Thursday, November 03, 2005

More items! Personal, science, philanthropy...

1. A personal milestone of sorts. Almost exactly 100 years ago, my grandfather was fighting at the horrific Battle of Mukden (called one of the worst battles in human history) during the Russo-Japanese War. I'm told he was a draftee in the Czar's army... though I've always had this affinity for Japanese culture (and I am to be guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention, in Yokohama, Japan in 2007). So who knows? Maybe he was on the other side. In any event, that shows just what slow breeders we are in my family. Sol Brin. My grandfather. Yeesh.

(It's through him that the trail to a common ancestor with Google's Sergey gets tantalyzingly close. A rare name in the same part of Lithuania/Poland/Russia...)

2. Speaking of primitive war conditions, you'll be hearing a lot of scary tales about how we are due for a Bird Flu Pandemic. While this cannot be excluded and research should be funded with all deliberate care, there are many reasons to believe that much of the "pandemic" talk is salesmanship by groups wanting emergency-driven contracts. Above all, comparisons with 1918 are absurd. That pandemic incubated in WWI trenches, about the worst human habitations ever created, among men debilitated by stress and cold and damp, and who started out much less healthy than the average person is today. Even when the disease reached home (wreaking real devastation), it hit a population crowded into much smaller and more closely packed living conditions and especially hurt the poor. (Today's poor live very differently, at least in the States.)

Another factor, which will pull some of the strength out of any new pandemic, is even more basic than starting health: antibiotics. The 1918 pandemic virus was similar to the more standard influenza virus in that the majority of those who perished died not from the primary attack of the flu but from secondary infections -- typically bacteria or fungal -- that triggered pneumonia. While antibiotics are hardly a silver bullet and they are useless against viruses, they raise the simple possibility of treatment for bacterial or fungal illnesses.

In any event, talk of an "imminent" pandemic is just silly. We have no way of predicting when the necessary mutations will occur, allowing human-to-human spread.... something as yet not seen in the H5N1 virus. But certainly it seems no more likely this year than during any of the last six. What will REALLY be worrisome is when, on crowded Asian farms, this virus spreads from birds to pigs. At that point, the threat will become very scary.

3. A Foresight Institute Headline: Sunny Future for Nanocrystal Solar Cells News source: ScienceDaily ...Imagine a future in which the rooftops of residential homes and commercial buildings can be laminated with inexpensive, ultra-thin films of nano-sized semiconductors that will efficiently convert sunlight into electrical power and provide virtually all of our electricity needs. This future is a step closer to being realized, thanks to a scientific milestone achieved at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

"We obviously still have a long way to go in terms of energy conversion efficiency," said Ilan Gur, a researcher in Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division and fourth-year graduate student in UC Berkeley's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, "but our dual nanocrystal solar cells are ultra-thin and solution-processed, which means they retain the cost-reduction potential that has made organic cells so attractive vis-a-vis their conventional semiconductor counterparts."
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

4. Finally, Can the beat of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas? Can one little idea make a big difference in the lives of thousands of people?

Says Max More: "I’m pleased to announce the launch of the Wingbeat Project—a social entrepreneurship venture designed to gather the best ideas for positive social change and share them with the world.

"Here’s how it works: each month, the Wingbeat Project will announce a new topic or social problem. Visitors will be invited to submit ideas for addressing the social problem, along with a contribution that helps us keep going in our grassroots efforts. At the end of each month, we will choose a winner from the best ideas, and the winner will receive a cash award."

There are a few overlaps, conceptual, with my EON Project. Still, look this up at:


Tony Fisk said...

What concerns me is that 'avian' flu is routinely portrayed as infecting an entire order of species (think that's the term: my taxonomy was never good). Does it really, or is it currently just hens, ducks and geese?

No reports on outbreaks in swine yet

Meantime, Fluwiki has some pragmatic measures for we of the common herd to follow.

FWIW, the warning level is currently 3: no immediate threat of a pandemic, but watch this space.

Rob Perkins said...

My brother is a dentist, who tells me he had to study viruses in medschool alongside all the other doctors etc . He tells me that most of us have no more to worry about from Avian Flu than from any flu; that is, the healthiest among us will suffer for a week or so and be OK, immune to the strain thereafter.

Keep your hands washed and get light exercise. :-)

Anonymous said...

I thought Max Borders started the Wingbeat project, not Max More...

Not that it doesn't sound like something Max More would be into as well...

Anonymous said...

I think that the August 5th article here
posits a "principle of uniformity" in light of which
you should reconsider your "critique of
libertairanism" essay.

David Brin said...

I find this somewhat bizarre. The brief Wilkinson snippet is uninformative and vague and I cannot even tell what point you are trying to make.

Yes! It was Max Borders. Sorry. Blogs encourage rapid typing. I am already in trouble esewhere for my comments about the bad effects of Gardner Dozois's editorial tenure at Asimov's SF Magazine. Informal and semi-private... and parenthetical!... and without a scintillia of ad hominem disparagement, speaking only to the effects that his ACTIONS have had... that brief remark has nevertheless served as an excuse for another slander-brin-fest in other locales.

My allegation, that Dozois was a leading force in turning SF toward anti-futurism and romanticism, is not without tangible support. See a devastating statistical indictment at:

Nevertheless,that era is now behind us at last. We can stop tapping the wpinning of Isaac's body for electricity and move on.

I repeat my suggestion that a modernist sf fan out there ought to subscribe to ANALOG at some cheap rate, if only as a vote of support. Personally I'd prefer a magazine that tries to offer BOTH artistry and assertively pro-future stories. Maybe Astounding Online will do that.

Anonymous said...

As the author of the article points out, the stories in Asimov's under Dozois weren't anything that his child would want to read.

Yet, at the same time, the sci-fi that interests me now (at 23) isn't the same that did when I was 10. When I was 10 (and in my preteens in general), I was obsessed with space. Especially, but not only, Star Trek; Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy distracted me for awhile (especially after LIFE magazine did a cover story on terraforming Mars, "Our Next Home"), and I went on a Heinlein kick for awhile.

My teen years hit, and suddenly I wasn't particularly interested in space anymore; especially with manned space flight going nowhere fast. I really didn't get back into Sci-fi until I was out of high school... then it was Neil Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, and yes, David Brin, who captured my attention. The stories listed in the article wouldn't have appealed to the 13 year old me, but a decade later, they all sound quite interesting.

Now that I'm in the working world, out of school and puting in my 40+ hours a week (grinding business reports in a sweatshop for unemployable liberal arts majors), I'm starting to understand this loathing for high-tech society. When it was all raves and computer games, I didn't get it... now that I stare at a screen all day for $10 an hour, it's starting to make sense.

And there are other reasons for loathing of the future- peak oil (with no feasible way out in site) being a major one. The fact that space colonization, which was going to be our salvation from resource shortfalls and overpopulation, has turned out to be a dead letter (at least for the next few decades- and peak oil might make that few decades into forever)... that the promised "longevity pills" of the 70's futurists didn't happen... that nuclear fusion hasn't saved us from having to burn tons and tons of coal... that the internet bubble burst, turning numerous young code-grinders out onto the overpriced streets of cities througout the Pacific Northwest... that rather than the end of the cold war ushering in an era of global unity, it began one of fragmentation (mostly because America didn't get a leader in the 90's who was willing to disestablish the UN and start something better and more relevant, and now we've squandered the necessary clout)...

Yeah, I'd say there are plenty of reasons for loathing.

David Brin said...

Well it would be, if the planet you describe were more than 50% like this one. Some of the "facts" you describe sound... well...sciencefictional.

But go ahead and argue for them! That's what modernism should be about. (Internationalist Bill Clinton seemed, well, different than you describe.)

What your "loathing" does not address is the fundamental that this blog is about.

Thought experiment time! Even if this world became hell, ruled by Satan himself, there would be a break between those of us who are pragmatic problem solvers, sho say - "starting with this hand, what can we do NOW, using tools of both right and left, to make things better"...

...and those who wallow in the endorphin high of whining-despair, moaning and complaining, cynically calling the game "over."

In fact, this would be true - there would be exactly the same personality divide - if things were vastly BETTER than they are now! Again, it is a matter of personality, completely independent of whether the world has gone to hell or not.

And here's the crux. The cynical personality - the one that sneers at ambition - took over the core SF magazine, throughout the nineties and to this day. (Hence the whir of asimov, spinning in his grave.)

Propagandizing nostalgia and hopelessness.

Oh, sure, the nostalgists will pose this situation simplistically. They will offer you a false dichotomy. (It is what romantics do! See my next major posting.)

The dichotomy? "You must choose! EITHER cynical and depressing but artistic and realistically grownup fiction... OR else zippy, pinheaded, adolescent, wowzer-engineering, happy-ending space opera! Quick! Pick just one and live with it FOREVER!!!

Um... how about no way? (Hint, I don't write either variety of crap.)

Dig it. It isn't SPACE that Dozois eschewed for 20 years. It is the FUTURE. The whole notion of gedankenexperiment and dealing assertively with potential change. The fundamentally sfnal modernist agenda of problem solving. Or at least problem-recognition.

A a belief that improvement is plausible, worth trying... even if you tragically fail.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that the avian flu threat is hyped (QUICK Karl, I need another distraction!) it is different than the 1918 flu. It is much more lethal (50% so far, though the estimate is based on a small sample size) and people die from massive viral destruction of their lung tissue (or even brain), so antibiotics will be only occassionally affected. I think a real threat is that when there is an outbreak (whenever that is) the developed counties will hoard their antivirals for their citizens, thus leading to a pandemic that could have been prevented by immideately sending hardware, medicine, and doctors to the poor countries where it starts.

To learn more about both sides, see an ongoing online battle on whether the avian flu presents a danger here at Scientific American.

@tony: If I recall correctly, avian flu has been found in migrating birds in Europe. The danger is if they can be carriers but don't sicken enough to stop migrating.

@rob: This flu seems to kill the young and healthy preferentially - perhaps because they are more likely to be exposed long enough to catch it? But the best defence for those in low-contact jobs is washing your hands.

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of DB's analysis of the Avian Flue scare. But . . .

" . . . it hit a population crowded into much smaller and more closely packed living conditions and especially hurt the poor. (Today's poor live very differently, at least in the States.)"

EXCEPT . . . for recently arrived illegal immigrants, many of whom are packed into shared apartments and have little in the way of medical resources. If the pandemic hits here, it may effect these populations badly.