Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Blowback" from progress -- and more science

First: now up on kindle: Four essays, also found in my collection, Through Stranger Eyes.

--The Dark Side: Star Wars Mythology and Ingratitude
--The Matrix: Tomorrow may be different
--George Orwell and the Self-fulfilling prophecy: Why 1984 didn't happen
--Lord of the Rings: J.R.R. Tolkien vs the Modern Age

AgeAmateursvideo.comAmateurs have always played a significant role in scientific discovery, particularly in earlier phases, in astronomy and the natural sciences. During the last century, we've seen an increasing trend toward professionalization of all aspects of society; however I have forecast a counter-trend toward an Age of Amateurs.  Indeed, the sheer number and complexity of our challenges will demand a wider proliferation of skills than just one-per-person. For many reasons, we may be returning to a greater emphasis on citizen involvement, even in areas like national defense and self-reliance. In one case -- the scope of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- will be enhanced by thousands of amateur dishes scanning the skies, sharing their results through the internet.  Now I talk about this in a newly posted video that may open your eyes to a fascinating trend.

== Possible “blowback” repercussions of War Technology ==

See a very interesting article and panel, about the possible privacy and liberty and existential repercussions -- or "blowback" -- of rapidly advancing military technologies.  Alas, the very smart panelists did miss several points.

(1) The very thing that (they fret) most threatens privacy is the same thing that can protect privacy... at least a small but sufficient amount of it.  Likewise freedom.  Omni-veillance is true to the spirit of the Enlightenment.  Only an onmi-empowered citizenry will have a chance of protecting either.

(2) No military technology ever had side effects greater than the H-Bomb, which altered us at the very deepest psychological level.  Every male of my age owes his life to Saint Bomb, because the regular schedule of human warmaking would have sent us to some horrid, all-consuming, conventional World War III, some time in the seventies or eighties.

(3) Emphasis on fantastically computerized and miniaturized AI and robotics and "telepathics" in the future will come fraught with a basic danger... that all our potential enemies are working hard to develop technologies that might universally degrade computers and radio on some future battlefield.  The theory is that such a degradation will harm the most hackable and tech-dependent combatants, most of all.  This is a potential failure mode similar to one that struck the laste Roman Empire. See more on this in my article Forgetting Our American Tradition: The Folly of Relying Exclusively on a Protector Caste.

I could go on and on.  There are dozens of ramifications... some of which were discussed in enlightening ways by this panel... and many of which they never touched upon.

=== Science and Coolstuff ==

Can bacteria make you smarter? Wait a minute, I thought eating dirt wasn't so smart a thing to do!

Fascinating stuff! Do high incentives lead to poor performance? 

Stefan reports: “Totally awesome: A lander concept that can not only take off and land in earth's gravity well, but can do a motor shutdown and restart in mid air!”

Speaking of levitation... The Magnetic Suspension Device – for all your home levitation needs.

HP Thinks Sensors Will Lead to The Next Big Wave of Computing. The Internet of Interconnected Things

Is Optical technology coming of age?

“Empirical evidence suggests that events taking place in periods of positive social mood are of a dramatically different character from events you can expect when the mood is negative -- thus the importance of mood as an early-warning indicator for extreme events in human society.”  I agree in general, that depressing a civilization’s confidence is the surest way to prepare it to fail.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Science Rocks!

First, any of you in the San Diego area, I will be among 30+ visionary speakers at TedX Del Mar... a spin off TED conference to be held in the beautiful seaside village of Del Mar on June 2.  Speakers will do 18 minute flash presentations on all types of science, hyper-new technology, art, society... from noon to 9pm.  There will be a charge for attending, since the audience is limited to 100 or so. Or see  TEDxDelMar.com

Uplift fans.  Now you can show your visionary belief in the future by wearing the meme! Order T-shirts, caps, mugs etc emblazoned with logos of the Galactic Institutes.  Or get a tot-bag with the crest of the the Earthclan Uplift Project (featuring a brash neochimp and neo-dolphin).  Or wear the proud emblem of the Terragens Marines.

  Most recent issue of New Scientist focuses on Climate Denialists with articles by Michael Shermer and others.

My special feature on “How the Net Ensures Our Cosmic Survival” has appeared in Communications of the ACM, the June 2010 issue.

For my predictions Registry:  Jeff Robbins recently stumbled upon an article in the New York Times about a hedge fund that provides upfront payments for IRS whistle-blowers. They are essentially agreeing to buy a percentage of those future payouts in exchange for a smaller amount upfront to the whistle-blowers.  “This could hopefully be the start of realizing a whistle-blowers reward system as you envisioned in Kiln People.” 

philanthropyFascinating.  I had hoped that a philanthropist would get behiond this, as I portray at Horizons and Hope: The Future of Philanthropy.  But capitalist drive can be good, too. 


=== Accumulated Science Stuff ====

A new Chinese train innovation allows people to get on & off a bullet train without the train stopping. No time is wasted. If there are 30 stations between Beijing and Guangzhou , just stopping and accelerating again at each station will waste both energy and time.

The new, second tallest building in New York is amazingly green.

Alternative future passenger jets.

EcoMotors is currently developing an engine prototype that could improve fossil-fuel economies by up to 60 percent (achieving 100 miles per gallon), while halving the weight and size of standard gas and diesel-powered engines.

"There are lakes and seas that make Titan the only other place, other than the Earth, in the solar system with large, stable bodies of liquid on its surface," says Zarnecki. "There are also river channels; great stretches of dunes; weather and meteorology; complex hydrocarbons; and – most excitingly – powerful signs that Titan has a subsurface ocean that could provide a home for primitive life. Titan turns out to be an incredible place. It's a moon that would be a planet."... "It turns out that those rivers, lakes and seas on the surface are not watery affairs but are made of methane."

Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire, is funding research into machines to suck up ten tonnes of seawater every second and spray it upwards. This would seed vast banks of white clouds to reflect the Sun’s rays away from Earth. (Um, but you get the power to drive the pumps from... oil, right?)

An interesting TedX riff about the importance of resilience in any ecosystem. The fellow’s specific - somewhat barter-based - alternative currency proposal is much less important than his insight offered at the start of his talk.

Smart guy Marc Millis talks about future tech in space.

New experiments with photosynthetic light-harvesting protein found in green sulfur bacteria show that solar photons generate coherent, wavelike oscillations in the protein complexes. These "quantum beating" signals enable the donor and acceptor molecules to sample all potential energy pathways at once, and choose the most efficient.

Martin Gardner, Puzzler and Polymath, Dies at 95; amazing fellow.

YIPE!  Talk about a politically incorrect theory: "A Farewell to Alms discusses the divide between rich and poor nations that came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution in terms of the evolution of particular behaviors originating in Britain. Prior to 1790, Clark asserts, man faced a Malthusian trap: new technology enabled greater productivity and more food, but was quickly gobbled up by higher populations. In Britain, however, as disease continually killed off poorer members of society, their positions in society were taken over by the sons of the wealthy, who were less violent, more literate, and more productive. This process of "downward social mobility" eventually enabled Britain to attain a rate of productivity that allowed it to break out of the Malthusian trap."

A transparency setback. Andre Hansson writes in: “Swedish income tax records were subject to public scrutiny. This will now change with the motivation that it violates the privacy of ordinary citizens. Hence, it will also be more difficult for citizens and journalists to scrutinize individuals in public office or in any other position of power. Let's just hope it won't cause a snowball effect on other transparency laws.”  Amen


=== MORE GREAT SNIPS (some of them c/o Cheryl) ===

Little Dog Robot: Very cool video of a miniature quadruped robot. Watch how it assesses where to put its foot on uneven surfaces, as it climbs stairs, crosses a gap, walks over a see-saw – and recovers/learns from errors. Developed by researchers at USC. Let’s send a larger one to Mars…and let it fetch some nice samples.  -- Oh, see the earlier "BIG dog" robot from Boston Scientific!  The growling sound is from the onboard generator, since the big version could not carry enough battery power.

Then see the parody!

Leonardo would have been proud:  A model butterfly that flies nearly as elegantly as its real world cousin. A rubber band drives a crank that flaps thin plastic wings. First time that a free-flying replica has been made with the same size, shape & weight as a real insect. Tests showed that veined wings created more lift that veinless ones….as chosen by natural selection.

Testosterone makes people suspicious of one another.

Humans: Why They Triumphed: "The answer lies in a new idea, borrowed from economics, known as collective intelligence: the notion that what determines the inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals. Even as it explains very old patterns in prehistory, this idea holds out hope that the human race will prosper mightily in the years ahead—because ideas are having sex with each other as never before. 

Could companies that toss out copiers become targets for corporate theft? The hard drive of copiers retains copies of all documents copied; tax documents, research papers, employee records.

Five ways to monetize the future of news media

1. Erect a paywall
2. Erect a semi-permeable paywall ( a percentage of articles are free) 
3. Implement a metered system (redress users can read a set number of articles a day
4. Remain free (generate lots of inexpensive output)
5. Create better value for advertisers

Can bacteria make you smarter? Specific bacteria in the environment not only have anti-depressant qualities, but can increase learning behavior

New study shows that the number of books in a home is as important to a child’s success as the parent’s education level. A bookless home is equivalent to having parents who are barely literate.  A book-filled home – equivalent to having university-educated parents. In China, having 500 or more books in the home propels children over 6 yrs further in their education; in the U.S. the effect is 2.4 years.

“You can’t beat doubt as a corporate strategy – especially if your product is life-threatening when used as directed”. New Scientist’s latest issue focuses on the Age of Denial. In particular how corporations manufacture doubt through PR campaigns, ads, slogans, hiring scientists & phony grass roots groups….all extensively used by tobacco, coal, chemical, fossil fuel industries.

What will the city of the future look like? Here’s a gallery of past notions with many failed hopes and dreams: Glass-domed cities, plastic pod-houses, an underground metropolis, orbiting space structures, multi-level streets & swooping walkways, rooftop landings for dirigibles, robot-controlled farms.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ruminations on LOST (before the finale)

OK I’m hooked on LOST too. Each episode was well-directed/acted/written, intensely mixing drama, pathos & hungry curiosity. As a writer I don’t believe all questions must be answered! (See my earlier posting: Land of the LOST!)

LostfinalseasonverticalposterNo, what bugs me is the “Yoda Effect.” Persuading millions that a “good wizard” (Yoda/Jacob) is good, just because he says so, when his every action and effect is near-pure evil.

But let's hold that thought and start with the issue of LOST leaving a million questions unanswered. Sometimes it is good to answer everything at the end of a story cycle. For example, I tied up ALL of Isaac Asimov’s loose ends in Foundations' Triumph! And the Asimov fans were very happy. But I don’t expect that from a saga like LOST, where the writers, though brilliant, were also clearly passing around a bong at every story session, shouting at each other “Hey, wait! What if they then turn around and see THIS!!!”

I was frustrated, of course, by unanswered questions. Some were small, but grated endlessly, like the AIR DROP OF SUPPLIES that landed near the hatch, allowing the castaways to eat a while… supplies from a Dharma Initiative that did NOT seem to be defunct and that indeed could find the island by air! I kept waiting for their counter-attack! Okay, it’s a small thing that rubbed like a blister in my boot. Far worse, from a storytelling point of view, was the utter absence of a persuasive voice speaking up FOR the Dharma Initiative, and its very human ambition to satisfy human curiosity about the island and its powers. Hey, at least let’s hear their side once?

Ah, but even the Dharma Initiative was stupidly secretive. Oh, sure secrecy can help propel a plot (ALL Michael Crichton “science is foolhardy” novels depended on dumbass-secrecy to propel their Big Mistake scenarios and to prevent science from simply correcting the problem.) Still, shouldn’t somebody, some time, speak up for just telling the world about the island? Telling people, all the people (like those millions watching the show), about something wonderful, that might elevate us all and be better handled by open institutions than a few, self-selected, pompous “island protectors” who always act viciously, leaving corpses and mountains of regret in their wake?

As it turns out, there is one character who did that – speaking up for openness and trusting people, a world, humanity, civilization. The only character with a scintilla of actual wisdom in the whole show. The fellow who always turned out to be right, even though nobody would listen to him.

Hurley. Hugo Reyes, who kept saying “Hey, dudes, why don’t we just tell everybody the truth?” Heck. Just as you cannot name a time when a policy of Jacob or his followers did not lead to evil, you cannot name a time when Hurley actually proved to be wrong.

In contrast, poor likable but unwise Jack is nearly always wrong, nearly all of the time, but we trust him. Why? Because he’s handsome and sincere? Tellingly, he is at his best when performing his mission in life. Not as island messiah, but as a doctor.

Which brings us to this parallel world riff… which BTW is charming and enjoyable! But can you name a character who is not better off in the world where the H-Bomb sank the %%$$#! Island? There is one, poor Rose, who now will die of cancer. And Kate is not in great shape in the normal world. Still, everyone else is happier and better off in the reality where the island’s dumb old “light” got extinguished.

Oh, there will be illogical tidbits that rankle. Didn’t Miles’s Dad stay on the island after sending his wife and baby Miles away, just before the H Bomb went off, so wasn’t he doomed in BOTH universes? And what about the KIDS on Oceanic 815? They were “pure” and taken to the Others. What’s with that purity, eh? Who were the murderous Others to judge it? And the fatal-pregnancy effect and the “disease” and…

Okay, let it go. (Anyway, I am writing this before watching the Sunday 2 hour finale.)

But really, I can dig it. The writers are pot-heads, but not coke heads. They routinely lose memory and focus, but no actual brain cells. They are creative wizzes and they do characters very well and they gave us all a great time.

No, what bugs me is the same stuff that finally turned me against Star Wars. A matter of very very very basic morality. I will not follow the allure of the Yoda Effect. Just because a wizard is pretty and claims to be a “good” protector of light, that does not free him from responsibility for the evil that he spreads, and that is done in his name.

Moreover, as in Dune and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, having a terribly evil enemy does NOT automatically get you off the moral hook, just because your brand of oppressive nastiness is a little less openly murderous than the version practiced by Darth or Palpatine, or the Harkonnens, or Sauron, or Voldemort. Or a smoke-monster brother

Setting up a sneering/awful, mass-murdering (and ugly-looking) villain is NOT enough to make your “good wizard” truly worth rooting for! It is lazy, romantic trickery. And while Yoda and Jacob may fool millions that way, they do not fool me.

61vBJVMWSKL._SL500_AA300_A plague on both their houses. And I am with Hugo. Here’s to civilization! An open civilization. The one that invented democracy and science and television and TV shows and an Internet to discuss them on! The civilization that gave the writers of LOST absolutely everything they ever valued or loved and the opportunity to dazzle us with their wit. A civilization that will someday actually be shown some gratitude and love, by screenwriters and directors in Hollywood. (Yeah, right. As if. Ever.)

But then… maybe the finale will make me happy! Yep. Hope springs, eternal….

[See my earlier posting: Land of the Lost]


David Brin
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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Many Cultural & Scientific Wonders

Lots to cover... science, culture, problem solving, energy crises, more science...

But first... A BRIEF MOVIE PRE-REVIEW...

No, I haven't had time yet to write my long, thoughtful essay on "Avatar and the Well-Meant Wrong Message from Hollywood."  That will just have to wait.  But, as a popular culture stopgap…

...has anyone seen the new Russell Crowe Robin Hood movie? I admit I haven't yet. But I did see one one of the trailers and found It filled with clues to the basic plot of the film.  And in ninety seconds we can see that it will not go back to the standard, clichéd Robin Hood plot, nearly all of which revolve around "good King Richard" being held for ransom in Austria, after getting captured on his way home from the Crusades. In that cliche, bad Prince John plots to steal the ransom for himself. Robin foils the plot. Richard returns to banish John and re-enoble Robin. Yawn.

Here are  hints I noticed in the new film's trailer:
- he is the SON of the Robin who (in all other RH movies) helped Richard return -
- it's not Prince John, but King John -
- Crowe rants about "we want our rights IN LAW!"

At home I went online and offered a wager. What important historical event must this film be all about?  Why, the Magna Carta, of course. And why does it make me happy… in a world where most films swwon toward the notion of kings, solipsistic wizards and vampires? Clearly, Tom Charity of CNN and Kenneth Turan of the LA Times are not getting smarter with age.  Both, nonsensically and weirdly called the new movie a "prequel."

When I learned that the script was by Brian Helgeland, I perked up even more.  While I have mixed feelings about the Postman movie that Helgeland scripted for Kevin Costner (Costner never even bought me a beer), Helgeland tried hard, under difficult conditions.  He definitely caught the heart message from my novel, with its pro-civilization theme. He remains one of the bright lights in Hwood-writing, these days.

I'll go see Robin Hood with high hopes.

(See more musings about Popular Culture...from Star Wars to Star Trek and Lord of the Rings.)

== A New Facebook Page for the Uplift Universe ==

banner_upliftIt will offer updates, links & background on Uplift books. The go-to source for everything about Uplift! with updates on books...and the science behind them.

Plus a new web page dedicated to Uplift.

 == GET 'YER POSDCASTS HERE ==

AgeAmateursvideo.comAmateurs have always played a significant role in scientific discovery, particularly in astronomy, biology and other natural sciences. This tradition has been masked, somewhat, by the prodigious growth of Big Science. In the last century, we've seen an increasing trend toward professionalization of all aspects of society; however, back in the 1980s I started forecasting a counter-trend, toward a rising Age of Amateurs.  Indeed, the sheer number and complexity of our challenges will demand a wider proliferation of skills than just one-per-person. may soon witness a return to greater emphasis on citizen-contributors, in areas like national defense and self-reliance at networked information gathering.

The scope of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, will be enhanced by thousands of amateur dishes scanning the skies, sharing their results through the internet.  Now I talk about this in a newly posted video: The Age of Amateurs that may open your eyes to a fascinating trend.

CTOChallengeEvery year I help run a special "Architechs" creativity workshop at the Future in Review Conference, challenging some of the world's top Chief Technology Officers, from corporations like Cisco, Intuit   Deloitte and Microsoft, to solve a major problem in 48 hours. Here’s a clip of FIRE’s 2008 CTO Challenge: 'Using Technology to fight Wildfires.”  Part1:   Part2:

At this year's FiRe Conference, (just finished), I  challenged the CTOs to come up with great new ideas for spurring the development of "Scalable Alternative Energy." The result was clear thinking from bright fellow at Intuit, Deloitte, Microsoft, Cisco, CalIT2 and other visionary companies. With wisdom provided by my old Caltech classmate Professor Nate Lewis. I hope to be able to link you to the video soon.  (Tell your companies and groups that I do these events as "creativity stimulating exercises" for hire! Customers are always happy!)

Check this out: An Interactive Scale of Universe: You can zoom in and out by sliding the bar along bottom to see changes of scale: from Quantum foam, the fabric in Einstein's space-time theory (10 to the -35 meter) to the observable universe (10 to the 27 meters).


==  OUR COUSINS ==

The near complete Neanderthal genome sequence (first cut) has been released! What about the differences? "When it comes to protein coding genes, they're pretty minor. Only 78 differences in the sequences that encode proteins are uniformly present in humans but absent in Neanderthals. Only five of those would change the primary structure of the protein. ... Much of the action instead seems to be happening in areas that may regulate the expression of genes. There were over 230 changes apparent in the parts of genes that flank the protein-coding section (the 5' and 3' UTRs). In the areas that have been identified as Human Accelerated Regions (HARs) based on the large differences between humans and chimps, the Neanderthals had the human form 90 percent of the time, but that still left 45 HARs in which humans have picked up significant differences since they diverged from Neanderthals."

The authors also went looking for cases where there was evidence of what's termed a , where a useful mutation occurs and spreads through the population, dragging its area of the chromosome along with it. We can detect these by looking for large chunks of the chromosome that are essentially identical in modern humans, but differ from the Neanderthal versions.  Researchers found over 200 of these. Many of them appear to contain genes involved with neural development, including DVRK1A (implicated in Down Syndrome), Neuregulin-3 (schizophrenia), and CADPS2 and AUTS2 (autism). The authors also point out RUNX2 is part of a selective sweep; mutations in this gene lead to skeletal deformities in the face and shoulders, areas which differ significantly between humans and Neanderthals.
  
Gosh I want to know more about the autism and down syndrome links!

The data implicates gene regulation - rather than the protein-making genes themselves - as a significant driver of the evolutionary adaptation in humans. That's the next frontier.

At the same time, the genome sequence does provide evidence that humans and Neanderthals have interbred. This became apparent when the Neanderthal genome was paired against human genomes from different parts of the globe. The Neanderthal DNA consistently matched European and Asian samples better than it did African; the difference was small, but consistent. It suggested that the Neanderthals, which were restricted to Europe and Asia at the time modern humans originated in Africa, had interbred with humans once they began migrating out of Africa.

=== Attempted Transparency ===

I like this effort to create a cloud-movable utility for group judging the credibility of journalist-reporting.  It could, in theory, lead to what I portrayed in my 1989 novel EARTH -- and in my next novel EXISTENCE -- as "credibility ratings." 

Alas though, I cannot see how this fine idea would gain enough traction -- in today's fractured net-world -- to reach the critical mass of users that would make it truly effective.  This is one of a hundred places where a little seeding by a billionaire visionary could make a huge difference... or else if the company and method got incorporated INTO Google.

 === Misc science ===


See a famous math wizard/billionaire's new endeavor that's making the future you will live in.  Seriously.

CrystalSpheresNewestProblem Detected with Voyager 2 Spacecraft at edge of solar system. Mission managers can no longer decode the science data beamed to Earth from Voyager 2. The space probe and its twin Voyager 1 are flying through the bubble-like heliosphere, created by the sun, which surrounds our solar system.

Explanation?  Duh?  Passed through our “Crystal Sphere.”

The sum of human knowledge just took an order of magnitude leap: Zettabytes overtake petabytes as largest unit of digital measurement! The size of the digital universe will swell so rapidly this year that a new unit -- the zettabyte has been invented to measure it. Humanity's total digital output is expected to pass 1.2 zettabytes this year. One zettabyte is equal to one million petabytes.

Stan Seibert writes in to recommend another 3-D “object printer.”  The Makerbot http://makerbot.com/ It is a 3D printer kit for $750 that is assembled by the end user.  “It can produce objects on the 10x10x10 cm scale with a few different kinds of thermoplastics, though ABS is the most common.  Although too young to have experienced this, I'm told the MakerBot is the 3D printing equivalent of the Altair 8800 or the Apple I.”

A team of international researchers has brought the primary component of mammoth blood back to life using ancient DNA preserved in bones from Siberian specimens 25,000 to 43,000 years old. Studiesreveal special evolutionary adaptations that allowed the mammoth to cool its extremities down in harsh Arctic conditions to minimize heat loss.

"A 1-millisecond advantage in trading applications can be worth $100 million a year to a major brokerage firm, by one estimate. The fastest systems, running from traders' desks to exchange data centers, can execute transactions in a few milliseconds--so fast, in fact, that the physical distance between two computers processing a transaction can slow down how fast it happens. This problem is called data latency--delays measured in split seconds. To overcome it, many high-frequency algorithmic traders are moving their systems as close to the Wall Street exchanges as possible.

At its most abstract level, the data-latency race represents the spear point of the global movement to eradicate barriers--geographic, technical, psychological--to fair and transparent markets. "Any fair market is going to select the best price from the buyer or seller who gets their order in there first," says Alistair Brown, founder of Lime Brokerage, one of the new-school broker-dealers, which uses customized Linux servers to trade some 200 million shares a day. "At that point, speed definitely becomes an issue. If everyone has access to the same information, when the market moves, you want to be first. The people who are too slow are going to get left behind."

Tech Briefs Design Contest: Create the Future. The Create the Future Design Contest was launched in 2002 by the publishers of NASA Tech Briefs magazine to help stimulate and reward engineering innovation. The annual event has attracted more than 7,000 product design ideas from engineers, entrepreneurs, and students worldwide. Entry  categories include: Machinery & Equipment, Consumer Products, Medical, Safety & Security, Transportation, and Sustainable Technologies.

Astronomers find Recoiling Supermassive Black Hole: "Astronomers have found a possible supermassive black hole that is recoiling out of a distant galaxy at high speed. The black hole, visible with X-rays as a clear star, is not located in the center of the galaxy, as would normally be the case. Recoiling black holes are interesting because they provide insights into how supermassive black holes develop in the center of galaxies."

About Space elevators: A Hoist to the Heavens: .
and The "Space Elevator: Physical Principles"

Hydrogen from Seawater Using Molybdenum Oxo Catalyst
World Futurist Society's 20 predictions circa 2025.
10 hot energy projects that could electrify the world
  
Lessons from history for technology designers.    

Emory University scientists have dscovered that simple peptides can oganize into bi-layer membranes.
The finding suggests a "missing link" between the pre-biotic Earth's chemical inventory and the organizational scaffolding essential to life.

Cell phones could double as night vision devices. 
Google Invests in Firm That Tries to Predict the Future. 

Social media has overtaken pornography as the #1 activity on the web. TV took 13 years to reach 50 million users. Facebook has topped 200 million. If Facebook were a country, it would be the world's third largest country. YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world. 

Excellent collection of material on space-based solar power.

==== SETI and more silly shouting ====

Davies+-+The+Eerie+SilenceTo mark the 50th anniversary of SETI, as well as the publication of Paul Davies's The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, (a new book about our search for extraterrestrial life), Penguin UK and National Science and Engineering Week will be firing off up to 5,000 messages into space via a radio telescope. The messages can be up to 40 words, and can say anything you like – greetings, warnings, confessions, jokes. The 50 best will be revealed in The Daily Telegraph in March, with each of the winners receiving a copy of Davies's book. To enter the competition, submit your message of no more than 40 words at www.penguin.co.uk/eeriesilence Entries will be accepted until February 28.

 Personally, I think a message should be: "Know that humans are exuberant and impatient.  No international consultations have discussed how best to make wise contact.  Until our most-sage human thinkers have pondered and discussed this with the Earth's citizens, rash "messages" like this one should be taken as informal bursts, from individuals, that don't speak for humanity."

I have seen THE EERIE SILENCE... Paul kindly sent me a copy since he cites my recent positions on the METI Controversy (whether to shout into the cosmos).  Alas, he failed to cite my far more important "Great Silence" paper from the 1980s, which is still the only review article and overview the field  ever had.  Paul is one of the fine and original minds of our age.  I hope now that he is Chair of the Post-Detection Committee (from which I resigned in disgust, a few years ago), that he will change and broaden his view of the range of thought experiments we need to ponder, in this "topic that (so far) lacks any subject matter."

===  AND A QUICK POLITICAL NOTE ===

Jim C wrires: "From NYT via Firedoglake, how the risks of a spill were increased through the same destruction of the civil service that you've been discussing for some time now.  It would be nice to see the oil-spill / civil service relationship explored more in the popular media."  Yes it would, Jim.
All right, the decks are now mostly clear.  Hoping to get back to work now.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Saving Capitalism from Neo-Feudalism

Regarding the current mess on Wall Street, billionaire Mark Cuban and I have joined the chorus for a securities trade tax, that would both bring in needed revenue and apply incentives for investors to care, just a little, about the stocks they buy, rather than viewing them as chits in a fast-paced game that only giants can play.  See: Tax the Hell Out of Wall Street and Give it to Main Street.

Side rant: (Cuban illustrates again how our billionaire caste is split starkly in half, with most of the self-made tech billionaires speaking up for the nation as a shared endeavor, meriting their gratitude and help... while another half seems deeply imbued in tax-resentment solipsism and dreams of oligarchy.  This distinction shows that our troubles are not about left-vs-right... markets and capitalism, which almost always do better under democrats, are among the top victims of neo-feudalism, not the perpetrators. Though I despair of getting this point across to either my libertarian or liberal friends.)

The notion that markets can benefit from a little ‘slowing friction’ goes back to the Tobin tax, suggested by Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin, originally defined as a tax on spot conversions of one currency into another. The tax is intended to put a penalty on short-term financial round-trip excursions into another currency.  Slowing such transactions to a human pace prevents hysteresis and nonlinear runaway effects and allows all market participants to acquire the knowledge they need for Smithian/Hayekian decision making, instead of favoring a select few.

Side rant: (Whether on currency trades or more generally applied to stocks and securities, this notion of slowing the pace, in order to increase the number of knowing traders, runs counter to the obsession of the school of neo-classical (e.g. supply-side, neoconservative) economics, which claims that utter-fast fluidity of financial markets, favoring the biggest players, will bring capital automatically where it needs to go -- a perverted misreading of Adam Smith that completely severed finance from the creation of goods and services, or any grounding in broad-based competition. The inevitable reduction in the number of knowing players should have set off alarm bells in any non-hypocrite believers in Smith or Hayek; alas it did not. For a reductio-ad-absurdum distillation of neo-classical economics, think the “Galgafrincham B- Ark,” from the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

(Further note: I think the neo-classical economists almost had the right idea. There is a magic ultimate ingredient that turns markets into thriving, supercharged creativity and wealth generating machines! But it is something other than the poisons we were prescribed by neocons. What benefits an economy and makes a market efficient-fecund is not unleashing boy “genius” bankers to gamble at lightning speed with other peoples savings. Nor is it pouring tax breaks into an oligarchy, praying that THIS time they will actually (according to supply side theory) invest it in plants and equipment.  Nor is the secret ingredient maximal speed of trade or lowered regulation or “zero-friction.”  {notice that all of these just happen to help existing elites to grab lucre by rent-seeking; what a coincidence!}

(No. What is essential -- and Adam Smith and F. Hayek and virtually all sane economists down the line agree with me -- is Maximized Transparency. So that all players in capitalism and politics and society (not just privileged elites) can know enough -- and have time enough -- to make informed decisions.  The lies, obfuscations and concealed identities must stop.  THAT will result in more efficiency and (ironically) even lowered regulation. Indeed, transparency is the only rational alternative that can manage to reduce government involvement in markets, period.) Side-rant off!


Despite some similarities, there are differences between my approach to the Tobin transaction tax and Mark Cuban’s.  He calls for a levy of 25 cents per share traded.  Ouch. Not gonna happen; won’t pass.

Simpler, and a way to ease it in, would be to levy one hundredth of a percent of the VALUE of each trade. (See: Why a Transaction Fee Matters to YOU.)  Or else... more directly justifiable... don’t charge all of the costs of SEC etc to the federal budget. Instead the new transaction fee (not a “tax”) rises or falls based on the current cost of enforcement, regulation and reserves.

Either way, what Cuban strangely never mentions is my chief motive for doing this... a general Tobin Trading Levy would be death to a recent-modern villainy -- coded-reflex cheat-trading by big brokers who gamble and nibble at the margins through billions of tiny, computer-spun micro-trades, taking unfair advantage of both their privileged stock market memberships (no commission) and their quicker access to inside information to detect clients’' buy orders -- thus gaming the system while those buy order are in play!

This reform is obvious... and won't happen.  The Chicago School neo-classicists who caused the collapse still see a trillion efficiency angels dancing on the head of a pin. The pin that popped our economy.

See: More of my articles on the Economy

=== Transparency and Anti-Terror ===

Re: the 4/010 attempt to car bomb Times Square, “it was the keen eyes of at least two of them — both disabled Vietnam War veterans who say they are accustomed to alerting local police officers to pickpockets and hustlers — that helped point the authorities to the Nissan Pathfinder parked just off Broadway on the south side of 45th Street — engine running, hazard lights flashing, driver nowhere to be found.”  Moreover, the FBI relied on images, both taken by privately-owned cameras, at commercial buildings near the scene and taken by tourists, to assist in the hunt for the would-be bomber... exactly as I predicted in The Transparent Society.  

More on Citizen Power? A piece by David Brooks in the New York Times talks about  recent terrorism matters in terms that I have been raising since before 9/11... "citizen empowerment and resilience."

Alas, as I suggest in many places,  this should be a matter of prioritization and resource allocation.  1% of the homeland security budget should be applied to the only thing that worked on 9/11.  The only thing that worked against the shoe bomber or Abdulmutallab.  The thing that wasn't allowed to work during Katrina. I'm in no position to push for this. It doesn't feather institutional nests. But it just happens to be the one thing that could help us to survive, if and when something awful happens.  Alas.

==On the Oil Spill==


First, regarding the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a few notes:

1) The dome-capture solution was stymied by “icy” methanic hydrates on the deep ocean bottom.  What this demonstrates - on the side - is that these clathrate hydrates are all over the place, not just in arctic waters, but anywhere deep enough to have sufficient pressure. (In my doctorate, I described them even on comets!)  But, as the oceans warm, there will be increasing danger of these hydrates “blurping” methane into the atmosphere, causing a runaway greenhouse effect of prodigious order.  That is one of the stakes that “deniers” are playing with.

2) An absolute must-read - “Sex Lies and Oil Spills.”  Do go read it.  Do. Read it.


Enough politics.  Next time, shift gears to science and such...

Saturday, May 08, 2010

When conservatives are right

 My friend and respected newsletter-economist John Mauldin is one of the smart-sane ones and he has a lot of cogent things to say. He often zeroes in on mistakes being made by the other side, in ways that might actually lead to direct improvement, were the process of deliberation and negotiation still in play.  He makes the kind of suggestions that the minority party ought to be making, in order to fix and improve political measures, instead of leaving them to pass without conservative input and hoping they will fail.

(Side note: My guess is that more GOP office holders would be “Responsible Republicans” if they thought they could get away with being seen actually engaging in deliberation and negotiation with the commie/nazi/satanic liberals, without being punished by the current owners of their party -- Rush Limbaugh, Rupert Murdoch and the Saudi Royal House.

(In fact, my best guess is that some RRs will emerge from hiding, as soon as primary season is over, when they no longer have to fear a Fox-propelled populist insurgency from the far-right. Of the kind the only yesterday deposed Senator Bennett from the GOP nomination for re-election from Utah. The survivors may get some backbone in mid-summer... especially if Republican poll numbers start to slip. We already see signs of negotiation over finance reform that was anathema during the Health care debate.)

But back to John M. Let me reprint a passage of his you should ponder:

It now looks like almost 30% of the Greek financing will come from the IMF, rather than just a small portion. And since 40% of the IMF is funded by US taxpayers, and that debt will be JUNIOR to current bond holders (if the rumors are true) I can't tell you how outraged that makes me. What that means is that US (and Canadian and British, etc.) tax payers will be giving money to Greece who will use a lot of it to roll over old bonds, letting European banks  and funds reduce their exposure to Greece while taxpayers all over the world who fund the IMF assume that risk. And does anyone really think that Greece will pay that debt back? IMF debt should be senior and no bank should be allowed to roll over debt and reduce their exposure to Greek debt on the back of foreign taxpayers.

Dang but that’s smart and on-target... and wholly based on commen sense, rather than reflex left rightism.

 One of 10,000 things that I hate most about Culture War is that guys like this are marginalized to fret on the sidelines, without anyroute for their voices to be heard in high places.  It’s not the fault of the “other side.”  

It is the fault of a movement that has gone mad, manipulated into an orgy of dullard hatefulness, instead of putting guys like John up front.  Grownups who would negotiate hard... but negotiate like adults.


=== WISDOM FROM THE EAST ===

Michael Nash, the film-maker who created the new documentary “Climate Refugees,” has offered a fascinating insight into what’s at stake in the current American climate-ideology wars.  While his main emphasis is focused on the millions of refugees who already are on the move, because of changing water and food conditions... (three million leaving Burma, 300,000 who never went home to New Orleans)... he also had an insight that starkly portrays the insipid self-destruction that is inherent in our current Culture War over this issue:

”An interesting conversation took place one night while we were at COP15. Producer Justin Hogan and I were having drinks with a couple of guys from China. We started talking about America and how America looks at climate change. I asked them what they thought about America, and what they told me stopped me in my tracks.

“They said, “The left wants to save the world, and the right thinks it’s all about money. The right thinks America’s economy isn’t strong enough to move from an oil-based energy system to an alternative-based.”
 
“They then went on: “The right is correct – it’s all about money – but they could not be more incorrect in their interpretation of the money.”

“I asked “What do you mean?” They continued: “Make no mistake about it, the world is going green. Nothing would make people like us in China happier than America continuing this debate for the next 10 or 15 years. Because in 15 years, when you guys come out of the fog, China will own the revenue stream of the green revolution. We’ve spent a hundred years trying to catch up with the United States, and we now have the opportunity to blow past you in a half generation.””


Wow. That really turns your head, reminding you that the "defenders" of free enterprise have been its worst enemies.

I have stressed relentlessly that most of the measures that would help alleviate Anthropo generated Global Warming (AGW) happen also to be essential for achieving US energy independence, increased economic efficiency, and a competitive edge in the most important technologies of the next generation.

  On that basis alone, the neocon Koolaid in this issue is tantamount to treason, and that makes it small surprise that Rupert Murdoch’s chief investors and business partners include some of the top Russian and Gulf State petro princes and oligarchs, using some of the same consultants and strategies that worked for Big Tobacco, a generation ago.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Perspectives on SETI and Aliens... and more science

Responding to Stephen Hawking's new Discovery Channel program, I debated the "alien threat" on Larry King Live with Michio Kaku, Seth Shostak, and actor Dan Aykroyd (who pushed UFOs.)

kingliveThe format - four smart. sure-of-themselves egotists, being interviewed by a fifth - made for some very short but avid sound bites. (The videos have been take down, but you can read a transcript of the show.)

In this field, as in the furor over Transparency, my attitude is one of fierce moderation. My fundamental point is that nobody knows a damned thing about aliens!  Alas, that doesn’t keep almost everybody from behaving like children, weighing in with their “of course” explanations for how advanced sapient races would “naturally” behave, or why ETs haven’t been seen, or what they would do if we encountered them.  I know a lot of very bright people who have opined in this field, and nearly all of them proceed to sigh and roll their eyes, expressing contemptuous disdain for anyone daring to have a different notion about Alien Life.

Sure, one explanation comes to mind -- any field suffering from a complete lack of data can become a mirror, in which even (especially) bright people see only a reflection of their own dreams and biases.  Still, please! Does the reflex have to be followed by everybody? Frankly, watching the same phenomenon occur over and over, I am getting fatigued.

ExtraterrestrialCivilizatoi let me try one more time, since the topic is public and hot right now. I've been at this a long time.  Back in 1983, my Great Silence paper was... and remains... the only genuine review article ever published in the SETI field. Because almost every other paper has had a particular axe to grind, I attempted to catalogue and compare 100+ theories, covering the wide range of possibilities, re alien life, thus demonstrating just how little we yet know. While suggesting some avenues for research, I concluded by pleading for a tentative, contingent, openminded attitude, of the sort we’ll desperately need, if contact ever does occur.

For a general, popularized account see "Xenology."  More recently I argued against messages” to ETI in "Shouting at the Cosmos"  and pungently suggest "what to say to an ET lurker."

But, as I just stated, it seems this topic brings out the amateur sci fi author in every person who touches it.  Hence, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond and Freeman Dyson... four of the very smartest human beings who ever lived... have all recommended that we not shout into the cosmos to draw attention to ourselves, because it might be dangerous -- (I agree so far) -- only then each of them goes on the fantasize some particular simplistic scenario for why aliens could be hostile or dangerous. In Hawking’s new show, for example, he posits that super-advanced civilizations might come charging in to exploit our solar system’s resources, use them up and then move on, leaving us in a trashed wasteland.

Now, at one level, Hawking’s fear is not entirely off target. I’ve pointed out elsewhere: “All living creatures inherently use resources to the limits of their ability, inventing new aims, desires and ambitions to suit their next level of power. If they wanted to use our solar system, for some super project, our complaints would be like an ant colony protesting the laying of a parking lot.”

In contrast to this trend that’s seen across nature, we now have a new, tentative value system that’s arisen in the most recent generation of the Modern West, wherein some initial signs of self-restraint and satiability have started to appear.  We relish this new trait of altruistic self-control and wishfully imagine that we’ll do even better, in our Start Trek future.  Moreover, we hope that aliens will do the same, progressing in this new direction that we dream for ourselves -- toward universal altruism. And sure, I deeply hope this will turn out to be true.

On the other hand it ain’t necessarily so. This projection of our present culture’s idealized trend onto ALL star travelling races could be viewed as incredibly arrogant cultural myopia, even chauvinism! (Will the descendants of pack carnivores or stalking predators or paranoid herd beasts view such things the same way as we descendants of gregarious apes?)  In fact, “altruism” is rare in nature, compared to Darwinistic predation or opportunism, or even quid pro quo.  Those who declare that “of course” aliens would “outgrow all that” are engaged in bizarre wish projection, without any basis at all, other than their hopes.

Davies+-+The+Eerie+SilenceOn the other hand, Hawking’s scenario isn’t just about aliens rapaciously using up solar systems. It is about us foolishly attracting aliens who thereupon do such things. And this makes no sense at all. The Earth has been prime real estate ever since it got an oxygen atmosphere, a billion years ago.  If ETs wanted a nice planet to colonize, or a system to loot, they could have come during any of that time. Paul Davies makes this point in his new book THE EERIE SILENCE: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, as I did in my 1983 paper.

A foolish METI “yoohoo!” message from us isn’t going to make them come for resource rapine. Though, in fact, Hawking’s scenario does have some plausibility as an explanation of the Great Silence (Fermi Paradox), along a different path of logic. Ponder this; if such a wave of greedy exploitation DID once pass through our region of the galaxy, and it just happened to miss Earth, then that might explain our current loneliness... the paucity of other new races around us.  Because that prairie fire knocked down every other promising race or planet in the region, leaving Earth like an isolated oasis in a desert.  I talk about this scenario (and many others) elsewhere.

No, Hawking’s reasoning does not make sense as a reason not to shout. On the other hand, there are dozens of other possible reasons why a Yoohoo Message could be dangerous  I could go into lots of them...

... but I won’t!  Not here. Because I am NOT trying to argue that METI will cause invasion or directed havoc.  Personally, I think the odds of that outcome are low. 

S6Rbfy56lmMTi2ek1GoGMzl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVaiQDB_Rd1H6kmuBWtceBJNo, I am trying to get people to stop leaping to unjustified assumptions and conclusions and especially to stop proclaiming that things are so, just because you made a glib sounding assertion. (Isn’t that bad habit doing enough harm, in Culture War?)

For example, Paul Davies and George Dvorsky and Michio Kaku and many other smart guys have asserted “if they wanted to harm us, they would have done so by now.”

Say What?  Oh, this is just more blithe, dismissive nonsense, with so many sub-variations and counter-hypotheses to ponder you could shake a stick at them all day. Leaping to make such a generalized statement is no less than an expression of the most outrageous smugness and incuriosity, especially unworthy, coming from such smart fellows.

Just like the idiotic cliche that “I Love Lucy” has already made Earth a blaring beacon in the sky, so why bother restraining ourselves now? (Here’s an illustrative experiment: go to a lake with a rock and a laser pointer. Now drop the rock into the pond, making ripples. Then aim the laser pointer at the other shore. Which wave front will be detected on the opposite side? That is “I love Lucy” vs a high-power, colimated, coherent transmission from Arecebo.  Sure, in theory, advanced scientists on the other shore, who are passionately eager and who know where to look, might detect the rock-ripples. But Jesus, have some scale and some sense, before you blithely declare that everybody on all shores will always detect all ripples!)

 These positions are arrant nonsense and deeply illogical. (Here’s another. If we’re “already blatantly visible” out there, then what is METI trying to accomplish, by deliberately making our Earth SEVEN ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE brighter? Hm?)

I do not have time to get into this vast topic in detail.  I have spent decades on it, exploring countless ramifications like --

xenologyXenology: Why we might be alone (a popularized account):

Or, (for the real scholar) the much deeper and more scholarly 'classic' review of the field -- The Great Silence -- which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, fall 1983, v.24, pp 283-309,

Or might a lurker probe already be here?

Or a sci fi novella that thoroughly explores the variants of possible Von Neumann self-replicating interstellar probes.

Or my answer to UFOs.

A collection of articles on SETI and METI.

Or a dozen other stories illustrating unusual possibilities for alien life.

thoseeyesBut the crux is this.

Stop assuming that asserting something makes it so!

It doesn’t. Nor does positing an "of course" pre-explanation of the Great Silence make you wise.

 In fact, it’s time for a much wider conversation about this, bringing together our best minds from dozens of fields and opposing viewpoints.  This is a topic where nobody is right, who blithely rolls off cliches and says “of course the answer is this."

=======

PS... re my suggestion - on Larry King - that SETI shift from one expensive and ridiculously over-specialized telescope to 10,000 net-linked backyard receivers... the SETI League is a real outfit that tries to do this. They believe the "WOW" signal would be detectable by a few thousand dollars worth of electronics attached to a 12-ft satellite dish. They're all about getting thousands of amateurs into the SETI field. While the sensitivity could never match the Allen array, the Allen array cannot hope to cover the entire sky, full time, over the entire radio spectrum. Only a large number of receivers give us any chance of detecting signals beamed our way.  (By the way, on Larry King I should have pointed out a side benefit... that such a system would also help catch Dan Ayckroyd’s UFO saucer guys!)

Finally, some of the researchers in this field have expressed deep contempt for science fiction. This ready dismissal of the entire field of gedankenexperimentation by thoughtful and scientifically deep authors is nothing but flat out - and proud - ignorance.  Such people dismiss - without having ever read them - mind-blowingly original thought experiments by the likes of Bear and Banks and Vinge (and me), which make up the only real library of what-if extrapolations that our committees could quickly turn to, in the event of a post-contact situation!  To call such explorations "simpleminded" and unimaginative and based solely on copying the human experience is to declare openly "I am satisfied that B-Movies typify 'science fiction.' I have never cracked the spine of a grownup science fiction contact scenario... nor will I, ever."

That’s just dunderheaded and closeminded and especially unworthy of people who have earned great merit in other fields. People who now propose to represent us, if and when we meet the alien.

======

WeAreNotAlone_INLINEAnd while we’re on a similar topic.... According to a new book: We Are Not Alone: Why We May Already Have Found Extraterrestrial Life, by astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch and science writer David Darling, we’ve had good evidence of microbial life on Mars since NASA’s Viking missions in the late 1970s. Now, they argue, all that’s needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that we are not alone is another ambitious mission to Mars—one that, like Viking, carries a life-detection experiment.My friend Joe Miller (prof. USC) has been saying this for years... that Viking found life on Mars, back in the 1970s.) 

Solar Sails At Last? With its May 18 launch date fast approaching, Japan’s  hybrid sail mission is at last getting a bit of press attention, long overdue in my opinion. The Daily Mail, at least, has just run a  on IKAROS, which will combine two mission concepts within a single spacecraft. Its solar sail works conventionally, using the momentum of photons from the Sun to accelerate the craft. But the JAXA designers have added thin film solar cells on the sail membrane. These produce the electricity that could be used in future (and larger) iterations to drive an ion engine.

Oh and for you lazy Sci Fi fans... a Brightness Reef promo -- in case you need to be convinced to start the Second Uplift Trilogy.

==Science and Tech Miscellany==

HP Designjet 3D Printer Now On Sale, Churns Out Solid Plastic Objects From the Desktop.

Wow! “Anesthesiologist Lakhmir Chawla of George Washington University Medical Center and his colleagues recently published a retrospective analysis of brain activity in seven sedated, critically ill patients as they were removed from life support. Using EEG recordings of neural electrical activity, Chawla found a brief but significant spike at or near the time of death—despite a preceding loss of blood pressure and associated drop in brain activity....The jolts lasted 30 to 180 seconds and displayed properties that are normally associated with consciousness, such as extremely fast electrical oscillations known as gamma waves. Soon after the activity abated, the patients were pronounced dead. Chawla posits that the predeath spikes are most likely brief, “last hurrah” seizures originating in brain areas that were irritable from oxygen starvation. If these seizures were to occur in memory regions, they could explain the vivid recollections often reported by people who are resuscitated from near death, Chawla says.”

Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device.


See a way-cool student film “preview” of Rendezvous With Rama by Athur. C. Clarke. 

Quickie T-Shirt advice for making contact with an alien.

Instead of fast food, we need fast fuel. A new time-saving recipe for bio-fuel: Make an algae soup. Heat to 300 degrees in a pressure-cooker for one hour. The result: crude bio-oil -- without waiting millions of years as in nature’s original formula. A possible replacement for today’s fossil fuels?

Did extinction events nearly wipe out humans–-causing a population bottleneck, as measured by decreased genetic diversity?  One may have occurred 1.2 million years ago, when there were only 55,000 members of genus Homo. Another - an enormous eruption 70,000 years ago near Sumatra. At these bottlenecks, genetic mutations have had a greater likelihood of being passed on…and shifting the course of human evolution.

imagesJust rediscovered a classic: Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) by physicist George Gamow. A bank clerk, Mr. Tompkins attends a lecture on relativity, falls asleep & dreams of a city where the speed of light is only 6 mph. He experiences the effects of relativity in everyday life, i.e. riding a bicycle: “if I step harder on the pedals city blocks become shorter and shorter.” Charming even if a bit dated.

A new solar driven method to de-oxidize magnesium. 

It is officially described as an orbital test vehicle. However, one of its potential uses appears to be to launch a surge of small satellites during periods of high international tension. This would enable America to have eyes and ears orbiting above any potential troublespot in the world. The X37B can stay in orbit for up to 270 days, whereas the Shuttle can last only 16 days. This will provide the US with the ability to carry out experiments for long periods, including the testing of new laser weapon systems.

Piezo-electric, shoe-based battery charger. 

Or else... an energy-harvesting device using stacked thermocouples that generates a few microwatts of electrical power from body heat or any environment where there is a temperature gradient.

The brain's power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons.

A Russian company is marketing a devastating new $10-20 million cruise missile system that can be hidden inside a shipping container, giving any merchant vessel the capability to wipe out an aircraft carrier.

Everyone in America pays some sort of taxes, which may take the form of income, sales or property taxes imposed by state and local governments, in addition to federal income, payroll and excise taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) estimates that the share of total taxes (federal state and local taxes) paid by taxpayers in each income group is quite similar to the share of total income received by each income group in 2009. For example, the share of total taxes paid by the richest one percent (22.1 percent) is not dramatically different from the share of total income received by this group (20.4 percent). (Nevertheless... I feel there should be some kind of MINIMUM tax. Everfybody, even the poor, should have to fork over something... and thereupon care where it goes.  Even better, ,make it $100 when the budget is in surplus. and $300 when in deficit.  Then even the poor will want a balanced budget!)

John Peterson suggested this one:
"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." - Thomas Jefferson

Ah sci fi....