Saturday, July 31, 2010

Solving World Debt Through Radical Economic Transparency

A Way Out of the World Debt Spiral?

My own debt exit strategy to Save Capitalism with Radical Transparency is likely to be the simplest, easiest and most effective you'll find... and thus it is the very least likely to be tried, since it would sharply reduce the power of the most-mighty. 

No, it isn't particularly radical.  In fact, the concept might be called "conservative" in its fundamental ethos and judged by the writings of Adam Smith. The notion does not entail any particular campaign of confiscation, higher taxes, socialism or new regulation.  In fact, it would allow a whole lot of regulations to simply fade away as no longer needed. It would certainly force very little change in the actual structure of capitalism.

The proposal is radical economic transparency. Imagine a simple requirement, negotiated into a treaty that encompassed the world, that is so simple it can be encapsulated in a few sentences.

Anyone who owns anything larger than a small farm or shop must simply  declare and avow, openly, that they own it. People should state what it is that they own, and how they came to own it.  

Oh, there is one necessary corollary to spell out.

 Further -- no property may be possessed by any set of holding companies more than two layers deep, before getting to actual human people, who admit, assert and avow that ownership.

That's it; all there is. There ain't no more.  Isn't it enough?

                             Not so radical an idea.

Note that there is nothing whatsoever socialistic, confiscatory or “leveling” about this proposal. All I am asking for is the situation that already, in theory, prevails!  Look into it. Exactly this level of traceable ownership is the basis for most of our market systems, not so much for the benefit of the state, but so that all market players, from corporations to small consumers, can have the Hayekian knowledge they need, in order to make informed market and legal decisions. 

See also my article: Transparent Ownership Treaty.

In other words... if it ain’t true, right now already, then it oughta be.

No property owned by the rich or mighty or by corporations... or by anybody at all... should be any more or less protected by the law, just because nobody knows who (or what) owns it.  The law is the law and tax policy, and every other property-related concern, would be better thrashed out in the open, by adult citizens via the open political processes that are supposed to control such things.

In other words, those who use political means to fight for lower taxes on the rich may continue to do so; indeed, the propaganda machine agitating for continued low rates of taxation on the aristocracy is in full swing and very effective.  But that is an entirely different matter from concealing the ownership path itself.  There are no bases for justifying that, political, moral or philosophical.

Indeed, the open and honest rich ought to really want this, in order to prevent their more unscrupulous peers from gaining advantage over them!

One immediate benefit? An ability to attribute accountability, when it is badly needed.  Take the case of the oil tanker that ran aground in Brittany, a few years ago, befouling half of Northern France. When it came to assigning blame, no one could even find out who owned the damned ship! Nested holding companies and flags of convenience simply should not be allowed to perpetrate such travesties.

So, what would happen to the secret wealth that’s revealed, if this plan were implemented?  Well, much of it was, in fact, completely innocent, sheltered from general nosiness, but otherwise entirely legal. So? Should the rich really get to be the ones who determine this, on completely their say-so? Privacy is one thing but  paranoia is another. We have a right to have a look, sniff a moment, and verify the aroma is good.  Enjoy the wealth, but openly, please.

Much of the rest was derived from tax avoidance -- and for that huge reservoir, a generous partial amnesty should ease the transition and cleanse a lot of consciences. And the problem with making these people live by the same rules that apply to us is...?

As for the rest of the newly revealed wealth? I have seen estimates that a substantial fraction of the world's hidden ownership would be simply abandoned, rather than allow public connections to real people. Ill-gotten gains from criminal enterprise, drug-lord stashes, the holdings of local debt-lords who have no legitimate provenance for the estates they make peasants slave-upon. At-best, this might result in the return of maybe half of the wealth that was ripped out of developing nations by their own corrupt elites. (Africa, alone, would probably see a doubling of public assets, from the restoration of loot stolen by the likes of Mobutu Sese Seko.

radicaltransparencyIt is all very good for the right to blame the plight of deficit-ridden nations on excessive government and entitlements. And indeed, these are problems that need the corrective force of conservative criticism.  But that has nothing at all to do with the issue at hand, which is to fix the balance books as much as possible through the most-cleansing force of all.  Light.

And here's the crux: erasing much of the world’s official debt can take place without any confiscation or increased taxation of legally-gained assets. 

Ponder that last sentence again.  What at first seems a state power grab and tax rape is not anything of the sort.  Not inherently, at least. Not if put into effect honorably, by people who (with open eyes) genuinely want vibrant entrepreneurial markets to continue to work, ever-better.  That desire, if sincere and pervasive, should limit the “victims” of transparency to those who flee from some assets, abandoning them because they never did (or never should have) own them.

In fact, taxes on legal assets could probably go down, steeply, after such a move.  Think about that.  Especially if some of the abandoned property is then vested in the tenant farmers who actually till the soil, following the pro-market, pro-entrepreneurial methods of Hernando de Soto... methods that have vested property in the poor farmers of Peru, giving them a giant leg up toward middle-class, land-owning independence. This is a story that proves my point.  Lawful, open ownership is a goal that should inspire libertarians and honorable conservatives, easily as much as any liberal.
Wealth-of-Nations
(It would also broaden the tax base, turning more of the voting population into tax-skeptical owners... think about it. In any event, the general transparency treaty might be accomplished as part of a no-new-taxes deal.  Would that sweeten the pot, for conservatives?)

 Ask economists.  They will tell you that open information flows are the life-blood of markets, both in theory and in practice.  According to F. Hayek, the patron saint of sane libertarians, capitalism falls apart when shrouded fogs - either of secrecy or pragmatic obscurity, or else oligarchic collusion - thwart the ability of six billion market participants to make intelligent choices, based upon all pertinent data.  Note, also, that obscurity in order to mask cheating is precisely the kind of crony-aristocratic meddling that Adam Smith thoroughly denounced, in The Wealth of Nations, when he first shed light on the fundamental principles of market capitalism.

TransparentSocietyOf course you would expect such a proposal from the author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? But in fact, I am no goggle-eyed purist! I would allow considerable exceptions to Radical Transparency -- including professional confidentiality, basic intellectual property, tactical state security secrets, and temporary caching of business strategies and product development. This is not about purist radicalism, but pragmatically seeking equilibria that can help to keep our civilization healthy. 

And free.

Entirely at right angles to the hoary and stupid and discredited so-called "left-vs-right political axis,"  this is the reform most likely to rescue and re-invigorate capitalism.  It is also the one way that the debts can be paid off -- by criminals, tax cheats, and scoundrels.

And then there is science.

 Of course, even the prodigious debt-payoff that results from transparency-of-ownership won't prime the pump forever.  Sure, economic activity will also work better and more efficiently, with ownership information available to all.  Nevertheless,these are one-time jolts. Once we've incorporated the new efficiencies and the reservoirs of illicit wealth, what will drive the engine?

Look, over the long run, there is really only one way out of our current economic troubles.  Growth.  And what propels growth?  In developing nations it can be surges in previously under-utilized labor, as we've seen in China and India.  Marx said that capital formation can come from administrative theft, but we'll assume we're moving past that kind of thing.  So what is left?

It has been proved, time and again, that technology and science were responsible for 50% + of all growth in developed nations, since World War II. The figure in Western nations during the Internet boom of the 1990s was more than two-thirds, According to Mark Anderson of the Strategic News Service. Over sixty percent of growth, directly attributable to technological advancement.

Isn't the solution obvious?  Especially after the infamous War on Science reversed America's tech-driven growth spurt, during the first decade of this century?

More tech entrepreneurship.  More and better science education. Pull out the stops to encourage innovation.  And more science...

===   ====   ===

...and now... some Misc Political Items...

Said an alert fan: “FYI. Drudge just linked to a scare piece on an Alex Jones site about the coming dissolution of America in 2017, and they used a still from The Postman movie to illustrate the story. It was a hard LOL for me, and thought you'd all like to know.” 

Indeed, while Drudge & Jones are major apologists for oligarchy, Roberts is actually less predictable, sometimes interesting, and aims a zinger on-target, toward the end.: "America’s collapse occurred when government ceased to represent the people and became the instrument of a private oligarchy. Decisions were made in behalf of short-term profits for the few at the expense of unmanageable liabilities for the many."

Of course, the destruction of the American middle class should be the biggest political issue of our time. Hence, read this article!  Right now, the blame could very plausibly be heaped upon the Neoconservative Movement, whose misrule so horrifically harmed not only the United States, but the older mantle of responsible conservatism, which it hijacked.  President Obama could “get all populist on their asses” over this devastating example of retro-social-engineering.  But instead he has spent 18 months trying to reason with the unreasonable and to reach out to the rabid. 

He now has very little time left before he winds up owning the decline.  It is time to listen to Rahm Emmanuel. Or, at least, appoint a special prosecutor over the corruption at the Minerals Management Service... and let the SP’s trail take him where it will.

In the category of “who else do you know who has been saying all this, as long as I have been?”   “A U.S. audit has found that the Pentagon cannot account for over 95 percent of $9.1 billion in Iraq reconstruction money, spotlighting  that there is little to show for the massive funds pumped into their cash-strapped, war-ravaged nation.”

Continues the report: “The $8.7 billion in question was Iraqi money managed by the Pentagon, not part of the $53 billion that Congress has allocated for rebuilding. It's cash that Iraq, which relies on volatile oil revenues to fuel its spending, can ill afford to lose.... Complaints surfaced from the start of the war in 2003, when soldiers failed to secure banks, armories and other facilities against looters. Since then the allegations have only multiplied, including investigations of fraud, awarding of contracts without the required government bidding process and allowing contractors to charge exorbitant fees with little oversight, or oversight that came too late.”  Oh, BTW... 100% of the funds in question went missing during the Bushite Administration. And yes, I have said all this since 2004. 

Of course, you all could join the Coffee Party Movement. Yes, it is based on opposition to the rancorously partisan "Tea Party" movement.  But not so much over left-right issues as red-blue temperaments and basic approaches to life.  (There are conservatives and fiscal responsibility types etc in the Coffee Party movement; as I said, it is about personality.)  No, the thing being opposed is the rancor itself.  The culture war that is being foisted on America as a way to weaken us. "Our Vision: Reason, truth & civility in public affairs; A gov't of public servants accountable to the People; A People committed to civic virtue, compassion & the common good."

http://nakedcapitalism.com/  See an interesting extrapolation about hidden wealth in offshore tax havens... and the long-term implications for us all.

As someone who has experienced the most frigid extremes of the cold war between the US and Soviet Union, Admiral Bill Owens  has made it his life's mission to try to prevent a similar chill freezing the emerging relationship between Beijing and Washington.  (I have met Owens - a singularly impressive member of the officer corps.  And all I can say, again, is thank God for the Navy.)

According to the Wall Street Journal, consumer tracking “has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.” Tracking technology “beacons” are placed on a computer when you visit a website, gathering information on your online activity, your profile and preferences…this info is bought and sold on stock market-like exchanges…

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inception, The Fifth Element... then science and pragmatic politics

imagesFirst a popular culture note. We just watched Christopher Nolan’s new film (with Leonardo di Caprio) Inception,” and I am pleased to recommend it.  In fact, I have to call it the best movie I've seen in years.

 The concept is rather original (though some have written to me, citing stories -- including my own -- that were forerunners*) It is spectacularly original, compared to the repetitious drivel of remakes and comic books and vampires that make up Hollywood’s normal, cowardly fare. But beyond the concept is a script that actually feeds the intellect, for a change.  That challenges the intellect, daring you to pay attention and track the many layers...

...most of which even turn out to make sense!  Sure it is brilliantly shot, with above average effects and an excellent (if sometimes overbearing) musical score. And the supporting cast steals the show charmingly, at many stages in the story. (The second unit director really earned his pay.)  Still, it is the script - the tight plotting and consistent story line - that I enjoyed most.

And if you found Inception confusing, see a collection of Ten Mind-blowing charts that make sense of the timeline and dream levels of the movie.

MV5BMTkzOTkwNTI4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMDIzNzI5._V1._SY317_CR6,0,214,317_I always attend films with one or more “mental dials” turned down.  I do this in order to be able to enjoy modern movies without spoiling them by noticing every flaw.  Indeed, with some flicks I can (and have to) crank my mental age and IQ down around...age five.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT is an example of a movie that I quite enjoyed (!) but only after performing that intentional self-lobotomy and leaving all critical faculties (except love of color and music and fun) at home.

I did not have to do any of that with INCEPTION. For the first time since GATTACA, I went to see a film as an adult, and felt that adults had proudly written directed and made it... for me.

StonesSignificanceNuevo* See my short stories "Stones of Significance" and "A Stage of Memory" for their layered views of simulated reality.

See more musings about Popular Culture. from Star Trek to Lord of the Rings.

=== In The News ===

What is the most important feature of the new Finance Reform Bill?
“Under little-noticed new provisions whistleblowers like Markopolos who alerted the SEC to Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme will for the first time be entitled to collect between 10- and- 30 percent of the money recovered by the government. And that could turn a new wave of whistleblowers, those insiders with proof of financial wrongdoing on Wall Street, into millionaires

philanthropy"If the law works, whistleblowers should be rewarded with millions of dollars. Those whistleblowers will save investors billions and billions of dollars," said Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center  - reminiscent of some suggestions I have long made, e.g. in EARTH and in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Earlier whistleblower reward programs, passed under Carter and later Clinton, offered prizes for revelation of wrongdoing in a much narrower realm - government contracts.  The unambiguous result was billions in savings... though this was partly bypassed during the first decade of the 21st Century via “emergency over-ride clauses” in the law, that allowed the previous administration to bypass all normal contracting rules “in time of war.”  (It might and can be argued that the billions that thereupon evaporated may have been a major reason for the wars, in the first place.  But who would be that cynical?)

But hold onto the thought that this will be a major step toward transparency.  And see how I predicted it, first in EARTH and later in The Transparent Society ... and here: Horizons and Hope: The Future of Philanthropy.

Pragmatic reasons to do good. Nothing would help save the world more than a general rise in functional human intelligence.  Now researchers suggest that the most efficient way to trigger such a rise, in developing nations, is to redouble efforts to eliminate parasitic infectious disease. “The brain, say author Christopher Eppig and his colleagues, is the “most costly organ in the human body.” Brainpower gobbles up close to 90 percent of a newborn’s energy. It stands to reason, then, that if something interferes with energy intake while the brain is growing, the impact could be serious and longlasting. And for vast swaths of the globe, the biggest threat to a child’s body—and hence brain—is parasitic infection.”

The NY Times featured the Lifeboat Foundation - of which I am a director - in a recent article, describing Lifeboat’s efforts to better understand the risks of high technology, without standing in the way of progress.

Urine as fertilizer? - It is chock full of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, which are the nutrients  need to thrive—and the main ingredients in common mineral fertilizers. There is, of course, a steady supply of this man-made plant food: an adult on a typical Western diet urinates about 500 liters a year, enough to fill three standard bathtubs. The nutrients in urine are also in just the right form for plants to drink them up, says Håkan Jönsson, a researcher in Uppsala.

===Lots of Earthlike Planets? ===

More than 100 planets that are a similar size to Earth have been discovered in just the past few weeks, it has been announced.  The discovery was made by the space telescope Kepler which has been scanning the skies for planets that are orbiting stars since it was launched in January last year. "Kepler finds planets by detecting almost imperceptible 'winks' - the tiny amount of dimming that occurs each time a planet moves across the face of a star.  'Transits', as they are known, by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star's brightness of about 100 parts per million, lasting for 2 to 16 hours.  Information such as a planet's size and the extent of its orbit can be calculated from the amount of dimming, the length of time between 'winks' and the star's mass."

This raises the number of discovered extrasolar planets up around half a thousand (up from ZERO in just 15 years.)

Actually, the news article leaves out a lot:

1 - because these planets were discovered by “transit” that means ONLY stellar systems whose planets orbit in a plane exactly in line with the Earth will be discovered, maybe one in a thousand.  The fact that so many have been discovered anyway, despite this handicap, suggests that the numbers in our neighborhood are truly large.

2 - Many of us always knew that lots of planets would be found, because of the “angular momentum effect.  Almost all of our solar system’s angular momentum is held by one planet, Jupiter, and not the sun.  The fact that other G type stars rotate at about the same rate as Sol suggested that they, too, must have bled off their angular momentum to orbiting bodies.  Switching hats from astronomer to science fiction author, I knew it for other reasons, too.

3 - There are people who desperately want there to be no life worlds, among these newly discovered planets!  Why would that be?  See why, by looking up The Great Filter.

A side note! Renowned space artist Jon Lomberg reports that: “The Keck Observatory has a new fundraising idea: donate $5K to their research programs and have an exoplanet named after you. I heard about this from their Development director, Debbie Goodwin. This is the biggest bargain around-- and is possible only because the number of exoplanets is over 1000, including the latest Kepler results. Great birthday or anniversary gift too, and unlike the International Star Registry, it's actually official.

=== The Muse’s Corner ===

Are we witnessing the birth of a cosmic internet?

Fab@Home is a platform of printers and programs that fit on your desktop,and can produce functional 3D objects. Look at the 4-legged robot printed…

Not quite Star Trek’s food replicator, but the Cornucopia is a personal food fabricator based on 3D printing techniques. Still in the design stage, the Cornucopia will combine food from specified ingredients, extrude them in layers, cook and then cool them on a serving tray. You’ll be able to dial in specific nutritional/caloric requirements to individualize meals. What more could you want…?

The Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered buckyballs in space for the first time…soccer ball-shaped 60 atom carbon molecules first observed in a laboratory 25 years ago

Are we living in a black hole? Using a modified version of Einstein’s General Relativity equations, Physicist Nikodem Poplawski showed that a universe could exist inside the black hole of another universe – like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Such black holes could then be tunnels or wormholes between universes – an idea already widely explored in so many sci fi stories.

 Why Transhumanism is the best bet to prevent the extinction of civilization

Then there’s this fascinating argument that evolution - real genetic changes -- took place in England since 1215 CE, as the commercially successful demonstrably (from records) had more surviving children, possibly passing on the assiduous, individualistic, and nonviolently competitive traits that generate creative wealth. 

“Women, over the course of their reproductive lives, can give birth to 12 or more children. Still in some current societies the average women gives birth to more than 6 children. Yet for the world before 1800 the number of children per woman that survived to adulthood was always just a little above 2. World population grew from perhaps 0.1 m. in 100,000 BC to 770 m. by 1800. But this still represents an average of 2.005 surviving children per woman before 1800.”

=== Briefly Swinging Just a Little Political ===

Again, see the endeavor led by Lawrence Lessig to reform the fundamentally corrupt current system, under which members of Congress have to spend a full quarter of their time fund-raising, in order to finance the modern political campaign. “Co-founder of Creative Commons, law professor, author, and copyright guru, Lessig is a visionary of law and technology policy.  His approach to changing the influence of money in politics is both fascinating and logical.”


David Brin
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Thursday, July 22, 2010

New on Kindle...plus science and more...

BeyondHOrizonI ponder the political and psychological gears and wheels that churned in the mind of science fiction master Robert A. Heinlein, in a recent essay for Tor Books, focusing especially on the author’s prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon.

A few quick marvels:

Cool!  Blimps in our future. See how I use them in my story, The Smartest Mob.

The flying car proceeds apace!

Dean Kamen's low cost water purifier: The Slingshot

Interesting tech notions from Vinay Gupta.

Dolphin bubbles: This is still one of the coolest things I have ever seen!

StartideStartide Rising and Sundiver (and the other Uplift books) are now out on electronic versions including Kindle,  Sony Reader and Nook!  Spread the word!

H+ Magazine is having a reboot.  Have a look!  It is worth your interest and support.

Worries about Corexit and other petroleum “dispersants” continue to grow, as BP pours thousands of gallons of these substances into the Gulf of Mexico (paling in comparison to the amount that Exxon and others use every year, in the Niger Delta.)  Toxity and mutagen potential appears to have a great many people very concerned.

 The same blogger has useful and interesting citations regarding the possible “tipping point” cascade that could result, if we ever see runaway release of undersea methane hydrates, or the volatiles now locked in permafrost. 

When you cough into your hands, you cover your hand in virus," said study author Nick Wilson, an associate professor of public health at the Otago University campus in Wellington. "Then you touch doorknobs, furniture and other things. And other people touch those and get viruses that way," he explained. Health officials recommend that people sneeze into their elbow, in a move sometimes called 'the Dracula' for its resemblance to a vampire suddenly drawing up his cape. But only about 1 in 77 did that.


== More Science High ==

“Our own Universe may be the interior of a black hole existing in another universe." So concludes Nikodem Poplawski at Indiana University in a remarkable paper about the nature of space and the origin of time. The idea that new universes can be created inside black holes and that our own may have originated in this way has been the raw fodder of science fiction for many years. But a proper scientific derivation of the notion has never emerged. Today Poplawski provides such a derivation. He says the idea that black holes are the cosmic mothers of new universes is a natural consequence of a simple new assumption about the nature of spacetime.   

The men who want to be cryonically preserved — and the women who sometimes find it hard to be married to them. (A really fascinating article focusing on my colleague Robin Hanson, who is a future-oriented extropian economist, and his wife, Peggy Jackson who works in a hospice.  A philosophical conundrum.)

I don't know about this, but it shows how far government secrecy has gone Top Secret in its network of government and its contractors:

American creativity scores have been falling since 1990, College of William & Mary researchers have discovered. One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. Meanwhile, other countries — in Europe and China especially — are making creativity development a national priority. 

== Angel’s Flight ==

25,000 new asteroids plus brown dwarfs, galaxies found by NASA sky-mapping telescope

Check out the Idea lab: A predictions market in science and technology. The Woodrow Wilson Science & Technology Innovation Program has begun an online predictions market: You can sign in and place a bet with virtual dollars.Predictions markets aggregate public opinion, and have proved fairly successful in forecasting elections and business trends. You can bet on when the number of explanets discovered will reach 500. Or: Which Millennium Prize problem will be solved next? 

A new role playing game: you vs. the national debt. An online game that involves players in reining in government spending

The food industry is investing heavily in nanotechnology. Possibilities: programmable nano-foods customized to individual tastes, nanosize powders to increase nutrient absorption, anitimicrobial nanofilms to prevent spoilage, nano-encapsulated flavor enhancers, self-cleaning cutting boards, nanocapsules that add omega-3 fatty acids, foods that change flavor mid-course. Yet reassuring the public is another matte.
An excellent resource is The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a partnership with the Woodrow Wilson Intl Center. They list inventories of products on the market, and offer a primer on nanotechnology.

One example of a nano-product is Canola Active Oil, which delivers chemicals via nano-capsules that prevent cholesterol from entering the bloodstream.  The promise of nanotechnology: to efficiently feed billions, meanwhile preventing food spoilage, sickness and bacterial infections – remains a distant vision. The food industry is not publicizing their investments in nanotechnology, as the public is wary of such advances; very little risk assessment has been done on how these particles enter our bodies.  Another field where nano-technology is widely being used, and largely unregulated is cosmetics: sunscreen, make up, anti-wrinkle creams – which offer to penetrate more deeply into the skin.  See:
http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=1360.php
http://www.nanoceo.net/nanorisks/food

A company in Cleveland introduces a program to introduce 3D printers into high schools: Bits from Bytes. Teens design a product on their computer, and then get to manufacture their project…yielding something they can hold in their hand.

Frank Smith sent this link: a self-replicating machine. A desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. If you've got a RepRap you can print another RepRap for a friend…

== A CO2 based acidification crisis for plankton? ==

CO2 is the ubiquitous greenhouse gas emitted by human activity, particularly fossil-fuel and forest burning. As levels rise in the atmosphere (currently at 390 parts per million and counting), the ocean's surface waters absorb more of the molecule. This –CO2 mixture forms carbonic acid, which slightly lowers the ocean's overall pH (the lower the pH, the more acidic). More  means less calcium carbonate—and less material for shell-building  and  of all sizes, including the nannoplankton that constitute the base of the food chain.Of course the present era is hardly the first time the planet has seen higher levels of CO2. In fact, roughly 121 million years ago—during an age known as the early Aptian—global CO2 levels were likely higher than 800 ppm (and possibly as high as 2,000 ppm) thanks to cataclysmic volcanic eruptions. Now  published in Science July 23 shows how ancestors of today's nannoplankton fared in those acidic oceans of long ago.

== A FINAL NOTE ABOUT SETI ==

Here’s a cool article about “Benford Beacons”... describing how my pal (and co-author) Gregory Benford -- along with his brother and nephew -- figured out the real way that advanced aliens would be likely to use radio to contact bright newcomers (like us). It turns out they would not do it the way the SETI Institute has assumed. There is almost no way that their Allen Array would catch anything, because ET would find it up to a million times more efficient to “spot check” our solar system, with brief, occasional beams.

But a network of 5,000 cheaper dishes, scattered in back yards all over the globe, would have a very good chance of catching such brief encounters. As it happens, the Seti League, led by Dr. Paul Shuch, has pioneered the Project Argus effort to get backyard radio receivers set up and networked so that, any future "WOW" signal will be detected, located and big telescopes notified, almost instantly. While lacking the deep sensitivity of the Seti Institute's Allen Array, the Seti League's effort would do as Sagan asked and shift "the heavy lifting" to the advanced aliens.  It would also mean we'd not miss blatant opportunities. Shuch says Argus seemed stalled at 150 or so out of 500 stations needed.  But one millionaire's $10M gift would set the whole thing in motion, FAR cheaper than the Allen Array! If you are (or know) an amateur radio type with some computer skills, you could become an important part of the search! 

Two background papers on this topic.
http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/ast.2009.0393
http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/ast.2009.0394

SpeculationsScienceFictionOff to Comicon!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

If Corporations are Persons...

Let’s dive into the Notion of Corporate Personhood.

This legal contruct was established for basic, pragmatic reasons, in order to allow the limited liability corporation to attract investors whose potential losses would amount only to what they invested. That was the original purpose, and any expansion upon that purpose, creeping decade-by-decade toward investing corporations with the full rights of corporeal citizens, would be carefully considered.

Now the invention of the corporation should not be under-rated. This was a major innovation at the time, as many earlier forms of co-ownership exposed the partners and shareholders to liability for all company losses and debts, even at risk to their own homes. (Notably, the big insurance firm, Lloyds of London, follows the older format of deep-pocket shared risk - in good years there is big profit, but in some hard times, creditors have been known to swoop in and seize the shareholders’ cars.)

The limited liability corporation offered a “floor” for any investor losses; you risked only as much as the stock purchase price. Hence, more people especially small and middle class citizens, became willing to venture -- or gamble -- in stocks. And this involvement of the masses has been generally a good thing. Capital flowed into small and large collaborative enterprises. This allowed capital to flow into a myriad endeavors, like computers, TV stations, book publication and moonshots... but it also started us down a road toward some pretty bizarre procedural, legal and ethical quirks.

Like the fact that -- in a throwback to feudalism -- governance of a corporation is based solely on numbers of shares owned. Or that some kinds of “owners” get voting shares while others get preferred access to profits but no voice in company operations. By allowing companies to own shares in other companies, we get weird schizo-like motivations, conflict of interest, interlocking directorates, and the weirdest phenomenon of all...

...that a quasi-”living” entity that is potentially immortal can all-too often have the shortest of short-term planning horizons, less caring of long term health than a drug-hopped teenager.

Which brings us to the recent Supreme Court decisions that have taken this trend all the way to crazy town. By ruling that corporations have almost the same civil rights as organic citizens, the Court opens up many wonderful options of a science fiction author to explore...

... and also for delicious satire. For example, consider how a new corporation might be set up in order to run for political office. Why not? It’s implicit in the court’s ruling. Hey, and let’s incorporate new voters! In theory, you could inexpensively set up enough Delaware corporated “citizens” to swamp the number of living people in that Inc-friendly state. Get a couple of senators for Wall Street. Or, would two be enough? Heck, go for all of it.

Some more bizarre aspects the Court ignored? I’ve already mentioned that, unlike living citizens, corporations are potentially immortal and hence are inherently able to accumulate without the routine recycling system of death and inheritance. on the other hand, they can be “executed” - their life extinguished and assets dispersed - by the vote of a few company directors, or the ruling of a bankruptcy judge, or the whim of a civil trial jury.

One outgrowth is more disturbing than any other, when it comes to the current status of corporate “persons.” The decisions made by the CEO and directors of Big Megacorp can be controlled by hidden entities and shell holding companies, held by other shell companies, culminating at a single individual, somewhere hidden from view, whose actual ownership share of BM may be minuscule, but whose clever set of shells and puppet strings allows him to control vast enterprises, against the interests of much larger numbers of actual, living shareholders, or the public good.

Moreover, that hidden ownership may be foreign, even hostile to the nation where most of the corporation’s employees, stockholders, creditors and customers live, while ordering the corporation to “speak” or behave in ways inimical to the republic. If there were any reform that merits topmost attention, it is this utter failure of transparency about ownership and control... a failure that has no justification, even in conservative or libertarian terms.

Nothing illustrates this point more forcefully than the way ships and drilling rigs are now “registered” with “flags of convenience” such as Liberia or the Maldives, allowing their real owners to conceal their responsibility for the vessels and evade regulation. Some years ago, when an oil tanker befouled the coast of Brittany, all efforts to discover the secret owners of the ship failed. This sort of thing has simply got to stop...

...or else the awakening world citizenship may start demanding far more fierce reforms, perhaps even of the “helvetian” variety that I describe in my novel, EARTH.

Getting even more philosophical, one of my interlocutors recently added this:

“Slavery involves one natural person being owned by another. It is never mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, but was tolerated for >70 years. The weird thing is that the evermore successful tendency to regard corporations (or "juridical persons") as having the rights of natural persons seems to have ignored something important: juridical persons can (and must) be owned by other persons, either natural or juridical. The main purpose of corporate law theory as I understand it is to allow limiting the liability of the natural person owners to the current value of their investment in that juridical person.

But allowing one juridical person to be owned by another doesn't seem necessary--and may be the source of most of the mischief involved resulting from corporate law, by allowing sophisticated shell games. Somewhere you have to draw a line between the rights of natural and juridical persons, if you want juridical persons to be ownable. To date, that line has been drawn by allowing/requiring ownership of juridical persons, and precluding it for natural persons. But what happens if the line is drawn by saying that natural persons can own juridical persons, but juridical persons can't own other juridical persons, just as natural persons can't own other natural persons? I'm not sure it's a good idea, but it would obviously have lots of serious implications, many of which would be quite unexpected.”


This seems a radical shakeup. But it would certainly have prevented Goldman-Sachs from erecting a wholly-owned dummy company to “sell” derivatives to!

A simpler and less radical reform to push for, right now, is this. Those corporations who want to exercise unbridled “free speech” must open their ownership files and require full disclosure of all real persons who own them.

If they wish to “speak” as fully corporate citizens, they must exchange the voting stock of either foreign or hidden real owners into non-voting shares. Or else... they can choose to continue to stay out of politics.


Oh... and I would extend this to politically active organizations on the left, as well. The teachers’ unions are gonna have to budge.

=

See more essays on the Economy, Past, Present and Future

Friday, July 09, 2010

Advice to New Writers - plus interesting films & science

Storytelling is the only verified form of magic: to form incantations in the reader’s mind, to have them envision imaginary worlds, feel profound emotions, or experience new thoughts. David Brin encapsulates advice for aspiring writers in this Youtube video -- for how they can take the first steps toward becoming successful authors.

I just rented SLEEP DEALER, directed by Alex Rivera, a charming, clever and well-crafted little film - almost entirely in Spanish but with good subtitles - set in a near future when the “migrant” labor force stays in Mexico but jacks in to control robotic waldo-drones on US construction sites and in American agricultural fields. One could quibble about this and that -- e.g. the American military’s rules of civilian protection - but none of that detracts from a lovely story, and the first really good science fiction film I’ve seen that takes you cutlurally south....

...as opposed to east.  While you are at it, rent 2009: LOST MEMORIES, a Korean (yes that’s right) sci fi epic (3 hours) with very high production values, set in a parallel world where Japan retained its empire by siding with the US in WWII, with Koreans fighting for independence well into the 21st century. The premise: “a failed assassination attempt in Harbin, China in 1909 changes the course of history. Now two JBI agents must find the connections between it and an ancient Korean artifact.”  On the downside, like many eastern films, it is past-obsessed and a mystical carved stone is the mcGuffin, rather than forward-aimed technology. Most scenes proceed at a somewhat glacial pace, even the great big gunfights.  But that’s an education, too.

And now, from the pretty good to the sublimely ridiculous... see “Conan the Musical!” 

Do the metal coils in our mattresses focus or intensify FM & TV radio waves>  Does this explain the lower incidence of melanoma and breast cancer in Japan, where such mattresses are rare? 

I have long championed Resilience as an important, under-rated theme.  Now see how brittle our defense establishment may be, thanks to over-reliance on a particular brand of software. An example of scooting way out on a limb and then sawing it off.

Another calamitous case of resource mismanagement and ripping off future generations... frittering away our helium.

A lithium-ion battery with a positive electrode made of carbon nanotubes delivers 10 times more power than a conventional battery and can store five times more energy than a conventional ultracapacitor. 

In the last 500 years there has been a cataclysmic 'Great Event' of international significance at the start of each century.


”In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenburg church, sparking the Reformation of the church and rise of Protestantism.
   1618 marked the start of the 30 Years War and decades of religious conflict in Western Europe
   That conflict ended with the establishment of the Hanoverians in 1715. They ruled over Great Britain and Ireland, and Hanover (in Germany).
   The Congress of Vienna took place in 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon, and heralded a century of relative stability across Europe.
   In 1914 the First World War broke out, a catastrophic conflict that would claim millions of lives and set the tone for international discord throughout the 21st century.”


Sure, well, it feels a bit creepy.  Still, um, the Hanoverian dynasty one is really a reach... even downright silly.

But here’s an eek.  plain old eek.  I have to agree.  I don’t share genes with these folks.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Clarifications re Climate Skeptics and Deniers

Keith Kloor's blogged description of my "Climate Skeptics and Deniers" article (in SKEPTIC Magazine) drew hundreds of comments. (My original article is posted on my website.)

Mr. Kloor himself seemed to understand the core point that I was making -- that skepticism in science is all very good and helps drive the process.  But for science to be useful in informing and guiding public policy, we all have to develop a sliding scale of BURDEN OF PROOF.

Given the firestorm that even re-quotations of my article seem to have stirred - (I love doing that!) - I sent in the following comment to Mr. Kloor's community. You may find it useful, too.

The denier movement pretends to be about asking honest questions about a scientific matter that is both complex and *possibly* fraught with systematic errors.  I believe that honest skeptics can play an important role there.  But denialism is ALSO about preventing the community consensus in atmospheric science from affecting public policy.  They insist on a burden of proof that 99%+ of skilled experts in a field are insufficient - and yet a slim majority of science-illiterate politicians (during the Bush Era) and now a 40% *minority* of science-clueless politicians - should have absolute power to ignore the best scientific advice of the era.

This legerdemain and sleight of hand over burden of proof is dismal, ignorant, dishonest and purely a product of left-right fixated ideology.  By any standard of logic -

1) the burden of proof falls upon those dissenting from the current standard model, especially when the percentage of experts hewing to the SM is in the high 90s and when that field has a recent track record of being very very very very smart. (e.g. atmospheric studies of far planets, correlating perfectly with weather models that have improved reliability from three hours to four days(!) in just a generation.)

2) When the precautionary principal shows us a genuine (if as-yet unproved) chance of catastrophic risk, prudent measures are called for before the risk is "proved."  Yes, there can be arguments over other tradeoffs like economic impact.  But when the denier side was responsible for (a) catastrophically bad economic management and an economic theory (supply side) that always and universally failed, and (b) deliberate obstruction of ANY climate palliation measures, even basic research...

...then that side merits very little credibility under our present conditions.

3) Since most (admittedly not all) climate palliation measures are blatantly "things we ought to do anyway"  (TWODA), in order to seek economic success, reduce dependence upon foreign petro-lords, dominate new industries and make a safer world, this obstructionism is especially nonsensical.  Indeed, this is the smoking gun proof that koolaid-drinking deniers are parroting talking points from a conniving oligarchy that is spreading sedition purely for personal benefit.  Those who dance under such marionette strings may not be directly culpable.  But neither do we have to give credibility to puppets.

(An aside: I have yet to see anyone, on either side of the debate, consider the Tobacco Precedent... that those who have used very similar tactics to obstruct and delay action on climate change may be gambling their bankrolls. If HGCC does prove to be calamitous, an angry world may seek tort redress from those who blocked palliation efforts.  Think about it.)

This was the reason for my article in SKEPTIC Magazine (subscribe!;-)  Those who are genuine, nit-picking and scientifically informed skeptics ought to be able to say - aloud - all of the statements that I list.  Statements that clearly distinguish such people from members of a flagrantly loony Denier Cult.

Anyone who can say those very reasonable (!) statements aloud can proudly step aside from that pack of lemmings.  Such a person thus merits the word "Skeptic" and deserves respect - indeed, more respect than the harried and distracted scientists are giving to sincere question-askers, right now! (I also wrote the piece to help my scientist friends to parse these two kinds of questioners apart, and to be more fair to the sincere skeptics.)

If curiosity is your motivation, you SHOULD be part of this ongoing debate... WHILE our civilization also makes strong public policy moves to act upon expert advice and enact sensible TWODA measures, while funding research, even by dissenters so that we'll know more next year than we do, today.

But if curiosity is your motive, you will distance yourself as far as you can from Rupert's Cult.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Podcasts, birthdays, science(!) & looking back at authority

I participated in an episode of NPR’s show “This American Life” - the most popular radio and podcast program in the US - concerning the question of beaming out messages to aliens.  If you don’t know of tis show, you should, it is entertaining and creative, every week.

Ray Bradbury turns 90 YEARS OLD on August 22, and the Planetary Society is collecting greetings from well wishers around the world to put on a giant card (and DVD).  Here is the personal message that I sent Ray, as a member of the board of the Planetary Society:

“Ray, you are a marvel.  In a world where cynics too-often have the upper hand, you taught so many of us to be assertive, even AGGRESSIVE champions of hope, optimism and ambition.    You showed us that humanity can-do all that needs doing!  We can do it all with joy and boldness and a sense of adventure.  And love.

    --  your fellow dreamer (and LA High School alumnus) David Brin”


=== SPEAKING OF GREAT WRITING ===

This year's winner of the annual Bulwer-Lyton (bad) writing contest: Molly Ringle of Seattle, for the following ”For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss -- a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil.”  And see many others!

And from the ridiculous to the sublime -- a long list, plus testimonials, at http://www.davidbrin.com/publicappearances.html of my appearances as a public speaker.

Patrick Farley has just posted the first 4 pages of the new Spiders graphic novel.

=== MORE SCIENCE HIGH! ===

Bill Nye the Science Guy will take the helm as the new Executive Director of the Planetary Society. Louis Friedman, co-founder and Executive Director since the organization began 30 years ago, is stepping down but continuing to direct its solar sail project -- Lightsail-1 -- and other Planetary Society initiatives. Wh ich helped lead directly to the first sail ever! The wonderful IKAROS.   (ALL of you should join the society, by the way.  It is one of the minimal memberships that forward looking people ought to maintain. Along with at least one environmental society, one humanitarian... etc. These are proxies for saving the world, people... the cheapest/minimal investment, beyond your honest citizenship.  You are members of a civilization.)

You are sure to find this TED presentation about the value of science both beautiful and inspiring.

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate Tuesday would compel the White House to identify international cybercrime havens and establish plans for cleaning them up.  The International Cybercrime Reporting and Cooperation Act takes on a growing problem for banks and U.S. businesses: the ability for cybercriminals to operate with impunity across international borders.

Are Cameras the new guns? Police in at least three states are arresting and charging people
filming/taping/photographing them. See also the comments.  This trend... predicted in The Transparent Society ... is one fundamentally essential precedent that needs to be settled for the People.  Forever.

How to deter a nuclear bomb by some rogue group? It is absolutely essential that we develop Nuclear Attribution -- the ability to fingerprint nukes, or trace the source of nuclear materials from their chemical and isotopic properties. This sends a message to countries - they must keep tabs on their nuclear materials & not harbor terrorists…or we will come after them if any bomb originates from their land. Obama signed a bill, the Nuclear Forensics & Attribution Act…but it fails to provide funding to train the needed experts to implement this as effective policy. We need to be acquiring a database of nuclear samples from reactors/facilities around the world. Isotopic ratios can be catalogued like a fingerprint, to enable identification of any nuclear residues. While it may be true that some rogue groups would want to claim ‘credit’ for any attack, a country would not want to be identified. For while it is hard to go after a diffuse group, we know where to find the country harboring them.

BlueView Technologies offers sonar systems -- compact enough for ROVs, AUVs or scuba diver hand-held units, allowing imaging in 3D, even when there is zero visibility.

Thorium thermal reactor: Thorium is readily available & can be turned into energy without generating transuranic wastes. Thorium's capacity as nuclear fuel was discovered during WW II, but ignored because it was unsuitable for making bombs. A liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) is the optimal approach for harvesting energy from Thorium, and has the potential to solve today's energy/climate crisis. This 16 minute video is summarizes 197 minutes worth of Google Tech Talks on the subject of Thorium & LFTR.

Terrific pictures that show how "amateur" astronomy can be way cool!

A new study concludes that mass EV adoption could lead to tremendously higher emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide due to China’s widespread use of coal as a power source.” 

An overhaul of world farming and more vegetarianism should be top priorities to protect the environment, along with curbs on fossil fuel use.  Agricultural production accounts for a staggering 70 percent of the global freshwater consumption, 38 percent of the total land use and 14 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Meat consumption per capita in China rose by 42 percent over eight years from 1995 to 2003.    Just eating meat less often helps... also “better” farm fish like Tilapia.

See the notetaking tool of tomorrow!  A bit expensive this year.  But next year we should ALL get one!

=== MORE SCIENCE & COOLSTUFF ===

Enlightenment in a nutshell: Ten of the greatest theories to explain everything: The Principle of Least Action, Memetics, Quantum Field Theory, Panspermia, The Placebo Effect, Snowball Earth, The Ekpyrotic Universe, Entanglement, The Finite Universe….

An excellent idea: provide short-term credit to cover emergency expenses. Low-income families should not begin on a cycle of debt to cover a hospital stay, a broken furnace or car – turning to predatory lenders who charge outrageous interest fees. For 20 years Britain has offered publicly-funded crisis loans to help people out of a jam. The average loan is $620 and 88% of the loans have been fully repaid.

Great quote from Richard Feynman: “It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil …The stage is too big for the drama.”

A glut of Ph.D. scientists? Five years after completion of their Ph.D.s, only 22% have a tenure track position. A single faculty opening can attract hundreds of qualified applicants. Research faculty depend upon the labor of grad students – but fewer grants and job openings leave many stranded in a series of low-paid temporary postdoctoral jobs – without channeling them into successful careers.  Ah, but so what?  Let PhDs be the new normal!  Let em teach high school!  We could use teachers who know stuff!

In the Niger delta, according to Nigerian academics, writers and environment groups, oil companies have acted with such impunity and recklessness that much of the region has been devastated by leaks. In fact, more oil is spilled from the delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico. With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years

The next step in hybridization? A new type of shock absorber under development by the Levant Power Corporation converts the bumps and jolts of vehicles on rough roads into usable electricity. Usually, shock absorbers dissipate the energy of bouncing vehicles as heat. But the new shocks can use the kinetic energy of bounces to generate watts.

Check out the Yike Bike!

National Chengchi University's Center for Prediction Market correctly forecast election outcomes, including the 2008 presidential election. Boasting an accuracy rate of 80 percent to 95 percent, the center is arguably the biggest on-line Chinese-language prediction market.  Prediction markets are speculative exchanges, with the value of an asset meant to reflect the likelihood of a future event. Since the University of Iowa established the Iowa Electronic Markets in 1988,  private companies, such as HP, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, have set up their own prediction markets to forecast the results of new products, marketing strategies and finances.

=== SENT IN: ===

Frank Smith offered this; "Protecting Privacy: Make the Data Fade Away"  Sensitive data should have a limited lifespan. An interesting take on transparency.

Josh Duberman sent: For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced computer “, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer. In other words, it must do more than what search engines like  and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself.

New research from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that astrocytes are directly involved in the regulation of signalling between neurons. Astrocytes sense activity from the synapses and respond by reducing the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate.  Knew it!  This is only the beginning.  The brain is more complex than we thought... implicitly making AI harder!

Amazing story of a camera that traveled 1000 miles from Aruba to Key West, over 6 months. The camera was in pristine condition – housed by an Ikelite housing, which happens to be manufactured by my wife’s family! The finder processed the photos, posted them online and tracked down the owner – who lost the camera and housing when it got caught on the flipper of a sea turtle! My father-in-law, Ike, started the company in the 60s.

How will we feed 9 billion people on Earth? The limiting factor is available fertile land, particularly near urban populations. One option is to build up: vertical farms could make cities self-sustainable. Plus--we must be able to farm indoors to live on Mars or the moon. Climate can be controlled, water conserved, pests eliminated, sewage recycled, fossil fuels & pesticides reduced, and farmlands returned to nature.

Some claimed the boundary between man & machine would disappear--but outside of movies or research labs most robots do not yet look or act like humans. People will often cringe when a human-like robot is kicked or abused. Yet some feel a sense of creepiness if the robot is too close to appearing human, but not exactly so. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori called this sense of cognitive dissonance “the uncanny valley."

There’s been little research to quantify this phenomenon of “the uncanny valley”, and it certainly over-simplifies the complexity of human-robot interaction. The degree of anthropomorphism seems to depend as much on behavior as appearance. An initial sense of alien-ness usually dissipates after the initial reaction. It’s inevitable that we will create robots in our image – and we will learn to be comfortable around them. Currently, robots are taking on tasks—manufacturing, surgery, exploring Mars or the ocean floor, cleaning up waste sites—where the humanoid form is not necessary or most efficient. But researchers are refining robot’s ability to detect/express emotions, mimicking human facial expressions to an uncanny degree. Also watch the video on ieee to gauge your reaction:

Cute speculations on "alien space artifacts."  Related to my novella "Lungfish" and my coming novel EXISTENCE!

Researchers have built a machine that harnesses energy from the random motion of bouncing beads to perform work. The machine, a modified re-creation of a system dreamt up nearly a century ago in a captivating thought experiment, dances around physicist Richard Feynman’s dictum that work can’t be extracted from such a system.

Kewl astronomy: death of a planet

Currently there are 460 known exoplanets outside our solar system—mostly gas giants. That figure may double in the next year…NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has already identified over 750 possible planetary candidates—many earth sized – in the first 3 months of its mission. The next few years will be a gold rush for such earth-like planets, which appear to be quite common—altering our estimates of life in the universe.

Does religious belief boost mental health? Researchers studying the brain chemistry of believers and nonbelievers found that when religious people make a mistake, they are less stressed about it than nonbelievers. Atheists “showed a heightened neural response,” reacting more defensively to their own errors.

Twelve events that could change everything: a meltdown of polar ice, contact with aliens, nuclear war, creation of synthetic life, room temperature superconductors, machine self-awareness, cloning of humans, a major Pacific earthquake, a practical fusion reactor, collision with a NEO asteroid, the next pandemic. Some of these events likely, some improbable; you can rate them on the interactive site.

From Frank Smith: "The Mysterious Memristor:
Anyone familiar with electronics knows the trinity of fundamental components: the resistor, the capacitor, and the inductor. In 1971, a University of California, Berkeley, engineer predicted that there should be a fourth element: a memory resistor, or memristor. But no one knew how to build one. Now, 37 years later, electronics have finally gotten small enough to reveal the secrets of that fourth element. The memristor, Hewlett-Packard researchers revealed today in the journal Nature , had been hiding in plain sight all along--within the electrical characteristics of certain nanoscale devices. They think the new element could pave the way for applications both near- and far-term, from nonvolatile RAM to realistic neural networks. The reason that the memristor is radically different from the other fundamental circuit elements is that, unlike them, it carries a memory of its past. When you turn off the voltage to the circuit, the memristor still remembers how much was applied before and for how long.