Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Will NASA Announce? And Other Wonders...

The internet is abuzz about NASA's coming Big Announcement on Bioastronomy. (Thursday Dec.2 at 2pm EST.) Speculation abounds, much of it suggesting that there will be news about signs of life on one of the 500+ exoplanets that have been discovered, outside our solar system.

Speaking as both an astronomer and a science fiction author... and as one who has long participated in these fields, having served on some of the relevant committees... I am most definitely interested and will be tuning in!  Still, I have to say that were this a matter for wagering, I would lean away from the trendy consensus.

For one thing, you can learn a lot just from the composition of Thursday's panel:

Planned participants are:
-     Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA HQ
-     Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobio research fellow, U.S. Geol. Survey
-     Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, Goddard Space Flight Center
-     Steven Benner, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution
-     James Elser, professor, Arizona State University

Pause and consider. There are no exoplanetary astronomers. None. If there were new spectroscopic data about -- say -- exoplanetary atmosphere composition, wouldn't there be an expert in that field?

 Hence -- and judging from the types of expertise represented -- I would hazard to guess it may have to do with fresh discoveries in prebiotic and biotic chemistry. (One of the panel members has forecast imminent shortages of easily-mined free phosphorus on Earth. Will that be our next  resource crisis? See it described in my next novel -- EXISTENCE.)

Of course, I could be out there, chivvying and pillorying my own contacts in the field.  I have plenty and would probably get the real deal, within hours.  But why spoil the suspense? Anyway, I want to stay on the "First Contact rolladex."  That means not abusing privileges. So I'll just tune in, like everybody else, and see!

Other Space News

One way to reduce launch costs: manufacture parts in space. A new company, Made in Space, proposes launching 3-D printers into orbit and using them to manufacture parts for spacecraft (satellites or the space station) – which would then be assembled in zero gravity. This would reduce the need to bring spare (plastic) parts. Broken pieces would be recycled as ‘feedstock’ for rapid prototyping.  (I led the VERY FIRST pre-study of this general concept that was ever funded by NASA and the California Space Institute, back around 1984.)

Will we be able to grow crops on other planets to sustain human colonies? Scientists analyze soils on the Moon, Mars and Venus for potential agriculture.  Aeroonics is another possibility for soil-less agriculture.
 
Project Icarus
is a Tau Zero Foundation (TZF) initiative in collaboration with The British Interplanetary Society (BIS). Daedalus was a BIS project in the late 1970's conducted over several years, to design an interstellar probe for a flyby mission to Barnards Star. Over three decades has now passed and it is an opportunity to revisit this unique design study.

Earlier this week my son and I stood in our backyard and observed the International Space Station crossing through the night sky  -- an inspiring sight. If you want to know when and where to look, check Heavens Above for your geographic position. It tabulates the location of the ISS, and satellites, as well as any visible comets.


And  Science Fiction!

 The 100 best movie spaceships.

How does Serenity compare to a TIE Interceptor, or Babylon 5 Station to a Klingon Transport vessel?  Starship Dimensions, an online museum of vessels inspired by science fiction, puts it all to scale, contrasting dimensions of starships to real-life vessels. 


And Miscellaneous Cool Stuff

The idea that we are entitled a life of happiness is a relatively new one. Past generations were more likely to accept their lot in life – with happiness a function of birth, bestowed by the fates or the gods, the reward for a virtuous life – or even delayed til a glorious afterlife. We who are less patient, believe it is our due, and yet, in the bustle of modern life, few seem to attain it…See A History of Happiness.

Seems time for some inspiring songs!  Starting off, we went and saw Steve Martin and his bluegrass group perform this one in person, last month.  Second time it was done on their tour. Heh.

Daniel Radcliffe sings one of my old favorites, Tom Lehrer’s The Elements live on television. Now THAT is the way Harry Potter oughta be! A nerd who uses his brains as much a he does his ubermesch-demigod innate magical power!

  In fact, if you'd like to see that fantasy (a brainy-nerdy Harry Potter, who fights for the Enlightenment and for the rest of us (!) see "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality." It's an ongoing, web-published, not-for-profit (for obvious reasons) re-imagining of Dr. Rowling's famed mythos... and it really is very, very very good.

Oh. Need anti-gravity or antimatter? How about immortality at $11 a gallon? 


Fun abounds.

Only, next time... "Mr. Transparency" weighs in about Wikileaks!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Suggestions for the Lame Duck Congress

 Folks have asked if I'll offer another checklist of suggestions for near-term political action, now that the U.S. House of Representatives is about to pass into Republican hands. This new set of proposals would bookend the To-Do list that I wrote back in 2006, when the Democrats swept back into control of the House.

Well, it's been an eventful four years, an era that proved my fundamental diagnosis... that most of our current political craziness is not so much about hoary-stupid "left-right axis" but rather by personality type.  For example, Democrats are not primarily typified by "leftist" outlooks, but by a manic personality. A frenzy to try things. Indeed, nearly all of the pro-capitalism experiments that have been tried, in recent years, also came from dems. (An assertion I can easily prove.)

In contrast, although Barry Goldwater disowned the "neoconservative" sub-species as crazy and contrary to most classical conservative values, the one consistent trait that Republicans always seem to display (and did in Goldwater's saner version) is the depressive personality type. Beyond pathological grouchiness, recent GOP politicians have also been among the laziest since the beginning of the republic, passing less far legislation (even when they held every branch of government), holding fewer hearings and proposing fewer bills -- even on their favorite issues -- than any other Congress in 100 years.

(Reminder: this appraisal hasn't a scintilla to do with superficial issues of "left-vs-right.")

But that psychological diagnosis is beside the point. The last 4 years have been frenetic, all right. So, shall I attempt once more to offer recommendations, now that the frenzied workaholics only have a few weeks left to try things? Since Nancy Pelosi and her crew saw fit to ignore almost everything my earlier catalog of desires, why should I bother?  The Democrats have scarcely more than a month, before depressive-phase gridlock settles onto Capital Hill.


=== FIRST, IS DIVIDED GOVERNMENT A BAD THING? ===

Don't many of your neighbors ascribe to the nostrum that "divided government is best"? Indeed, there have been silver linings to past episodes of division. After Newt Gingrich's 1994 Republican resurgence, Bill Clinton decided to turn his attention away from grand scale legislation* to becoming the best administrative president on record. Distracted by sexual witch hunts, the press paid little notice when JD Powers and other neutral analysts called the Clinton Administration the most efficient and well-run and... believe it or not... honest in US history.

 (Despite Fox-rhetoric, not one Clinton era official ever went to jail, or was even indicted, for malfeasance of official duties. Not one. The first time that's ever happened in US history.)

If Barack Obama were to follow that course -- simply tuning the civil service to deliver our money's worth under current law -- well that may be a disappointing fall-back.  But, since the core and central neocon aim has always been the undermining and ruination of the United States Civil Service (ask me why), its restoration under BHO would be a victory, of sorts. (You never noticed any of this?  Well, whose fault is that?)

(* Note: I leave out the strange year 1995, when Newt's fresh-new Neocon Congress actually experimented with acting like grownups, seeking to achieve real accomplishments by ... um... legislating! And by negotiating with Clinton and the Democrats. Certain measures that passed that year, under the "Contract With America," were moderately impressive, including Welfare Reform and budget control measures that later enabled Clinton to clamp down and deliver the only substantial budget surpluses since World War II.  And Democrats who are incapable of parsing how 1995 was different than the deLay/deMint era are too-easily falling into simple-minded partisanship of their own.

(Alas, this brief era passed away with lamentable swiftness, as the Republicans dumped Gingrich and swerved into their ongoing weird combination of disciplined dogmatism, culture war, jibbering anti-intellectualism, and stunning laziness. Again note: this ain't about "left-right" but sanity.)



=== ENOUGH GRUMBLING. HOW ABOUT SUGGESTIONS? ===

All right, then. Are there things I'd recommend for the coming political phase?  There are two time regimes to consider.

a) The remaining lame duck session of Congress.  (I'll race through these.)

b) The stretch following Boehner's installation as Speaker, until the 2012 elections. (I'll save these for next time.)



=== CAN LAME DUCKS ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING? ===


Oh, they are scrambling. Pelosi and Reid and the Capital Hill Dems. Frenetic to get something done in the next 6 weeks, they'll not pay the slightest heed to my recommendations.  Still, here are a few.

1.  Limit any tax cut extension to 5 years.  I believe the Bush tax cuts for the rich should be allowed to expire... compensated with a new-jobs credit and new equipment credit for small businesses. But if the cuts are to be continued, I agree they should expire in another 2 years.  In fact. all the rest of the cut extensions should be for no more than 5 years.

 Why tie the hands of a future president and Congress?  Give some future Congress the same choice YOU now face.  In 2015, the economy may be much better, and we could get another chance to start paying down the mountain of debt. (The way adults do.) It will be easier, at that point, to not pass a continuation of some of the tax cuts, than it will be to pass an actual increase.

2. Appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Bush era corruption. Um, why hasn't this happened already? Were you actually hoping/expecting to reason with fellows like Senator deMint? Were you trying to take the high road and set an example?  Were you that naive?

Wasn't the whoring at the Minerals Management Agency enough of a smoking gun?  Enough cause to unleash a special prosecutor... and also to enact my other suggestion, to establish the office of Inspector General of the United States? IGUS would ensure that never again could a political cult take over Washington and turn the US Civil Service into its private brothel.

I believe a special prosecutor can be appointed by simple majority vote, without being blocked by filibuster. In any event, there is nothing more important that the Dems could do, during their remaining six weeks.  I'm especially interested in seeing light shone on the vetting of "emergency clause contracts" during our twin trillion-dollar wars, wherein massive amounts of American wealth simply vanished to Only God Himself Knows Where.  Appoint a Special Prosecutor! Unleash him.  And let Boehner just TRY to call him back.

3. Get the lame duck Congress to re-fund the Office of Science and Technology Assessment.  Pre-pay the trivial cost for 10 years in advance, out of pocket change. Scientific-minded Americans have been urging of return of a nonpartisan OSTA, ever since 2006.  Rush this through!  And force the GOP to filibuster this blatantly moderate and reasonable act.

This is so vastly more important than the political caste seems to realize.  No other single act would better demonstrate that the Democrats favor the tradition of "reality-based decision making" that underlies the Enlightenment. No other single act would better show what side they are on, in the ongoing "War on Science."

4. Give the minority party the power of subpoena. Yes this seems nerdy. But I explain in my earlier list of suggestions. This will seem self-serving if done right now.  Better if you had done it last year. But grab the chance.  Do it now... and force Boehner to yank it back.

I have tons of other suggestions. High priorities that I wish the Dems had chosen to work on, during their brief stint trying to catch up.  (And not one of my proposals had even a hint of "socialism" about it! Indeed, they were all remarkably pro enterprise!)  But it is clear that we are heading back to gridlock in a few weeks.  So I will stop yattering about those things...

...and talk next time about what ought to happen during the Boehner Era.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Custer & Bull... and the politics of idiocracy

Stinky bull -- Fox sings the praises of “General” Custer.

President Obama's new children’s book — “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters” — celebrates 13 famous figures in American history, including George Washington, Jackie Robinson, Neil Armstrong, Helen Keller and Sitting Bull. Profits will be donated to a scholarship fund for children of fallen and disabled American troops.

But this is how Fox Nation chose to present the book... “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.” 

Never mind that Sitting Bull was too old to fight at Little Big Horn and certainly killed no one, on that fateful day. Even making allowances, anyone with an ounce of intelligence would dismiss this snark as just another example of pinheaded culture war.

Still, I do have to offer a small side note, in the interest of historical nit-pickery.  I don't know if anyone else has pointed this out….

But at the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn, George Armstrong Custer was not a general.

Yes, he had been one, during the Civil War, when rank inflation made generals as common as grass nettles.  But after peace returned, those choosing to stay in the army took steep rank cuts.  Heck, at the time of his fateful encounter with the allied Lakota and Cheyenne nations, Custer wasn't even a full colonel!  He did not command the Seventh Cavalry, but just one of its battalions, as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Violating clear orders, he led that battalion off scouting duty and straight into premature hostilities.  Violating all military sense, he peeled off two companies and charged them into certain death... thus saving the other two companies from the misfortune of his further suicidally insane leadership. (Those two mostly survived.)

Two companies, badly led by an insane lt. colonel, were wiped out.  A Fascinating event that did resonate loudly with the public. Still, on the grand scale of things, this wasn't a “battle” but a dismal skirmish, in which all sides have been over-rated.

Without taking away from the courage of Custer's men or the victory of the tenacious war leader, Crazy Horse, certainly the earlier triumphs of Tecumseh were more substantial and came far closer to achieving historical change for native peoples.  But let's admit the Lakota and Cheyenne earned a moment of significance in history, fair and square, especially through the later diplomatic skills of Sitting Bull.

imagesSo, does this nit-pick really matter?  Not really, except to illustrate another example of really, really bad journalism.  The shabby villain in all this snippy little episod is -- as always -- Fox News.

No other force in American life is as responsible for undermining the old spirit of pragmatic negotiation with our neighbors and non-political problem-solving, than this foreign-owned organ of bilious hatred, whose incessant lying has forced many of us Goldwater Republicans to flee in disgust from a GOP that has gone quite un-dead.


OTHER POLITICAL MATTERS:

Faced with rising, dogma-driven attacks upon science, hundreds of climate scientists are joining a broad campaign to push back against congressional conservatives who have threatened prominent researchers with investigations and vowed to kill regulations to rein in man-made greenhouse gas emissions.... Now, the American Geophysical Union, the country's largest association of climate scientists, plans to announce that 700 climate scientists have agreed to speak out as experts on questions about global warming and the role of man-made air pollution.

I have urged that scientists take a less-passive stance in the "war on Science," which is spearheaded by precisely the same law firms, think tanks and ad agencies who brought us 40 years of "tobacco is good for you" and who now push both creationism and climate change denialism from the same slush funds.  In fact, the scientific consensus is not always right, and benefits from regular scrutiny and criticism! But parsing the difference between genuine Skeptics and members of a dogmatic cult is something that scientists are going to have to learn to do.

Following up on my posting about “corporate personhood:

Murray Hill Incorporated Running for Congress."

And finally... from a classic article (2005) in Esquire: “Greetings from Idiot America” Creationism. Intelligent Design. Faith-based this. Trust-your-gut that. There's never been a better time to espouse, profit from, and believe in utter, unadulterated crap. And the crap is rising so high, it's getting dangerous. By Charles P. Pierce

“...a pastor named Ray Mummert delivers the line that both ends our tour and, in every real sense, sums it up: "We've been attacked," he says, "by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture."

“The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents -- for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power -- the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they're talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.”

“In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it "common sense.”


Is that creepy enough for you to realize they mean it, when they say “Culture WAR”?  Now recall that these are allies of the same folks who brought you "cars don't make smog," then "flouride is a commie plot." (See my article: The Real Culture War; Defining the Background.)

Now hop over and have a look at these links, and remember, these are the guys who, via their wholly owned propaganda machine, have used populist methods to rile up a third of the US population against science, against their own government, against the universities, the cities (that pay most of the taxes and that sit in the terrorists’ crosshairs) and against modernity.

http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ List_of_Saudi_ billionaires
http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ List_of_the_ richest_royals
http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ List_of_Arabs_ by_net_worth
http://www.zawya. com/story. cfm/sidGN_ 11032010_ 120349/The% 20Billionaires% 20Club
http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ List_of_richest_ American_ politicians

=

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Decline -- and Future -- of Manufacturing

What if America lost its knack for making things?  A disturbing thought...

Or is there a "maker culture" revival starting? See for instance the rise of Hackerspaces around the world  -- machine shops where individuals can come together to build, share ideas and invent. Make Magazine offers resources for the DIY and maker movement -- which The Economist wrote could "change how science is taught and boost innovation. It may even herald a new industrial revolution."

Manufacturing is the root that all other projects sprout from... even the arts!  In a new graphic novel - TINKERERS - famed author David Brin combines art with a guided tour of history and tech, exploring how to win back the knack!

tinkerers_thumbI kid you not! I was asked by a major metals industry group to create a comic book set in 20 years, that discusses the many reasons for US industrial decline... and how it might come back.

A low-res preview edition is available online (if you'll spread the word!)

Set in the near future of 2024, Tinkerers portrays a small American town whose nearby river bridge -- its lifeline to the world -- collapses one day for lack of maintenance and care. Young Danny Nakamura becomes a hero, using his tinkering skills to save a busload of kids. He then goes on a quest, visiting some of the smartest people in town to ask them why and how this disaster could have happened. Did the bridge's decay and collapse illustrate a decline in citizens' ability to maintain their industry…and civilization?

Physical copies will be available soon from Amazon. Comments are welcome...

Tinkerers has its own Facebook page!

For a more academic analysis of the problem, see Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance, by Harvard Business School Professors Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih.

And here’s a timely-related piece of news -- Manufacturing with every atom in its place: a scanning tunneling microscope can be used to remove surface atoms one at a time, and then add single atomic layers only to those cleaned areas.



=== OTHER MATTERS ===


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


More specifically about the topic of Extraterrestrial life - here's a podcast and interview I gave to Tom Fudge of KPBS radio.

See a fan’s way-cool visual bibliography of my works.

=== And Science! ===

Cancer is a modern, man-made disease (?) caused by environmental factors such as pollution and diet, a study by University of Manchester scientists has strongly suggested. A study of remains and literature from ancient Egypt and Greece and earlier periods — carried out at the University of Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology and published in Nature — includes the first histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy. Ummm....

Paul Davies argues for a one-way manned mission to Mars, where astronauts plan to stay for the rest of their life, setting up a permanent colony, representing a commitment to space and a return to the can-do spirit of exploration "To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars" (Appears in the often-bizarre “Journal of Cosmology.”)

A terrific cartoon exploration (in a sci-fi'ish vein) of some fun philosophical quandaries.  Hilarious... and a bit of a take on the concepts in KILN PEOPLE.

James Cameron will take moviegoers back to Pandora in a pair of Avatar sequels (actually prequels) that he promises will deliver the same visual and emotional impact as the original sci-fi smash.”  Whine groan and gnashing of teeth!  Not because I begrudge Cameron... he gave the world a terrific romp and unleashed new technologies that will probably get talking dolphins onto your screens (or holo tanks) within the decade!

No, what upsets me is that I have a LOT to say about Avatar, both good and bad, that I’ve been putting off.  Thoughts that Mr. Cameron really ought to ponder... even if he chooses to reject my advice. (A fellow who has given us so much is entitled.)  I had hoped to put it off for a while......now I dunno. The issues are pretty darn important. Cameron is trying to teach lessons that aren't getting through... and won't, so long as he makes some basic polemical mistakes.

Research at the University of Chicago indicates that a clenched fish can help deal with stress, anger -- and concentrates the mind away from negative actions

what-technology-wantsWhat Kevin Kelly says about his wonderful new book, What Technology Wants. ”What I learned from writing this book is that I want to minimize the amount of technology in my own life while maximizing it for others. I want the largest pool of choices possible so that I can select a minimal set of  highly-evolved tools that will optimize my gifts. At the same time I have a moral obligation to maximize the amount of technologies in the world at large so that others may also select their minimal set from this ever growing pool of possibilities.”

Gregory Benford ruminates, entertainingly, about the prospects for extended life through cryonics.  He leaves out some factors, alas, like the odds that people in future generations would want to thaw you out and bring you back!  They’ll be the ones with the power, right?  In that case, your top priority should not be stashing “investments” to mature and make you rich in the 25th century.  It should be to make a better world that will be filled with future folk who are rich and wise and generous... and who might possibly recall - with some gratitude - the efforts that you contributed.  To solving problems in your own time, and making a civilization worthy of the name.

The founders of Recorded Future, a new Boston area start-up, believe there is value in applying Google-like search capabilities and a simple interface to a tightly constrained set of data: occurrences that are expected or predicted to happen tomorrow and beyond.  It looks fascinating and (at last!) a fresh break away from the over-hyped realm of Prediction Markets.

200px-Eaarth-coverSince he first heralded our era of environmental collapse in 1989's The End of Nature, Bill McKibben has raised a series of eloquent alarms. In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, he leads readers to the devastatingly comprehensive conclusion that we no longer inhabit the world in which we've flourished for most of human history: we've passed the tipping point for dramatic climate change, and even if we could stop emissions yesterday, our world will keep warming, triggering more extreme storms, droughts, and other erratic catastrophes, for centuries to come. This is not just our grandchildren's problem, or our children's--we're living through the effects of climate change now, and it's time for us to get creative about our survival.

Bacteria R Us : Are we being manipulated by our bacteria? Ninety percent of the cells in your body are bacteria, not human cells. These bacteria appear to coordinate and even ‘communicate’ among themselves (termed quorum sensing), to manipulate the chemistry of their environment.

Half the world’s population burns biomass to cook food, contributing to deforestation & global warming. Solar cookers may be part of the solution: in Africa women & children spend 3-4 hrs gathering a day’s supply of firewood & often resort to animal dung (fumes cause respiratory problems). Solar cookers can be used to make water potable, reducing disease, improving life in refugee camps. http://www.solarcookers.org/

Dolphins uplifting themselves? In Australia, a group of river dolphins has learned to walk on water, by rapidly paddling their tail fluke. The first dolphin learned during an episode in captivity; she taught others, who passed on the technique –just for fun. An example of cultural transmission in the wild.

Why complex life probably evolved only once: the key step may be in forming complex eukaryotic cells – the more complex the cell, the more problems generating enough energy.  In fact, I consider these authors to be foolish. Cells have incorporated other cells many times, not just once.  

Just released: Alex Lightman’s new book, Reconciliation – offering 78 reasons why we should end the U.S. embargo of Cuba. After fifty years of a failed policy, it’s time for a fresh start. Mind you I think Fidel Castro needlessly jumbled needless autocracy with a socialist experiment that could have (alas) been tried in good faith, in the most favorable of all conditions. We (humanity) never got to see the experiment, because he gave in to human delusional temptations that any astute reader of history should have known, and avoided... but that very few powerful men ever do, on their own.  Having said that... it is simply time. Open it all up. FLood that island with tourists and good and light and returning-rich-emigres. Just do it.

Vote on Andrew Burt’s ad hoc “what’s the best idea” site... and maybe win $75!


===  AM I A FRIEND OF THE SHOW? ===

A crew from the Colbert Report just spent 7 hours here in my home, asking about alien invaders!  I tried to stay "calm & mature" but I'm sure they'll edit-for-humor.  Heck, I love the show (and they gave me great schwag!) So I guess they can make me look dopey in a good cause.... ;-)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Speaking up for the Blue Dogs


Chris Bowers, Campaign Director at the Daily Kos is venting his frustration over electoral setbacks by flooding the internet with attacks upon the "Blue Dogs" -- Democrats in Congress who, calling themselves moderates, were elected in less-than-liberal districts.  Your typical Blue Dog may be (for example) a retired military officer who generally supports women's rights, the civil service, labor unions, science and the environment -- but who will also sometimes balk at parts of the core party agenda, especially over fiscal, taxation or defense-related matters.

Without question, the Blue Dog Caucus was an occasional headache for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, during the four years of a tense Democratic majority. While Republicans in Congress have shown themselves to be the most disciplined and tightly-organized party machine in U.S. history, marching obediently to their leaders' tune, Pelosi found, in sharp contrast, that democrats are no different than they were in Will Rogers' 1930s... less a "party" than a herd of disorderly cats.

(In fact, I've long urged that the Democrats make use of these distinctly-different images.  The Dems' perpetual disorganization conveys a certain quality of almost-endearing harmlessness! While one has only to speak, in sardonic "envy," about the GOP's lockstep precision in order to evoke unflattering comparisons, without even mentioning certain other rigid party machines of the 20th Century.  Alas, no one seems to have picked up on this clever political imagery.)

So, what was the chief effect of having a bunch of Blue Dogs, yapping and occasionally growling, as Nancy Pelosi herded together her diverse coalition?  For the last four years our Congress was a deliberative body, all right.  But all real negotiation had to take place within the democratic caucus.
That was where a true diversity of (sane) American political opinion was both represented and expressed.  It was our House of Commons... as opposed to the GOP's House of Lords. And that happened largely because the Blue Dogs - and other quirky exceptions - were welcome inside the Democratic tent.

The only way to get negotiation... and win over new friends

It is only through the Blue Dogs that whole swathes of genuine American political perspective wound up getting meaningfully voiced. Only because of these collegial but also critical comrades, did the liberals find themselves forced to listen, to explain, and sometimes to adjust their endeavors, taking into account the worries and concerns of decent Americans who just happen to think a little differently.
Let's be clear. Because the Republicans deliberately absented themselves from any meaningful negotiation, over any issue at all, it was

That may be tactically inconvenient, but it is strategically vital, over the long run. Heck, of all the differences between Democrats and Republicans, that diversity within their caucus should be their biggest source of pride!

But not, apparently, according to Chris Bowers or the guys at Kos:

  "Democrats suffered serious losses on Tuesday, but no one was hit harder than the corporatist Blue Dogs. Over half their members are gone. Apparently, being the GOP's best friends on issue after issue wasn't the political winner they claimed it was. ...  But getting drubbed hasn't made the Blue Dogs humble. Now, they have Nancy Pelosi in their sights, demanding she step down as Democratic leader in the House. The Blue Dogs want to replace her with one of their own, so they can deliver our entire party to Wall Street."

What can I say? This could not conceivably be more wrong-headed.

First, Should the dems strive to imitate the disciplined partisanship of the Republicans? Even if that were a good idea (it isn't), tell me how you expect to achieve it? Democrats differ from Republicans over more than policy. Far more, it is a matter of personality.

Second, there is no sign whatsoever that Blue Dogs were less in favor of renewed regulatory oversight of the gamblers and thieves who ran wild, under neocon rule.  Sure, they seem more inclined than I would like, to restore some of the expiring Bushite tax cuts for the rich.  So? That is a policy position worth arguing over!  Negotiating. Listening, counter-arguing, yelling, then listening some more and trying out compromises... it is the old American way.  Just because the GOP has gone crazy with purist dogmatism, does that mean Democrats have to?

But there is another problem with Bowers's contemptuous dismissal of this contingent of (mildly) "conservative democrats."  Sure, the Blue Dogs suffered badly in the 2010 elections.  There is a reason for that.

Blue dogs are the ones on the front lines! They are the democrats fighting it out in the districts that can be contested.  They were the men and women who forged ahead and took back the House in 2006.  Above all, they they are the ones who go from door to door, in heartland constituencies, prying one voter after another away from the GOP.

They haven't been sitting around, spouting sanctimony from gerrymandered safe seats. They are the best fighters the democrats have got.

Let me make this plain.  I do not agree with everything the Blue Dogs do, say or believe.  I want those Bushite tax breaks for the rich to simply end.  Period. And there's much more.

 But I have a stronger agenda... to once again have a Congress where negotiating and deliberation takes place. One can dream that might happen by the Republican Party awakening from its Fox-Pox fever and returning to the gentility and reason of Barry Goldwater. Or it can happen by the Democratic Party truly opening a big tent, for all who want to argue and negotiate like grownups.

We need more Blue Dogs.  A lot more.

My own district in California has been gerrymandered into being "safe" for a GOP congressman who is a decidedly unproductive, unhelpful and dogmatic person, uninterested in repairing the damage of neocon misrule, only in playing Rupert Murdoch's tune.

Living next to a military base, I have to wonder -- why does our local democratic party keep nominating Santa Monica-style liberals, in a gerried-conservative district, instead of recruiting some decent (if crewcut) ex-Marine colonel, with fire in his belly and an appreciation for science, trees, logic, accountability and strong-willed women? If he believes in these things, and can (unlike some purist liberal) actually win here, must we exclude him with some litmus test or partisan purity on other matters?

Look, we have one hope to save America from the Murdochians.  And it is not to copy their fierce partisanship.  The goppers can be weakened but only by shattering their coalition.  By convincing a few million fairly-decent, old-fashioned conservatives that it just isn't Barry Goldwater's Republican Party anymore.  (Goldwater himself disowned the neocon-dominated GOP as having "gone mad," just before he died.)

Sure, Blue Dogs won't always vote the way all liberals want. So?  Dig it, the people who live in "swing" districts really ARE different than voters in Santa Monica or San Francisco, and hence they deserve to have their better views represented.  If they can be persuaded to send a Blue Dog -- say, a decent and pragmatic ex-military officer who believes in womens' rights, and in science, and in *negotiation*... then I say terrific.  We can work with men and women like that.

You may find them irksome, at times, but they are the silver bullets that can nail Murdoch and his oligarchs, getting their fangs out of our necks.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Galactic black holes, cosmic ray bubbles... and more science


 The BBC phoned earlier to ask me about the "gamma ray bubbles" a NASA space telescope observed, above and below the Milky Way's galactic core.  Extending 25,000 light years north and south, these giant features are very diffuse, but super-heated to incredible energies. What do they mean?  I'll explain!

First, when you see twin lobes of high energy, extending from the poles of a spinning stellar object, then it is a dead giveaway.  This happens when matter that's been captured by a black hole or neutron star spirals inward, via a swirling skirt called an Accretion Disk. As this matter pulverizes, compresses and heats up, the resulting super-energized plasma gets channeled into intense magnetic fields.  While some of the matter falls all the way into the singularity, some of the rest escapes via the only path available...

...straight up and out of the singularity's north and south poles. We've seen this happening in many parts of the universe, especially in light from galaxies in the wild early days of the cosmos.  So what does this have to do with today's "gamma ray bubble"?

The twin lobes we observe are fat spheroids, not narrow jets.  But that could have simply resulted from the jets striking matter as they speared outward from some event at the galactic center. What event? Well... clearly... the black hole down there had something to EAT, maybe 30,000 years ago!

We know all about the black hole, by the way.  It was only guessed-about, just 20 years ago.  Now we know its mass and location in exquisite detail, even though - because it is now quiet - it cannot be seen.  Because a dozen nearby stars are whirling around a particular point in space, like mad dervishes. The BH has a mass millions of times that of our sun... because it has had millions of meals before.  And, apparently, it had another, pretty recently.  About the time painters were drawing mastadons on the caves of Lasceaux.

I just got off the phone with Gregory Benford, who knows the galactic center better than almost anybody on Earth, having studied it as an astronomer and written the classic "Galactic Center" series of science fiction novels.  (Greg told me "you have it entirely right on all counts, David." Cool! ;-)  He also said that there is plenty of other evidence, supporting the supposition that the Black Hole gobbled up something big, a few tens of thousands of years ago.

Bakazoom!

=== MORE SCIENCE! =====

A NASA spacecraft sped past a small comet Thursday, beaming pictures back to Earth that gave scientists a rare close-up view of its rocky nucleus. (Once again proving my doctoral dissertation was correct!)

Since late last month, the world supply of Viagra ads and other e-mail spam has dropped by an estimated one-fifth. But with 200 billion spam messages in circulation each day, there is still plenty to go around. Moscow police authorities said Mr. Igor Gusev, 31, a suspected spam kingpin, was a central figure in the operations of SpamIt.com, which paid spammers to promote online pharmacies, sometimes quite lewdly. SpamIt.com suddenly stopped operating on Sept. 27. With less financial incentive to send their junk mail, spammers curtailed their activity by an estimated 50 billion messages a day.
Fermilab is building a holometer (holographic interferometer) to determine if all reality is really an illusion – that the universe is really two dimensional, and the third dimension is an illusion. “The universe-as-hologram theory is predicated on the idea that spacetime is not perfectly smooth, but becomes discrete and pixelated as you zoom in further and further, like a low-res digital image.”

A water dance: a mesmerizing slow motion video of water droplets bouncing off an array of hydrophobic (water-repelling) carbon nanotubes. Watch the climax as two drops collide and merge.

For a bit of humor: an ordinary day obeying the laws of physics, like it or not

From memristors to artificial cells to the semantic web. Fifty ideas to change science forever: Cast your vote for which will most profoundly affect our future:


On Society:
It’s not quite Star Wars, but science fiction is changing the modern battlefield: with the advent of spy saucers, big dogs, stealth ships, nuke proof tanks, airborne lighsaber, and a flying humvee.

A global gender gap: how do countries worldwide compare in empowering women? Based on data on wages, literacy, leadership and health, Yemen scores at the bottom, Norway at the top. Overall, gaps in health and education have narrowed more quickly than those in leadership & economic power.

On Fiction:
A mathematician weighs in on the contrasts between stories and statistics. Stories tend to focus on atypical individuals, peculiar circumstances, random occurrences… and the occasional improbable coincidence (or even a deux ex machina). And yet the author tries to populate stories with realistic details and true-to-life characters – to help the reader suspend disbelief.

Twenty fictional librarians who save the world.
A few ‘forgotten’ classics of science fiction. The list includes some of my favorites... and some lost classics of science fiction that I never read, or never even heard of.  I have a few lost classics of my own, such as THE AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT, by Frederik Pohl, which contains the only pre-1980 futuristic portrayal of citizens carrying around (very) smart computer phones in their pockets. Others would include Poul Anderson's BRAIN WAVE, and John Boyd's THE LAST STARSHIP FROM EARTH. 

=== AND NOW EVEN MORE SCIENCE ===

From The Economist: a report on smart systems: “What if there were two worlds, the real one and its digital reflection? The real one is strewn with sensors, picking up everything from movement to smell. The digital one, an edifice built of software, takes in all that information and automatically acts on it. If a door opens in the real world, so does its virtual equivalent…..The real and digital worlds are converging, thanks to a proliferation of connected sensors and cameras, ubiquitous wireless networks, communications standards and the activities of humans themselves.”

Project M may put Avatars on the Moon: A rogue group of NASA engineers proposes landing a humanoid robot on the moon in 1000 days – for a fraction of a manned mission cost. The bot - controlled by scientists on earth using telepresence suits - may be a version of Robonaut2 set for launch to the ISS. No life support or return trip necessary. Two legs may not be the best design -- lower to the ground may be more stable

Ten strange and mind-boggling things about the universe: Negative energy, frame dragging, relativity of simultaneity, black strings, geon, Kerr black hole, quantum tunneling, cosmic strings, antimatter retrocausality….

Eight ways in which the human condition is improving: World GDP per capita is increasing, the number of people in extreme poverty is decreasing; life expectancy is steadily increasing; infant mortality is declining….

Five misconceptions about the CERN Large Hadron Collider.

=== AND FINALLY ===

The $1.1 million “Hundred Year  Starship” project is a yearlong study for a multigenerational mission which is yet to be named … and for which humans might need to be re-engineered. Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, created a stir last month at a conference sponsored by the Long Now Foundation when he mentioned that the space agency was kicking in an extra $100,000 to the project, sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Why a newfound love of of science fiction might help Africa to transform itself.

 ...and this vital reminder...

"I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We're still just a child creature, we're still being nasty to each other. And all children go through those phases. We're growing up, we're moving into adolescence now. When we grow up – man, we're going to be something!"
- Gene Roddenberry, Hollywood Blvd. "Star" ceremony acceptance speech, 9/4/85