Saturday, April 14, 2018

Science Updates: from Consciousness to CRISPR

Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have long pursued a concept – not exactly a model – of consciousness that’s based on a notion that quantum effects take place along tiny rods called microtubules that are vital structural elements inside most living cells. These rods are everywhere, but especially in neurons, and some experiments suggest that perhaps a kind of entanglement might happen along their length. 

It's not laughable! Much stronger evidence supports the existence of quantum activity in the chlorophyll molecule that plants use to convert sunlight into stored chemical energy. This article offers details on the Penrose-Hameroff notion. (I watched-heard them both at a Consciousness Debate, held at the home of Irwin Jacobs, three months ago. I spoke with Penrose, several times, about his clever re-scaling explanation for how Big Bangs fit into a cyclical cosmos.)

I suspect they are about half-right about there being some quantum effects inside neurons. Even that much would be amazing, and would imply that it may take a lot more than a Moore's Law doubling of flip-flops to emulate human consciousness. See also their latest book Consciousness and the Universe: Quantum Physics, Evolution, Brain and Mind.

== Contemplating the stuff we're made of ==

Might genetic meddling in actual humans be a little harder than to recent hopeful/terrifying press reports led us to believe? Our immune systems may be formidable. 

The CRISPR–Cas9 system, which functions as a genetic scissors and tape for editing DNA, is generally derived from either Staphylococcus aureusor Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria. Most people have been exposed to staph or strep by the time they reach adulthood, which their bodies are likely to remember and may mount an immune attack when re-exposed to them….  Or worse, it could trigger the kind of immune storm that killed a young gene therapy patient named Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, derailing the field for more than a decade.

A new study showed that it is possible to recreate DNA using information from living descendants. Which may empower fellows like George Church to give us back mammoths... then dinosaurs... then maybe (as in Existence)... Neandethals?

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the very first algorithm that monitors patient vitals to predict potentially lethal events hours before they could have occurred.

If You Had a Human Head Transplant, Would You Still Be You?  A topic actually explored in The Organ Bank Farm, a novel by the under-rated science fiction author John Boyd. Jim Cheetham has an answer that’s +1. 'It's a body transplant. Does that make it an easier question?'

== Ain't Nature a kick? ==

If true, this is… wow. “In the first recorded instance of fire being used by animals other than humans, three Australian birds of prey species have been seen carrying burning twigs to set new blazes…” offering “…evidence that birds are very good at “generating innovative solutions to foraging problems.”

A fascinating and erudite article asks whether humans have some in-built morality, an ancient question with light shed by recent science.

Why Males Are Biology's Riskier Sex: This article explains some of the fantastic amounts that reproductive biologists have learned lately about sperm, eggs, mutations and how those mutations are contributed vs. age by mothers and fathers. 

Fascinating. Vertebrate animals apparently use a basic information-processing system that derives from genes that infected some ancestor via a virus. That transmission and retention isn’t unusual – large fractions of our genome apparently come from viruses. But this article describes one of a myriad info-processing functions that we never knew about, till recently. When a synapse fires, it apparently triggers an RNA messenger to enfold itself into a protective capsid and travel to some adjacent neuron, where… well, this is way complicated and not easily emulated via binary flipflops and Moore’s Law.

Adding this blue dye to standard malaria treatments seems to reduce the chance new mosquitoes will pick up and vector the disease. 

== But human stupidity clings and claws at us ==

Alas, sometime SciFi gets it too right: Remember the lurid sci fi flick THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW? Its frenzied-fun premise was based on a real fear... now apparently coming true, as ocean circulation in the Atlantic has plunged to its lowest level in 1600 years.

Meanwhile... Coral bleaching has accelerated to a clip at which established reefs can no longer keep up. Part of it comes from pollution and warming waters, but also ocean acidification.  

And the last of those three has special significance. Oh, talk about ocean acidification. Speak the phase aloud... because you’ll find that members of the Climate Denialist Cult always shout “squirrel!” or run away, when they hear those two words. Because:

(1) anyone can go to the shore and measure it for themselves; it’s happening, and serious. And...

(2) there are no possible alternative excuses – the way the cultists try to blame the sun for global warming. Ocean acidification comes from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, put there by humans. Period. And those who are aiding the villains waging war on science are now as culpable – and should be as financially liable – as the Koch Brothers and their petro-sheik and oil-boyar allies.

But then... the fact people keep coming up with... hope!

== Future Tech ==

thin membrane made of graphene, called “Graphair,” which can make dirty water clean enough to drink after just a single pass through. Consumption of contaminated drinking water can transmit a number of diarrheal diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio, as well as many parasites, like giardia. In water-stressed areas that also have limited access to medical care, diarrheal illnesses can be life-threatening. The next steps for the team will be to connect with industry partners who can help them scale Graphair up for practical use.

A DARPA-funded prosthetic neural system has made progress toward improving memory by writing codes into the hippocampus of human subjects via electrodes implanted in the brain.

MIT's Media Lab has severed ties to startup Nectome which offered digital immortality to individuals through brain uploading - seeking to embalm brains while preserving the neural connections.

A new approach to 3D imagery that’s different – using lasers to push a speck of dust around to form genuine three-dimensional object views. I doubt you can apply the term "hologram."

Elon Musk's latest venture: Solar Roof tiles - made of tempered glass, promise to be durable and cost effective (with an "infinity" warranty) and power generation lasting 30 years.

Even more advance is a concept that uses the heat of solar panels to distill and purify water, while cooling the cells to make them more efficient. Built-in batteries store power for night and outages. (Something lacking in the million solar homes we have, today.)

Need more memory? Next generation optical disc storage offers 10 terabyte capacity and six century lifespan. Gimme!  Seriously. Send me a sample and (if it works) I'll tout it loudly!

And finally...Lasers so powerful they might rip apart raw vacuum? It’s actually quite plausible.  Hey, didn't I predict that in....


Duncan Cairncross said...

From the previous comments

House building
I'm not an expert but I am an engineer and I designed (and helped build) two of the last three houses we have lived in

Draughty and poorly insulated houses are common - but they don't have to be!
There is no need for different building materials - Adobe would be BAD! idea here
Just a few simple rules and you can end up with a lovely house made with materials that the builders understand and can work with

More importantly if a house is designed to be lived in and kept at a nice temperature it is so much nicer and cheaper!
BUT a lot of (most) houses are designed as "Eye Candy" - NOT as a machine to live in

Then we have all of the 3D printed houses - If those are intended to be cheaper than normal houses then I suspect what we have is some VERY creative accountancy!

If you go into an industry thinking that these guys who have been doing it for decades are doing it all wrong and you will be able to do things much cheaper then 99.9% of the time you are blowing smoke

I was able to bring in ideas that I had seen elsewhere and successfully incorporate them - sometimes!

donzelion said...

"And those who are aiding the villains waging war on science are now as culpable – and should be as financially liable – as the Koch Brothers and their petro-sheik and oil-boyar allies."

The 'petro-sheikhs' are terrified of global warming, recognize it as a reality, have said so repeatedly and publicly - and have had to contend with it in ways that the American petrol sheikhs do not. It threatens their entire economic well-being (both desal and increasing air conditioning power drains) - and they recognize the risk of losing the ability to export petrol at all unless things change. Until you cite any evidence to the contrary (you've alluded to it, but the public record rebuts allusions), these facts in the public record ought to be believed (unless this is the only place where you reject evidence and prefer to indulge prejudice). Indeed, the so-called 'dissent' they offer has never been anything other than opposition to suggestions they pay the bill (that isn't 'denial' - it's simply standard practice).

ExxonMobil & friends with the API certainly bear some of the blame, but the rank'n'file in denialism is real estate - esp. housing/luxury sectors. Folks selling a multi-million dollar property project a value - which would be dramatically altered if climate science is real. Folks selling property with a long-term profit projection omit risks, or assume solvency of insurers that would be questionable if climate science proves true. They lose billions of dollars if this is deemed 'reasonably foreseeable' rather than 'acts of God.'

The problem is not that denialist billionaires are stupid: it's that they're smart (or at least, cunning - they're well aware how to make other people pay for 'acts of God' and insured against that long ago).

David Brin said...

Cunning is not smart, donzel. And I see no reason to believe that these fellows can see an inch beyond their noses.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB | In theory I have the most inclusive horizons out there

No doubt, but I'm also sure you spend many 100's of milliseconds longer pondering faces of business people when trying to decide which kind of shark you see.

No accusations of hypocrisy are being leveled at you. Just the one that you are human and have your Us/Them boundaries too. What we DO when thinking about Them (or the no-so-close-Uses) is what distinguishes between us. 8)

If you want to let me know which Ventura county officials you mailed, I'll look from my end here and see if I can figure out what makes them tick.

Paul SB said...


I didn't have any names, I just dropped it in a general mailbox. I take it you must work with these folks, so you might just chat about it and see if they are interested enough to check out a web site or two.

On the Us/Them boundaries, it's not so much a matter of whether or not we have them, but how we define them. Sure, I look at business people with more caution because the likelihood of them being dishonest is higher than most other people. That does not mean I throw all business people into the Them category, just the ones that I know or at least have strong reason to suspect are crooks. If your Us/Them category rules follow the troglodyte pattern, you exclude whole classes of people without knowing anything about them except for some category they belong to. If your exclusion rules are base don individual behavior, that is a very different thing.

Paul SB said...


Your eye candy comment is a major crux of the problem with modern domestic architecture. But beyond Veblen-style wasteful advertising, even houses built for the lower forms, which are not eye candy at all, are built with the same construction methods. People have an idea of what a house "should" look like and anything that deviates from the norm is "weird" and therefore undesirable.

"If you go into an industry thinking that these guys who have been doing it for decades are doing it all wrong and you will be able to do things much cheaper then 99.9% of the time you are blowing smoke "

I had two energy science classes when I was an undergrad, and both classes (different professors) said essentially the same thing. We have been building house quite stupidly since at least the 1940s. When cheap heating oil became ubiquitous, architects stopped worrying about temperature at all, because we had fancy new technologies that used cheap petrochemicals to handle temperature control. So no, this is not blowing smoke. Both classes showed how incredibly wasteful our conventional building techniques are of what are no longer cheap petrochemicals. Much earlier people paid closer attention to things like the sun and the wind, what are the smart places to put windows and awnings (and where not to) and how to take advantage of the earth itself. What we have been calling passive solar design since the '60s was mostly a rediscovery of construction/design principles that had simply been ignored and forgotten in the era of cheap oil. The Trombe Wall was just a clever combination or thermal mass and the greenhouse effect.

Unfortunately most of these ideas (including super adobe - not quite the same thing as conventional adobe) are great for keeping a building cool but not so good for heating. I've had some ideas for modifications that would adapt better to colder climates. An 9" adobe exterior with a sheetrock interior and a layer of conventional foam or blanket insulation between would retain heat, and some passive solar elements along the lines of the Trombe or Thermosiphoning Air Panels would be able to do the heavy lifting in terms of heating.

On the 3D printed buildings, they save money not through creative accounting (probably) but through reducing labor costs dramatically. A computer-controlled machine that can squirt out layers of concrete like toothpaste will work much faster and require a whole lot fewer laborers than either conventional wood frame or cinderblock construction.

Steven Hammond said...

This is a post I especially like, Dr. Brin!

Lots of reasons to be optimistic and I really enjoyed this article:Human Beings Are Wired For Morality

This quote: "The implications of the testosterone research for all of this negativity is — or should be — clear. If we believe we are stupid, selfish brutes, we risk increasing the very behavior we’re critical of rather than diminishing it. The truth is, we’re social animals. As the research this essay opened with makes clear, our cells literally react positively to cooperation and noble activity. Our bodies want us to get along, and, the news coverage not withstanding, we almost always manage to do so. Very close to 100 percent of us will never kill another human being."

The author also quotes Sapolsky, BTW. ;)

Thisis what Mary Midgley is saying in her writings decrying Dawkins promoting the "selfish gene". This is what I believe as well. BTW, my copy of The Selfish Gene just arrived along with his book The Magic of Reality, so I'll have a revisit to his older work and a look at where he is now.

Paul SB said...


There are a couple reasons I talk about super adobe and other alternatives to our standard systems. One is that working with wood is very slow, expensive and requires a certain level of skill. Nader Khalili invented his system specifically so that ordinary people who have land but lack the specialized skills could build a very robust shell of a home. They would still need specialists for plumbing and electricity, and perhaps help with doors and windows. The system is labor intensive, but the assumption is that the family that owns the land would do the work.

There are other issues, though. Your fireproof wood frame house sounds like an exception more than the rule, and you always have to be concerned that any fireproofing chemicals you are dousing your home in could have carcinogenic consequences for the occupants. Super adobe, OTOH, fires like pottery and becomes stronger. It is also extremely strong and stable. The architect came to California specifically because of the earthquake standards, and he told me that when the county sent out a machine to shake the one of his buildings it broke the machine. I don't know of any of these buildings being hit by a tornado, but I am sure they would hold up better than most. A category 5 tornado can rip asphalt off of roads, but with enough openings to allow pressure to equalize between inside and outside, I would bet even Fujita could not do much to hurt one. Shelling would still do it, though.

The interest in the 3D printer homes mostly comes from the much lower cost and speed of completion. Speed means substantial emergency shelters can be put up, and the homeless can be accommodated more quickly. Lowering the cost puts a home within reach of more people financially, and having a home that you own outright is much greater security, especially for retired people on fixed incomes. No landlords to throw you out on the street when the pharmaceutical companies raise the price of your medicine so high you can't make your rent or pay for your ambulance rides.

Another concern is getting wood out of construction as much as possible. Let the trees keep sucking up the CO2. The phytoplankton won't be doing that job much longer as the oceans become more acidic. There are some good reasons to be rid of conventional wood-framed housing. I used to live in a house that was built in 1964. It was wood-frame covered with chicken wire that was stuccoed over. When the plumbing got old and started to leak, the interior plaster walls began to disintegrate, and we could see that it was only a few millimeters of stucco separating us from the environment. The hardwood floors were destroyed, too. I insisted on replacing them with tile, because the plumbing will no doubt break again.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Paul SB
I agree with the design part
My houses were designed to make use of the sun as much as possible - I have a 3 Kw (1Kw electrical) grounds source heat pump that keeps my 160m2 house toasty AND heats the water

But I heartily disagree with the 3D printing and cost part - the only cost that a 3D printer could save is the actual erection of the house - in other words about two man days for a decent sized house - you will still need all of the wiring, plumbing, and all the rest

In exchange for that two man days you need a lot of capital and much more expensive and lower performing materials

A traditional "stick built" house if designed properly is actually very very hard to beat in terms of cost and efficiency
And as far as CO2 is concerned it simply sequesters a lot of CO2 for the life of the house - 100 years plus

A concrete 3D printed house in comparison will take more to heat and will RELEASE a huge amount of CO2 in its construction

If you want to use trees to "keep sucking up the CO2" then you harvest them and use them while replanting for the future

3D printing is NOT NOT NOT cheaper than normal manufacturing and it's one hell of a lot slower

If you have your 3D printer and all of the associated equipment and you give me the same funding to set up a Pre-Fab factory I will be able to build twice as many much better homes in the same time which will last as long and be much cheaper to heat - not to mention I will release about 10% of the CO2

There are techniques that do have the capability of replacing the old stick built - foamed concrete panels for one
But again the best way to make them is in the factory and then ship them to the site

Kal Kallevig said...

“A 9" adobe exterior with a sheetrock interior and a layer of conventional foam or blanket insulation between would retain heat, and some passive solar elements along the lines of the Trombe wall.”

We are in the process of designing two houses for construction in Montana this summer and have been working with a set of expert energy efficient architects in San Luis Obispo, which is where I got most of the information. They tell me that the latest information shows the double sheetrock with exterior insulation works just as well as some more elaborate schemes from the past. Of course, you also need the right orientation, window size, and glass type.

But the biggest factor is the insulation on the outside of anything that could conduct heat out, such as conventional studs. Probably putting the insulation between the adobe and the rock would also work, but in that case all the adobe is doing is holding up the roof, so it seems a bit excessive.

Duncan, do you need to add any heat or cooling at all? Here in Northern California my friend has a Condo built with these techniques. About 2000 square feet. He has only the narrow dimension facing south but never turns on the forced air heat or the air conditioner. There is a small gas fireplace that he turns on occasionally. I would probably not be quite that Spartan, but it is a very efficient building.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Kal
I'm at Latitude 45-South - so a wee bit further away from the equator
About the same as Minneapolis

I have double glazing (European UPVC) but the windows are still my main heat drain - maybe if I had triple glazing...

But with double glazing I do need heating - air conditioning is not required!

Paul SB said...


I get it,but there are other considerations. Adobe is cheap, being the main one. It doesn't have to be manufactured and shipped. Throughout history it has simply been made on-site. It does take some skill to lay adobe bricks to build a safe structure that won't collapse in an earthquake. That's why Khalili used uncut sandbag rolls. It creates an extremely sturdy structure without the landowner/builder having to learn masonry skills. It is both stronger than conventional adobe and close to foolproof. I would hope that your sheetrock home would have something move sturdy on the outside. What would happen if some teen-aged kid tries to learn to drive and backs into the house? At as little as 5mph those sheetrock panels would be crushed. Adobe, conventional or otherwise, would only suffer cosmetic damage.

And how do they propose getting insulation around studs while the studs still provide structural support?

Duncan, conventional concrete, yes, but there are now concrete formulae that absorb CO2 as they dry, making up for the CO2 released in liming. And unlike wood, concrete won't release its sequestered CO2 when it burns. As fires increase in places where it is getting hotter and drier, wood becomes a less viable system. Of course, another option that is largely forgotten these days is earth sheltering. Earth sheltered buildings work well in almost all environments and are much less susceptible to fire. Flammable interior elements like furniture and textiles that you would have in all buildings will burn, but unless you are using wood for internal partitions this will have little or no effect on the structure of the building itself. The problem with earth sheltering is that moving all that earth either requires special equipment that Joe/Josephine Average can't afford, or huge amounts of labor that has the same limitation. Then, of course, there's the unconventional appearance, which most people just won't do, though I think with the popularity of certain movies you might be able to rebrand them as Hobbit Holes and sell some people on them.

Paul SB said...

I read the article on CRISPR and it sounds like a problem that will not take too long to work around rather than a serious setback. As it said in the article, they just need to tweak their Cas9 sources and find variants that have little exposure in the general public. Another option would be immunosuppression like they do with organ transplants, but in this case the immunosuppression would only have to happen during the treatment itself, not for the rest of a patient's life as with organ transplants.

LarryHart said...

@Tim/Tacitus2 and @raito and whoever else here lives in Wisconsin.

I feel your pain. We're getting rain down here in Chicago, but it looks like you've got a full-grown blizzard going on up north. Hard to believe this is mid-April already.

This has been one of the most miserable springs I ever remember here in the midwest.

LarryHart said...


Then, of course, there's the unconventional appearance, which most people just won't do, though I think with the popularity of certain movies you might be able to rebrand them as Hobbit Holes and sell some people on them.

Over the summer of '77--the same summer that Star Wars first came out and I saw it 9 times--my AP English class was assigned reading for the following fall's class. One book on the list was Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native", a sort of 19th century gothic novel having absolutely no sci-fi or fantasy elements at all. In my mind's eye, though, I couldn't help picturing the hovels the characters lived in as looking like those igloo-ish structures the droids hid from stormtroopers in at Mos Eisley Spaceport. It's a good thing brain imaging didn't exist at that time, or everyone would have known how weird I am.

Tim Wolter said...


Yes, it is an icky spring so far.

Our neighborhood has plenty of folks who watch the weather radar with a mind to being the first one to get their snowblower running and clear the entire block. But with a blizzard like this one must be savvy....I think they have acted too soon and mine shall be the honor of plowing a few more inches on the "second shift".



greg byshenk said...

Carrying over from the last post...

Larry Hart wrote:
The problem is that, although "partially rational" sounds like "almost as good as rational", the potential is there for imperfect information to lead to "rational" decisions which are worse than random coin flips would have been.

Yes, but as you note right there, the problem in such cases is the information not the rationality of the actor. In the various counterexamples, what one normally finds is that the actors were acting "rationally" (for the most part - humans are not perfectly rational) -- given the information they used to decide their actions. (A computer program is about as close to perfectly rational as we can get, yet the GIGO rule applies: if you provide bad information, then the results will be bad as well.)

My point was not to suggest that rational actors always make good decisions (plainly they do not), but that, too often, criticism of economic models falls back to claims of "people aren't rational actors". This seems to me to be both (mostly) false[*] and also not where the problem with standard "econ 101" models really lies.

[*] A note about non-rationality might be in order, particularly given Alfred Differ's comment about intent. Of course our goals and desires may not be rational, and most of them are not (solely or even predominantly) economic. But being a 'rational actor' means that - given one's goals and the information available, one chooses "rationally" (to the best of one's ability).

To use a somewhat non-economic example: the low-information voter who chose Trump because he said he would bring back jobs and make America great again was not necessarily choosing irrationally - even if in fact a Trump presidency would make their life worse. The problem was the lack of other information in making that choice along with the inability (or unwillingness) to expend resources in gathering more information.

LarryHart said...

greg byshaenk:

To use a somewhat non-economic example: the low-information voter who chose Trump because he said he would bring back jobs and make America great again was not necessarily choosing irrationally...

A Trump voter who thought Trump would improve the things he cares about better than those Washington insiders may well be acting rationally on bad information. But what about a Trump voter who took Trump at his word even knowing his track record as a liar, a charlatan, and a business failure? Someone who understood that Trump was just blowing air, but still voted for him because his campaign sounded good? That would be an example of humans acting irrationally, and I assert that that sort of thing happens quite regularly in the economic realm.

Same with Christian values-voters who support Trump. If they support him because his policies and the judges he installs are to the voter's liking, that's an example of acting rationally. If they support him because they take him at his word that "First of all, I'm a great Christian, and I am," despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, then that's more like wishful thinking, which is a different thing.

My point was not to suggest that rational actors always make good decisions (plainly they do not), but that, too often, criticism of economic models falls back to claims of "people aren't rational actors". This seems to me to be both (mostly) false[*] and also not where the problem with standard "econ 101" models really lies.

Much of the misunderstanding comes from the blurry nature of human motivation. If I act to fulfil a short-term goal when it is clearly obvious that doing so will harm me more over time, but I act on the short-term goal anyway, am I acting rationally or not? We tend to judge rationality on the basis of whether intent and outcome are coincident, but what about when outcome and outcome are wildly different, even when they both result from the same action? If "rational" has to mean "Understands the integral of all aspects of the outcome of one's actions over time, and acts in such a way that that total integral is positive", then I'd argue that most people aren't like that.

LarryHart said...

Tim Wolter:

Our neighborhood has plenty of folks who watch the weather radar with a mind to being the first one to get their snowblower running and clear the entire block. But with a blizzard like this one must be savvy....I think they have acted too soon and mine shall be the honor of plowing a few more inches on the "second shift".

Ahh, you're reminding me of my prime of youth in the late 70s where we had several record snowfall years in succession. It felt powerful enough to clear a sidewalk from a foot or so of snow (with manual shovels back then), but there was nothing more satisfying than coming across a driver spinning his wheels (or better still--her wheels) and pushing the car free. The closest I got to superheroing in real life.

As to the timing of shoveling/plowing, yes, huge snowstorms make it a problem in complex mathematics. Normally, I hate to start clearing snow while it's still falling, especially when the same amount you just cleared is almost back again by the time you finish. But when the storm total passes a certain point, it's a problem to clear it all at once, even with mechanical aids. It really does require one to determine the sweet spot where the effort required by repetitions over the same area and the effort required by the depth one has to clear in a single repetition is minimized in total. Almost like the calculus I just alluded to in the "rational actor" discussion above.

Kal Kallevig said...


"And how do they propose getting insulation around studs while the studs still provide structural support?"

That same foam insulation you were putting between the rock and the adobe comes in sheets and will mount perfectly well on the outside of the studs and give way more insulation than bats between the studs, but nothing wrong with doing both.

Your comment about the earth bags makes a lot of sense to me. I watched a show on TV where they built such a house and it was a whole lot of work, but only the guy they hired to keep everything functional had any training; it worked out OK. They hired a crew who plastered the interior. If they had sprayed the outside with foam and put in some/more south facing glass it would have been very efficient. The guy I am working with on the Montana houses was the contractor on this project back in 1972. They are foam only and the students love them. The University wanted to tear them down a couple years ago but there was a student revolt and instead the spun them off into a not-for-profit.

donzelion said...

Dr. Brin: "Cunning is not smart, donzel."
Of course not (that's why I underscored the distinction parenthetically). But when confronting a powerful adversary (and the climate denialists run the most powerful country in the world, and it's military - about as powerful as it gets), one needs smarter tactics to prevail. One is to recognize the difference between the players, then exploit it to divide them against one another. Failure to do so is part of why the denialists have been winning so easily in America for so long and in so many fields.

Petrol companies (sheikhs and otherwise) are somewhat comfortable with science: their livelihoods depend on it to both make the extraction possible, to control costs of extraction (they need to know what sort of platforms can be built, and how likely they'll be wiped out by storms, inundation, flooding, etc.) - and ultimately, science created the value of their product in the first place (before cars, oil use was mostly for lighting and heating - now, cooling, water, and so much more). When they dabble in denialism, it's mostly attacking anything that apportions blame so that they never get stuck with the bill. Yet they never hesitate to believe claims about global warming or other climate change for their own projects.

Oligarchs are different. Some, like the Kochs, straddle both the 'asset owner' caste and the petrol caste - but many are just 'owner/developers.' They fear Congress, since hundreds of rules and regulations like 'federal money will only be spent on housing projects that have floodworks designed to withstand a 100-year storm' are already on the books. At any time, if someone proves '100-year storms will likely occur far more often' - then they lose money on existing schemes. If someone proves increased flooding is not the 'act of God' that they insured against, but a 'foreseeable consequence of man' - then they probably under-insured; their assets and fortunes will become worth a lot less. So they resist vigorously.

The former can - and should - be approached carefully to convert them, redirect them, help them find the light. The latter must be opposed. Anything or anyone who helps unite those groups together feeds their strength and hurts the cause of taking climate science as seriously as it should be taken.

donzelion said...

Kal: Now this is exciting to me -

"The University wanted to tear them down a couple years ago but there was a student revolt and instead the spun them off into a not-for-profit."

Finding ways to encourage that sort of project, to preserve what has been done and expand upon it, rather than tearing down and replacing with more 'economically justified' projects, intrigues me. Kudos to the students, the university...and I am wondering how much/where else such projects could be expanded upon. Specifically, my eye focused here:

"It is one of the only student co-housing communities in the USA,"

Why! The 'tiny house/small house movement' is pretty new, and potentially quite interesting. I recall several efforts that way in Oregon, but have seen little evidence in California. Yet I suspect unless someone knows what they're doing, the outcomes wouldn't be much better than simply a room in a properly built apartment complex in terms of net impact.

LarryHart said...

I've been looking for this on-line for over a year now, and finally found it. The parody song that they played on the Stephanie Miller radio show the very last morning that Barack Obama was still the president, "O-bam-a, sta-aaaaa-aaaaay / Just a little bit longer..."

Had me in tears back on Jan 20, 2017.

Kal Kallevig said...

"I'm at Latitude 45-South - so a wee bit further away from the equator"

Interesting, the Montana location is 45-North. We are planning extra, low (top about 2ft above the floor), windows with narrow black water tanks immediately behind these windows and wood pellet heaters but think these heaters will not get a lot of use. Cooling will be strategic shade and properly placed openable windows oriented to the prevailing winds.

The first couple of years will be very interesting to watch.

Tony Fisk said...

A new approach to 3D imagery that’s different – using lasers to push a speck of dust around to form genuine three-dimensional object views.
That would explain the comms system used by Wakandans.

Duncan, have you considered using argon in the air gap of your double glazing?

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Kal

Are you going triple glazed? - my back of the envelope calculations show that even with double glazing the windows amount to about 50% of the heat loss

And I have not gone overboard with the windows - about 25% of floor area

The floor is my solar thermal mass - 120mm of concrete (yes it's NOT CO2 friendly) on top of 70mm of foam
Polished as a floor finishing

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Tony

I thought about Argon - but I was sceptical about a lot of the claims and

When I was designing the house I contacted the only UPVC window company on South Island and they had some windows that had been ordered and made - but not installed - for houses that were cancelled after the ChCh earthquake
They were selling these at a discount
So I designed my house to use as many of these as I could
As these were NOT Argon filled I decided (probably bad logic here) that I didn't want some windows that could look different - and I passed on the Argon

I have just had another quick look at "the benefits of Argon" - and they are talking absolute bollocks - total bloody nonsense!

And then they claim better insulation - but as they have just claimed bollocks I'm not keen on believing them

Anybody got any actual useful idea of how much you gain and what the mechanism is?

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Paul SB said...


Have you considered paraffin instead of water? Paraffin takes longer to heat but releases the heat more slowly, so you get more warming into the night but not as quick warm up in the morning. I would be tempted to do half and half at that latitude. Also, Montana gets a lot of snow, so vertical components are good there, effectively catching sunlight reflected off the snow. A Trombe Wall has been proven very effective since the 1930s, but to be effective they are going to use up a lot of southern exposure which people usually want for windows. One good way to incorporate this would be on the south side of the garage. An easier way to go would be to add some Thermosiphoning Air Panels on the south facade where you don't have windows. They are easy to make and inexpensive, and with the shell you are using would be very easy to install.

Another thought I had for the 3D printed building would be to double-layer the concrete shell and have the printer squirt polyurethane foam in the space between.

Paul SB said...


I live not too far from a small college that uses a mobile home park for student housing - something I have never seen before. I haven't seen how many people they cram into the things, so it may or may not give the students more living space than your typical dorm. When my daughter started out in college they made her stay the night in one of the dorms - even though she had no intention of moving into one - and we got to see just how tiny a living space they had. It was basically a small bedroom with two built-in beds, and still massively over-priced. I like your tiny houses idea. Something like that tiny Russian printed house would be perfect for a single college student, and allow them to at least have privacy. If I lived in a typical dorm I would probably end up killing myself having to listen to the roommates' TV. The one issue with the small houses idea is that there are a lot of colleges in places where land is at a premium and you have to build up to accommodate the number of students.

Another plus about the tiny houses, though, is that it would discourage frat parties, which need big buildings with many rooms where people can break off into smaller groups for hazing rituals, sexual assault and illicit drug use. If idiots have to go outdoors to another house to mess around they are less likely to do so, especially in inclement weather.

LarryHart said...

A NY Times piece about bitcoin that kinda confirms what I already thought about trying to use bitcoin as currency...

And like an obsessive day trader, I would check my digital wallet and watch as the value went up and down by a few cents every few minutes.

It was fun, until I got hungry.

I had searched for restaurants and grocery stores using Coinmap, the Blockchain Wallet and filters on Yelp, but almost none took Bitcoin, and most said they never had.

“No one is really using it the way it’s supposed to be used, as a currency,” said Dan Sim, who accepts Bitcoin at his Lean Crust pizza shop in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Circa 2013, he said, he’d process dozens of Bitcoin purchases a week, but as the currency became more valuable and volatile, that’s dropped to zero. “People don’t want to part with their Bitcoin,” he said.

I couldn’t find anyone to sell me less than $200 worth of socks or a gym that accepted Bitcoin. By the time lunch rolled around on Day 2, I was ready to throw in the towel.

Robert said...


Great to see you know about John Boyd! And the title you linked to was new to me. Thanks!

Bob Pfeiffer.

occam's comic said...

the reason Argon is used as the gas between the window panes is because it is a mono-atomic gas. That means (unlike N2, or O2, or H2O) it can not store any kinetic energy in rotation or any vibrational mode. All of the kinetic energy is in the translational mode. That means less energy can be transferred from the hot window pane to the cold window pane by argon gas compared to the same window filled with normal air.

The problem with argon filled windows is the argon leaks out over time.

Kal Kallevig said...


I will bring up the paraffin idea, but these are 1,000 sq. ft. houses and relatively easy to heat and cool.

There are a lot of potential ways to use the sun effectively, but the most important is thinking about it in the first place. A house built in the shade is a terrible idea, except maybe in the tropics. And orientation and windows are almost as important. Deed restrictions to protect solar access are important too.

donzelion said...

Paul SB: "It was basically a small bedroom with two built-in beds, and still massively over-priced."
Overpriced? Sounds like college in general.

"I like your tiny houses idea."
Not my idea at all. I was referring to UC Davis's experiment and following Kal's link, and was curious why others hadn't followed suit. Tiny homes is an oldish idea that's become somewhat trendy - here's a reasonable introduction - - and more recently - this one caught me eye -

Thinking it over, this sort of home would be significantly more photogenic than tents in downtown LA. Just having a working bathroom would go a long ways toward mitigating tensions.

"The one issue with the small houses idea is that there are a lot of colleges in places where land is at a premium and you have to build up to accommodate the number of students."
Perhaps some rural campuses (like UC Davis itself) could conduct such experiments, while urban ones couldn't. I am curious why they haven't. Prima facie, the economic imperatives at work for a lot of the folks setting up 'tiny homes' appear to me to be comparable with college dorm requirements.

My sister bought a trailer in a trailer park outside Eureka, CA to provide housing during her college years at Humboldt - sort of a similar idea. Counting purchase and resale, she figured it came out to about 50% or less than the cost of the dorms, and about 30% less than an apartment with room-mates. I suspect many people look askance at trailer park residents - even a few who otherwise pretend to like Thoreau's Walden...

occam's comic said...

Here is a little something to help you (all)think a bit more clearly about biological information processing from Dr. Richard Jones

"The unit of biological information processing is the molecule

Is there any general principle that underlies biological information processing, in the brain and elsewhere, that would help us understand what ionic conduction, synaptic response, learning and so on have in common? I believe there is – underlying all these phenomena are processes of macromolecular shape change in response to a changing local environment. Ion channel proteins change shape in response to the electric field across the membrane, opening or closing pores; at the synapse shape-changing proteins respond to electrical changes to trigger the bursting open of synaptic vesicles to release the neurotransmitters, which themselves bind to protein receptors to transmit their signal, and complicated sequences of protein shape changes underlie the signalling networks that strengthen and weaken synaptic responses to make memory, remodelling the connections between neurons.

This emphasises that the fundamental unit of biological information processing is not the neuron or the synapse, it’s the molecule. Dennis Bray, in an important 1995 paper ”Protein molecules as computational elements in living cells”, pointed out that a protein molecule can act as a logic gate through the process of allostery – its catalytic activity is modified by the presence or absence of bound chemicals. In this chemical version of logic, the inputs are the presence or absence of certain small molecules, and the outputs are the molecules that the protein produces, in the presence of the right input chemicals, by catalysis. As these output chemicals can themselves be the inputs to other protein logic gates, complex computational networks linking the inputs and outputs of many different logic gates can be built up. The ultimate inputs of these circuits will be environmental cues – the presence or absence of chemicals or other environmental triggers detected by molecular sensors at the surface of the cells. The ultimate outputs can be short-term – to activate a molecular motor so that a cell swims towards a food source or away from a toxin. Or they can be long term, in activating and deactivating different genes so that the cell builds different structures for itself, or even changes the entire direction of its development. "

Deuxglass said...

I have been following the work and ideas of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff on the role of quantum processes in Life for many years now. I have watched Dr. Hameroff’s ideas starting out as being described as the work of a crank and who now is finally being vindicated as having discovered a mechanism by which quantum computation can occur within the cell and those quantum processes are responsible for that greatest mystery of all which is Consciousness. We are getting more and more research into this area and they are finding more and more ways that living organisms use quantum processes. My feeling is that we will be finding that Life in general uses quantum processes all the way through.

My first two diplomas are in Microbiology and Virology and having studied and experimented on these little being for several years I can say that nothing I have seen yet in AI impresses me. So it can win at Go or drive a car as long as everything goes exactly right. Can it also find its own energy, heal itself, reproduce, adapt to radically new situations while expending a ridiculously small amount of energy to do all that? No it can’t. All it can do is play Go. Its logistics tail is long and expensive. To be brief, it is energy and resource-wasteful to the extreme compared to anything alive. I wonder if we can take an amoeba or a paramecium and try to calculate its total computing power. It does everything we do to survive and multiply. I won’t give you a list of what it does, that would take books, but if it could use all its computing power to do one thing and not have to do anything else, then I would bet that it could say, drive a car or easily take care of your music and film library.

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,

By the way, have you chosen the winner of the writing contest about Elon Musk's Mars shot? I have been away a while.

David Brin said...


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Juan Carlos Marvizon said...

Sorry, but the idea that consciousness is somehow encoded in the microfilaments IS laughable. Sometimes scientists should stay in their fields of expertise.

Of course that there are quantum effects in neurons. This has been known for decades. The most remarkable is to do single-channel patch-clamp recordings. This consists in using a glass micropipette with a tiny tip to grab a small portion of the membrane of a neuron, so that a single neurotransmitter receptor or ion channel is inside the opening of the micropipette. This way you can record changes in ionic currents when the ion channel opens and closes. Now, the ion channel is a single protein molecule, so the opening and closing follows the statistical random behavior predicted by quantum mechanics.

What is so special about microtubules to make them the seat of consciousness? Why not NMDA receptors, GABA receptors or TRPV1 channels? They are far cooler molecules than microfilaments, which are just the neuron skeleton. This is akin to say that we think with our bones and not with our brains. NMDA receptors, for example, mediate synaptic plasticity, which is the cellular basis of memory and learning and hence much closer to consciousness than microfilaments. But the basic problem with this idea is the reductionist fallacy: trying to explain a phenomenon that exists at a very high level of complexity (the whole human brain) with a phenomenon that occurs at a much simpler level.

Juan Carlos Marvizon said...

Chiming in on CRISPR-Cas9... There is no danger of an immune reaction because the altered genes will be packaged inside adenovirus (AAV) and not a bacteria like Staphylococcus. AAVs are routinely used in the lab to put genes inside mouse neurons. We do this in our lab. There is no immune response. CRISPR-Cas9 is just the technique to modify the genes. The techniques to watch for their applicability to humans are DREADD and optogenetics. They consist in creating artificial neurotransmitter receptors that can then be activated by innocuous substances (DREADD) or by light (optogenetics). They allow to manipulate the functioning of the brain with an incredible precision. Not only we can activate a precise brain area (the amygdala or the nucleus accumbens, for example), but specific neuronal populations inside those brain areas (the dopaminergic neurons, for example). You could eliminate stress responses by inhibiting the CRF-releasing neurons in the amygdala. This has already been done in mice.

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