Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is There Such a Thing as Progress?

= Dare we dream of a world free of poverty by 2030? =

In this interview, ex imam Ahmed Akkari, one of the main denouncing voices during the 2005 crisis about Denmark Mohammed cartoons, explains how study of enlightenment thinkers lead to reconsidering his stances on freedom of expression and secular societies. 

Indeed. We've spoken before of the evidence shown by Harvard Prof Steven Pinker that percapita violence rates have been plummeting, (on average) since 1945.  Now… here is yet more news that shatters pat nostrums of both the right and the left.  In April, the Development Committee of the World Bank set the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2030.  Sound naive and delusional? Jeffrey Sachs in the NY Times shows a strong case that this goal can (roughly) be met and indeed is being met.

Progress"According to the World Bank’s scorecard, the proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line (now measured as $1.25 per person per day at international prices) has declined sharply, from 52 percent in 1980, to 43 percent in 1990, 34 percent in 1999, and 21 percent in 2010. Even sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the most recalcitrant poverty, is finally experiencing a notable decline, from 58 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2010."

Sachs shows that "…anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone. Disease control, public education, the promotion of new science and technology, and protection of the natural environment are public functions that must align with private market forces." In other words, the much-maligned Mixed-Approach that we inherited from the Greatest Generation turns out to have been exactly right, all along.  Read the article by Sachs.  

It supplements Steven Pinker's work and shows what we might still accomplish, if vigorous, pragmatic, non-dogmatic ambition and goodwill take hold ...  if we thwart the grouches and cynics whose dyspeptic and demoralizing grumbles make them by far the worst enemies of humanity and Planet Earth.

As President John F. Kennedy said: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?"

== And even rougher (deserved) treatment for cynics ==

The always acerbic, clever and sometimes on-target David Wong uses his modernized CRACKED site to deliver some truly eye-opening rants, slapping the reader with wake-up! calls.  In this case, he provides: 7 Reasons the World Looks Worse Than It Really IsSome of them even ones I haven't mentioned before.

For example: "You can hate the greed and cutthroat competition of capitalism, but before that it was the much-worse feudalism. You can say that communism was never given a chance because countries like Russia and China were taken over by crazy assholes, but you have to understand that susceptibility to crazy assholes will always be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system. You have to give credit to the people who worked hard to make things less bad today." 

CynicismAnd: "This is why I've grown to find cynicism so frustrating -- cynicism doesn't cause inaction. The desire for inaction causes cynicism. And so you fight to defend your cynicism tooth and nail."

Alas he ignores the MAIN reasons for nostalgic cynicism!

(1) The alluring romanticism of look-backward  worldviews which dominated nearly all human societies, perceiving some lost golden age in the past, instead of a human-built one in our future.

(2) The tendency of the political right to deny that human improvability is possible and urgently necessary and hence worth paying taxes to pursue.

(3) The tendency on the political left to demand lots of (necessary) improvement, but only with chiding, never encouragement, angrily denouncing any admission that lots of progress has already happened, because that admission might "reduce the perceived urgency to improve and do more reform." (A presumption that is as loony as anything at Fox.

But heck, while you're at it, check out The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie.

This is a frequent theme of mine. One that I will elaborate more upon... next posting.

== Poking at sacred cows ==

This riff attempts to make excuses for Robert E. Lee's loss at Gettysburg, on cartographic grounds: Lee's ill-fated combat decisions and ultimate defeat likely stemmed from bad reconnaissance reports, his forces spread too thinly across 7 miles, and an inability to see the more compact and elevated Union forces, according to geographers and cartographers who synthesized old maps, text and data into a digital model of the three-day Pennsylvania battle in 1863. "We know that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was virtually blind at Gettysburg," Anne Kelly Knowles, a geography professor at Middlebury College, wrote in the article accompanying the interactive map on smithsonianmag.com.

There is a problem with that excuse… it is just as easily applicable to almost all of the Union commanders Lee defeated during the previous two years.  The problem was a general one… in several senses of that word.  Hence, applying it to make excuses just for Lee is disingenuous. In fact, Lee collapsed every time he tried to take on the vastly more difficult job of strategic attack that his much derided opponents faced. Generals McDowell, McClellan, Rosecrans, Halleck and so on, had to maneuver vast, invading armies and their supply chains through poorly mapped territory with almost nonexistent communications.  Inevitably, one wing or another became exposed for an aggressive defender to pounce-upon.

Lee's admitted brilliance was less a factor than historical circumstance and the transient effects of technology in the 1860s. These combined to offer huge advantages to agile and aggressive defense, Lee's specialty as he recklessly chewed at the flanks of his lumbering opponents.  But at Antietem and Gettysburg, he was the one attempting to coordinate a strategic advance.  And in those cases, Lee's approach -- charge at anything you see that's blue -- was  more crudely ill-conceived and reliant on luck than the advances of Rosecrans, Grant, Sherman, or even Halleck and Pope. Indeed, he was spectacularly fortunate, in both cases, that he did not face an aggressive Lee-type on the Union side. In fact, his lucky stars saved him at both battles.

== TWEETABLES! ==

Some wisdom on reality vs. perception:  http://www.viruscomix.com/page528.html


DARPA's next Robotics Challenge. Challengers will deal with a complex search-and-rescue scenario.  http://www.theroboticschallenge.org/Default.aspx

A fascinating look at how dolphins react to mirrors! http://bit.ly/15C1O8q

Okay this is cool music appreciation:  90 theramins doing Beethoven's 9th. http://bit.ly/1bj7N4g 
Sweet and moving, from SMBC. http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3088#comic

And this lovely lecture-tribute-perfomance to Gershwin.  http://www.youtube.com/embed/w-nznS0FXKc?feature=player_detailpage

From The Onion: a naive and irresponsible father refuses to create castle-bunkers to protect his family against the looming apocalypse!  http://onion.com/1fS0nVb

Kewl chance to put your life -- and time -- in perspective. http://bit.ly/1hbR7t2 

And talk about perspective!  A camera strapped to an eagle's back. http://bit.ly/19NT5vB

How we survived the sixties I'll never know. It is the biggest evidence for alien or heavenly intervention.   http://n.pr/1hbQVtA 

== Recommended ==

BookQuestionsUCLA Prof Gregory Stock was one of the earliest of the modern wave of scientists promoting what became known as "transhumanism" or improvement of the human species.  Now he has come out with an interesting new "Book of Questions" -- which is what the title suggests, a series of posers, puzzlers, and cringe-worthy shit-disturbers… the sort that you raise once-per-evening at a dinner party or discussion group or the work-lunch room, to get some lively passions raised.  

Sample some at thebookofquestions.com

== And … ==

Can you believe the web browser is 20 years old? Or that MOSAIC took the world by storm ONLY 20 years ago? Either way, it makes you blink, just to imagine the world of back-then.  Have a look back via Frank Catalano's brilliant essay about the things we used to take for granted.

Finally - a teaser for folks in Arizona:  How do we fit in a universe that's unveiling itself in confounding ways? Might we share the cosmos with other intelligent beings, or are we alone in the vastness of space? Could the universe be a Matrix-like simulation?
flier-for-savethedate
I’ll be giving the Shoemaker Memorial Lecture about "Humanity’s Place in a Very Strange Universe" at Arizona State University’s BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, in Tempe, on Oct. 1 at 7 pm. Free, and open to the public, with a book signing afterward.  Click here to RSVP

Next day I'll speak at ASU's Center for Science & Imagination: Science Fiction and the Future of Journalism at 1:45 pm; Sign up at EventBrite




Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Transparency Tsunami!

Face Recognition has arrived... Smile. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working on the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) allowing authorities to identify individuals by their faces -- from images collected by street cams, driver’s license photos, mug shots or other sources. As Ginger McCall points out, there is little or no "legal oversight of such technologies."  And I agree!  Oversight and "under-sight" or sousveillance is absolutely essential lest this lead to Big Brother!

FaceRecognition"A total of 37 states have enabled facial-recognition software to search driver’s license photos, and only 11 have protections in place to limit access to such technologies by the authorities."

Alas, McCall goes on to do the same yawnworthy thing -- hand-wringing that we must somehow (without hinting at an even remotely plausible way) restrict elites in the use of these new technologies.  The wrong solution to a real problem, and always, always the vague-implausible one that activists reach for. The article in the New York Times spirals downward into a list of begged-for impossibilities, never once considering the real issue…

…which is not how to blind elites (a utopian notion never achieved by any society in history and impossible today, as cameras proliferate faster than Moore's Law.) Rather, the solution is to limit what authorities can do to us with such systems. And to accomplish that, we need only get into the habit of looking back. Of embracing the tech waves and ensuring that no cop, no public official, goes un-recognized, unwatched.

What could be more obvious? To work with tech trends instead of (futilely) against them? But the well-meaning activists, though properly worried, never stretch their minds in a new direction.  The only direction that can work.

== It can get way worse ==

Paul Krugman, back in June, appraised a chilling - even terrifying - new law in Hungary that allows the Prime Minister to order deep surveillance of any government official, down to aspects of their personal lives, while exempting the very top layers of authority.  "Under Hungary’s new national security law, certain authorized government officials may initiate intrusive surveillance on their higher-level underlings…. Generating a surveillance order doesn’t require that the target be suspected of doing anything illegal. Any old reason will do…. The only required approval comes from the Minister of Justice, a feature which keeps control of the program within the inner circles of the government."

SousveillanceSurveillance"Now that the law has passed, potential targets of surveillance must sign a “consent” form. If the targets have spouses, the spouses must sign consent forms, too. And if the targets or their spouses don’t consent to this surveillance, the targets lose their jobs. In short, this “consent” is not optional and the whole family is fair game for surveillance."

And here's the crux: "Those specifically exempted from either the background checks or the intrusive surveillance include the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, Constitutional Court judges, the Speaker of the Parliament, the president of the Supreme Court (Curia), the president of the National Judicial Office, the Chief Public Prosecutor, the ombudsman and his deputies, the head of the data protection agency and members of the European Parliament."

"Given that the Hungarian surveillance program involves listening to the content of phone conversations, reading emails and bugging the houses of state officials to see what they are doing, there are particular dangers here. What is to prevent the Hungarian government from simply blackmailing people with what they find? What keeps the Hungarian government from acting on purely political information (firing someone for criticizing the government, for example)? The law contains no meaningful protections against the use of the information for political and personal reasons and it offers no procedures that would reliably correct mistakes."

== But there are also good trends ==

The Acxiom Corporation, a marketing technology company, has amassed details on the household makeup, financial means, shopping preferences and leisure pursuits of a majority of adults in the United States. Acxiom is embarking on a novel public relations strategy: openness. It plans to unveil a free Web site where United States consumers can view some of the information the company has collected about them.

The data on the site, called AbouttheData.com, includes biographical facts, like education level, marital status and number of children in a household; homeownership status, including mortgage amount and property size; vehicle details, like the make, model and year; and economic data, including whether a household member is an active investor with a portfolio greater than $150,000. Also available will be the consumer’s recent purchase categories, like plus-size or maternity clothing, or sports or hobby products; and household interests like golf, dogs, text-messaging, or charities.

"With about $1.1 billion in revenue in its 2013 fiscal year, Acxiom is a leading player in an industry called data brokerage. The company collects, stores, analyzes and sells consumer data with the aim of helping its clients — including well-known banks, credit card issuers, insurance companies, department stores and carmakers — tailor marketing to their most valuable current customers or identify new customers."  

AbouttheData.com is as much ruthlessly pragmatic as idealistic. Mr. Howe recognizes that regulation of his industry may be coming and that it’s better for Acxiom to be seen as a part of the solution than a part of the problem. “You may be surprised to know that we are in favor of heightened industry regulation, but we want to make sure we have a voice in the process,” Mr. Howe said. Aboutthedata.com is Acxiom’s bid to have a say in any legislative or regulatory developments. “If we are on our front foot, if we innovate and we are learning,” he said, “we think that earns us a seat at the table.”

One should compare this to a generation ago, when the three credit scoring companies screamed and fought against allowing consumers to look at their own credit files.  It took vigorously progressive reformers to wrest that right into the public domain where -- voila -- credit reporting vastly improved, because consumers found a myriad mistakes. The system now works better bcause of transparency. Um… duh?

Acxiom is clearly not led by fools, but rather by clever folks who can see where things will trend, and who want to be seen leading the way.

== Risk and  scandals==

FearOfRiskAfter some years steeped in misleading cliches, it appears that security maven Bruce Schneier has found his groove again, making cogent sense in a recent pair of essays. The first concerns our modern, disproportionate fear of risk.  His point is both general -- about how we let our fears be driven emotionally, rather than logically -- and specific, as in the trillion dollar spree of over-reaction to 9/11 that made no sense economically or in helping to make us more secure. A vast spasm that also undermines democracy.

Alas, Bruce leaves out some additional factors, like the varied Fear Industries such as cable news.  Plus the fact that we are wallowing in Phase Three of the American Civil War, one side of which relishes dread as if it were Mother's Milk... and the other side is little better in its hand-rubbing schadenfreude.

His other recent missive focuses directly on the NSA and other scandals released by Edward Snowden. "Trust is essential for society to function. Without it, conspiracy theories naturally take hold. Even worse, without it we fail as a country and as a culture." Yes, it is a bit of a platitude and short on real suggestions.  Still, well worth a look, and vastly better than Schneier's earlier, fumbling misstatements about transparency.

== Important transparency miscellany ==

What the NSA really does with your data: A primer on data mining.

This historical survey of wiretapping is extensive - though not as comprehensive as the eagerly partisan author would have us think.  It nevertheless provides some needed historical perspective.

Landau-SurveillanceJust when you thought the NSA-spying imbroglio couldn't get dumber… with the added news of even vaster monitoring by the Drug Enforcement Administration… now we learn what you really ought to have expected. There's human nature to muck things up further as NSA-officers sometimes spy on love interests. Um… duh?  And what did you expect when there's no reciprocal accountability?  Dig it, there are ways to apply citizen supervision over even shadow-war services that must maintain copious tactical secrecy. It can be done in a win-win way. If you cannot come up with candidate methods, you aren't trying.

Score one for the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- a major victory in one of EFF's Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The Justice Department conceded that it will release hundreds of pages of documents, including FISA court opinions, related to the government's secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

And following up on that… Bruce Ackerman in the Los Angeles Times offers several suggested reforms for the secret FISA Court that are much in line with my earlier New York Times Op-ed, including making the court truly adversarial, diversifying the appointment of the judges and increasing oversight.  All of which advocated for the "win-win" approach that I have been pushing… though not as radically as I would like.

How to turn off the feature on your android phone that "backs up" your settings on a Google mainframe… and thus gives them your wifi passwords.  You can choose not to do this.

Is Twitter to become more invasive than Facebook? Josh Harkinson writes, "Twitter has what only a handful of other tech titans possess: a digital Rosetta Stone that enables it to know who you are, wherever you are." For Twitter will be able to track you across all of your devices.

A number of women across the country have listed their positive pregnancy tests for sale on Craigslist. 'Wanna get your boyfriend to finally pop the question? Play a trick on mom, dad or one of your friends?" Dang. I mean.... dang.

Finally...xkcd offers varying views on Internet privacy.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Science Fiction round-up: from humorous to inspiring to uplifting

What the heck has happened to The Atlantic? All my life it was central HQ of the intelligencia's relentless campaign to discredit science fiction and future-curious literature.  The Atlantic's editorial staff even commissioned a hit piece, in 1990, hiring one of our own, Thomas Disch, to savage the field, then they cut and hacked his essay to leave out all mention of SF tales he respected. Now? There have been at least three SF friendly articles in the last year and this new one absolutely fizzes with can-do optimism about how Science Fiction can help bring wisdom to the process of creating new technologies. 

In "Why Today's Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction" - MIT Media Lab researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner argue that the mind-bending worlds of authors such as Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke can help us not just come up with ideas for novel gadgets, but also can help us envision and anticipate their consequences and ramifications -- ideas which Brueckner and Novy use in their course, Science Fiction to Science Fabrication, or Pulp to Prototype.

maxresdefaultIs String Theory right? Is it just fantasy? A nifty Bohemian Gravity parody, by A Capella Science. Delightful evidence that the brightest human beings are win-win polymaths, who are brilliant at a wide range of things.  All of the great scientists I've known also had artistic avocations that they often performed at a professional level. (My father took he to watch Einstein play the violin, when I was four... or so he told me.) And now; this young feller, Tim Blais, is clearly part of that tradition, creating singlehandedly a capella mixes that are skilled, hilariously amusing and awesomely cool.  I just wish he would give us two seconds of blank screen for applause and cool-down before launching into his self-adverts at the end.  Just two seconds of grace-note chill, hm? Make it three. You'll go far.

Four Reasons Why Remakes of Sci-Fi Movies Are Doomed to Suck… amen and this proves why cocaine should remain illegal, given what it has done to a generation of Hollywood moguls and directors, going "Ooooh, how's THIS for an original idea! How about we remake…." Don't do drugs.

== More cool scifi stuff ==

UnknownPaul Rubens returns in a serious (if short and low budget, but not peewee) science fiction film. The Final Moments of Karl Brant is a 15-minute short film that explores mind uploading. The movie follows a scientist who is researching whole brain emulation technology; he gets murdered immediately after downloading his entire memory onto a hard drive. The film follows two police detectives who revive Karl Brant’s mind-upload to find his killer. Reubens is good.

The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films, by Kyle Munkittrick, explores in a moving and I think accurate way the "otherness" theme that guides nearly all films by the great animation house.  Otherness, indeed.

Okay... gotta watch this totally way-cool fun video plus music in a full-boil love paean to starships.  The very heart and soul of science fiction!

MoviesNeverExisted100 Wonderful and Terrible Movies That Never Existed. For every movie that makes it to your local cineplex, there are dozens that never come into existence. In another universe, Mel Gibson directed Fahrenheit 451, Terry Gilliam directed Watchmen, and Batman fought Godzilla. The history of movies is crammed full of weird almost-weres and could-have-beens.  A terrific list on io9.

...and now...

== Brinstuff ==

Utopia in Exile: Here is the videoed interview with me that Adam Ford did at LosCon39 back when Existence first came out. Not my very best, but still filled with mind-stretching exercises! (Though he lost the first few seconds of footage). It's gotten way more buzz than I thought it merited. But go figure.

SciFiThronesThe French site ActuSF has run an interview with me in both French and English.

The Uplift Universe is number three on this list: Twelve Book Series that are the Sci Fi equivalent of Game of Thrones ... along with Asimov's Foundation series, Banks's Culture series, Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy, McCaffrey's Dragonriders and others.


Live long in this world, especially as a male, and folks have a range of opinions about you. Karma builds. The more so if you become even a little "famous."  I know I can be overbearing and … opinionated… tho I try to be ornery in all directions. Anyway, I try to make up for that and other faults by almost never engaging in personal gossip, and with good deeds.  Okay, Maimonedes said you're not supposed to brag about the latter.  But… well… I'd rather at least some of these things were known.  Gave a little help to this bright young author who writes action even better than Zelazny or Moorcock. So take a look at John Koetsier's action-packed novel, No Other Gods. And John, you're welcome.

== Serious Asides ==

Shall we give up on reason?  Will we genetic-cavemen ever become the logical beings we flatter ourselves into believing we are? Or that Science Fiction says we might become?  Recent research suggests that we have a long slog ahead of us… and yes, even the smartest best-educated folks allow their pre-set beliefs and passions to interfere with basic mental processes, if their close-held biases might be under threat. Indeed we have all seen this tenacity in online arguments, in which cogent - even devastating and fact-rich -- rebuttals don't sway the other guy even an iota. See: Scientists' depressing new discovery about the brain.

We already knew this. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. Clearly this is what goes on as know-nothings rage against scientists and other professionals.

== SF prescience and fun…. ==

ClarkePredictPrescience from the 1960s: Arthur Clarke wrote, "We could be in instant contact with each other, wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth, even if we don’t know their actual physical location. It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London…"

In 1964, Isaac Asimov on the year 2014 --  “Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica.”

and “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.

On the other hand… there were some howlers from Asimov:  “The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes.”

And our final category today is "Not yet… but increasingly likely!"

“[V]ehicles with ‘Robot-brains’ … can be set for particular destinations … that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

and "Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors.”  Coming soon!

==New Collections Released==

TwelveTomorrows"Twelve Tomorrows" is the latest special science fiction issue of the MIT Technology Review, with vivid tales by Greg Egan, Nancy Kress, Allen Steele, Brian Aldiss, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Peter Watts, Nancy Fulda, and myself… along with other fine writers, all aimed at dealing with near-future possible trends or shocks in technology and its impact on human lives. My story, Insistence of Vision, leads off this terrific collectors' volume.  It deals with a near future option offered by "specs" or googlasses, to replace prison as a punishment with something else. Something that is both better and more chilling.

shadows sunJust out: Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in honor of Gene Wolfe, with contributions from Neil  Gaiman, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, Jack Dann, Michael Swanwick, Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole, Mike Resnick, and Todd McCaffrey… oh, and me too, with one of my best stories yet! All in the spirit of honoring one of the all-time greats of Science Fiction. See the book review on the Tor site

If you're not familiar with Gene Wolfe, sample some of his best, with his excellent short story collection: The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories.

== Final SF'nal Miscellany ==

177628400
Hugo-nominated author Jim Hines has a new novel, Libriomancer, in which the urban mage can pull items or characters from any book.  Clever idea!  Read an interview on Wired about why he decided not to pull a black hole out of EARTH.  Interesting fellow!

And ...here's a wonderfully funny riff on how dangerous humans might seem to aliens. For example:

REMOVING A LIMB MAY NOT FATALLY INCAPACITATE HUMANS: ALWAYS DESTROY THE HEAD….

and…

WARNING: HUMANS CAN DETECT YOU EVEN AT NIGHT BY TRACKING VIBRATIONS THROUGH THE ATMOSPHERE.

and my own contributions…

HUMANS CAN SEE ALL THE WAY INTO THE "BLUE"!

and…

HUMANS CAN COOPERATE LIKE HIVE BEINGS AND THEN OPERATE SOLO LIKE MANTISES! THEY CAN RUN IN THE NOONDAY SUN AND STAY COOL. THEY CAN PICK UP SMALL OBJECTS AND "THROW" THEM AT AMAZING DISTANCES AND SPEEDS.  

WORST OF ALL, THEY ARE CAPABLE OF EMPATHIZING WITH YOUR OFFSPRING, RAISING THEM AS THEIR OWN AND TURNING THEM AGAINST YOU!

Finally... MechaWhales.  Seriously man?  MechaWhales?  Aw geez… and I don't get a piece of this?  Even an action figure?  Mechawhales.  Fun. And I'll hold back till they're raking it in….

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Life: Extension, Existence and Extrapolation

Top news... if it proves out... The amplituhedron, a  jewel-like geometric object at the heart of quantum physics: As a physicist, I find this one of the most exciting advances (again, if true) in quite a while. Einstein said something like "follow the elegance" and if this is true, then it is elegance. It is also lovely in its weirdness.

== Health, Lifespan & Such ==

TelomeresAging
Why are American Health Care Costs So High? A bizarrely sensible and entertaining perspective from author John Green.  And amazingly, it is not political!  Well, it does demand reason and common sense and a willingness to step away from pre-conceptions… so nowadays just doing that is a political act.  But do watch it.

A study shows for the first time that lifestyle changes -- in diet, exercise, stress management and social support -- may result in longer telomeres, the parts of chromosomes that affect aging, possibly enabling life extension.

Oh, but a century won't suffice, no?  A kickstarter campaign seeks funding for The Last Generation to Die, a provocative short science fiction film about the near future -- when we must wrestle with the arrival of age reversal or rejuvenation. The tradeoffs and emotional quandaries. And for my own take on the tradeoffs, take a look at my essay: Do We Really Want Immortality?

While we're on the subject, see Larry Page's most recent effort to use his wealth (with some help from friends) to fund Calico, a win-win initiative to fight aging and disease, and help us all to live longer.

GrouchyFutureAh, but more and more we are splitting between those who are (sometimes recklessly) gung-ho about the future and those who are (often dyspeptically) grouchy about it.  This one is sure to spark screaming matches: Adderall for All: A Defense of Pediatric Neuroenhancement.

== It's about Life! ==

A stunning example of terrifying yet inspiring animal altruism. A giant leopard seal tries to teach a diver how to survive.

Actually, now that I think about it… the story is almost identical to a scene in Existence!

Aw heck, recall the G'Keks in Brightness Reef? In the spirit of last week's discovery of an insect that uses gears, watch this short video about the incredible tongue of a hummingbird, an astonishing organ that works in a way never before known. Another bio-engineering marvel! But the greatest feats may be yet to come...

FreemanDysonSimply flat out mind-boggling cool:  Freeman Dyson on Warm-blooded Planets in the Outer Solar System . I attended this talk by my brilliant friend, whose stunning ideas about exolife -- "greenhouse organisms" that could sustainably colonize and "green" icy moons in space, is utterly fascinating.  This was at the recent Starship Century conference at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.

== And artificial (gulp!) life! ==

I've been warning you folks about the billions that Goldman-Sachs and others are pouring into High Frequency Trading -- that this investment will not only warp and distort financial markets in hugely unfair ways, but that also might threaten us with the very worst kinds of emergent artificial intelligence (AI). 

In a new paper, Abrupt Rise of New Machine Ecology beyond Human Response Time, researchers have studied these ultra-rapid computational processes and determined that: "far from simply generating faster versions of existing behaviour, we show that this speed-up can generate a new behavioural regime as humans lose the ability to intervene in real time."

They add that "transition to a new all-machine phase (is) characterized by large numbers of sub-second extreme events."  They even use some terminology similar to mine, concluding that these results are: "consistent with an emerging ecology of competitive machines featuring ‘crowds’ of predatory algorithms."

== Space Updates! ==

The next year or two should be big for planetary science.  A possible (unlikely) "comet of the century"… plus another comet skating past Mars. The Dawn expedition will reach Ceres in 2015. The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft will be escorting the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko around the sun that year, while NASA's New Horizons mission will be reaching Pluto and its moon Charon.

Getting a little closer to home… So cool. You get to see what no ancestor saw before 1960: a full rotation of the moon, from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) data.

Even closer. Congratulations to Orbital Sciences for launching a supply capsule to the space station in September. Competition with SpaceX is a good thing.  Though the two endeavors are not exactly comparable. For example, while Elon's SpaceX has developed its own new rocket and thousand innovations entirely in-house, Orbital Sciences is struggling to find a reliable engine for its rocket: "The NK-33 engine that powered Antares’ first flight was built decades ago by Russia’s Kuznetsov Design Bureau and is no longer in production. Further, Orbital is uncertain about the quality of Aerojet’s remaining stockpile of 23 NK-33s." Well, they are at least proving there's a niche for clever recycling!

Aerobraking? That's for sissies! How about ... litho-braking!  In a recent experimental test, ESA researchers sent a prototype careening into 10 tons of ice at a deceleration of 24,000 times the force of gravity.  The main shell of the payload survived the deceleration "scuffed."  Next up: tests containing electronics.  Possible an ideal penetrator to study the oceans of Europa?   Oh, so many questions, first!

Will the recent interest in asteroids stay stoked?  Scientists have searched through the current database of around 9000 near-Earth objects looking for those that could be maneuvered into an accessible orbit by changing their velocity by less than 500 meters per second.  Researchers conclude that 12 asteroids meet this criteria.  They call this new class of asteroid “Easily Retreivable Objects” or EROs.  I have been backing this kind of idea ever since reading John Lewis's pioneering and visionary MINING THE SKY: Untold Riches from Asteroids, Comets and Planets, spoke of resource extraction, way back in the 1980s.

NEOShieldPreventing extinction-level events: The European-backed NEOShield Project aims to develop defenses against killer Near Earth Object (NEO) asteroids.  Their plans include orbital reconnaissance, as well as the hypothetical launch of kinetic impact spacecraft that would deflect problematic asteroids from their earth-bound trajectory. Watch the animated simulation video.

==Next Steps in Exploration==

China announced Wednesday that it plans to put a rover on the Moon by the end of the year. The Chang’e-3 Lunar probe will include a six-wheeled lunar rover, which will work on the surface for about three months. China's goal: landing humans on the Moon. Though there is competition. Private space company Golden Spike plans to land a person on the Moon by the year 2020.  And while China is aiming for the Moon, another great Asian power, India, is aiming to put a probe in orbit around Mars this Fall.

And finally...

Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you...and start your life moving in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you ear to what you do with your time tonight...turns you into who you are tomorrow and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. 

You may not get exactly where you thought you'd be...but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in.

Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.

– Astronaut Chris Hadfield