Saturday, December 31, 2011

A year of peril...And a year of promise

As we look back upon 2011, let's take a bigger perspective by peering a century further in time. The year 1911 was amazing in many ways. Amundsen and Scott were racing for the South Pole's “last place on Earth” - illustrating how new technology can amplify both competence (when it is present) or else blithering stupidity. (Do rent the 1990s miniseries The Last Place on Earth.)

It is also the centennial of the publication - by Hugo Gernsback - of some of the earliest American science fiction --those gosh-wow Amazing Stories reflecting an era of unbridled optimism... just before the world crashed into decades of dogma, fury and tech-amplified war. Have a look at this brief appreciation of Gernsback.

I often reflect back upon the mood that prevailed in 1910, and 1911... and even 1912, when it looked as if the great genius progressive, Teddy Roosevelt, might come back to inspire even greater can-do enthusiasm. Inventions poured forth at a staggering rate, transforming the lives of millions in a rapidly-burgeoning middle class, suddenly possessed of cars, radios, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, frozen foods, vitamins, train travel and access to the very sky itself. Which seemed to be no limit...

... till fewer than a dozen vapid members of an inbred oligarchy indulged in their worst moronic impulses and plunged the world into hell.  The First World War was a calamity that simply did not have to happen. One might liken it to a spasm by the Olde Order against the surge of egalitarian hope that would soon make Czars and Kaisers obsolete... and it is a sample of the kind of rulership we’ll go back to, if oligarchy returns.

* Here’s a cool look at “100 years in 10 minutes.”


* Want science and scientific issues to be debated in 2012? Is it about time for candidates to show if they know (or care) about actual facts? Half of US economic growth since 1945 came from scientific and technological advances (and a second “national debt clock” should show how deep the US government would be in the black, if it got minimal royalties off satellites, pharmaceuticals, electronics and so on!) Yet, that source of our power and wealth is languishing. Make it an issue! Donate to Science Debate 2012!  Make President Obama and his opponents face this square-on. And see how bad (and good) it’s become.

* Want to get even more vigorous in defending the future from ambition-haters on both right and left! At the Extreme Futurist Festival in Marina del Rey, Dr. Kim Solez expanded on an idea from AI researcher Ben Goertzel: Could a holiday — a “Future Day” — help bring the ideas bouncing around the scientific world to the masses?

* Of course, if you really hanker to change the world in all the ways you think that it should change, visit my page about Proxy Power.


Some original thinking is taking place, in the realm of transparency and the future of information flow.  Starting from some riffs that I offered in The Transparent Society, a group centered around the notion of an “internet of things” has offered an Idea Contest that might be worth a look.

Are we heading toward the City of Control?  The City of Trust?  Or - as I suppose - the City of Reciprocal Accountability and positive -sum games?

Do you imagine that the choice between Big Brother and Reciprocal Transparency is far away?  Think again. “The audio for all of the telephone calls made by a single person over the course of one year could be stored using roughly 3.3 gigabytes. Information identifying the location of each of one million people to that accuracy at 5-minute intervals, 24 hours a day for a full year could easily be stored in 1,000 gigabytes, which would cost slightly over $50 at today’s prices. For 50 million people, the cost would be under $3000.”   See:  Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments, a report from the Brookings Institution.


* The Toaster Project, by Thomas Thwaites  - Making a toaster from raw materials. Very similar to the idea I keep pushing (and have for 20 years) for a TV series called REBUILDING EVERYTHING (FROM SCRATCH!) Also see Thwaites' TED talk on the toaster.

* Speaking of “toasters”... read The Future of Moral Machines, a fascinating discussion of the philosophical and practical problem of enhancing increasingly intelligent robotic systems with the ability to make “moral” choices.  Also see: Unaccountable Killing Machines: The True Cost of U.S. Drones.

Then see a comprehensive rumination about Drone Ethics: Robots at War in The Atlantic. Alas, as is always the case at that magazine, there’s not even a whiff of respect for the advanced thinking about this topic that has appeared in the pages of thoughtful science fiction.

* Here's an accumulation of articles and speculations by David Brin about science fiction.  What is the tense relationship between SF and fantasy? How can both genres help kids and help civilization?  Is the coming transparent society inspired by sci fi? What about future visions of biology? The environment? Plus Asimov! Dune! and cool Youtube surprises.

*  Why would aliens want to invade us?  Phil Plait does a great job dipping in the shallow end with this whimsical take-down of movie cliches....

Sure, most movie reasons seem pretty lame.  Resources?  Much easier to get from comets/asteroids.  Our bodies?  Lame excuse; they could breed cattle to carry their implanted parasite-young.  And why attack JUST when we’re ready to defend?

Still there are others. Other worrisome possibilities you've likely never imagined.  Stay tuned for... Existence!


And now a science potpourri!

* Natural bridges over the Marianas Trench -- At least four bridges span the ocean depths!

* Comet Lovejoy - the comet that streaked the sun... and lived! From the International Space Station!  A newfound comet defied long odds on Dec. 15, surviving a suicidal dive through the sun's hellishly hot atmosphere coming within 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) of our star's surface.  Researchers expected the icy wanderer to be completely destroyed. But Comet Lovejoy proved to be made of tough stuff. A video taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft showed the icy object emerging from behind the sun and zipping back off into space.  Here’s to comets... and cometologists!  (And learn more at Heart of the Comet.)

* Faster than light neutrinos?  Click on the video.

* Duh! moments from science!

* Artist Andy Gracie is attempting to breed a strain of fruit fly that could survive on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

* This is fun: Explore the slingshot effect.

* Watch flying robots build a 6-meter tower.

* Somebody try out  and report back to the rest of us?

* Is solar power experiencing a major price breakthrough? Actually, I see SEVEN new techs that might (perhaps) experience profound breakthroughs in the next four years or so.

* Capable of producing a beam of light so intense that it would be equivalent to the power received by the Earth from the sun focused onto a speck smaller than a tip of a pin, scientists claim that a new laser planned to be built in Europe could allow them boil the very fabric of space – the vacuum.

=== Even MORE Miscellaneous! ===

* Coffee & Power, an online network for connecting people together to hire each other for small jobs, or “missions,” has opened its first official workclub in Santa Monica, CA. It’s the first expansion of Philip Rosedale’s (Second Life) “meta-company” outside the San Francisco Bay Area.

* With 3-D printing, manufacturers can make existing products more efficiently—and create ones that weren't possible. before.  Meanwhile, professional solid modeling tools such as AutoCAD and SolidWorks and 3-D printer kits costing less than $1,500 are making 3-D printing cost-effective and time-saving.

That’s is for 2011. 

Let's make 2012 the year that gloomy forecasts fail. I plan to finish the year, marking the solstice on the steps of a Mayan temple! 

And I hope we all will strive to prevent Robert Heinlein's dread foretelling of Nehemia Scudder! Welcome to 2012.  May it not be a year of twits shouting Armageddon, or dopey nostalgia! May it be the year of restored science, confidence and calm, adult negotiation... and a restored sense of delight in the future.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Santa frets about melting North Pole! Call N. Korea “Chinese”! Plus who is anti-science?

* All right, it’s a simple though not-so-cheery meme. But it mixes warm and fuzzy mythology with deep-important truth. Poor Santa Claus is in trouble!  Tell every child you know that the U.S. Navy is in full tilt preparation for an “ice-free arctic.” Our admirals don’t think there’s the slightest “controversy” over human generated climate change. The Navy’s Arctic Roadmap states, "the current scientific consensus indicates the Arctic may experience nearly ice-free summers sometime in the 2030s." Yes Virginia, that includes the North Pole. The Navy knows what’s coming and they are hard at work getting ready... as are the Russians.

So, why tell children? Especially around Yuletide? Because maybe fear for Santa Claus might help them get through to knucklehead parents, who clutch beliefs that are far, far more mythological than jolly old gift-giving elves.
== Taxes? My Oncle lives in Dollars, Taxes! ==

* My in-depth exploration of reasons to enact a “transaction tax” on hyper-fast Wall street predatory computerized trading is now permanently posted online.  See why a teensy 0.1% fee might save us from Terminator!

* As for the current hoo-row over taxes, in general? Who'd have thunk that the best investigative journalism in America would be at Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair? Seriously, read this cogent and informative article. Sure, the author has a political axe to grind.  But most of the people he quotes are conservatives and republicans, many of whom served Ronald Reagan! And the facts speak for themselves.

Aw, heck. Ask your uncle who is steamed about taxes whether he thinks they are at a historical high, since 1935... or low?  Ask whether he thinks the federal share of our nation’s GDP is low?  Or high?  And if rates are their lowest in 80 years, then why is his top priority to shrink them even further - only for the rich?

== What to do about the “Hermit Kingdom”? ==

* All right, speaking of elves... or rather, nasty dwarves... the passing of leadership in North Korea to the latest Amazing Kim is provoking endless ruminations amid the pundit caste and blogosphere.  But seriously, what’s your solution? The Hermit Kingdom tipped over, long ago, into jibbering kakocracy. Nuclear armed, with tens of thousands of hidden artillery tubes aimed at Seoul, its ruling caste lives by extortion, telling its people that the bags of rice they get, with American flags on them, are “tribute from Yankees who are terrified of the Dear Leader.
Compare North Korea, as viewed from space, to any other nation on Earth. (It's dark as a cave.) Visitors to North Korea attest that the average young person, who is not a member of the officer caste, is two to five inches shorter than their southern cousins.  What to do about this intractable horror story?  I have a suggestion... it is obvious and yet no one but this opinionated, undiplomatic contrarian will ever mention it... for reasons that are also obvious.

 Declare that we consider North Korea to be the 23rd province of China.
Look, I’ve said before that I respect the neo-Confucian approach taken by the mercantilist Chinese leadership caste.  I don’t agree with it - in some ways vigorously - but I can grasp what they are trying to accomplish and overall they have been managing a miracle... financed by Americans via Walmart. (It helps that their leaders arise out of engineering, unlike our parasitical business school grads.) Look, if the Western Enlightenment fails - and I will die fighting to defend it - then Eastern-Confucian noblesse oblige seems the least-bad of all the alternatives.

But seriously, when we’re talking about North Korea, can there be any question? That brutal mini-state is entirely a creature-creation of China.  It was fostered and guarded by Mao’s armies in the 1950s. It is defended in the UN by Chinese Security Council vetoes. Its economy is kept running by Chinese-subsidized energy, coal, iron and grain. China sells the sole-core North Korean institution - its army - nearly all the weapons and equipment they use. “Special zones” are completely run by Chinese companies and ministries. Above all, the Hermit Kingdom continues to exist and maintain its wretched rule by Chinese sufferance.

Is there any rational way to perceive the People’s Republic of China as anything other than the true operator of North Korea?  Were they firmly to inform the top North Korean generals that it was time for change, those generals would obey.

One can envision why the Chinese leadership might want to maintain a Potemkin ruse of sovereignty, propping up the insupportable.  Some reasons seem plausible... like preventing the appearance of a strong and united Korea on their doorstep.  Other hypotheses erupt out of fevered imagination and paranoid-Hollywood scenario-building.  For example, what better place to engage in experiments that go far beyond the limits of decency, anywhere except in the Kim family’s psychotic realm?

Currently, by accepting the fiction of North Korean autonomy, we allow the Chinese top leadership to shrug aside responsibility for this festering canker on the world’s lip. But why accept this convenience, from which we derive zero benefit?  No question that the “23rd province” assertion would be a bold and aggressive diplomatic move!  For several reasons.  First, because China claims that Taiwan is province number 23!  All right, we’d have to linguistically finesse around that. Perhaps by calling NK an “autonomous region, like Tibet.”

Also, of course, we’d have to assert that such a situation isn’t right!  Proclaiming the north to be sovereign Korean territory, occupied as a satrapy by puppets of a neighboring regime. While demanding long term that Korea be unified, we might also insist at least that the occupying power govern well.  Moreover, if people are starving in this satrapy, the onus falls in one place. On one doorstep.

No question, this is dicey territory.  Moreover -- and let’s be clear -- I am not even asserting that this proposal is wise.  I am open to all alternatives. Still, this should be on the table. Mentioning the un-mentioned possibility... that’s my job.  Moreover, even leaking that the US is thinking about this might send a useful message.

One thing is clear; the status quo cannot stand. Such a declaration would serve notice to the Chinese Leadership caste that - despite their other accomplishments - this is a problem they can evade no longer. Whatever is done in-and-by North Korea is their responsibility.  From misuse of nuclear weapons... all the way to future lawsuits that might be filed by millions of very short Koreans... there are many disincentives against allowing this nightmare to continue.  But only if the persons who are truly responsible, and have the power, are told that this is their responsibility.

== Political Miscellany ==

* The Skeptoid offers a list of the Top Ten Anti-Science Web Sites.  It is informative and surprisingly apolitical... well, in the sense that it assails jibbering nonsense generated by lefty-idiots in equal numbers to right-wing idiots.  I’ve always avowed that the degree of insanity seems equal at both extremes. The big difference is between the mere tens of thousands who attend to one end’s nonsense, vs tens of millions who march to the opposite drum. Indeed, and illustrating this point, what’s missing from the list of virulently anti-science web locales? The site that attacks science more intensely and effectively than any other?

* Want science and scientific issues to be debated in 2012? About time for candidates to show if they know (or care) about actual facts? Half of US economic growth since 1945 came from scientific and tech advances, yet that's languishing. Make it an issue. Donate to Science Debate 2012.   And see how bad (and good) it’s become. 

* Think Warren Buffett is an aberration?  Read about Charles Feeney, a multi billionaire who wears a $15 watch, who is giving it all away - in ways that make a big difference.  He recently gave $350 million to Cornell, to create a vast new science and technology campus on Roosevelt Island, right next to Manhattan.  Given that 50% of our economic growth since 1945 came from S&T innovation, that's called "putting your money to good use."  It's true patriotism.

* I’ll keep saying it. Though I find him 50% crazy, I also think Newt Gingrich is by far the most interesting and entertaining Republican candidate, displaying moments of brainy and insightful cogency.  Take this:  “Newt has been warning of the danger of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP)—a burst of radiation created by a high-altitude nuclear explosion... that could take down electrical systems over hundreds or thousands of miles... knocking us back to the 19th Century. ‘In theory, a small device over Omaha would knock out about half the electricity generated in the United States,’ he was quoted as saying.”

Alas, we then move back into crazy territory. “In Gingrich’s view, the threat of an EMP attack justifies actions such as preemptive strikes on the missile installations of nations such as Iran and North Korea.”  Well, Barry Goldwater was 50:50 in much the same way.  But gosh do I miss him now!

In fact, as Scientific American points out, the primary target of an EMP wouldn’t be ground-based power systems. It would be satellites. Moreover, the best defense would be a small, $50 million a year program to foster the moving of EMP resistant technologies out of the military and into civilian electronics.  This should have been started decades ago.  By now, we’d see this worry as quaint... instead of deeply worrisome.

* Aw heck, as long as we're Newting... and in fairness? I won't be soon forgiving Nancy Pelosi for what she did - or failed to do - as Speaker of the House.  Cynically trading away what she considered a low priority to democrats, re-establishing the Congressional Office of Science and Technology Assessment.  That independent analysis agency used to give congress-folk an extra set of eyes, to double-check on matters that involve scientific appraisal... in other words, everything. OSTA had been chucked out by Newt Gingrich and his pals in 1995.  (Now why would they want to do that?) But Madam Speaker now bears almost-equal blame. She flubbed a chance to do fantastic good, with a flick of her wrist.

* Drones and robots are increasingly replacing humans on the battlefield: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, even “targeted killing”. They’re particularly good at the 4 D’s: dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs, as well as “dispassion”, the ability to react without emotion. Here’s an extensive look at some future scenarios, worthy of discussion regarding the ethical consequences. Allow this only if they carry a "reporter bug" that tells society everything they do!

* In the Stanford Law Review, Ryan Calo discusses how domestic surveillance drones will challenge our notions of privacy, calling them “the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.” As small as an insect, public and private camera-carrying drones will be available to police, journalists, paparazzi, and hobbyists. Would that these scholars had the courage and breadth and class to study and acknowledge the vast literature of cogent science fiction prethinking that's already gone into these issues.

* And finally, coming full circle: Current climate models underestimate the potential impact of permafrost. Warming temperatures are melting permafrost, frozen ground that underlies nearly one-fourth of the Northern Hemisphere. One recent estimate indicates that this permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. Released as carbon dioxide or methane, this could exacerbate global warming…a runaway cycle. We can't afford anymore to coddle fools.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Are we "evolving" toward becoming "marching morons"?

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel recently spun a fable for The Edge about selection and drift in the human attribute of innovative creativity.  His assertion in Infinite Stupidity is that the very same civilization we built through innovation becomes a driving selective force, one that winds up sapping innovative genius from the gene pool.

Now at one level, Professor Pagel's argument is just a reiteration of the old "marching morons" notion - once popular in 1950s science fiction, as well as the earlier Eugenics Movement - that the long term effect of complex civilization must be to reward mediocrity and propel a decline in net human intelligence.

Pagel starts with a reasonable premise: that as humans created ever-larger societies, featuring rapid communication among greater populations, more people would benefit from copying the innovations produced by a few truly creative individuals.

So far, that seems pretty obvious. Cultural dissemination of new techniques started really burgeoning about thirty to forty thousand years ago, around the same time that trade networks clearly developed, with seashells adorning necklaces in the Alps, for example.

The late Paleolithic  Renaissance, at the dawn of the Aurignacian, erupted with astonishing abruptness after a hundred millennia of static technology. Within a few score generations - an eyeblink -- our ancestral tool kit expanded prodigiously to include fish hooks and sewing needles made of glistening bone, finely-shaped scrapers, axes, burins, nets, ropes and specialized knives that required many complex stages to create.

Art also erupted on the scene. People adorned themselves with pendants, bracelets and beads. They painted magnificent cave murals, performed burial rituals and carved provocative Venus figurines. Innovation accelerated. So did other deeply human traits - for there appeared clear signs of social stratification. Religion. Kingship. Slavery. War.

And -- for the poor Neanderthals -- possibly genocide.

==What changed?==

The cause of this rather rapid shift is hard to confirm, but Pagel seems to be implying (by my interpretation) that it was triggered by something as simple as an expansion of clan size - augmented by increased inter-clan trade.

So far so good.

Only then Professor Pagel does something I find wholly unjustified, even rather weird. He proposes that - amid this flurry of trade-enhanced innovation - the need for the trait of innovativeness would decline, on a per-capita basis, because the average person or small group would benefit by copying whatever came along.

"As our societies get larger and larger, there's no need, in fact, there's even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers."  In other words, what need to maintain the expensive capacity to create new ideas when you can simply borrow them from a small coterie of idea-guys, scattered across the continent?

Alas, Professor Pagel spins a just-so story that is conveniently and charmingly free of reference to historical or archaeological evidence. For example, he ignores the fact that innovation sped up, intensely and supra-linearly, as the number of individuals connected in a society increased.

According to Pagel's premise, that rate should not rise appreciably with increased communication! Rather, if the amount of innovation were simply satisfying a Darwinian need, then with an expanded community the per capita creativity resource supplying that need would atrophy until the need was barely met. With the minimally needed level now acquired and satisfied by trade. people would simply become more dull and parasitical - that's his theory.  Only logically it would hold actual-total innovation at the same, pre-trade level.

==Toynbee, Marx and Wills==

I mentioned that this notion has a long history. Dour folk have long held that civilized life must have negative effects upon the gene pool, leading some, a century ago, to push eugenics legislation. But there are other glimmers from the past that merit mention.

For example, Karl Marx actually praised the cleverness and acumen of the bourgeois capitalist class, deeming them absolutely necessary for economic development. Their competitive creativity (and theft of labor-value from proletarians) would drive capital formation. Cyclically, the actual number of capitalists would see a secular decline with time as their trade networks expanded. In the end, Marx foresaw this brilliant class extinguished, after all the capital was "formed" and when their competitive cleverness was no longer needed. You can see how this eerily mirrors or foreshadows Pagel's teleology.

Another maven, who comes across better in light of real history, was Arnold Toynbee. His survey of the past led him to conclude that civilizations rise when they support and eagerly learn from their "creative minority" -- those who innovate useful solutions to rising problems. And societies fail when they don't. (In which case, does America's current war on science... and upon every other clade of mental accomplishment... forebode a coming fall?) In this light, Pagel's assertion seems dour, indeed.

A third, more recent voice is Christopher Wills, whose book Children of Prometheus contends that civilization, in fact, rapidly accelerates changes in the gene pool, propelling evolution ever-faster. I believe this case is very well-made, and wholly consistent with what really happened in the era discussed by Professor Pagel.

==The Great Acceleration==

In fact, after the Aurignacian and later Mesolithic phases, the pace of creativity only sped up, then exponentiated. Agrarian clans and then kingdoms allocated surplus food to specialists, rewarding them for talent and expertise, sometimes in accurate correlation to their effectiveness at innovation.  (Though skill at persuasiveness - lying - was always a higher correlate. That trait has almost certainly been an evolutionary rocket; but more on that another time.)

Key point: with agriculture, the collection and allocation of food surplus became a substantial human reproductive driver, as subsidized specialist roles became common. Competitively striving to attain that status, youths who became scribes, blacksmiths, tool-makers, engineers and priests must have achieved enhanced reproductive ability almost equal to the feudal lords who soon dominated every society.

Hence, a proclivity for nerdiness would increase... though, of course, not quite in pace with an ever-rising tendency toward oligarchy. I'll admit that the trait most avidly reinforced was the ability of some men to pick up metal implements and take away other men's women and wheat... a trait that required not only strength but some cleverness and yes, innovation.

Nevertheless, the brain-lackeys - the priests and tool-makers and monument builders - certainly did well. And they passed on the traits that made them successes. So much for the dismally grouchy "marching morons" hypothesis.

All of this is clear from the historical record. I find it disappointing that Professor Pagel seemed so willing to spin us a vague tale without confronting any of it. Indeed, for an evolutionary biologist to weave such a story without referring to reproductive advantage seems very strange, indeed.

==A Warning for the Future?==

But it isn't finished. Pagel extrapolates to the modern age: "As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves."

He continues, "What's happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we're being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We're being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers."

"Domesticated?" One is tempted to demand that the professor speak for himself, not this wild spirit!

But ah, well.  So we come down to the couch-potato argument. The question posed by Nicholas Carr and other cyber grouches who contend that Google is making us Stoopid. As I have said before, any sensible person can look around and see plenty of signs that suggest the cynics may be right. Their criticisms may be more inherently useful than the giddy proclamations of cyber-transcendentalists, like Clay Shirky. Criticism is welcome... even if I find both sides romantically unrealistic.

Nevertheless, look, when you boil it down, this innovative decline thing is just an assertion, bereft of even correlative evidence, let alone proof. Sure, ninety percent of Internet activity is crap. But that could be said about everything, all the time, especially during all the eras leading up to this one. And while Pagel's lament may elicit voluptuous schadenfreude, it is hardly utilitarian or helpful.

If civilization relies upon Toynbee's creative minority, depending on the small percentage of creators more and more, then that minority had better buckle down and find ways to get more support from those marching (copycat) masses. Duh?

David Brin
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Using Science Fiction in the Classroom. Plus Media Thoughts - and Coolstuff!

== Using Science Fiction to Excite the Future (minds) ==

Young people - and the teachers and librarians who work with them - can benefit from the inspiration and imagination of Science Fiction.

Teaching-Science-FictionDo you know any educators who might want to learn more about the genre of literature that is fascinated with change and looking to the future? And that does more than any other to inspire children to strive for success?

* Teachers interested in using Science Fiction should check out the extensive resources at to access excellent materials that teach about the literary genre of bold ideas -- one willing to discuss the inevitability of change.

*Also, see a collection of articles assembled at Teaching Science Fiction -- with links and resources for incorporating Science Fiction into the classroom to improve literacy, reading and writing skills.

*An article, Science Fiction Resources for Young Adult Librarians, describes several ongoing efforts to help educators learn about this field. It includes a short note, as well, from one of your favorite authors. On my website, I have an article, Using Science Fiction to Help Turn Kids on to Reading ...and the Future!

 *Science Fiction can be used to illustrate scientific concepts. See this collection of resources related to Using Science Fiction to Teach Science, with links to stories and books that may help convey concepts in physics and astronomy as well as the life sciences. See also a list of Movies that help teach science.

*Julie Czernada's website has a wealth of useful resources for teachers, as well as anthologies for use in the classroom.

*Plus see a list of my personal favorite novels for teens: recommended Science Fiction novels for Young Adults.

Sometimes the right book can ignite a fire that lasts a lifetime -- you never know.

==A Trailer for Existence==

Before diving into media and strange science, here’s a tentative announcement.

I’m thinking about a contest to create a mini-trailer  for my new novel (coming in June) - a great big near-future science fiction saga called EXISTENCE.

I've already sent feelers to the Computer Graphics society, whose members made some shorts based on my uplift books for an earlier contest. I’m also pondering a call for folks interested in doing a live action version.  Like this one done by my friend Jeff Carlson for his terrific book Plague Year.

Can't afford to offer a huge prize for the winner and time is short. But I can promise a nibble... plus publicity and loads of fun. And a chance to read the novel early, for free! Starting with these novellas already posted online.

The Smartest Mob (a parable about times to come!)
Shoresteading --a novella
Aficionado --a novella from Existence.

Later Note: You can now see the marvelous trailer, by web artist Patrick Farley!

== Fanboy Gushing about Firefly ==

Okay, I have spoken before about that great - if tragically brief - sci fi miniseries.  My kids (and wife) adore Firefly. But one episode stands out, written by Joss Whedon himself.  “Mrs. Reynolds” is just plain dazzlingly well-written from beginning to end.  Every sentence - even those just tossed aside - sparkles with cleverness and fun and even (sometimes) real depth.  That’s a fellow I’d buy several beers.

== More Science! ==

* A hundred years late, is Oswald Spengler finally proving right about the Decline of the West? Take this factoid:

”It isn't just Americans concerned about science, though Europeans seem a little dramatic about it.   Currently, America can only employ 16% of its Ph.D.s in academia, what most academics regard as 'science', so there is a glut of post-docs and not enough grants to give them all jobs, but Europeans have a different sort of problem - young people are not going into science at all.”

* In about 18 months a newfound object that’s probably a small, compact gas cloud, will draw near the cosmic orifice at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Its orbit will carry it to within about 36 light-hours of the black hole, roughly twice the distance now separating NASA's Voyager 1  from the sun. If it is a cloud, then some of the material will get sucked in! (A mere star would likely plunge on by, in a very tight orbit.) Very exciting, if this makes the Beast come alive!

* To gather material from asteroids or comets (re my doctoral thesis!), NASA is developing a sample-collecting space harpoon which could be projected "with surgical precision" from a spacecraft hovering above the target.  Seriously, this is what I would have done with my life, if you folks hadn’t bribed me into the arts, instead.

* Best-yet candidate "life-world"? The host star lies about 600 light-years away from us toward the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus. The star, a G5 star, has a mass and a radius only slightly smaller than that of our Sun, a G2 star. As a result, it is about 25% less luminous than the Sun. The planet orbits the G5 star with an orbital period of 290 days, compared to 365 days for the Earth, at a distance about 15% closer to its star than the Earth from the Sun. This results in the planet's balmy temperature of around 72 degrees Fahrenheit.  It orbits in the middle of the star's habitable zone,

This new exoplanet is the smallest-radius planet discovered in the habitable zone of any star to date. It is about 2.4 times larger than that of the Earth, putting it in the class of exoplanets known as super-Earths. Alert! When you read estimated “temperatures” for such planets, remember it is the raw, black-body calculation based on the albedo of rock and the net insolation at that distance from its star. As we’ve seen on Earth, Venus and Mars, the greenhouse effects of an atmosphere change everything!

== The Frontiers of Life! ==

* Know any researchers or organizations that might be very interested in a possible Conference on Uplift?  Yes, regarding “the plausibility of altering the problem-solving or linguistic intelligence of higher animals or humans.”  Oh it would spark a HUGE row! And get everybody on TV.

* Dolphin language? Here’s new research that pretty much verifies my own hypotheses. “Researchers in the United States and Great Britain have made a breakthrough in deciphering dolphin language in which a series of eight objects have been sonically identified by dolphins. Team leader, Jack Kassewitz of, ‘spoke’ to dolphins with the dolphin’s own sound picture words. Dolphins in two separate research centers understood the words, presenting convincing evidence that dolphins employ a universal “sono-pictorial” language of communication.

“...(he) recorded dolphin echolocation sounds as they reflected off a range of eight submersed objects, including a plastic cube, a toy duck and a flowerpot. He discovered that the reflected sounds actually contain sound pictures and when replayed to the dolphin in the form of a game, the dolphin was able to identify the objects with 86% accuracy, providing evidence that dolphins understand echolocation sounds as pictures.  Kassewitz then drove to a different facility and replayed the sound pictures to a dolphin that had not previously experienced them. The second dolphin identified the objects with a similar high success rate.”

Sonic glyphs based on shape reflections? Quick!  To the Predictions Registry!

* Proof that the unconscious ponders complex matters that affect WHEN or IF we consciously become aware of things.

* Woolly mammoth to be brought back to life from cloned bone marrow 'within five years'.  Um... predicted in both EARTH and  EXISTENCE.

* Remember the “arsenic life” that was claimed from a poison lake in California?  A year later, it is still very interesting, but arsenic has NOT replaced phosphorus in the crucial sites along the spine of DNA. Hyped up? Well... probably.

* Two bitingly funny comics online: A History of the World (according to The History Channel) from Tree Lobsters, and Life After College, from Abstruse Goose.

== Politically Relevant ==

* Federal regulators have tentatively approved a nuclear reactor designed by Westinghouse Electric Co. that could power the first atomic plants built from scratch in the U.S. in a generation.

* In terms of weather, 2011 has made it into the record books. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that during this year, there have been 12 different weather disasters that cost more than $1 billion. The previous record was nine in 2008.

Given these two facts -- um, who are the flexible pragmatists and who are the dogmatists who drove us off a cliff in the first decade of the century?

== And the Land of the Bizarre ==

* Afterlife is a system that involves turning a deceased human body back into its core chemical energy. The decedent is placed into the special Afterlife coffin which features small drains in the bottom. The drains lead to microbial fuel cells beneath the coffin that thereupon charge batteries that loved ones can recover and emblem "Dad" and use for some purpose stated in dad's will.

* Smell your way to intuition? "Participants in the study assessed, with some degree of accuracy, how outgoing, anxious or dominant people were after only taking a whiff of their clothes. The study is the first to test whether personality traits can be discerned through body odor."

== Useful?  Or Chilling? ==

* LocAid can use your full cell phone number to figure out exactly where you are right now. Banks and card issuers are interested in checking where their customers are—as a way to reduce fraud—and of retailers interested in sending deals to people nearby.  Currently, the company claims to have a very strongly protective privacy policy in which each request for the info must be presented to the cell phone owner on an opt-in basis.  A reasonable model, if it works and if it is maintained with power in our hands.

* New research published in Science suggests it may be possible to use MRI to induce brain activity patterns to improve performance on tasks involving visual performance, such as playing the piano. This worked even when the subjects weren’t aware of what they were learning. Inspiring or creepy?

== The Paranoia Lamp is Lit! ==

"The commentator says there's "absolutely no explanation" for the nearly Mercury-size mystery object other than that it's a spaceship. "What object in space cloaks itself and doesn't appear until it gets hit by energy from the sun?" siniXster asked.”

Hmmm. well, the official explanation is convincing.  Notice how the “ship” is aimed right at Mercury, and happens to lie over the pixels where the planet had been the previous day or two.  The supports the STEREO spacecraft managers’ explanation that they “subtract the previous day’s pixels in order to enhance the coronal mass (which is normally quite dim). That subtraction creates a visual artifact where the planet had been, the day before.

Still, these “Aha!” moments are fun! They show how excitable amateurs with keen eyes can interact non-destructively with the professionals.  That is exactly the process for a society that blends common-sense skepticism up-top with a T-Cell approach for swarming those low-probability events... one out of a million of which might turn out to be way-huge.

What is criminal and insane has been the recent trend by cynical media to pit us against each other. And especially the recent campaign to turn 1/3 of Americans against every profession of intellect, knowledge and skill.