Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Conversion of a Noted Ostrich - Plus Beck, heir of King?

Bjorn Lomborg has apparently changed his mind, and now thinks that global warming is the number one planetary crisis priority.  “He's back and generating as many headlines as ever. After years as the world's leading climate change critic, Bjorn Lomberg  is now saying that we need to put it at the top of our priority list. What's that, he has a new book out? Indeed, and in , Lomborg, an adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, goes so far as to say we should spend $100 billion a year to sort it out. The Guardian calls it a Major U-Turn, one "that will give a huge boost to the embattled environmental lobby".

Richard Loosemore comments: ”The last quote from that article pretty much sums it up: >  'Grant him this: Dude knows how to play the media. Who else could get such attention for adopting a position already held by millions of sensible people?'”

By all means use this conversion on your well-educated but obstinate “ostrich-skeptic.” It’s big stuff. 

But don’t expect the spin machine to stop turning out bright fools to razzle us and dazzle us with incantations that have one aim... to keep us doing nothing.  Take Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, who offers yet another version of the right wing nostrum that lots of people, interacting freely, will bounce around so many ideas, that solutions to problems will naturally appear (or evolve, like species in nature), leading to better times for all. 

Now, mind you, I  absolutely agree with everything I just paraphrased! And much more! For example, Ridley correctly demolishes the opposing foolishness of the left - the insipid pessimism conveyed in liberal-influenced media like the film AVATAR - that modern society is somehow worse than cultures that came earlier, more violent, less kindly or thoughtful. 

Baloney. (In fact the very ubiquity and success of messages like AVATAR is partial disproof of its premise!  Think about that.)

Prof. Steven Pinker already has made it abundantly and decisively clear that humanity is now experiencing unprecedentedly-low levels of violence, per capita, compared to any time in (or before) history.  Likewise increasing levels of education,  freedom and (yes) ethical behavior.  The foolish leftist notion - that we can only continue this progress by chiding people, while frantically ignoring the fact that progress has been made - is certainly insane. It deserves rigorous criticism. 

Nevertheless, the right is far worse.  Take the way their fizzy “optimism” arm-wavings start off by reciting truths - (e.g that ideas do breed and evolve among free/educated people... and civilization has thereby moved forward). Only then, insidiously, they razzle that basic truth into rationalizations for indolence!

Problems will solve themselves, as if by magic!  Ignoring Adam Smith’s cautiously pro-government and anti-oligarchy reasoning, they mis-apply his teachings in order to praise the kind of laissez-faire faith in an “invisible hand” that plays right into the hands of entrenched and conniving oligarchy.

The crux: this fizzing, percolation of ideas and solutions does happen - it can lead to all the great synergies that the optimists proclaim... even the miracle of the runaway positive sum game... the suppsed justification of capitalism.  On the other hand this semi-random idea-churn works best when it then feeds into a process called the modern-western, mixed society, wherein smart men and women in business, the arts and government compare notes, deliberate, negotiate, plan and bring about solutions to problems!

The usual prescription that lies underneath what Bjorn Lomberg used to teach, and that other court rationalizers continue to foist on us, is that men like Marshall and Acheson and Vennevar Bush - who MADE this modern world - should be ignored in favor of a random boiling of freely-exchanged solutions. But the invisible hand is only a metaphor.  Groups of human beings do assess, make and implement plans. Civil servants and politicians and scientists and citizens can and should play at least as big a role as crony CEO golf buddies. 

But the message of the right wing optimism machine is to claim that foresight and deliberation can ONLY be engaged in by corporate masters. Never anybody else.  It ignores how much planning and genuine leadership went into making this present world of low violence and rising hope.

------ Other politically redolent matters -----

Kent Pitman offered this observation about “rights” in the US system of government in light of current events (mosques, immigration, etc “Rights are just promises we make to ourselves on our better days, binding us to the conduct we aspire to, hoping that on our worse days we will not be quick enough or powerful enough to undo them before we regain our sanity.”

As for the incredible gall of Glenn Beck arrogating the mantle of “Heir of Martin Luther King?”  I have one response that may seem unfair, regionalist, even a bit snippy.  On the other hand it says a lot, in a visually powerful way.

Find a map showing those states that were most opposed to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act. Now compare that map to one showing the regions where Glenn Beck is most popular today.  I mean, geez. Some things ain’t complicated.

More evidence of wasted money in Iraq. Of course the pathetic thing is the failure of anybody on the right to call for a Special Prosecutor, re all this.  If you include possible graft in military support contracts, we’re possibly talking about HUNDREDS of billions.  So where are the people who screeched over never-proved assertions that a few tens of  millions (yes, that is an “M”) might have been pilfered from the UN’s Oil-for-Food program, back in the Clinton years?  What do such people call misdeeds under Bushite direction - three or four orders of magnitude worse - “ancient history.”

Why, oh why, does not President Obama use the Gulf Oil Spill and the Minerals Management Agency scandal as an excuse to appoint a special prosecutor... and then simply let the SP run loose?

BCRion reminds us of this classic. (Note the date!) That is both funny and heartbreaking that it hurts, so bad.
If only, it wasn't true.

--- A little Science... and a boycott. ---

A new, magnetic-zap method for treating depression seems verified & approved.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.  Norton Security Software promised rebates when I bought packages at Fry’s. EVERY time, they have reneged. The “debit cards” they sent me never worked. The call-in numbers never answered.  I’ll never do business with them or with Kaspersky, ever again.

Friday, August 27, 2010

More SciFi! More Science! (... and too much Brin?)

Nothing better demonstrates the silliness of left-right "culture war" than the bitterly illogical fight over human-caused climate change HCC. People who stake fierce positions, over a scientific matter, based on their pre-existing political loyalties, should be ashamed of themselves. In fact, there are legitimate questions that a genuine HCC-sceptic can ask!  Questions that the scientific community ought to face and answer.  But how to tell a true "skeptic" from a kneejerk "denialist"? SKEPTIC Magazine commissioned an article from me, dissecting this serious matter, which may affect humanity's destiny. Climate Skeptics vs. Climate Deniers now posted online. Come take the “Skeptic Test!”

The fun fellows at "GeeksOn" interviewed me for more than an hour (if anyone can take that much Brin!) about everything from the future to politics to SETI to all the myriad ways that science fiction has either gone astray or else propelled our thoughts into new frontiers. Provocative notions about everything from privacy to “Avatar.”

PZO8028_180Before They Were Giants: First Works from Science Fiction Greats is a lovely collection of early stories by the likes of Greg Bear, Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, Larry Niven, William Gibson... and me. Way fun to glimpse the awkward first literary steps...

While in Rome, recently, we visited the Campo Di Fiorno plaza and paid respects to the statue of Giordano Bruno, who was burned on that spot for being - in effect - a sci fi author.  A required pilgrimage, if you are ever nearby.

=== from the Transparency Front ===

Iceland aims to become a legal safe haven for journalists. This, apparently began after attempts to prevent the dissemination of news about the financial difficulties of a bank in Iceland, which culminated in its bankruptcy.  And yes, of course, this correlates closely to what I predicted (in my novel EARTH (1989) would be THE core issue of the early 21st Century.  Accountability is the core ingredient of a successful modern , enlightened and free society.  It simply will not happen in a world of shadows.  Where this news stands out is simple: individual human beings have no current standing under international law.  They cannot sue or bring actions before world courts or institutions.  Nations have an absolute monopoly on “rights.”  Hence, the People are going to need a few nations who will stand up for them openly and radically.  (The US cannot be expected to do this.  It has other roles to play; it gets complicated.)  Go Iceland.

=== Looking Upward ===

The Seti Institute folks have a habit of taking ideas straight out of science fiction, dusting them off, claiming to have thought them up... then returning to the habit of bad-mouthing science fiction.  This is just another example.  

”Aliens may be thinking machines, alien AI….rather than our biological counterparts, says Seth Shostak; proposing that SETI should devote some of its search to areas where matter and energy would be plentiful, such as near hot, young stars or even near the centers of galaxies.”

Not that the idea is bad, in itself.  But, as the SETI Project completes its one scientific accomplishment... demonstrating the negative result of ZERO garish, friendly, blaring omnidirectional Tutorial Beacons... they are clearly looking for places to instead eavesdrop on advanced cultures.  A worthy goal that I wholly support.

But see where I deal with the notion of alien machines in many ways! In the story “Lungfish...” and in an article dissecting 13 reasons that aliens might lurk and visit our internet, without saying hello! 

=== More Science ===

The Age of Amateurs proven... as a fellow in Japan catches something smacking into Jupiter.

A new cosmology successfully (?) explains the accelerating expansion of the universe without dark energy; but only if the universe has no beginning and no end. 

A gallery of 30 laboratories where students can learn to implode buildings, analyze car crashes, take 3D images of molecules, clone animals, analyze bomb debris, design robots, rockets, or space habitats. Or go into the field to dive with jellyfish, study extremophiles in caves, track hurricanes or volcanoes, climb trees in the Amazon, or drill cores in Antarctica.

A graphical explanation of the movie Inception.

Ray Kurzweil claims we'll be able to reverse engineer the human brain within a decade. Others suggest that he does not understand the brain.

Ray responds.

Ah boys will be boys.

Truly amazing. The radioactive decay of some elements sitting quietly in laboratories on Earth seemed to be influenced by activities inside the sun, 93 million miles away.  Radioactivity rates are (it seems) affected by what might be neutrinos spun off by variations in nuclear reactions in the sun’s core. 

Futurama Writer Created And Proved A Brand New Math Theorem Just For an Episode.

Did the Copenhagen Suborbitals “Tycho” rocket go off?

A classic russian sci fi film. Well a lot of it seems to be a biopic about Tsiolkovsky (look him up!) You can follow a lot without understanding a word. 

Stanford University engineers have figured out that by coating a piece of semiconducting material with a thin layer of the metal cesium, it made the material able to use both light and heat to generate electricity, increasing cell efficiency.

=== From the Kurzweil collection ===

Called “photon enhanced thermionic emission,” or PETE, the process promises to surpass the efficiency of existing photovoltaic and thermal conversion technologies.

Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until  2003, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt — about five exabytes of data. He cautioned that just because companies like his can do all sorts of things with this information, the more pressing question now is if they should. Schmidt noted that while technology is neutral, he doesn’t believe people are ready for what’s coming. “I spend most of my time assuming the world is not ready for the technology revolution that will be happening to them soon,” Schmidt said.

Harvard University researchers have uncovered a mechanism through which caloric restriction and exercise delay some of the debilitating effects of aging by rejuvenating the connections between nerves and the muscles that they control. -- Ah but it is always about mice and flies and such.  I have explained before why these effects are unlikely to apply to humans! In fact, Ray Kurzweil’s wishful thinking notwithstanding, we have probably already flicked all the switches that caloric restriction sets off, in mice and flies and such.

A stretchy new fabric made by linking together fibronectin – the proteins found in muscle tissue — could provide a scaffold for growing new organs. It could also be used as a coating for bandages to help wounds heal quickly and with less scarring.

Iris scanning technology may create what it calls “the most secure city in the world.” In a partnership with Leon — one of the largest cities in Mexico, with a population of more than a million — GRI will fill the city with eye-scanners. That will help law enforcement revolutionize the way we live — not to mention marketers.  I’m skeptical.

More items: unlinked.

Walking at one’s own pace for 40 minutes three times a week can enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits, combat declines in brain function associated with aging, and increase performance on cognitive tasks, researchers have found.

=== A return to manufacturing? ===

Americans are 4% of the world's population and half of its military spending, and DARPA alone has a research budget of $3.2 billion.  Now DARPA is pushing “rapid prototyping” to a whole new level. Its iFAB Program aims to develop a "foundry-style manufacturing capability." By which they mean microchip foundries - the generic, build-any-chip-for-any-designer factories that churn out microchips for every application you can imagine. This will lead to open source construction of the Army’s next-generation armored combat vehicle!

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because companies like Local Motors are already trying to make this happen for everyday vehicles - custom design and custom manufacturing all made possible through what used to be called rapid prototyping and is now just making stuff in a big hurry.
The difference is that DARPA doesn't want to end up with just a bunch of kit cars - or in this case, kit tanks. DARPA wants to literally reinvent manufacturing - not just so they can build new vehicles more easily, but because they have a not-so-secret ambition to revive America's manufacturing base.

Not everyone agrees that this is kind of manufacturing is a realistic goal - DARPA has a history of bringing on science fiction authors and futurists to help it brainstorm new ideas, and it's possible they were a little too high on a particular article from Wired when they wrote this document. But that's the point of DARPA - they fund things that no one else would, and eventually, that technology trickles down to the civilian sector.

And now the kicker... I am scripting a comic book (!) right now, about the notion of a rebirth of American manufacturing!  More about that soon.


How many definitions of science fiction are there?

"Attempting to define science fiction is an undertaking almost as difficult, though not so popular, as trying to define pornography... In both pornography and SF, the problem lies in knowing exactly where to draw the line." — Arthur C. Clarke,

throughstrangereyes"Many people have tried to define science fiction. I like to call it the literature of exploration and change. While other genres obsess upon so-called eternal verities, SF deals with the possibility that our children may have different problems. They may, indeed, be different than we have been." — David Brin, Through Stranger Eyes

(Buy a copy today! ;-)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Science fictional stalkers, urgent transparency & science!

=== First, items related to sci fi! ===

WeAreScienceProbesSee a vivid and clever animated tale about superstition and its consequences.  Note the copy of The Postman (in yellow) in the stack in front of the library near the beginning!

Just to show you how dangerous it is to be a World Famous author, first have another look at JK Rowling’s very best literary “stalker”... (brilliant stuff!)...

...and then (if you have a thick skin for bawdiness) gander at this video of appreciation dedicated to my pal Ray Bradbury. 

And yes, that is what the typical sci fi fan is like.  Especially my fans.
Right! ;-)

 === News From the transparency front ===

1)   Read this: Police Officers Don't Check their Civil Rights at the Station House Door.  Show it to friends. It is not about left or right... nor are the police being particularly vile.  Only human.  Nevertheless, this must nor be allowed to stand.

3) "Over-the-counter markets for derivatives have been a subject of blame for the global crisis. This column argues that the rising opacity and barriers to entry in these markets have been sorely overlooked leading to dark pools, flash trading, and front-running. These unfair practices can – at any time – cripple markets. They undermine the premise of free markets and should be stopped......Dark pools are a private or alternative trading system that allows participants to transact without displaying quotes publicly. Orders are anonymously matched and not reported to any entity, even the regulators (Younglai and Spicer 2009). Thus, the mainstream exchange-traded market does not have any clue about the volume of transactions happening in this parallel market or the prices at which they are being executed.

“Obviously, price discovery on the mainstream market, without dark pools information, becomes inefficient. Moreover, transactions carried out in dark pools effectively become over-the-counter in nature as the prices are not reported and financial risks not effectively managed. More critically, these risks can spread like wild fire as we saw in collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps markets."

3) Falling Whistles is an organization is committed to raising awareness to the civil war underway in the Congo.  In this conflict, boys too small to carry a gun are forced to become “whistle blowers” and sent to the front lines of the war.  Facing death they are sent running toward the army as the first wave of attackers – armed with only their whistle. (Shudder!)

=== More Science! ===

See the editorial introducing Scientific American’s September issue about the many varied types of “doomsday” people are bruiting about. Of course, this relates to my novel-in-progress - EXISTENCE.

Are you an electronics wiz who wants a really far-out cool project?  According to a recent, important paper by Benford, Benford and Benford, the SETI Institute’s Allen Array - a lavishly funded radio telescope dedicated to sifting the cosmos for signs of intelligent life - is designed EXACTLY WRONG!  What is needed instead is a vast dispersal of 5,000 less sensitive backyard receivers, linked in a network that will look at all the sky, all the time... exactly as conceived in Project Argus!

And then... hydrogen gas flowing down through Titan's atmosphere disappears at the surface, suggesting it could be being breathed by alien bugs.  Also lack of acetylene on the surface, leading scientists to believe it may be being consumed by life. Scientists had expected sunlight interacting with chemicals in the atmosphere to produce acetylene that falls down to coat Titan's surface. But Cassini detected no acetylene there.

Packing-for-MarsAnd a book that seems whimsically interesting. “In Packing for Mars, Roach tackles the strange science of space travel, and the psychology, technology, and politics that go into sending a crew into orbit. Roach is unfailingly inquisitive (Why is it impolite for astronauts to float upside down during conversations? Just how smelly does a spacecraft get after a two week mission?)”


Compare this exciting scientific news story  - about the careful, layer-by-layer analysis of 650 million year old fossils - with my portrayal of a very similar process, in my story "Genji" which appeared in the collaborative science fiction collection MURASAKI, way back in 1992.

"The laser played across the cliff face in double waves.  First a gentle scan lit every millimeter of the sheer sedimentary surface, while widely spaced recording devices read its reflections, noting every microscopic contour and color variation.  Then, when that first scan was finished, the machine sent forth a much more powerful second beam, which seared away a thin layer wherever it touched.  Monitors now recorded glowing spectra from these vapors, taking down elemental compositions in minute detail.

"... What grew in the computer display was a slice by thin slice representation of the cliff. Each horizontal lamina layer had been laid down along this ancient coast long ago, when the vagaries of this slowly shifting archipelago pushed lapping tidal waters over the place where he now stood. Amid the slowly growing image in his holo screen lay speckles of bright color where the semi intelligent device discovered the outlines of fossils... the remains of dead Genjian creatures which had settled into the mud long ago, only to have their hard tissues replaced gradually by a process of mineralization and preservation quite similar to what occurred on Earth."

My friend, the late American space pioneer, Dr Robert L Forward, proposed that the orbit of a geostationary satellite could be pushed above -- or below -- the usual geostationary ring around the Earth, which follows the line of the equator, by using a large solar sail propelled by the pressure of sunlight. However, critics later claimed that such 'displaced orbits' were impossible due to the unusual dynamics of the problem. Now his idea has been proved.
...and finally...

=== Okay I was wrong ===

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was forced to retire in July after an embarrassing Rolling Stone article quoted him and his staff making disparaging remarks about top White House Officials , is taking a job at Yale.  All right then, his lapse in judgement wasn’t deliberate - to win a retirement gig on Fox.  Instead, maybe it was simply human.  Ah well.  At least we do not make such men throw themselves on their swords.  Benefit of the doubt. It seems he was and is ... a useful person.


PS... just returned (exhausted) from shepherding three teens through Paris and ... Rome in August.  No wonder those guys ventured forth to conquer Gaul!  (See details on my facebook page!)