Monday, April 07, 2014

Science! From TWODA to "P.U." to RNA

This will be a science potpourri....

== Save the world from dopes? ==

Scientists have known for decades that Greenland’s ice sheet is melting, but they may have underestimated just how much water the second-largest ice sheet on the planet is shedding. New research indicates that a key section of northeast Greenland thought to be stable is actually dumping billions of tons of water into the ocean annually after a barrier of ice debris that had blocked its flow finally gave way. "We're seeing an acceleration of ice loss."

melting-ice"The Greenland ice sheet has contributed more than any other ice mass to sea-level rise over the last two decades and has the potential, if it were completely melted to raise global sea level by more than seven meters,” explains one expert. Between 1990 and 2011, climate change caused ocean surface temperatures around Greenland to rise 1.8 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

An interactive map shows that melting glaciers won't give us "waterworld"… but you might not want to own land where (ironically) most of the folks in the climate denialist cult live.

A side benefit of TWODA* innovation?  Computer simulations have shown that offshore wind farms with thousands of wind turbines could have sapped the power of three real-life hurricanes.

Given current trends, then, we're gonna need innovation even more than ever.

== biology "comes alive!" ==

DNA-RNA Watch this clip from the PBS series DNA. It's four minutes of amazing images, visualizing how DNA gets unzipped, read, re-zipped and turned into something like hemoglobin, all in real-time. This process of information coding, retrieval and manipulation by molecular machines of stunning specificity is going on right now inside every cell in your body.

Then go on to another great biology video of "The Central Dogma" of protein synthesis. In which RNA polymerase and other active elements are represented as spaceship-like nanomachines. A fantastic instructional video that will leave you entertained and informed… with a cool-oh sound track.

And dig it: single-celled microbes that grow in biofilms have come up with a way to electrically reach out and pull electrons from minerals in the soil so they can stay in the sun.

Ah but science calls for judgment! After years of predicting it would happen -- and after years of having their suggestions largely ignored by companies, farmers and regulators -- scientists have documented the rapid evolution of corn rootworms that are resistant to Bt corn.  Read about how proper procedures were mismanaged and ignoring the scientists is leading to an agricultural problem of real substance.

== Technology, save us, oh deus ex machina… ==

P-PeeScientists have discovered a way to take the phosphorus out of our pee (and that’s a lot — we piss out 3 million tons of it each year). In my novel EXISTENCE is where most of you first heard about the coming Phosphorus Crisis. Well now one forecast is coming true. The P.U. or Phos-Urinal (not 'pee-yew') is coming!  (Is it too soon for the predictions registry?)

And more news: U.S. scientists say that emerging photovoltaic technologies will enable the production of solar shingles made from abundantly available elements rather than rare-earth metals, an innovation that would make solar energy cheaper and more sustainable. I spoke of solar shingles even back in EARTH. But the overall lesson is what's important --

-- that there are ways out of our messes, if obstructionists and denialists would stop hating on science and decide to help, instead.  Keep saying one word to them, a word for which they have no reply. TWODA.

Want more wonders? Before teenager Anne Makosinski, apparently, no one on record has thought to use thermoelectric technology to power a flashlight. Peltier tiles produce an electrical current when opposite sides are heated and cooled at the same time, so why not make a hollow flashlight that uses heat from the hand that's holding it?

Google has released a concise list of "Ten Myths About Google Glass." Mostly on target and calming stuff… though very conservative, down-pedaling what everyone can tell is coming… and a whole lot more than just a few sci fi authors will tell you about.

So cool! See an animation of the "Council of Giants" -- a dozen big galaxies that surround our Local Group (which is mostly the Milky Way and Andromeda) in a very thin sheet, constraining our two spirals and having guided their evolution.

Physicists are exploring possible "hidden variables" loopholes in quantum mechanics that might involve elements of the universe holding quasi-conversations - or conspiring to exchange decisions - with each other, in an interchange that scientists are (mostly-whimsically) calling "free will." Few consider this loophole to be likely. But now there appears to be a way to test it, using light from the oldest quasars in the cosmos.

And this eclectic museum is located in Baltimore, Maryland. “The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) looks worth a visit.

== Finding the black boxes from MH 370? ==

How much quicker would we have found the fading pings from MH 370's black boxes, if sea planes or flying boats were still prominent in the world?  Planes had to buzz over the potential debris fields, but for a closer look, or to lower soon-sensors, had to wait till ships with special equipment could arrive.  (Yes, there are military sonobuoys. I'd wager some have already been dropped in secret.)

Most of the time with a "sea plane" they land in a protected harbor, river, or inland waterway. Open ocean landings are quite hazardous, mostly done to rescue personnel, sometimes the sea plane crew then requires rescue. The Japanese may be employing the ShinMaywa US-2 flying boat on this operation, a model also used by India, but lacking the range to be much use in far-distant operations.

There is a new Chinese sea-plane, approved for construction by AVIC General Aircraft Company. The Dragon 600, expanded from the earlier SH-5 sea-plane would be as large as an Airbus 320, could be used for tasks such as emergency rescue, fighting forest fires and sea patrols. .

A pit of aeronautical pedantry, a seaplane has pontoons, a flying boat has a hull that floats on the water. Confusion is understandable when both terms are nearly obsolete. The Spruce Goose, the Catalina, and the Albatross would be flying boats.

Just a thought.  Here is hoping they find the things.  If so, what a validation of dispersed transparency!  The one company whose satellite nailed the travel arc of the plane from just a single radio query ping… they deserve some kind of prize… and we all deserve to have all commercial airliners far better tracked.

Smithsonian-future-is-here-2014 Finally… an announcement for you Mid-Atlantic residents! I will be among the headliners -- along with Patrick Stewart, Brian Greene, George Takei, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stewart Brand, Michio Kaku and some MythBusters -- at the Smithsonian's epic-scale "The Future is Here!" event, in Washington D.C. May 16-17.  Look it up and come if you can!  Brought to you by Smithsonian Magazine (subscribe) and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination (join!)


*TWODAThings We Ought to Do Anyway…to alleviate climate change… but that will help us economically, politically, internationally even if 99% of scientists prove wrong about climate warnings!  Increasing research and developing methods of energy efficiency should be on the table, even if you are a climate skeptic! The fact that you are NOT eagerly negotiating TWODA measures proves one thing.  You are no "skeptic" but a member of the denialist cult.


Stefan Jones said...

When you are at that big Smithsonian shindig, plug the SF museum!

RE the phosphor urinal, I just read an an article in MAKE on making a composting toilet. Most of the text was on how to handle "poo." Their suggestion for handling urine: Pour the pee on a straw bale! This would eventually be used for fertilizer. A very low-tech, non-scaleable P.U.

I'd love to see sustainability inventions, traditionally aimed at the back to the nature crowd, adapted for cities. Sewers are an amazing invention, but we're going to have to come up with a parallel system of collecting and processing waste.

locumranch said...

'TWODA' represents a moral rather than a scientific imperative. It directs us to take a number of increasingly irrational actions in order to keep things 'the way they are' (let's build windmills to stop hurricanes!) even though keeping things 'the way they are' is an increasingly unreasonable course of action.

Human beings did not 'create' or 'invent' climate change. We have accelerated it (most likely) with our fossil-fueled technologies, but the climate has been changing for thousands of years as shown by Heracleion & any number of submerged (and/or desolate) archaeological sites, and it will continue to change with or without our assistance, and we can no more stop the climate from changing than we can stop the setting of the sun.

Our most reasonable course of action ... always the most reasonable course for any life form ... is 'adaption'. We forget this at our peril. Either we stay here and 'adapt', modifying our form by the slow road of evolution (as we did before, during & following the last Ice Age) or we 'dearly depart' like a space-born dandelion seed or the proverbial dodo. Either way, our 'environment' cares not a wit about our ultimate fate.

Rather than saving the world 'from' dopes,'TWODA' serves only as an attempt to save the world 'for' dopes who imagine that they can keep things 'the way they are' or, perhaps, for 'dupes' who have been told that such a feat of mortal stasis is either possible or desirable. We have gone down this very road before, often, in our attempts at 'conservation', trying to consume our cake & keep it too, and it is futile.

Only change and death are certain.


MH370 is probably parked at a small airport in China, Indonesia, etc ... being repainted, repurposed or stripped for parts, a $320 million dollar bargain at the cost of +200 lives .... worse things have been done for less. Remember that China denied this very scenario early, that 70% of passengers were Chinese nationals.

Tom Crowl said...

RE: "How much quicker would we have found the fading pings from MH 370's black boxes, if sea planes or flying boats were still prominent in the world?"

Along with those... how about dirigibles! They'd take a while to get there but give a bird's eye view and can stay on station or cruise slowly for extended periods.

Lighter-than-air ships need a fresh look.

David Brin said...

Locum has skipped right ahead to senility. His reflexive "I'll say the opposite!" spasm proclaims he is "Mr. Adaptation" when in fact, that's my territory and in any given week I do more to promote an agile, resilient and robustly adaptable civilization than he will accomplish in his entire, cynical-snarking life.

TWODA is neither a moral nor a scientific imperative. Only a dope would think it was either. It is a polemical maneuver to corner New Confederates into perceiving that they are shills for a carbon oligarchy, whose own polemicists have insulated their foot soldiers from realization.

The fact that locum cannot parse this is kind of sad.

Alfred Differ said...

A number of us have looked at the airships for missions like this. For a commercial company, it is a difficult business case because they have to be multi-purposed if you want to get investors. Also, the ground equipment (hangar and land) tend to be a tad expensive relative to the prices one can charge in any one year, so the sunk costs are significant.

There is no doubt the airships can do this job and many others like it (chase hurricanes and thunderstorms for example), but they need to be able to stay aloft for months at a time if you want to minimize ops costs enough to close the case.

Andy T said...

"we can no more stop the climate from changing than we can stop the setting of the sun."

Locum, just because we can't completely freeze the climate in place doesn't mean we can't tweak it in a better direction... your objection makes no sense to me. We started destroying the ozone, realized the problem, took corrective measures and now the ozone is recovering. We can now take corrective measures to mitigate the severity of the global warming we are causing.

As humans one of our adaption strategies is to mold our environment to fit out needs (houses, roads, dams, air conditioning). So trying to slow climate change is actually a prime example of adaptation. LIMITING our adaptation strategies is a most UNreasonable course of action.

And what in the world do you mean by "scientific imperative"?

LarryHart said...


You seem to have adopted the attitute of the young Woody Allen character from "Annie Hall"--the kid who won't do his homework because the universe is expanding (so "What's the point?").

Paul Krugman also recognizes that in the long run, we're all dead. But he (correctly) points out that that fact doesn't mitigate the need for shorter-range solutions to problems that affect us right now.

Patricia Mathews said...

P.U.? Use a bucket. Dilute the stuff 10/1 and use directly on garden. Unless you have a UTI or are taking some serious meds, it should be clean and sanitary.

David Brin said...

I am sorry, all, that I let inciters bait me into reacting with less than dignity. Specifically, although I find locum occasionally very bright and interesting, he clearly has an agenda here and reacting only feeds him. Not trolling, exactly. But I think I'm better off going cold turkey.

Please, all, kick me if I ever again respond with anything more intense than "that was interesting" or "that was mistaken or possibly deliberately misleading."

Happy (Mars) opposition day.

Paul451 said...

More pedantically, seaplanes includes flying boats as a subset. The other term you are looking for is "floatplane". A la DeHavilland Otter

Any seaplane (whether "flying boat" or "floatplane") which can also land on a runway, is called amphibious.

Weirdly, while helicopters have both types of amphibians, floats and boats, they don't seem to have separate terms to describe them.

Paul451 said...

I'm surprised there aren't more amphibious airships. It seems like an obvious pairing (and there's plenty of concept art to suggest it is obvious to others), the ship is by definition buoyant, there's plenty of space for landing. You have water available upon touchdown (or just before, if you drop a feeder hose) to syphon up as ballast; which you can dump when you want to lift. Yet there's few examples of actual amphibious airships.

David Brin said...

In EXISTENCE I had Towed Airships, pulled by railroad locomotives, thus needing to carry no engines or fuel. Don't recall seeing that anywhere.

Tim H. said...

IMNSHO, TWODA offers a way to effect needed change with minimal negative impact on society and an opportunity to sidestep controversy, difficult to upset folks with lower energy bills and more comfortable houses. Not to mention coal left undisturbed under green appalachian hills.
A more dramatic opportunity for change would be upgrading coal burning power plants in Asia so they're no worse than those in the United States.

Tim H. said...

Still think a towed lighter-than-air is more of a novelty, a more expensive way to do passenger rail. Several steps further out, how about an airship powered with a microwave beam from a SBSP installation using steerable antennas to follow mobile power recipients.

locumranch said...

I do have an 'agenda', first, to 'incite", excite & inspire; second, to engage, question & inquire; and, third, to converse, propose & transpose.

I despise the 'moral imperative', the socially-derived directive, the 'ought to' & 'should' ism, and the 'do what I said because I said it’ for its thoughtless circularity of argument which leads (inevitably) to its own beginning, preempts discussion and kills creativity.

With implicit circularity, the acronym TWODA represents an established precognitive assumption that instructs us to do all the things we ought to, leading us to conclude that the things we are doing are the things we must do. We must apply ourselves in order to apply ourselves; we should work harder so we can work harder; we ought to 'grow' the economy so the economy can grow; and we must consume what we produce so we can produce what we consume. Pssst! We take it for granted that we must 'endeavor to persevere’ in our actions or, catastrophe of catastrophes, our actions will end.

Q: But, why not rethink our initial assumptions and change things up ?

A: Because of TWODA.

The 'scientific imperative' (to answer Andy T) requires us to develop what is commonly referred to as 'objectivity', to challenge our preconceptions about 'what we must do’ & ‘the way the world works’, to conceptually dissociate ourselves from the ignorance that is 'common knowledge', to dissociate, experiment, observe & reassociate in order to recognize new patterns, to apply & repeat this 'scientific method’, and to persist in this willful 'scientific’ dissociation from which all the great advances of Science spring.

TWODA, being a form of moral obedience, works just fine for making minor 'improvements' (aka 'progress') in hundred year old technologies like the telegraph, the telephone, the aeroplane, the 'airship' (!!), the internal combustion engine, the radio, the nuclear reactor & the buggy whip (etc) but TWODA-based refinements cannot help us recognize any 'new' patterns of technology.

TWODA and the TOADY: They are the same intellectual concept in extension.


Andy said...


TWODA = things we oughta do anyways.

The key here is "ought". You can't have an "ought" without an "if".

You ought to eat healthy and in proper portions... IF you don't want to become obese.

Offshore windmills are TWODA.... IF we care about generating renewable energy while mitigating the damage from hurricanes. Do you care about those things?

Some of us care about "ifs" like improving the quality of life for as many people as possible. It's in this sense that we discuss TWODAs. Not as some unquestionable obedience to a divine rule commanded by His Brin-ness on High, but as actions that would further humanistic goals. Goals such as seeing human suffering reduced, and human flourishing and happiness increased.

If you don't care about the ifs, then obviously the oughts don't matter. But your charge of circularity is laughable. Nothing circular about it as long as you realize the implicit "if".

David Brin said...

Complete nonsense and fabulation. I'll comment no further.

David Brin said...


locumranch said...

As we seem to have 'moved on', I'll simply point out that Andy's examples of non-circularity amount to 'circular argument'.

The sentence 'You ought to eat healthy and in proper portions (if) you don't want to become obese' is logical only if we assume that 'ought' implies causality rather than duty, obligation, desirability or a lack-of-alternative and that the terms 'healthy', 'proper' and non-obese are synonyms (wherein health and obesity are mutual opposites) which would then reduce his argument to a rather untrustworthy 'health is caused by a diet that causes health'.

Science is about assigning probabilities to possibilities rather than subjecting possibilities to arbitrary moral limits which, btw, is the singular reason why I object to the use of TWODA's 'ought' to impose 'duty', 'obligation', 'desirability' or a 'lack-of-alternative' on a purely amoral scientific question.

Replace 'ought' with 'could' and my object disappears.


LarryHart said...


I've been reading Dr Brin for years, and it never occured to me that "TWOBDA" referred to anything but causality.

The sense Dr Brin uses it is typically to argue against the right-wingers who do insist on a moral imperative to do as we've always done ("Drill baby, drill!") as long as the bad effects of their favored paradigm haven't been proven and agreed upon 100%. TWOTDA then refers to things that make sense whether or not there is climate change, such as energy conservation and not poisining our nest.

Ironically, it's the ones Dr Brin is arguing against who are doing the very things you accuse him of doing.