Thursday, December 06, 2012

Science -- nostalgia and foresight

First some nostalgia for the future!  Need that gift for your nerdy sci fi friend? Underbrain offers T-shirts, mugs and caps with all sorts of logos from David Brin's Uplift Universe - symbols of the Five Galaxies, dolphins & chimps posing for the Uplift Center, and the Terragens Marines patch! And the Eye-Q symbol for the Quantum Eye oracle computer in Existence. Got civilization? This will ensure that you do!

Ah, but the future used to be so cool! Some of us old timers recall the Sunday newspaper comic "Our New Age", a shining example of techno-utopian idealism written by Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus between 1958  and 1975. Spilhaus, a distinguished academic whom JFK appointed to help run Worlds' Fairs, responded to questions about his wide range of activities with the following quotation that I find especially apropos and inspiring:

“I don’t do ‘so many things.’ I do one. I think about the future.” -- Athelstan Spilhaus, creator of the Our New Age series of science comic strips in the 1950s. Some of the strip's predictions - e.g. consulting books electronically at vast distances - were on target.  Less so this one suggesting intelligent trained kangaroos as waiters and butlers by 2056!

== Distributed Science? ==

A sky-monitoring project, called SpaceView, is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program that enrolls the talents of amateur astronomers to help protect American space assets from orbital trash. DARPA has been becoming way, way cool in the last 4 years, sponsoring the Maker Movement and dozens of citizen-empowerment or distributed inventiveness endeavors. This has long been a focus of mine. I quoted DARPA's  director discussing this, in my graphic novel about citizen-level manufacturing, TINKERERS.

A field that should be especially ripe for this? Distributed SETI! See how the SETI League's Project Argus would (with help from some millionaire) get 5000 amateur radio telescopes set up around the world, watching the whole sky, instead of a tiny patch at a time.  Nothing could ever sneak up on us!  Take that you nasty UFOs.

And if we ever find nasty science-villains?  Well then. Get yer Heroes of Science action figures! Max Planck! J. Robert Oppenheimer!  Marie Curie! Alas, they're Photoshopped, and not actual plastic ... but perhaps with a Kickstarter campaign they might attain reality? We need double as many, just for starters.  Galileo and Newton and Jonas Salk and Craig Venter and Kip Thorne and Louis Pasteur.... But... but what about sci fi authors? What about scientist sci fi authors?

Take this hero, for example! In Slate: Kim Stanley Robinson shows us the path of reasonableness on geoengineering, or  "terraforming" the Earth.  It should not substitue or reduce a scintilla our determination to do better at not polluting out nest.  But KSR also wisely suggests we should explore one or two ways to have a "Plan B."

== New Minds on the Horizon ==

The Navy is pondering retiring its program enlisting dolphins and sea lions to do sophisticated security work, finding mines, recovering objects and guarding against sneak attacks. The program is very successful and adaptable and I've met some of the animals who are kept healthy by a very extensive -- and expensive -- infrastructure of support staff. Only now the Navy is building an inventory of underwater robots that can do many of the same things at lower cost.  And yet...some very important studies  and insights have come out of the marine mammal programs. All the dolphins were born there and always come back of their own free will. There's no program like it. And there may be long range outcomes...

Speaking of which. Ray Kurzweil's new book, How to Create a Mind: The Science of Human Thought Revealed presents a discussion of artificial intelligence, exploring how the brain works...and how we can reverse engineer the human brain to produce a non-biological brain.

Along those lines...IBM recently announced a simulation of 530 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses on supercomputer. Of course, all of this assumes that synapses are the only features that must be emulated in the "connectome" to simulate human consciousness. Therer are hints of intra-cellular computing within neurons and astrocytes... but let's not spoil the celebration.

And the world's new fastest computer, Titan, housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, owes its rapid computing power to graphics processing units (GPUs) -- developed for video games.

== Your Potpourri of Cool Advances ==

Only now, extrapolating... a little Uplift anyone? A newly discovered gene appears to have played a crucial role in human brain development and may shed light on how we learned to use tools and language. Apparently, the gene emerged fully functional out of non-coding genetic material, previously termed “junk DNA”, in a startlingly brief interval of evolutionary time. Until now, it has been remarkably difficult to see this process in action. This new molecule sprang from nowhere (or was "donated?) at a time when our species was undergoing dramatic changes: living longer, walking upright, learning how to use tools and how to communicate.

The key thing about disasters is to learn from them and plan to do better next time.  And perhaps the next time a super-storm hits Manhattan -- and other urban areas -- super-sized balloons will be on-hand to inflate and prevent flooding of transportation tunnels.

New battery-capacitor technology based on graphene: SMCs gets their amazing performance by using a cathode and anode that contain very large graphene surfaces. When fabricating the cell, the researchers put lithium metal (in the form of particles or foil) at the anode. Now, we can expect a lot of news items like this one and the odds are that a majority will be false leads or busts or disappointments.  But the curves are already fantastic.  Next year's Tesla cars will have vastly improved range and the next year's will have reduced battery weight. And within five years no one will be wanting internal combustion cars for their commute or drive-around-town car.  Get used to the idea!

Electrochromic windows promise to cut energy costs and respond to inhabitants' needs with the speed of electric current. A thin layer of tungsten oxide sandwiched between two glass panes can make it shine as-u-like.

New artificial muscles made from nanotech yarns and infused with paraffin wax can lift more than 100,000 times their own weight and generate 85 times more mechanical power than the same size natural muscle.

Hydrogen is an attractive fuel source because it can easily be converted into electric energy and gives off no greenhouse emissions. New results now increase the output and lower cost of current light-driven hydrogen-production systems. The chemists say their work advances what is sometimes considered the "holy grail" of energy science—efficiently using sunlight to provide clean, carbon-free energy for vehicles and anything that requires electricity. Still a long way to go.

Companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come.

Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein's brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary. These may have provided the neurological underpinnings for some of his visuospatial and mathematical abilities... and his penchant for "thought experiments" projecting himself into hypothetical realms.

Recall the "OttoDogs" in EXISTENCE? Now comes a detector that uses microfluidic nanotechnology to mimic the biological mechanism behind canine scent receptors. The device is both highly sensitive to trace amounts of certain vapor molecules, and able to tell a specific substance apart from similar molecules.

Three innovative new energy technologies are explored in the current issue of Technology and Innovation — Proceedings of the National Academy of Inventors:
  • Tidal currents and ocean waves that can be recovered using ocean thermal conversion technology.
  • Infrared thermal radiation (more than half of the power provided by the Sun).
  • A new nanophosphor-based electroluminesence lighting device that caters to the exact wavelengths of light required for photosynthesis in indoor, hydroponic agriculture.

== And finally: Science weeps =

Tea Party senatorial candidates (and troglodytes) Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were not anomalies, alas. It seems that every anti-science cultist in the U.S. House of Representatives GOP Caucus is eager to join the House Science Committee, packing it not only with Climate Change denialists, but men (entirely) who proclaim the Earth to be six or nine thousand years old, who repeat bizarre theories about rape, who decry vaccination, who rail against genetic research and who denounce sciences as diverse as geology, ecology and meteorology. Do not blame the people. The total number of national votes for the two major parties' congressional  candidates was not won by the GOP.  Blame Gerrymandering.

As I've long emphasized, things weren't always this uniform on the right.  Sure, there were witch hunts against scientists in the 1950s... balanced by the fact that Jonas Salk was the most popular man in America and soon so would be the NASA techies.  And a bipartisan consensus in Congress supported Adm Hyman Rickover's upheaval of the US Navy to go nuclear. For every idiot decying the inherent inequality of minorities, there was a William F. Buckley inviting great minds on his show.  And not all Republicans helped Big Tobacco and Big Smog do their multli-decade obstruction campaigns. (So similar to climate denialism, today, using some of the same tactics and firms.)

This past diversity among Republicans is illustrated in a fascinating piece in The Chronicle: Why Conservatives turned against science: early environmental issues were bipartisan, by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes.

Summary: "Climate scientists came under attack not just because their research threatened the oil industry (although it certainly did that), but also because they had exposed significant market failures. Pollution is a market failure because, in general, polluters do not pay a price for environmental damage (and this includes not just polluting industries, like electrical utilities, but also anyone who uses a product—like gasoline—that takes up a portion of the planetary sink without paying for it). Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has declared climate change "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

And this: "Accepting the need to correct market failures required one to concede the need to reform capitalism—in short, to concede the reality of market failure and limits. This became increasingly difficult for Republicans during the 1990s and 2000s. Party leadership began supporting primary challenges against party members deemed insufficiently conservative, driving many moderates into retirement, and some out of the party entirely. Some Republicans who had acknowledged the reality of global warming lost their seats; others—including Mitt Romney—began to deny the problem, knowing that if they didn't they would not be electable as Republicans...."

Ah, but there is movement elsewhere.  That core institution of international capitalism, the World Bank, has issued a major report examining the likely economic outcomes  (mostly disastrous) expected from Global Climate Change.

Remember, the recent election was not the core event, but a sideshow to the main battle. A "culture war" that was not chosen or started by those who side with science and reason and evidenc-based thinking But it has becomes clear, that kind of thinking -- and a civilization that supports it -- is fighting for its life. And as the great historian Arnold Toynbee said.  When a society turns its back on its "creative minority"... that is when most kingdoms, nations, empires and commonwealths fail.


Acacia H. said...

Remember when you were talking about the threat of evangelism and religiosity in the U.S. Armed Forces? It is still a very big threat. And it's ingrained in West Point which trains our officers.

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

Oh. And we now have a new low for Republican Senators... as Senate Minority Leader McConnell was forced to filibuster HIS OWN BILL after Democrats said "Sure! Let's vote on it right now!"

Quoting from the article: "This may be a moment in Senate history when a senator made a proposal and, when given an opportunity for a vote on that proposal, filibustered his own proposal," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "I think we have reached a new spot in the history of the Senate we've never seen before."

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

I rather think the dog tee-shirt with chim-fen uplift images is a bit of a back-handed swipe to our canine brethren! (probably in keeping with dog training: back of the pack, Fido!)

Just finishing the Stanford online course on solar cells, batteries, and fuel cells. Prof. Bruce Clemens says he likes the idea of electric cars, but hasn't got one because batteries reduce in effectiveness over time (someone has suggested using retired batteries as home backup) Fuel cells are nice, but need to be made a lot cheaper.

Elsewhere, the Australian PM announces that the Mayan prophecies are true... with tongue firmly in cheek!

Brendan said...

Are there any rules at all for the use of the filibuster? The way it is being used now it seems a weird minority veto.

Ian said...

Speaking of graphene: up until now, it's only really been available in thin films.

A researh team in Melbourne has now produced a cheap form of bulk graphene.

As for those trained kangaroo waiters, we're workingo n it but so far the most osphisticated task they've managed is writing a Neighbours script so witing tablescould be decades away.

Ian said...

Having voted down the UN Convention on the Rights ofth Disabled on the same day that they attendeded a ceremony honoring their compatriot, Robert Dole, a disabled war veteran, I'm not sure that the Republican Party can reach a new low, short of a mass public orgy involving underage Congressional Pages.

Tacitus said...

Since we are actually dealing with matters that could in theory amount to something, as opposed to feel good press ops, can those more learned than I answer a couple of questions regards the UN Rights of the Disabled matter?

What additional rights would accrue to citizens of the US?

At what cost?

Of the 154 current signatories, how many are actually in some degree of compliance?

Is for instance, Syria taking time out from shelling civilian areas to clear wheelchair access paths through the debris?

Honestly folks, this is the equivalent of declaring it Official Hostess Twinkie Day or some such. Our elected officials have other things to do.

Even if you have a cogent answer to the first and second points I raised, you must see that.


Acacia H. said...

Tacitus, my complaint is the asshat reasons Republicans gave for being against the treaty. One Senator actually stated that this was part of a United Nations plot to take away rights from Americans in their own homes... while at the same time complaining about the lack of enforcement provisions.

Think about that. This Republican claimed in essence "the United Nations is going to take us over through stuff like this! But it has no enforcement provisions and this is bad!"

Sorry. I'm a borderline conservative but I still call bullshit when I see it and this is bullshit. (BTW, I've been TRYING to convince my conservative friend to join here so you have some backup but he's certain this is a liberal bastion that will cause him to start foaming at the mouth and try to throttle me so he refuses. Then again, I've tried to get my contrarian libertarian friend to join as well but... ah well.)

Rob H.

Tacitus said...

Laws without enforcement are always bad laws. They tend to either be selectively enforced or just used as a rhetorical cudgel.

Really, if someone actually believed the UN was going to step in and try to enforce this sort of thing in the US it would be regarded as only slightly less silly than their attempting to enforce it in other signatory states like Yemen. Where they no doubt fully acknowledge the rights of, for instance women, before stoning them for adultery. OK, that's more Afghanistan, another signatory state but which has not ratified it yet.

Some mischief does ensue from this sort of nonsense....things like efforts to bring Dick Cheney before trial at the Hague....while genuine despots cynically sign papers and go un or minimally molested as they travel the world.

Tell your Conservative friend to come on over. I can't be here all the time...


And I still maintain that our Congress has more pressing matters. Demonizing over trivia is not useful at this particular juncture.

locumranch said...

I'm still not always sure what people mean when they say "Culture War".

If they mean the intellectual conflict between reason & magical thinking, then I put myself firmly on the side of reason.

Unfortunately, reason and/or magical thinking are not the sole purview of conservative, liberal, Republican, Democratic, red state or blue state.

Recent examples of blue magical thinking include the rallying cry of "rising sea levels" despite a recent study showing only a 11 mm (+/- 3,8 mm) global sea level rise over the last 20 yrs, not to mention the Pollyanna-ish belief that human beings are intrinsically kind & selfless.

Recent examples of red reason include the statement that the working class has tired (or will soon tire) of providing 1:1 support to the entitled needy "out of the goodness of their hearts". Is it any wonder they tend to dismiss CC-hyperbole & "carbon trading"as so much hot air?

This site seems to confuse blue values with reason and red values with magical thinking, but that is not necessarily the case. Both sides are capable of reason & both sides indulge in self-delusion.

The trick is to know the difference.


Acacia H. said...

The problem is that there are three sides to every argument: Side A, Side B, and the Truth. Side A interprets Truth to fit their perspectives. Side B interprets Truth to fit their perspectives. And in the end, Truth ends up ignored for what people perceive it to be.

For instance. People who consider humanity to be inherently wicked or evil will claim that statistics showing a decline in crime rates and the like are in fact underreporting the Truth and thus should not be accepted. They will continue to believe in their cynicism because they can claim the Truth is what they believe and that data to the contrary is false.

Likewise, people who believe the Earth was formed 6,000 or so years ago will claim that dinosaurs and the like were fossilized during the Great Flood and that God uses carbon dating to test the faith of the Faithful... and that Scientists are thus non-believers who cannot be trusted because they believe evidence instead of Faith.

Is there a difference between cynicism about humanity's nature and religious magical thinking about the age of the universe? No. Both are spawned by perceptions that will not be changed by facts because a little handwaving will negate the facts in the mind of the observer.

Rob H.

Prakash said...

SPAUN, from the University of Waterloo is a much more interesting result than the IBM cluster. It is already showing shadows of human thought.

David Brin said...

Tacitus, I agree that negative considerations like cost should influence whether we ratify UN treaties. But since this one is BASED upon pioneering US law, has no enforcement powers and we are already decades ahead of almost any other country in compliance... and since it pays for us not to be seen as exceptionalist assholes, since there are other treaties we SHOULD refuse... that case I would say that if the cost is small or modest it is worth paying it just to be decent world citizens and role models. Yes? Then burden of proof. Maybe the gopper senators raising a stink for their tea party constituents should feel an onus to tell us how much money it is that they are objecting to?

As for Dick Cheney you are right. He should not be tried in the Hague. He should be tried here for treason and for being the central figure in demolishing Pax Americana.

locumranch I would be happy to quibble and nibble at the edges of Climate Change to find the flaws and exaggerations... but only WHILE admitting that the Arctic is going ice-free while the ocean is acidifying and that there are a million Things We Ought to be DOing Anyway (TWODA) even if AGW is exaggerated. And that those who have been blocking TWODA are enemies of humanity.

Tacitus said...

I have to admit, I had given this treaty business all the attention I felt it deserved up until today. Which means pretty much zero.

Here is a viewpoint from the New York Times opinion page (albeit probably a dissenting view)

And I tend to err on the side of caution in these matters. Will our image in the world really be enhanced by this treaty? Will it do more for us than our demonstrably superior actions vis a vis individuals with disabilities?

And as to costs, that will always be speculative. As our Justice Departments seem to be getting more politicized in recent administrations I really can't predict what they will do or what sort of legal levers and pry bars they will employ.

And for the third time I say with emphasis.....these boys and girls have much, much more important things to be doing with their time than passing, best case scenario, the equivalent of an "Ice Cream is Tasty" resolution.


Paul451 said...

Re: UN convention on the rights of the Disabled.
"Will our image in the world really be enhanced by this treaty?"

Since it was based on US laws, and since 154 nations publicly declared (in effect) that the US was the world leader on disability rights, then yeah, I think that counts as a win in a normal day of diplomacy.

At least before the US Republicans cut off their face to spite their nose. Now it's an diplomatic humiliation. You can imagine the cost of this to US negotiators.

"Honestly folks, this is the equivalent of declaring it Official Hostess Twinkie Day or some such. Our elected officials have other things to do."

Actually, those who voted against it spent the day loudly and publicly proclaiming their opposition. They didn't just vote no and then move on to other things, no they had to spend hours giving ridiculous self-contradictory speeches on the floor and in the media to justify voting no.

So no, it didn't look like they had better things to do.

"And as to costs, [...] I really can't predict what they will do or what sort of legal levers and pry bars they will employ. [...] And for the third time I say with emphasis.....these boys and girls have much, much more important things to be doing with their time than passing, best case scenario, the equivalent of an "Ice Cream is Tasty" resolution."

But did you think to say it to yourself? Because in the same post, in two sequential lines, you went from speculating on the likely cost of partisan Justice Department enforcement, to dismissing the whole thing as an empty gesture. Don't you see how self-contradictory that is?

Paul451 said...

Or put it another way, had the Republicans who voted against it merely abstained, and it passed, would you have given it a second thought? Would you be screaming at your state Senators for not blocking it? If not, then a) why raise non-existent issues now? And b) who would have screamed about their Republican senators not blocking a non-binding treaty based on existing US law? Who would actually be able to be manipulated into voting against someone at the next Republican primary, based on this issue?

Once you answer that question, you'll know what's wrong with the Republican Party.

Tacitus said...


I don't scream at anyone.

I mentioned the likeliest possibility that it was meaningless, as well as the less likely but more concerning possibility that it would be misused.

I believe Canada has had quite the difficulty with legal action based on human rights laws. The European Common Union too.

That being said it would have been fine by me to vote "present".

But honestly a poor use of our legislators time* time when we face a potential fiscal crisis. I mean, this thing has been kicking around for years now.


*I will paint the Senate Leadership and those who chose to waste valuable time speachifying with the same brush here.

Acacia H. said...

Was it a waste of time?

Or was it an attempt to pass SOMETHING to show that bipartisanship was still possible in Congress... on something as decent and noble as the rights we already give disabled people?

If it was an effort to get into the spirit of bipartisanship for something, anything... and it was supported by BOB DOLE of all people... then in essence a little over a third of the Senators said "We don't care about this country or about the spirit of cooperation. We only care about forcing the other side to capitulate to our demands. Because negotiation means we are right, you are wrong, and you accept you are wrong, apologize for being wrong, and vote our way."

That is what negotiation has come to mean with Republicans. And it is a thing of twisted wrongness. It is a cancer eating away at this nation and it is something I truly hoped might have been purged once Republicans realized the truth: they are only in power in the House because of gerrymandering, and desperately need to start working together with Democrats to craft CENTRIST legislation. Not the leftist legislation of Obama and the Democrats (though their left is increasingly center). Not the rightest views they hold. But a merger, taking the best elements of both and cooperating to craft something that is in fact worth voting on.

It might not be what either side truly wants... but it will be what is best for all aspects of the country. Yet Republican politicians say "Fuck no, you are wrong and we're going over this cliff because we want you to blink and we'll rip our eyelids off to ensure we don't."

And this is why I want the Republican political party to die, and for Libertarians to replace them. At the very least the libertarian views on social rights and restrictions would be better suited for Americans.

Rob H.

Ian said...

Recent examples of red reason include the statement that the working class has tired (or will soon tire) of providing 1:1 support to the entitled needy "out of the goodness of their hearts". Is it any wonder they tend to dismiss CC-hyperbole & "carbon trading"as so much hot air?- lOCUMRANCH

Do you have any evidence to support this assertion?

Ian said...

A large majority of Democrats say that global warming is real and caused by human activity.

Th majority of Americans earning less than $50,000 a year voted Democrat.

do the math.

Ian said...

Yes, the Senate had far more urgent tasks before it:

Note that the Resolution doesn't actually provide any support for "Wreaths Across amrica", it just declares Decmber 15th "Wreaths Across America Day".

David Brin said...

Agh, I despise Microsoft Word with volcanic fury that has gone unabated for 25 years.

SOMEONE please tell me where the secret command is located that can turn off the way Word automatically SKIPS a line when you press return? I several times figured out where it was and then, because it was so illogical, forgot it every time.

All I want a carriage return to do is GO TO THE NEXT LINE. Is that too much to ask?

The insistence on a return meaning paragraph break is pure evil and has cost humans far more time than they were ever saved.

David Brin said...

It is worse than that, of course. I select the whole document and then (illogically) go under PARAGRAPH and select single spacing... but only SOME of the document then goes single space! Whole swathes of it remain double spaced no matter what I do, Monstrous. In Word Perfect all I have to do is "show codes" and any such travesty can be eliminated by erasing the offending command. SOBs

Jonathan S. said...

I think something is being missed here.

The timing of the vote on that UN convention was rather tasteless - the same day as the ceremony honoring Bob Dole, who as you may recall was referenced in that post as a disabled war vet.

"Sure, Bob, we're going to honor your service to our country. But not so much in the 'agree to provide services for your disability' aspect of things, more just saying what a nice guy we think you are. Good luck with that arm, buddy!"

Paul451 said...

Suggest: 1. Checking "Spacing above/below paragraph" or something similar in the paragraph format menu. Or 2. Turn on "show styles and formatting", click on one of the offending paragraphs, see what paragraph style it uses, then click on a behaving paragraph, see what it uses. If they are different... select all (crtl-a) then click on the better behaving style to overwrite them all.

Paul451 said...

Re: UN convention on right of the disabled.

In case no one point it out, Bob Dole was a big supporter of the treaty. (As was John McCain.)

That was the irony in loudly and publicly "honouring" him, then loudly and publicly blocking the treaty he was there to lobby for.

Paul451 said...

Sigh. "Pointed".

Tacitus said...

And who schedules Senate business? I lay the lack of class at the feet of Harry Reid.

As the time wasting powers of this thing are impressive, that will be my last word on the subject.


Ian said...

And this will be mine: both the ceremony honoring Dole and the vote on the disabilities Treaty were scheduled well in advance and it was not a coincidence that they were scheduled for the same day.

See, until Rick Santorum started claiming the treaty was part of a Hitleresque plot to murder disabled babies, the treaty was expected to pass the Senate easily - in large part precisely because Bob Dole had been lobbying for it and had received pledges of support from a good number of his Republican compatriots.

Several of those Republican Senators switched their votes at the last minute. If failing to honor their word and caving into extremists embarrassed them, that's their fault not Harry Reid's.

David Brin said...