wiped out can't be rebuilt in a few years. The exodus of jews certainly dropped the collective IQ a notch, they were historically among the better educated citizens.
And during the pressure of war time exigencies pure research is difficult...much higher priorities involve adapting and improving existing technologies which Germany did fairly well.

Actual new inventions under Hitler? Mostly in the chemistry field as befits the world's leader in this area. Nerve gas. Amphetamines. Sulfa antibiotics predate the Nazis by a short margain.

And a few gadgets. Infra red imaging systems very late in the war. Not much else occurs to me.


Tony Fisk said...

The exodus of jews certainly dropped the collective IQ a notch

Getting back on topic:

See real, live mad scientists at work at MIT!

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...!

David Brin said...

The real exodus of german scientists was post Hitler. So many non-Jews emigrated that Hitler began doing something that should sound creepily familiar... he started denouncing science and scientists as a caste, calling them generally disloyal, conniving, and irredeemable polluted by liberal... er, I mean Jewish... fallacies.

Which of course accelerated the trend. for pete's sake, a large fraction of the science budget went to Himmler and the SS... guys JUST like in Raiders of the Lost Ark, only (thanks heavens) wrong about everything.

My big (and terrific!) graphic novel The Life Eaters is set in a universe where the SS were right about one of their "scientific" beliefs, that death energy can be gathered and used... essentially necromancy.

Were they alone in this? The film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL summarizes the core trait that Hitler shared with Stalin... that sheer subjective will power could force the objective world to follow the leader's desire... the way he was forcing human beings to do so. This mysticism was rife among the god kings of old. The Imperial Japanese shared it, in spades. It even - eventually - warped a far better man than any of them... Napolean... and brought his downfall.

It is the power of human delusion, amplified by the destruction of accountability that is the natural goal of every autarch or oligarchy... even those who mean well. It is why Washington's refusal of power, his insistence on strict limits, and then his final withdrawal, so electrified the world, at the time.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Attraction of the Nazi mystique? In my own experience, it's because they're such a posterboy for authoritarian society in general that it's hard not to use them as a classic example/case study.

On Tobacco smoking, they DID do case studies of smokers vs non-smokers, lung cancer victims vs non-victims. There were several studies, both before and after the Third Reich took power. The two most significant and detailed studies were published in Germany in 1939 and 1943.

Many of the medical research done in Nazi Germany was horribly unethical, sometimes borderline voodoo, but there were also many proper scientific studies done, even many that were performed ethically (at least, when the study subjects weren't Jews, homosexuals, etc., good Aryan Volk).

In the areas that weren't heavy on Jewish and other 'enemies of the Aryan people', and so suffered much less from those purges, Nazi science did not suffer as greatly. As this article details, Nazi medical science was remarkably advanced for the time, and they were the first to officially recognize asbestos as a cause of lung cancer, and to make lung cancer caused by asbestos a compensationable illness, for example. In the areas were Nazi ideology coincided with scientific advancement (health and purity of the Aryan Volk from all toxins), Nazi science did progress considerably, not just marginally.

The tiger tanks were technical nightmares, for sure, and one of the biggest advantages of the Shermans was that they were similar enough to civilian cars and tractors that their crews could easily work on them themselves. The tiger tanks were still technical marvels, however, and against other tanks they had no rival at the time. There are documented cases of lone tiger tanks engaging over twenty Shermans and winning with a forced withdraw of the Shermans after they suffered heavy losses. The King Tiger tank was almost impossible to knock out with a front armor hit with the weapons the Allies had available to the at the time, only a handful of field guns with special tungsten armor-piercing rounds could theoretically punch through a Tiger II's frontal armor.

They were certainly vulnerable to air power, but so is any tank without adequate air cover.

lol Here I am defending Nazis, and that's not what I'm really trying to do. The point I'm trying to make is that I don't think that science is something that can only be done inside of a free society. It concerns me that a lot of people in or knowledgeable of the sciences and science in general tend to think that way, because it doesn't add up to me.

Scientific studies can be performed in an authoritarian regime, there is no requirement of a free-thinking society for someone to compare the lifestyles and habits of 86 victims of lung cancer against the lifestyles and habits of 86 healthy control subjects and draw conclusions from that comparison, and then publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal.

Ilithi Dragon said...

I'm fairly certain that science can be done in authoritarian regimes like Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia. Certainly not as well as in a free-thinking society like the U.S. or Great Britain, because the free society is usually going to welcome and reward brilliant minds and scientists from the entire pool, instead of trampling certain classes, or trying to purge whole swathes of their population outright. More people will stick around, too, instead of trying to duck out when they get the chance. But it's not an absolute advantage. The Soviets were still able to do science, still able to develop nuclear reactors and warheads and radar technology on their own, enough to remain competitive with the U.S. for the most part, even though they couldn't make parity. Free societies also usually don't have to worry about scientific research contrary to the leading authority's ideology and/or teachings being suppressed or discouraged. Then again, scientists in unscrupulous authoritarian societies can often take 'short-cuts' that would otherwise be deemed unethical or criminally inhumane in a free society.

What concerns me about all of this is that 1. it leads to an underestimation of the technical capabilities of authoritarian regimes (from the general population if not from the intel analysts and decision makers), and more importantly, 2. it leads to a false sense of security to those of us who are science-minded. If the Nazis couldn't do science, then we don't have to worry about becoming Nazis because we CAN do science, and no real or good scientist would ever fall into that trap.

To go back to the Nazi example (because they are such a great example), yes, there was a lot of crap of voodoo science done by the Nazis, yes, they lucked out with the incompetency of their enemies early in the war, and yes, they made a lot of crap, stupid decisions throughout the war. This does not change the fact that they were making tremendous advances in certain areas of science that coincided with the Nazi political agenda and ideology.

None of this changes the fact that the Nazis were developing stealth planes, and they were the first to do so.

Nor the fact that the V2 rocket was a design that was intended to eventually be used as an ICBM capable of reaching New York. Was focusing on V2 production over warplane production a bad idea? Yes. Does this make the V2 any less of a technological and scientific accomplishment? No.

The first magnetic tape recording was of one of Hitler's speeches. Hitler was a sadistic sociopath with charisma, but that doesn't change the fact that the developments were made by Nazis.

The Me262 jet fighter was years ahead of anything anyone else had, possibly a decade or two, and the jet fighters of the Korean War 10 years later, the F-86 and the MiG-15, were largely based on technology the Germans put into the 262. The science and technology behind the 262 was not available in the Wiemar Republic, and was largely developed by Nazi scientists.

The Germans were mass-producing rocket planes when most everyone else was still experimenting with prototypes (the Japanese Ohka doesn't count, because it was a human-guided cruise missile carried by bombers).

Ilithi Dragon said...

Sorry for the long post about Nazis and all, but I really can't stand the notion that Nazis couldn't do science, not out of any sense of compassion or compulsion to give them credit, but because by denying the science that was done under the Nazi regime creates a blindspot in our ability to remain vigilant against authoritarianism.

Tony Fisk said...

Basically, it comes down to the 'triumph of the underdog'. The triumph becomes all the more grand when the enemy can be portrayed as well-resourced, well-equipped, and efficient (if not particularly *imaginative*... that's good-guy property!)

pessuca: an M-1 bazooka, modified into a musical instrument.
'I once had a whim and I had to obey it, to buy an M-1 in a second-hand shop.
I took my find home and proceeded to 'play' it, in spite of the Nazis who begged me to stop...'

David Brin said...

Sorry, I don't see how that even parses. What?

George Orwell was in complete agreement. He said that tyrants can do engineering, but that they are terrible at science.

This is a GREAT argument against authoritarians.

And it is chilling, given today's blatant War on Science.

rewinn said...

This is preaching to the choir, but still ...
The Future of Humanity Depends on Quality Science Education


I would be especially comforted if it were true that authoritarian societies don't do science well, if only because the only countervailing force to the rising Aristocracy post-Citizens United are the remaining free societies outside of our United States and China. However progress is a relative, not absolute thing; it is not necessary for the Aristocratic states to do science well but only to do it not much worse than their free competitors.

Tim H. said...

rom my point of view, the one innovation in the ME262 was the ejection seat. The aerodynamics were unremarkable, the Whittle-derived engines didn't really advance the state of the art. Lockheed's roughly contemporary P-80 Shooting Star was faster. The V2 was an awesome bit of engineering, and the Redstone missile was derived from it. Churchill, in his WW2 history, claimed a V2 could be built for about the price of a DeHaviland Mosquito, carried about as much explosive, but could only do it once, versus an average 4 missions for the mosquito. If the war had gone on two more years Blohm & Voss would have had a swept-wing jet ready, which became the MIG-15. The F-84 & F-86 had straight-winged prototypes before NAZI wind tunnel data became available (BTW, both faster than a ME262 before they got swept wings.).

Caverta said...

Breast Cancer is the second most cause of death among women. It is time that we learn about breast cancer and take precautionary measures to prevent it. Worrying about breast cancer won’t work. Let us wake up to the alarm on increasing cancer cases and strive towards making more and more people know about it.

Caverta said...

Breast Cancer is the second most cause of death among women. It is time that we learn about breast cancer and take precautionary measures to prevent it. Worrying about breast cancer won’t work. Let us wake up to the alarm on increasing cancer cases and strive towards making more and more people know about it.

Abilard said...

Taking this former professor's essay at face value, it would seem to be a good example of what happens to young guns when the academy grows authoritarian and hidebound:

Huffington Post - Why I Got Fired From Teaching American History

Ian said...

Another one for the ostriches:

“The U.S. government’s bailout of financial firms through the Troubled Asset Relief Program provided taxpayers with higher returns than they could have made buying 30-year Treasury bonds — enough money to fund the Securities and Exchange Commission for the next two decades.

The government has earned $25.2 billion on its investment of $309 billion in banks and insurance companies, an 8.2 percent return over two years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That beat U.S. Treasuries, high-yield savings accounts, money- market funds and certificates of deposit. Investing in the stock market or gold would have paid off better.

When the government first announced its intention to plow funds into the nation’s banks in October 2008 to resuscitate the financial system, many expected it to lose hundreds of billions of dollars. Two years later TARP’s bank and insurance investments have made money, and about two-thirds of the funds have been paid back. Yet Democrats are struggling to turn those gains into political capital, and the indirect costs of propping up banks could have longer-term consequences for the economy. ”

Ian said...

"I've noticed that in many Fantasy stories the world seems to be in some sort of Medieval Stasis for thousands of years. Though Space Opera is little better."

to be fair there are some outstanding examples of space opera dealing with technical innovation.

Off the top of my head, you have Asimov's first Foundation Trilogy in which The Federation precisely because of their lack of resources are forced to develop technology is areas such as nuclear power and force fields vastly far ahead of The empire.

A more recent example is Walter Jon Williams The Praxis in which the protagonists not only have to develop a whole new theory of warfare, they also need ot push it through a military bureaucracy ossified by centuries of tradition.

Ian said...

"George Orwell was in complete agreement. He said that tyrants can do engineering, but that they are terrible at science."

If we look at the Soviet Union that contention is a bit questionable.

Sakharov was hardly "terrible at science".

Of course, he would almost definitely have been more productive had he not been subject to harassment by the Soviet authorities.

Then, too, if not for British homophobia, Turing might not have killed himself.

Ian said...

"I would be especially comforted if it were true that authoritarian societies don't do science well, if only because the only countervailing force to the rising Aristocracy post-Citizens United are the remaining free societies outside of our United States and China."

With China's massive investment in education and R&D, the question of whether authoritarian societies can be as efficient as democratic societies in developing new technology is critical to all our futures.

I'd like to believe that they can't, I'm not sure the evidence supports that conclusion.

François Marcadé said...

On the Scientific delusion of the Nazi, I have read a book "Le Matin des Magiciens"(upon the recommendation of my father and uncle whose generation it has extremely impressed). I cannot qualify it, it is impressive, tragic and sometime wrong.
I could not find a reference to the English translation, but here is the Amazon page of the Original:

Ilithi Dragon said...

Grah, stupid blogger ate my post!
} > : = 8 |

Anyway, what I was saying (aside from a netpick noting a report just after WWII by the USAAF comparing the 262 to their current craft and finding it superior in almost every way, and noting that the 262 could have been deployed in '39 if not for reliability issues with the early engines) has largely already been noted. The idea that authoritarian societies are atrocious at science is too comforting. All research on authoritarianism has shown for decades just how easy it is for anyone to fall into the traps of authoritarianism, even highly-educated people aware of those traps, and I am very, very hesitant to write science off as 'safe' from authoritarianism, whether the idea is that it can avoid the traps or that it will self-destruct after falling into them.

Furthermore, as rewinn pointed out, they don't have to match or exceed a democratic society's ability to do science, just not do that much worse. The rest can be made up with engineering or brute force solutions.

The notion also doesn't fit with the facts of Soviet, Chinese or Nazi advances in science. Where it coincides with the authority's political agenda and the society's overall ideology, specific fields of science in authoritarian regimes can see great advances (as evidenced by Nazi medical science, particularly in areas of cancer- and chronic disease-causing toxins and pollutants, which were easily 5-10 years ahead of everyone else at the time).

I also imagine that China, which appears to have learned several lessons about being too overbearing, will be able to remain competitive on the scientific front over the long haul; they probably still aren't as efficient at science as we are, but they can overcome a lot of that by throwing more money and bodies at it (brute force solutions). Whether or not their new emphasis on science will undermine the authoritarian regime and lead to more and more reforms or eventual revolution into a democratic state is something that only the future can tell, but for the next generation, at least, I see China remaining a technologically-competitive authoritarian superpower.

Then, too, authoritarian societies can also mooch off of democratic societies, which tend to do things like publish ground-breaking research and developments in public science journals and the like.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin said:

My big (and terrific!) graphic novel The Life Eaters is set in a universe where the SS were right about one of their "scientific" beliefs, that death energy can be gathered and used... essentially necromancy.

You wanted to give that plot point away?

In any case, I heartily recommend Dr Brin's GN, although (even though I'm a comics fan) I somehow prefer the original prose version of the story, which was called "Thor Meets Captain America".

Were they alone in this? The film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL summarizes the core trait that Hitler shared with Stalin... that sheer subjective will power could force the objective world to follow the leader's desire... the way he was forcing human beings to do so. This mysticism was rife among the god kings of old. The Imperial Japanese shared it, in spades. It even - eventually - warped a far better man than any of them... Napolean... and brought his downfall.

The notion is alive and well in the Republican Party, at least the faction exemplified with Grover Norquist's denigration of liberals as subscribing to a "reality-based worldview", which he meant as an insult, and hiw now-infamous assertion that "We're an empire now. We make our own reality."

Tyler August said...

Ian said:
If we look at the Soviet Union that contention is a bit questionable.

Sakharov was hardly "terrible at science".

Of course, he would almost definitely have been more productive had he not been subject to harassment by the Soviet authorities.

Then, too, if not for British homophobia, Turing might not have killed himself.

I think that's the point, Ian-- it's not that a free society produces better scientists by necessity, but that it allows them to do better science by getting the heck out of the way. I know quite a few researchers who were educated in the former Soviet Union who are doing great work. If allowed to persue their ideas without interference, and with a good funding mechanism untainted by chronyism and ideology, I'm sure they'd be doing just as well in the Motherland if the USSR were still around today. The trouble with that is that a fair/balanced scientific support mechanism doesn't necessarily exist in a totalitarian regime.
(Not that we don't have our politics, too!)

David Brin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Brin said...

Thanks Tim. Yeah, the Nazis were not great innovators, and their slave
labor approach made for huge inefficiencies.

Abilard, nobody claims that lefty campus profs aren't horrors. Me? I hate em! They despise science fiction and their often anti-engineering stance combines with self-hating contempt for a western enlightenment that gave them everything. Withness AVATAR.

But those dopes are a hangnail irritation on my left side... a pale shadow of the threat the left used to be.

Meanwhile, the oligarchy on the right has grown into the worst threat to freedom and western civilization we have seen since the Cold War.

Ian, Soviet physics was pretty good, because it nestled into traditions of analytical calculus and had few political implications... and was totally relevant to weaponry.

But Soviet Biology, cybernetics, genetics, environmental science, all languished and were prostituted into incompetence.

China's problem is different. Graduate 80% of the world's engineers and you'll dominate making things.

Graduate 80% of the world's "scientists" but raise them with a crushed sense of curiosity and individual imagination? And you still have very little "science".

Ian said...

"raise them with a crushed sense of curiosity and individual imagination? And you still have very little "science"."

Thinking further about this, I think a key part of the problem is that the nepotism and ideological thinking inherent in totalitarian societies prevents the proper functioning of the scientific process.

Lysenko wouldn't have gotten very far if he weren't able to censor (and in extreme cases use the whole weight of the Soviet police state against) the scientists who exposed his fraud.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Wowsers! Liking the theme change on the blog's main page.
} : = 8 )

Tony Fisk said...

Everything's fading to grey....!


Tony Fisk said...

If I have a quibble, it's that the heading is a bit indistinct from the body of the text.

The Whitehouse Science Fair sounds like it was a cool event (via Bill Nye).

"We're an empire now. We make our own reality."

and now:
reality strikes back:
"The FBI has begun investigating whether the US banking industry may have broken laws related to the mortgage foreclosure crisis."

TheMadLibrarian said...

Very spiffy designerly changes on the front page!

hoolic: when hooligans are habitually drunk

LarryHart said...

A bit off-topic, but not entirely so. This was called to my attention on Thom Hartmann's radio show yesterday.

As most often used by libertarians and free-marketers, Adam Smith's famous quote from "The Wealth of Nations" about the invisible hand is taken almost 180 degrees out of context by leaving off a key phrase. Note the bold (emphasis mine) part below:

Every individual...generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

Tim H. said...

Great quote Larry, you know some people will go all chamber of commerce on you, but great. BTW, the new color scheme looks elegant.

Ian said...

One for the futurists:

[QUOTE]Africa’s population reached 1 billion last year and after economic growth averaging 4.9 percent from 2000 to 2008 the number of families with an income of more than $20,000 a year has exceeded India’s, according to a report by McKinsey & Co. Inc. With China investing in the continent to exploit its mineral wealth and the population rising by more than 2 percent a year, that market is set to expand.

“It will be to their own detriment if companies ignore Africa,” said Celeste Fauconnier, Africa analyst at Johannesburg-based Rand Merchant Bank, the investment banking arm of FirstRand Ltd. “We are seeing massive growth in the population, an increasing middle class and people having more access to money.”

Consumer spending in Africa rose at a compound rate of 16 percent between 2005 and 2008, driven by economic and population growth and migration to cities, New York-based McKinsey said in its June report. McKinsey estimated that the number of consumers earning more than $1,000 a year will rise by 221 million within five years.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy will expand 5.5 percent next year, 2 1/2 times faster than developed countries, according to the International Monetary Fund. Per-capita income in Sub- Saharan Africa was $1,096 last year, according to the World Bank. [/QUOTE]

Poverty remains rampant in Africa, with 50 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. And each of the continent’s 53 countries has its own tariffs, laws and regulations.

“One must not forget that Africa is lots of different countries, with different cultures, different languages and different ways of doing business,” said Jeanine van Zyl, retail analyst for Old Mutual Investment Group of South Africa, South Africa’s largest privately owned fund manager. “Perhaps they will fail if they try and do it too fast. You have to step away from markets that are not ready to be entered. The process can’t be rushed.”

Wal-Mart was lured by the potential of markets such as Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 140 million people.

“The focus has shifted towards these oil-based economies and commodities-based countries, which is where people have more purchasing power,” said Andrew Kingston, who helps oversee 300 billion rand for Sanlam Investment Management in Cape Town.

The purchasing power of Nigerians earning between $1,000 and $5,000 a year doubled to $20 billion between 2000 and 2007, McKinsey estimated. Massmart has plans to increase the number of its outlets in Africa’s largest oil producer to 20 from one over the next two years.

Wal-Mart International Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon told investors at a presentation in Rogers, Arkansas, Oct. 13 that rising income levels in South Africa made Massmart a “tremendous opportunity.” South African consumers are “going to want more general merchandise, they’re going to want more food,” he said. [/QUOTE]

Ilithi Dragon said...

Interesting op-ed piece in the NYT about how GOP and Tea Party anger is rapidly doing more and more damage to their electoral chances.

In short: Ultra-angry candidates who are popular with ultra-angry GOP/Tea Party primary voters, aren't very popular with voters overall, and are prone to political gaffs that make them even less popular among moderate and swing voters.

Sociotard said...

This looks like it may be an interesting read:


A Faustian bargain seems to have been struck. The twin needs of profit by commercial interests and convenience by consumers drove the expansion of light from the earliest days of the candle to today’s ubiquitous power lines. Curiously, destruction of the natural world seems to walk hand in hand with the evolution of artificial light, and its Siamese twin, electricity. From hunting sperm whales almost to extinction in the 1800s, to polluting the air and killing miners for coal to power yesterday’s gas lamps and today’s 'modern' power grid, the history of artificial light and electricity contain a hidden undercurrent of turning inwards, of staying inside, of looking towards a lit screen, of fear and alienation.

In her final chapter Brox relates that due to electric light pollution, “two-thirds of all Americans and half of all Europeans can no longer see the Milky Way, our own galaxy, in the nighttime sky.” According to her the sight of it has become so unfamiliar to people that during the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles, “emergency organizations [...] received hundreds of phone calls from people wondering whether the sudden brightening of the stars and the appearance of a ‘silver cloud’ (the Milky Way) had caused the quake.”

Ian said...

Dadiv, the Statosolar link doesn't work because you've got two URLs in the same hyperlink.

Having now seen the slideshow I'm wondering if you could combine that with either the solar tower idea or any of the various proposals for high-altitude wind.

Tony Fisk said...

Water and other useful stuff has been confirmed at the Moon's poles.

Meanwhile, the US space plan is focussing on manned missions to NEOs (prelude to Mars etc.) and the Planetary Society is putting together a competition to design a NEO manned mission (or aspect thereof).

Reading about the James Webb telescope that's due to launch next year, it occurs to me that manned maintenance missions to an expensive asset stationed near the L2 point would make an excellent preliminary objective.

SteveO said...

Tony, the James Webb Space Telescope is not maintainable. It either works or doesn't - even if we could get a manned mission there (which would be more than going to the Moon) they couldn't do anything.

That said, it would be one of the coolest and most bizarre things to watch as it orbits an empty point in space (the Earth-Sun L2). None of the Lagrange points are stable like you could plop something there and it would stay there, though it does reduce the amount of fuel you need. Some orbits around the Lagrange points are stable though.

Tony Fisk said...

I thought the work/no work applied to deployment.
Oh well, it was a thought.

rewinn said...

This looks interesting but is it for real?

The Direct Project
"The Direct Project develops specifications for a secure, scalable, standards-based way to establish universal health addressing and transport for participants (including providers, laboratories, hospitals, pharmacies and patients) to send encrypted health information directly to known, trusted recipients over the Internet. The Nationwide Health Information Network is a set of standards, services and policies that enable secure health information exchange over the Internet. The project itself will not run health information exchange services. ... At the conclusion of this project, there will be one nationwide exchange, consisting of the organizations that have come together in a common policy framework to implement the standards and services. This project is open government, and as such, contains avenues for a broad range of public participation"

Hank Roberts said...

Other prognosticators worth a look:

"I'm no Arthur C. Clarke, but do get email from people who are amazed to see my jokes from a decade ago engineered into realities today.

I got a lot of email regarding this recent kerfluffle over whether or not salmon that have been genetically engineered to grow to full size much faster than naturally-occurring salmon are safe for people to eat. Yes, I did that joke in July of 2000. Yes, I fully expected to see GM salmon on my table. What was I thinking?...."

Huxley or Orwell?

David Brin said...

I am so sick of having to scroll down through ALL the #$##$@! fonts in MS word and text edit, to get to the one I want to use!

If they won't let me eliminate the 99% that I DON'T WANT... is there some way I can rename Times Roman so it comes up top?

Rob Perkins said...

David, open Control Panel and find the Fonts panel.

Delete to your heart's content.

But I'm nonplussed; Word has put most-recently-used fonts at the top of its lists for years!

Tim H. said...

You might want to make a "Crap fonts" folder and put the unwanted ones there, in case some benighted app needs them..

Tim H. said...

Better yet, a way to change the default font in Textedit:

Rob Perkins said...

Oh, Macs! (Of course; what was I thinking?!)

Use spotlight, command-spacebar. Type in "Font Book". Using that app you can select the fonts you don't want and disable them. The selection is in that gear menu-button on the top left.

Catfish N. Cod said...

The notion is alive and well in the Republican Party, at least the faction exemplified with Grover Norquist's denigration of liberals as subscribing to a "reality-based worldview", which he meant as an insult, and hiw now-infamous assertion that "We're an empire now. We make our own reality."

Since that comment was made by an "unnamed" Bush aide, I'm not sure it was Norquist. The most common guess was that it was Rove. But it hardly matters -- the belief is endemic among that branch of the GOP.

The basic problem is that there are things that are highly mutable by willpower and belief, things that are slightly mutable, and things that don't respond to belief at all. Properly applied willpower can power social movements... but it can't cancel gravity.

Much of humanity's fuzzy thinking results from poor estimates of the degree to which wishing can make it so, as opposed to blood, sweat and tears -- or mis-estimating the right ratio of the two.

David Brin said...