Monday, September 19, 2005

A Call for Help From Experts/Sci Fi Fans... (plus misc items)

I am helping the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction set up an online Science Fiction Resource Center, including the following projects:

* Helping authors and fans to set up tests for the Accelerated Reader Program that currently controls the reading choices of tens of millions of American school kids. AR lists in most states are currently profoundly bigoted against science fiction.

* A new Speaker’s Bureau for Science Fiction Authors and Futurists that will offer a web site where anyone from a local librarian to a Fortune 500 CEO might search for speakers/consultants who have something to say about tomorrow. The database (any experts?) will be sortable by distance from the venue (by zip code), topic, range of speaker’s fee (adjusted for travel) and some other factors. This should have existed during the run up to 2000. Experts on database management, or people with serious experience in public relations, would be welcome to help out.

* A new accredited course for teachers, educating them about SF and how it might help to reach students. (I was once quite active in this. I formerly sponsored a contest aimed at using new tools - and science fiction - to benefit both teachers and kids. The resource list (and concept) are still useful!

*See a collection of resources for Teaching Science Fiction
as well as Using Science Fiction to Teach Science.

Those who are interested in the general topic mixing Science Fiction and Education might consider joining the Reading for the Future discussion group. (Or telling your SF-enthusiast teacher pals.)

Sometimes the topic also comes up on the “Brin-L” discussion list.

==Finally, some misc items==

A massive global increase in the number of strong hurricanes over the past 35 years is being blamed on global warming, by the most detailed study yet.   The US scientists warn that Katrina-strength hurricanes could become the norm. Worldwide since the 1970s, there has been a near doubling in the number of Category 4 and 5 storms – the strength that saw Hurricane Katrina do such damage to the US Gulf coastline late in August 2005. Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, says the trend is global, has lasted over several decades and is connected to a steady worldwide increase in tropical sea temperatures. Because of all these factors, it is unlikely to be due to any known natural fluctuations in climate such as El NiƱo, the North Atlantic Oscillation or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Now here’s a creepy item that should go in a novel. UC Berkeley researchers were able to take several 10-minute sound recordings of users typing at a keyboard, feed the audio into a computer, and use an algorithm to recover up to 96 percent of the characters entered. The researchers used spectrum analysis, statistical learning theory, spelling and grammar checks, and learning trials to obtain...

And now, under the category of “how much noise would this have caused, if it happened under Clinton?” Largest Theft in History: $1 Billion Missing in Iraq .The money missing from all ministries under the interim Iraqi government appointed by the US in June 2004 may turn out to be close to $2bn. Of a military procurement budget of $1.3bn, some $200m may have been spent on usable equipment, though this is a charitable view, say officials.

As GOP senator Everett Dirksen once said (back when “conservatives” believed in fiscal responsibility): “A billion here, a billion there. Pretty soon, you’re talking about real money!”


Ben Tilly said...

The hurricane article is interesting, and I consider it far more convincing than the previous two which you see cited from this summer.

The first article is about overall intensity changing in the last century. But our ability to precisely measure hurricanes has changed drastically in that time period, and I would not want to trust estimates of, say, precipitation from the 20s. (A time period in which we had little advance warning of hurricanes, had trouble figuring out where it hit, and measurements of rain were haphazard.)

The second article sounds much more precise, "double the destructive power", but is questionable. First of all if you read the article in full, you find that they modified their raw data from the 50s and 60s in a way that other experts doubt was justified. If you don't modify the raw data, there is no increase in destructive power. A more modest modification would result in a more modest increase in destructive power. Secondly they come up with impressive figures which have no theoretical basis - existing computer models only predict a 10% increase in power, not 100%. These two combine to cast doubts on whether the figures are real, or are just an artifact of how data was processed.

By contrast this study uses what appears to be a consistent data gathering methodology over a long-term sample. That eliminates a lot of questions about data gathering and analysis, and makes the final results much more convincing to me.

Rob Perkins said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rob Perkins said...

Is this data:

...accurate or spun somehow? And if so, how? Is it a too-simple distillation of the issue, or a refutation of the idea that global warming has caused more and harsher hurricanes? (The claim is that the graphs come from NOAA data)

'course, NOAA data doesn't include the rest of the world, and is probably dismissable because of its sample size.

HOWEVER... I still think healthy CITOKATE is warranted. True, that ocean temperatures have gone up half a degree since 1970. Absolutely stipulated, as a plain bald irrefutable fact.

AND... the science appears very sound. Higher-temp means higher energy. You can do that kind of experimentation in your kitchen.

SO... Does a 0.5C delta *explain* a more intense storm? (IOW, how much *more* energy is there in that half-degree-per-square-foot-per-hour etc etc?) Do Cat-4 hurricanes fail to form when ocean temperatures are lower than x degrees C? Do they always form when they're higher than y degrees C?

How accurate are the models?

Mostly I'm geeking out a little about it, asking for details etc. Energy transfer equations are part of my company's stock in trade, if you will, though we deal usually only with energy loss in liquids.

One of my thoughts dovetails with the assumption that manmade emissions cause an increase in the greenhouse effect: Haven't emissions levels in the U.S. gone *down* in the last 35 years? We take a rap for being the world's polluter, but our efforts in the last decades to reduce emissions count for something, don't they?

Or have they been offset by the increase in emissions by nations such as India and China (I learn third-hand, for example, that Bangalore is no longer a nice place to breathe in, and that just in the last few years. True?)

Anonymous said...

Question I am unqualified to answer...

Is the .5 degree temperature climb uniform, as in all over the world, or is it going up 5 degrees in one place and not at all in another and actually dropping in a third?


NoOne said...

According to Rob Perkins

Or have they been offset by the increase in emissions by nations such as India and China (I learn third-hand, for example, that Bangalore is no longer a nice place to breathe in, and that just in the last few years. True?)

I'm from Bangalore. While I don't have any numbers, it definitely feels like Bangalore has rapidly deteriorated in the last five years along many dimensions - air quality, heat, dust, traffic, roads and crowds to name a few.

David Brin said...

Rob, you are conflating air quality and breathability... which has definitely improved in cities like Los Angeles (I grew up in constant pain from burning smog) because of pollution laws...

...with carbon emissions, which are the output of burning fossil fuel as cleanly as possible. If you improve both automobiles and power plants to remove unburnt haydrocarbons and sulfur compounds and reduce ozone-creation, etc. you do reduce the direct devastation of smog and acid rain. Proof that environmental laws were -all told - wondrously good things and not the hippie disasters foretold by doomy reactionaries.

But none of these efforts stop cars and power plants from spewing CO2, a gas which (at present concentrations) is non-toxic, but that builds up a greenhouse layer on a planet that skates the inner-edge of Sol's life-sustaining orbital zone.

This astronomical fact is never mentioned in any Global Warming discussions. But it is crucial. Earth's Gaia balance has been struck at a point on the atmospheric transparency curve that is at the extreme edge. Probably 99% of the life worlds in the galaxy have MORE CO2 than we do, because that orbit at more normal parts of the Continuously Habitable Zone. CHZ

In other words, we are a HOT water world. We cannot afford much more CO2 that a sliver, a trace, without starting to overheat. We have very little slack... and even that will go away in just a QUARTER of a billion years, as the sun gets hotter and its CHZ migrates outward.

(I do believe I am the first to discuss this in this way. It has huge implications for the Fermi Paradox, by the way.)

Bora Zivkovic said...

Back to sci-fi and education. I understand that most of the URLs you provide are concerned with primary education, but I am aware of several people who use SF to teach biology in college. Dosn't Joan Slonczewski do that?

David Brin said...

Here's a few links that help tie in to the education
and science fiction concept: (The sci fi museum in Seattle) (This is the
home of the SF Projects coordinator, Thomas Seay, who is gathering a list of potential
volunteer/helpers. As I mentioned. Please copy my list of needs and ask around!)

Science Fiction helps the world? I formerly sposored
a contest aimed at using new tools - and science
fiction - to benefit both teachers and kids. The
resource list (and concept) are still useful! See: for details. (And yes, Joan S was one of my judges for that contest. She's great!)

I have become somewhat more inactive, of late, though
still very interested. I especially wish I could get
the "EON" project rolling. Because it could - all by itself - trigger
dozens of other worthy endeavors.

I know a couple of billionaires, but have so far been unpersuasive. Actually, a mere millionaire could get EOn started... and have loads of fun meeting the world's greatest minds, while possibly sparking a dozen world-transforming projects.


Anonymous said...

Earth has been much hotter than it is now in the past and life has survived. Since we snowballed a couple times, it seems that we are probably right around the optimal distance from the sun, or if anything, a bit far. Yes I know optimal distance changes with solar output.
I would love to see a long article on David's attempts to convince wealthy donors to start EON and on what he has learned from them.

David Brin said...

Few realize how rapidly solar output is changing. The Snowball Earth happened way back when the proper Gaia balance wanted a much thicker CO2 layer and life had yanked nearly all of it away, bringing on a deep chill.

As for EON, well, I have limited time. I have sunk a book's worth of time creativity into these "world-changing"efforts, with little to show for it so far. Bummed.

Anonymous said...

Well, changing the world is probably going to be both harder and more worth while than writing a book. Doesn't mean its impossible. Good luck, but please share notes so that we would be world changers can grow in our collective wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Could you document that quarter billion year
figure? How much has solar output increased since
the last 'snowball earth' phase?


Anonymous said...


The temperature increase is highly variable, with the poles experiencing much more of the warming than in other areas. Scientific American had a nice article on this with maps of the Earth showing the places that were cooler and warmer at different seasons. I can't find it online for you though.


I think the relationship between global warming and hurricains is still tenetive. It seems that what you need for a nasty storm is a large temperature difference to drive it, not just absolute temperature (i.e. Jupiter's Red Spot as an extreme example!) See this Scientific American article for a more cautious interpretation. (Though I think they are missing the obvious point I made about about temperature difference...but I could be wrong!)

Tony Fisk said...

Quoth DB:
We have very little slack... and even that will go away in just a QUARTER of a billion years, as the sun gets hotter and its CHZ migrates outward.

I did a bit of (very) idle speculation on this issue a while back (see here), mulling on how effective a large space tether attached to the moon would be in hoisted our belongings a little further out.

...I assumed a *billion* years, though.
It is, indeed, later than we thought!!

(@Stefan, is this a good enough reason for NASA to go to the Moon? Maybe not if it's going to be at the expense of earth satellites, which is one rumour I heard a little while ago ;-)

On matters of more immediate import, yet another interesting worldchanging discussion (Disasters and Governance). This one talks about citizen empowerment in the wake of tsunamis and hurricanes, and speculates on how disasters may be a driving force. (a little *too* much Extreme Democracy!!)

Also, New Scientist has an article on philanthropy. Haven't yet checked whether EON is mentioned, though.

Rob Perkins said...


I specifically asked about emissions, and gave Bangalore as an example; if their dirty emissions are up, then it stands to reason that *total* emissions are also up. Which means that in addition to the toxins, CO2 is also up.

So my question still stands, on two counts: One, I can't imagine that U.S. emissions overall haven't decreased per joule generated; we are more efficient at generating energy (with one notable and important exception) for our uses than 40 years ago, neh?

The important exception is, of course, auto emissions. When I hear that GM radio commercial bragging about the models of vehicles above what? 30 mpg highway? I scream at the radio, "YOU DOLTS! YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN TO 45 MPG OR BETTER BY NOW!!!!"

Ahem. OK. I only did that once. :-)

The second factor I'm thinking of is that China and India, and certain parts of Africa, are industrializing, joining us in emitting CO2 and other byproducts. But isn't this happening at the same time that Eastern Europe and Russia are bringing cleaner emissions technologies online than the soft-coal plants of the 80's? (Mourn for the Erzgebirge...)

I don't know what the Fermi Paradox is. And I have to go help my daughter with Greatest Common Multipliers now. Her homework is due tomorrow.

Rob Perkins said...

EON sounds like a massively good idea...

Re hurricane energies: Is there surface temperature trend data for the places where hurricanes build and grow, showing that the temperature in those regions is higher today than in the past?

Also, someone I heard today (can't remember exactly, but I had a long drive and was switching through XM radio stations) mentioned that high storm magnitudes and really bad weather plagued the 30's. Has anyone compared the time periods for hurricane strength worldwide for the last 75 years, and compared that to the last 35, in addition to the total precipitation data Ben Tilly said was dubious over all that time?

In other words, I'm skeptical of the data because the data only covers 35 years, which is not enough time to plot weather trends on this scale. And the normal correlation/causation-fallacy CITOKATE also applies.

Tony Fisk said...

The Fermi paradox refers to the lack of success in SETI to date, despite all expectations to the contrary. (prompting Enrico Fermi to remark 'where is everybody?'). The 'paradox' probably arises from optimistic estimates in the Drake equation, rather than large, crystalline spheres...

On climate change, hurricane energies, and frequencies.
According to the PEW Center, while this year is shaping up as the worst on record for hurricanes, (already exceeding last year), it does note that this is a 'peak' period (previous peaks being the 30's and 60's). It would be interesting to compare those peaks.

One other point of interest/concern (again from PEW):
Higher ocean temperatures may also influence the tracks of hurricanes, increasing the likelihood of hurricanes tracking through the Caribbean or making landfall on the U.S. east coast. Although his phenomenon is not very well understood, a track of unusually deep and warm water appears to have led Katrina directly to the Gulf Coast when it struck Louisiana and Mississippi.

Meanhile... it looks like Rita's taking aim at Houston!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve.
I got off my lazy butt and sent a Email to my Dear Old Dad (who has a Earth Science Degree) and he scanned and emailed a article from Scientific American (possibly the one you mentioned) to me. From what I gathered... The poles are heating up a lot, the equator very little. Things are *changing*, and without knowing all the variables we don't know the final results.
HawkerHurricane aka HH (for short)

Rob Perkins said...

Oh, I like the crystal spheres explanation much, much more than I like the Drake equation. Both are precisely equivalent in provability.

Not remembering Fermi's Paradox must come from the fact that it's... not a paradox. It's just a question. It's a *good question*, though.

Thanks for the Pew links. It's my question, really, how this corresponds to the previous peaks. A nice comparison could normalize some of the stuff I've been hearing.

I'm watching Rita this morning, and it's interesting that local authorities appear to be behaving about the same as Ray Nagin did in advance of Katrina; the announcements are similar in nature: "Get out, mandatory, no services available afterwards."

It also appears that we're seeing more awareness at the State and Federal levels, though. Florida NatGuard talking about being ready to assist Texas, as though the request had already come through, etc...

David Brin said...

Re the Fermi Paradox, see my "classic" papers. e.g. Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, fall1983, v.24, pp283-309 Also see: Am.J.Physics Jan89 -Resource Letter on Extraterrestrial Civilization. (Downloadable at or

Everybody has an opinion. I am among the few to reserve judgement and CATALOG possible explanations, rather than choosing one and sticking by it.

The SETI cult revolves around just one theory... total alien altruism. But this flies against the utter silence they've found so far. Hence, one Russian radio guy now says they are altruistic COWARDS!

Really. Meanwhile, all sorts of commercial ventures are now deliberately broadcasting into deep space.... Yooho! Beasties! Come and eat us!

(Me beastie. Me do that thing.)

Anonymous said...

I definitely share Dr. Brin's doubts about the wisdom of beaming messages out into space, but it seems to me that (given plausible advances in detection and signal-processing technologies) our radio transmissions, including radar, will probably alert any technologically advanced aliens within a reasonable radius to our presence. Actually decoding the _content_ of the broadcasts would be much more difficult, of course, but the mere existence of radio waves of intelligent origin would be a very important clue.

I have heard arguments that this is incorrect, and that our radio waves would not be detectable very far away, but I have so far not found any treatment of the topic that is especially convincing either way.

Anonymous said...

"The SETI cult revolves around just one theory... total alien altruism."

I go for the "potential trade partners" argument myself.