Friday, July 02, 2010

Podcasts, birthdays, science(!) & looking back at authority

I participated in an episode of NPR’s show “This American Life” - the most popular radio and podcast program in the US - concerning the question of beaming out messages to aliens.  If you don’t know of tis show, you should, it is entertaining and creative, every week.

Ray Bradbury turns 90 YEARS OLD on August 22, and the Planetary Society is collecting greetings from well wishers around the world to put on a giant card (and DVD).  Here is the personal message that I sent Ray, as a member of the board of the Planetary Society:

“Ray, you are a marvel.  In a world where cynics too-often have the upper hand, you taught so many of us to be assertive, even AGGRESSIVE champions of hope, optimism and ambition.    You showed us that humanity can-do all that needs doing!  We can do it all with joy and boldness and a sense of adventure.  And love.

    --  your fellow dreamer (and LA High School alumnus) David Brin”


This year's winner of the annual Bulwer-Lyton (bad) writing contest: Molly Ringle of Seattle, for the following ”For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss -- a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil.”  And see many others!

And from the ridiculous to the sublime -- a long list, plus testimonials, at of my appearances as a public speaker.

Patrick Farley has just posted the first 4 pages of the new Spiders graphic novel.


Bill Nye the Science Guy will take the helm as the new Executive Director of the Planetary Society. Louis Friedman, co-founder and Executive Director since the organization began 30 years ago, is stepping down but continuing to direct its solar sail project -- Lightsail-1 -- and other Planetary Society initiatives. Wh ich helped lead directly to the first sail ever! The wonderful IKAROS.   (ALL of you should join the society, by the way.  It is one of the minimal memberships that forward looking people ought to maintain. Along with at least one environmental society, one humanitarian... etc. These are proxies for saving the world, people... the cheapest/minimal investment, beyond your honest citizenship.  You are members of a civilization.)

You are sure to find this TED presentation about the value of science both beautiful and inspiring.

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate Tuesday would compel the White House to identify international cybercrime havens and establish plans for cleaning them up.  The International Cybercrime Reporting and Cooperation Act takes on a growing problem for banks and U.S. businesses: the ability for cybercriminals to operate with impunity across international borders.

Are Cameras the new guns? Police in at least three states are arresting and charging people
filming/taping/photographing them. See also the comments.  This trend... predicted in The Transparent Society ... is one fundamentally essential precedent that needs to be settled for the People.  Forever.

How to deter a nuclear bomb by some rogue group? It is absolutely essential that we develop Nuclear Attribution -- the ability to fingerprint nukes, or trace the source of nuclear materials from their chemical and isotopic properties. This sends a message to countries - they must keep tabs on their nuclear materials & not harbor terrorists…or we will come after them if any bomb originates from their land. Obama signed a bill, the Nuclear Forensics & Attribution Act…but it fails to provide funding to train the needed experts to implement this as effective policy. We need to be acquiring a database of nuclear samples from reactors/facilities around the world. Isotopic ratios can be catalogued like a fingerprint, to enable identification of any nuclear residues. While it may be true that some rogue groups would want to claim ‘credit’ for any attack, a country would not want to be identified. For while it is hard to go after a diffuse group, we know where to find the country harboring them.

BlueView Technologies offers sonar systems -- compact enough for ROVs, AUVs or scuba diver hand-held units, allowing imaging in 3D, even when there is zero visibility.

Thorium thermal reactor: Thorium is readily available & can be turned into energy without generating transuranic wastes. Thorium's capacity as nuclear fuel was discovered during WW II, but ignored because it was unsuitable for making bombs. A liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) is the optimal approach for harvesting energy from Thorium, and has the potential to solve today's energy/climate crisis. This 16 minute video is summarizes 197 minutes worth of Google Tech Talks on the subject of Thorium & LFTR.

Terrific pictures that show how "amateur" astronomy can be way cool!

A new study concludes that mass EV adoption could lead to tremendously higher emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide due to China’s widespread use of coal as a power source.” 

An overhaul of world farming and more vegetarianism should be top priorities to protect the environment, along with curbs on fossil fuel use.  Agricultural production accounts for a staggering 70 percent of the global freshwater consumption, 38 percent of the total land use and 14 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Meat consumption per capita in China rose by 42 percent over eight years from 1995 to 2003.    Just eating meat less often helps... also “better” farm fish like Tilapia.

See the notetaking tool of tomorrow!  A bit expensive this year.  But next year we should ALL get one!


Enlightenment in a nutshell: Ten of the greatest theories to explain everything: The Principle of Least Action, Memetics, Quantum Field Theory, Panspermia, The Placebo Effect, Snowball Earth, The Ekpyrotic Universe, Entanglement, The Finite Universe….

An excellent idea: provide short-term credit to cover emergency expenses. Low-income families should not begin on a cycle of debt to cover a hospital stay, a broken furnace or car – turning to predatory lenders who charge outrageous interest fees. For 20 years Britain has offered publicly-funded crisis loans to help people out of a jam. The average loan is $620 and 88% of the loans have been fully repaid.

Great quote from Richard Feynman: “It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil …The stage is too big for the drama.”

A glut of Ph.D. scientists? Five years after completion of their Ph.D.s, only 22% have a tenure track position. A single faculty opening can attract hundreds of qualified applicants. Research faculty depend upon the labor of grad students – but fewer grants and job openings leave many stranded in a series of low-paid temporary postdoctoral jobs – without channeling them into successful careers.  Ah, but so what?  Let PhDs be the new normal!  Let em teach high school!  We could use teachers who know stuff!

In the Niger delta, according to Nigerian academics, writers and environment groups, oil companies have acted with such impunity and recklessness that much of the region has been devastated by leaks. In fact, more oil is spilled from the delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico. With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years

The next step in hybridization? A new type of shock absorber under development by the Levant Power Corporation converts the bumps and jolts of vehicles on rough roads into usable electricity. Usually, shock absorbers dissipate the energy of bouncing vehicles as heat. But the new shocks can use the kinetic energy of bounces to generate watts.

Check out the Yike Bike!

National Chengchi University's Center for Prediction Market correctly forecast election outcomes, including the 2008 presidential election. Boasting an accuracy rate of 80 percent to 95 percent, the center is arguably the biggest on-line Chinese-language prediction market.  Prediction markets are speculative exchanges, with the value of an asset meant to reflect the likelihood of a future event. Since the University of Iowa established the Iowa Electronic Markets in 1988,  private companies, such as HP, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, have set up their own prediction markets to forecast the results of new products, marketing strategies and finances.

=== SENT IN: ===

Frank Smith offered this; "Protecting Privacy: Make the Data Fade Away"  Sensitive data should have a limited lifespan. An interesting take on transparency.

Josh Duberman sent: For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced computer “, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer. In other words, it must do more than what search engines like  and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself.

New research from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that astrocytes are directly involved in the regulation of signalling between neurons. Astrocytes sense activity from the synapses and respond by reducing the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate.  Knew it!  This is only the beginning.  The brain is more complex than we thought... implicitly making AI harder!

Amazing story of a camera that traveled 1000 miles from Aruba to Key West, over 6 months. The camera was in pristine condition – housed by an Ikelite housing, which happens to be manufactured by my wife’s family! The finder processed the photos, posted them online and tracked down the owner – who lost the camera and housing when it got caught on the flipper of a sea turtle! My father-in-law, Ike, started the company in the 60s.

How will we feed 9 billion people on Earth? The limiting factor is available fertile land, particularly near urban populations. One option is to build up: vertical farms could make cities self-sustainable. Plus--we must be able to farm indoors to live on Mars or the moon. Climate can be controlled, water conserved, pests eliminated, sewage recycled, fossil fuels & pesticides reduced, and farmlands returned to nature.

Some claimed the boundary between man & machine would disappear--but outside of movies or research labs most robots do not yet look or act like humans. People will often cringe when a human-like robot is kicked or abused. Yet some feel a sense of creepiness if the robot is too close to appearing human, but not exactly so. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori called this sense of cognitive dissonance “the uncanny valley."

There’s been little research to quantify this phenomenon of “the uncanny valley”, and it certainly over-simplifies the complexity of human-robot interaction. The degree of anthropomorphism seems to depend as much on behavior as appearance. An initial sense of alien-ness usually dissipates after the initial reaction. It’s inevitable that we will create robots in our image – and we will learn to be comfortable around them. Currently, robots are taking on tasks—manufacturing, surgery, exploring Mars or the ocean floor, cleaning up waste sites—where the humanoid form is not necessary or most efficient. But researchers are refining robot’s ability to detect/express emotions, mimicking human facial expressions to an uncanny degree. Also watch the video on ieee to gauge your reaction:

Cute speculations on "alien space artifacts."  Related to my novella "Lungfish" and my coming novel EXISTENCE!

Researchers have built a machine that harnesses energy from the random motion of bouncing beads to perform work. The machine, a modified re-creation of a system dreamt up nearly a century ago in a captivating thought experiment, dances around physicist Richard Feynman’s dictum that work can’t be extracted from such a system.

Kewl astronomy: death of a planet

Currently there are 460 known exoplanets outside our solar system—mostly gas giants. That figure may double in the next year…NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has already identified over 750 possible planetary candidates—many earth sized – in the first 3 months of its mission. The next few years will be a gold rush for such earth-like planets, which appear to be quite common—altering our estimates of life in the universe.

Does religious belief boost mental health? Researchers studying the brain chemistry of believers and nonbelievers found that when religious people make a mistake, they are less stressed about it than nonbelievers. Atheists “showed a heightened neural response,” reacting more defensively to their own errors.

Twelve events that could change everything: a meltdown of polar ice, contact with aliens, nuclear war, creation of synthetic life, room temperature superconductors, machine self-awareness, cloning of humans, a major Pacific earthquake, a practical fusion reactor, collision with a NEO asteroid, the next pandemic. Some of these events likely, some improbable; you can rate them on the interactive site.

From Frank Smith: "The Mysterious Memristor:
Anyone familiar with electronics knows the trinity of fundamental components: the resistor, the capacitor, and the inductor. In 1971, a University of California, Berkeley, engineer predicted that there should be a fourth element: a memory resistor, or memristor. But no one knew how to build one. Now, 37 years later, electronics have finally gotten small enough to reveal the secrets of that fourth element. The memristor, Hewlett-Packard researchers revealed today in the journal Nature , had been hiding in plain sight all along--within the electrical characteristics of certain nanoscale devices. They think the new element could pave the way for applications both near- and far-term, from nonvolatile RAM to realistic neural networks. The reason that the memristor is radically different from the other fundamental circuit elements is that, unlike them, it carries a memory of its past. When you turn off the voltage to the circuit, the memristor still remembers how much was applied before and for how long.


Hypnos said...

I think it is Jared Diamond who said that the problem is not feeding 9 billion people, but giving them a Western level standard of living.

That would require the resource consumption equivalent of 72 billion people.

We will have to greatly redefine what prosperity is - alongside with major technological advances - if we want to give each of those 9 billion people a fair chance at adequate standards of living.

Also, the polar meltdown seems nearer everyday. Arctic sea ice is melting at unprecedented speed, and is currently over half a million km2 smaller than it was in June 2007 - and 2007 ran up the worst melt at 40% below the 30-year satellite average extent.

If this rate of melt keeps up, we could have an ice-free summer Arctic before 2013. A schocking 50 years ahead of IPCC's worst predictions.

One the sea ice is gone, summer temperatures will shot up, as there won't be any more ice to absorb extra heat. From then on its mere speculation. Heightened thawing of permafrost with subsequent releases of methane and Co2 seems fairly probable.

We might already be past a pretty serious tipping point. And nobody seems to care.

Ian said...

"# If charged by the current coal-heavy electrical mix displayed in the table above, EVs would double the nitrogen oxide emissions of Euro III gasoline vehicles.
# EVs will not reduce carbon dioxide emissions in China unless coal technologies are improved upon or a shift towards cleaner power generation occurs in the future."

Good thing, Chinese laws are directed at achieving exactly that.

Ian said...

So could the bouncing bead device be scaled down to produce usable energy from Brownian motion?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention of thorium, David! It certainly has the potential to supply the entire planet with Western-level energy for the indefinite future.

lc said...

The President mentioned Brin in his speech -- Sergey

(around the 12th paragraph)

porchd -- how we'd like to spend the summer

Acacia H. said...

Actually, he mentioned Sergey Brin, who helped create Google. Dr. Brin may have done a lot, but he didn't create Google. ^^ (That, and his first name isn't Sergey.)

Rob H.

Unknown said...

It seems to me that the bouncy-ball-wheely thing isn't so much a refutation of Feynman, but a confirmation:

> When the paddles had the same kind of surface on each side, there was no net rotation — the machine swung back and forth evenly, van der Meer and colleagues found. But when they coated one side of each paddle with duct tape, the vanes spun in one direction. The beads lost more energy when they hit the softer duct-taped side of the vanes, causing the system to rotate in one direction.

(emphasis mine; did they not even build the one-way "ratchet" part?)

They didn't really build a Feynman ratchet, they built a Crookes radiometer!

rewinn said...

"...he mentioned Sergey Brin, who helped create Google. Dr. Brin may have done a lot, but he didn't create Google"

I dunno. Have you ever seen them in the same room together?


lc said...

Rob H.

The only way your comment makes sense is if you ignored the "Sergey" in my post above.

The reason I mentioned it is that David gets a kick out of having the same last name as Sergey.

Imagine that: two famous, intelligent, imaginative Brins who are apparently not related. If their name were Smith, that wouldn't be so rare.

Acacia H. said...

I tend to skim posts. So I likely missed your earlier "Sergey" bit before Brin, and misread your post as saying Dr. Brin was mentioned in Obama's speech.

Rob H.

Ian said...

As far as Thorium reactors go, liquid metal cooling systems have been the Achilles heel of virtually every attempt to create breeder reactors.

If Thorium reactors require liquid Fluorine cooling that makes me much more pessimistic about their prospects.

Ian said...

On another note, a detailed study of the likely impact of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a worry.

Because most of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide emitted is actually dissolved in the oceans, removing a ton of Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere results in roughly 500 KG of Carbon dioxide outgassing from the ocean.

Combine that with the non-CO2 greenhouse gases and it's going to be immensely difficult to prevent climate change by atmospheric scrubbing.

Along with other forms of geo-engineering sequestration may serve a useful role in delaying the worst impacts of AGW, giving us more time to reduce our carbon emissions and to prepare for the change but the bottom line is we do have to cut emissions.

Tony Fisk said...

A bit of brainstorming: is it easier to scrub seawater of its CO2 content?

I am impressed with some of the design features of the Ikaros:

- wireless cameras jettisoned to view the sail deployments from afar (although I would have thought a tether might have come in useful later)

- liquid crystal panels on each sail to alter the reflective properties, thereby providing trim control

hawkin: the art of bringing wounded falcons back home.

Ian said...


I asked the same question a week or two back.

At a minimum, since the absorptive capacity varies with temperature you could use the diurnal cycle to produce at least slightly CO2 enriched air as the input to sequestration.

Tim H. said...

Ian, fast breeders don't have to be cooled with liquid metal, helium could work also. Shouldn't be seeing much of that too soon, lots of ex-bomb material to go through before we need to use thorium.

Acacia H. said...

Small question here: Has anyone else noticed that Obama's "lack of leadership" tendencies is in fact his behaving as the President of the United States is supposed to act under the Constitution? We've had a long line of Presidents that overreach their power. Obama however is insisting Congress put together laws for him to sign. Or in other words, he wants Congress to do its Constitutionally mandated job.

Go figure.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Ian said...

So, would it be possible to simply discharge carbon dioxide enriched exhaust gases from submerged pipes or simply spray water through the gases and then discharge it back into the ocean?

You'd effectively be trading a reduction in atmospheric emissions for an increase in ocean acidification.

(Then too if you used a separate, covered water tank you might be able to raise the carbon dioxide level to saturation levels then deal with it by other means.

Ian said...

While I'm throwing out odd ideas, has anyone every tried breeding Malaria resistant strains of the main malaria-carrying Mosquito species?

BCRion said...

"...liquid metal cooling systems have been the Achilles heel of virtually every attempt to create breeder reactors."

Ian, no offense, but this statement is a bit misleading. While one could argue technical correctness, there are additional complications that need to be stated to give an accurate picture.

Indeed, it is possible to point to specific, high profile incidents at Fermi-1 and Monju where there was some design flaw (which, in 20/20 hindsight, would have been easy to fix in design stage) because of the liquid sodium coolant. Add to the fact that liquid sodium cooled reactors are still in R&D stage and have not had the same level of operating experience as Light Water Reactors; issues like this are inevitable as they are with any complex engineering project. That said, there have indeed been successes (see EBR-II and Phenix) that demonstrate the viability and safety of the technology. In the end, you only need one design that works well; the others that do not will not get deployed en masse and only serve as reminders as to what not do.

A more thorough reading of history of fast-breeder reactor programs shows that the primary cause of shutdowns have largely been for political reasons (see IFR and Superfenix). The main reason the technology has not been pursued is economics. So much infrastructure is already devoted to LWRs creating a hurdle. Also, uranium-235 is still cheap enough to obtain, that it is incredibly difficult to make a business case for a FBR.

As for thorium, these days the designs have the molten salt not as the coolant so much as much as the fuel itself. Th/U-233 is dissolved in the molten salt and the mix is continuously cycled and chemically processed throughout the operation of the reactor. The thorium cycle offers some advantages, but, like anything, has a few drawbacks.

Ian said...

"That said, there have indeed been successes (see EBR-II and Phenix) that demonstrate the viability and safety of the technology"

Phenix was a small prototype.

The successor Superphenix full-sized reactor was shut down specifically because of problems with the sodium coolant system.

There are Thorium reactor designs that don't use liquid metal coolants, there are other alternatives to current reactor technology like the Traveling Wave Reactor.

I'd rather see those technoogies developed.

Ymarsakar said...

When environmentalists voted in Obama, maybe they should have looked back on authority then. Unless they like watching the Gulf become polluted under their Messiah.

David Brin said...

To blame Obama for the industry whores that George Bush appointed to the Mineral Management Service, seems odd.

Still, I accept he deserves some blame. He should have appointed a special prosecutor his 1st day in office and unleashed a purge of such traitors.

Please look up on Wiki "regulatory capture" and name an agency in which the GOP did not do that to us. Name one.

On to my next posting.

BCRion said...

"The successor Superphenix full-sized reactor was shut down specifically because of problems with the sodium coolant system."

Again, you are partially correct, but are omitted key details of the story. As many of the problems with Superphenix were as much political as technical. My point with EBR-II and Phenix is to demonstrate the technology is feasible. Scaling them up is inevitably going to have engineering issues, and these would most likely get worked through once sufficient construction and operational experience is gained.

As far as the other technologies, I'm unconvinced that the same practical issues of operation will not emerge. As with light-water reactors, these issues are likely solvable, but will require industry experience to effectively anticipate and mange them.

So yeah, you can state that you would rather see certain technologies developed, but I would insist that the grass is always greener regardless of which new technology you pick. Any new technology is going to have unanticipated issues that are likely solvable, but will indeed create growing pains.