Friday, March 25, 2011

Interesting Times: Lessons to Learn From a Flood of Changes

Remember the curse: may you live in interesting times? Oy! What a couple of weeks! This was what any given week of 1968 felt like... only 1968 was like this all year long without any let-up. (Example: my father was 40 feet from Bobby Kennedy when he was shot.) Well, at least the music was great...

Anyway, with all the news that’s hitting the fan, it seems a good time to unleash my torrent of pent up political observations and unconventional perspectives. Hang on, it’ll be a ride.


Here's culture war distilled to its essence. Saturday we are being asked to perform a pair of contradictory futile gestures, by sanctimony-junkies at both ends of the political spectrum. If I must choose between these gestures, I will hands-down pick the first of them. And so will any sensible person who can do the math. That is, anyone who can see that the planet can’t sustain eight billion greedy humans without some effort at efficiency, innovation, compromise and maturity on our part.

earthhourandglobalmapEarth Hour 2011: Turn off all lights at 8:30 pm local time Saturday. It's pretty much self-explanatory. A gesture. Our family plans to take part. Though this is not how we'll save the world.

In response, the Competitive Enterprise Institute organized Human Achievement Hour for the same time slot, urging us to keep lights, TVs & internet on "to show that you don't support efforts to curb energy use."

First off, the Competitive Enterprise Institute is one of those hilariously-named right wing orgs made up of people who praise Adam Smith, without ever having read him, who yatter about "competition" while sucking up to oligarchs, and who promote Human Achievement without having themselves added a scintilla to human knowledge or progress. They tout their response as "a celebration of individual freedom and appreciation of the achievements and innovations that people have used to improve their lives throughout history"...

...while ignoring the fact that nearly all the scientists, researchers, innovators, teachers, journalists and others who have made human progress happen utterly despise them and their treasonous "culture war." If we took a demographic survey of those turning off lights, Saturday night, vs those running around the house turning them on, I’d bet $1,000 the first group included a far higher fraction of people who became skilled and educated contributors to Human Achievement.

While activists on the left can sometimes be a bit smarmy and finger-wagging, even politically-correct sanctimonious, those on the right have gone entirely mad. They have inflicted upon us the War on Science and the war on every other caste in society that knows or accomplishes things. Me? I plan to turn off the lights for an hour and talk to my kids about how our ancestors lived. And how Star Trek won't happen by EITHER wasting it all, OR by shivering in the dark. It will come from assertively, confidently moving forward.


"The only foreign advisor we need is Google Earth."
-- a Libyan rebel officer, as heard in an interview on NPR's Morning Edition, 3/25/2011

Yipe! More on that soon.... But first...


How many people died with fully-charged, sophisticated pocket-radios in their hands, trying desperately to send a text message that said “Help! I am buried at _____”? How many more will perish, when calamity strikes, time and time again around the world, because victims find themselves trapped in a disaster area where the cell system has gone down?

FrailCellPhoneAre you satisfied with a system that not only can let you down in an emergency, but that is absolutely guaranteed to fail, at some time of dire crisis, when you need it most? If you aren’t satisfied with that prospect, what do you plan to do about it?

For fifteen years I hectored contacts at Defense, FEMA, Homeland Security and other agencies, urging them to at least study possible fixes to this brittle situation. One solution that I’ve pushed would cost almost nothing and might be (almost) trivial to implement. Simply require that all cell phones be equipped to pass along text messages on a peer-to peer (P2P-packet) basis, all the way to the edge of the afflicted zone, whereupon they can be sent on their way.

Predictably, the cell-cos hate the idea, but only for emotional reasons, since it has been shown that actual implementation would be easy. Nor need there be even a slight diminishing of revenue! (Phones that pass P2P texts can be pre programmed to report these transactions, for billing purposes!) Such a capability might even expand the company’s claimed area of coverage, since many “shadowed” or “last mile” regions could thereupon engage in texting.

Let’s be plain here. After refusing to even investigate this possibility, the companies and agencies who have refused to even look into such an obvious fix are culpable. The next time disaster victims suffer or die because they cannot use their phones to call for help, the word to describe these each of lazy executives will be “murderer.”

==See: Designed to let us down -- Our deliberately frail cell phone system.


WholeEarthLarge-filteredI consider myself to be one of the “techno-hippies,” like Stewart Brand, who have been pushing the “new nuclear renaissance,” I am not unaware of the drawbacks! But we believe the newest fission power designs are light years ahead of the kind of boiling water reactor that broke down in Japan, quake and tsunami ravaged northeast. With climate change, pollution, energy shortages and dependence upon unsavory petro-princes all in mind, these new designs still seem worth careful prototyping. Indeed, more than ever, so that the crotchety designs of 50 years ago can be retired.

Statistcs are telling. The number of people who have died, per megawatt-hour of power produced by each type of energy system, are by far highest for coal and oil... and by far lowest for nuclear power. Lower even than solar. By an order of magnitude.

Nevertheless, the terrifying situation in Japan is rivetting and compels an open mind to new thoughts. Some lessons leap out at us.

First, the horrific behavior of the Tokyo Power company, both before and during the crisis, is an archetype of what can go wrong when a single, monolithic institution is both in charge of critical infrastructure and responsible for its own accountability. This crisis was avoidable. Even in the face of nature’s unprecedented fury.

But the lies and shortcuts taken before the calamity pale next to those uttered during the aftermath. The lessons are clear:

* We should never, ever allow a single agency or company the power to issue reassuring “truths” without competing sources of verification and scrutiny. A demure, respectful society like Japan appears to be particularly prone to this failure mode. In contrast, these independent sources exist along the west coast of the US, in about a dozen of the finest universities on the planet... and hence, efforts by Fox News to drum up panic over a “Japanese radioactivity cloud” failed. (See this further example of top-notch journalism.)

* Likewise, any new nuclear endeavors... indeed all risky-bold new endeavors of any kind... should be surveiled and monitored by multiple independent groups that include the most devoted enemies of the program! True, these are the most irksome people to have around, when you are trying to get things done. But they are also the ones most likely to leap upon any potential failure mode and make absolutely sure that it is attended-to. Critics are the only known antibodies against the self-deception of bright guys, who all too easily assume they have got everything sussed.

Here are the twin principles of error-avoiding transparency:
1) Paranoid critics should be given full access to all information and full-voice to all of their concerns. They should then be part of the routine inspectorate that pokes at every complacency.
2) Once their concerns have been dealt with, those same critics must not be allowed to decide whether we move forward.

* Reiterating that point. While improving transparency and caution, we must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges. Here is the one area where the left can be just as jibbering loony as the right. A plague of timidity will not help us triumph over the problems that we face. However it is rationalized, by dunces at both ends of the spectrum, cynical anti-ambition propaganda is a poison that may kill all hope.

* Clearly, the spent fuel rods that spend five years cooling down in pools next to today’s light-water nuclear reactors are more dangerous than most of us were led to believe. Hence, it is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain. The U.S. needs a semi-permanent nuclear waste facility and the exuses given, for delaying this, are simply dumb. (For people who don’t give a damn about the world a century from now to howl about some hypothetical leak that might occur in 10,000 years is utter hypocrisy.

How about betting on our children? I am 99% certain that the cannisters stored in Yucca Mountain won’t have to last 10,000 years!. They will be withdrawn in less than a century, like deposts in a bank! By descendants who are far more advanced that us and who see those rare elements as unmatched resources for fabulous projects! Why is no one able to even mention this most-likely outcome?

Promise the State of Nevada a 5% royalty on everything and anything ever withdrawn from the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Resource Bank and Reserve. If they really can think in terms of deep time, they should leap at the investment.


* Canadian regulators announced last week they would reject efforts by Canada's right-wing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, to repeal a law that forbids lying on broadcast news. Canada's Radio Act requires that "a licenser may not broadcast ... any false or misleading news." The provision has kept Fox News and right-wing talk radio out of Canada. (This article is a bit florid. I’d love to hear more about it from a more neutral source. Will someone check and report in?)

* Congress has finally acted on global warming—by denying it exists. It’s in the grand lawmaking tradition of the Indiana state legislature’s 1897 attempt to redefine the value of pi.

* See a fascinating statistical analysis of the steep climb, over the last 20 years, in the average number of wives per GOP presidential candidate. For example, former House Speaker (and fellow science fiction author) Newt Gingich is one of four GOP prospects who has enjoyed three "traditional marriages" in his life. Indeed, an unusually high wives-to candidate ratio may be the most remarkable feature of the emerging Republican field. I really don’t have anything to add... except that I would love to see a similar chart for democratic candidates, who seem to have been - with the exception of John Edwards, a rather staid and boring bunch. (Let’s be fair. A couple of the candidates cited were widowers... still...)

* A CEO, a TeaParty activist, and a Union member sit at a table. In the middle of the table is a plate of a dozen warm, delicious cookies. The CEO takes 11, then wispers to the teapartier, "look out, that socialist guy wants to take a big piece of your cookie!"

*See a cute riff of Keynes vs Hayek. Somewhat biased but very thought provoking. And hilarious! (In fact, both Hayek and Keynes have been proved partly right. Hayek was correct that limited knowledge and personal bias stymie any small group from allocating well over the long run... though his followers seem to think this lesson applies only to government bureaucrats and not to a few hundred conniving oligarchic golf buddies engaged in cheating, interlocking directorates and insider trading! Keynes under-rated savings. But when you need him you need him. And he was right more often than not.)


On another list I've been discussing how Fox Mogul Rupert Murdoch and his Saudi partners manage to pull it off -- to make tons of money at Fox News, despite being hated by a majority of people. The answer is pretty simple. The OJ Simpson Effect says that you do not need to be liked by the majority, nowadays. An ample minority will do. (OJ will never pay for another meal in his life, even though 9% of Americans hate him.)

Blue America retains diversity and divides its attention in all sorts of directions, patronizing diverse news sources. Red America is cloned from the Olde Confederacy, where a single message was and remains the tribal motif. By radicalizing the message to ever-greater extremes, Rupert can demonize ALL other competing outlets and keep his base suckling at one and only one teat. His teat.

What a fantastic business model! That is... till the rumblings of a "Boycott Fox Advertisers!" campaign starts gaining traction. (It is one of several reasons I monthly dial in to get a dose of Beck. First, in order to stare in awe... and second to re-verify that he is truth-free... but third to learn what products NOT to buy.)

Someday, as happened in 1861, Blue America will awaken. Boycotting Fox advertisers will be the simplest way to end this.

You'll note that Beck is already immune. Many of his "sponsors" are other Murdoch-owned businesses. Clearly, Murdoch wants him on the air, period. (Ever watched “Network”?)

But the Fox& Friends show is another matter. When you finally get fed up enough, start contacting everybody on the list. Tell any company you find there that you won’t buy from them. Spread the word.


Ever miss the old Soviet loonies, back when the Biggest Lies and tallest tall stories came mostly from the commie left? Well enjoy this throwback old dinosaur.

Capitalism may be to blame for the lack of life on the planet Mars, Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez said.

More soon. And lordy, don’t let this be 1968.....

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Japan Tragedy, nukes, maturity, uplift and more...

There are so many levels I want to write about, in responding to the horrible tragedy in Japan. I'll offer just two that come to my stunned mind, and follow up later.

First of all, this is breathtaking in its transfixing horror. The images and video footage show both how technologically advanced and well prepared the Japanese were... and how woefully lacking any preparations can be, in the face of such overpowering natural force. We live on a planet that has allowed our numbers to swell into seven billions, largely because it’s been so calm and predictable throughout the holocene epoch (since the ice ages ended). Nowadays, we fret over tiny atmospheric wobbles like snowstorms or tornadoes or piddling hurricanes, while taking for granted the glassy smoothness of oceans, around whose rim we’ve perched most of our cities, utterly depending on them not to vary height even to a hundredth of a percent! A degree that would be imperceptible in your bathtub.

While our hearts and prayers -- and urgent aid -- must go out to the people of Japan (which also happens to be one of the most future-and-SF-oriented nations in the world), let’s also ponder what we can all do to enhance the resilience and robustness of our own homes, communities and civilization. (One of my frequent themes.) You’ve heard me promote CERT training, for example, but there are so many other things, all the way down to keeping a vegetable garden. And helping reverse the trend toward absurd grouchy nostalgia that’s sweeping both right and left. Seriously.

Point two -- the news from Japan is clearly a setback for those of us pushing for a gradual, prudent resumption of US endeavors in nuclear power. (This movement includes many of the “tech-liberals" like Stewart Brand, helping turn it into a bipartisan movement.) In fact, the negligence of the operating company -- Tokyo Power, which has been cited for violations frequently in the past -- is appalling!

“The central problem arises from a series of failures that began after the tsunami. It easily overcame the sea walls surrounding the Fukushima plant. It swamped the diesel generators, which were placed in a low-lying area, apparently because of misplaced confidence that the sea walls would protect them.” (From the NY Times.)

This was supremely bad management and the whole world will suffer, because of new suspicion of nuclear power. This was so avoidable. Such a blatantly stupid failure mode would never happen here, where there are backups to backups to backups... and we have other stupidities, all our own.

On the other hand, it slaps the face of all those who said that US nuclear regulations have been “obviously” absurd.

There is no single direction to the lessons here. It has long been obvious that some streamlining and fast-tracking of a return to nuclear in the US is called for. In fact, Obama pushed through the first speedup and simplification of nuclear licensing in the US in 50 years, though tepidly according to some of the zealots. (It will still take years.) Nevertheless. This is something we must process, meticulously. And Fukushima illustrates that there is a place for nitpicking and quadrupled precautions.

The New York Times has a wonderful interactive graphic: How a Nuclear Reactor shuts down and What Happens in a Meltdown. For accurate info on the nuclear aspects of this disaster, try the IAEA site.


I was asked by the editors of Psychology Today to join with other notables in answering a very specific question: “What smart move comes naturally to kids, but not so much to grown-ups?”

My reply: I would choose the childhood habit of seeing the world as filled with possibility for dramatic change. Children know that their future will be different than their present. Change may bring instability and pain -- youth can be a fearful time. But there is often an accompanying sense that the changing future will be theirs to engage with a personal power that increases, gradually, day-by-day. The dawning of ambition to "become" an adult of substance in the world to come.

This is seen in childrens' storytelling tastes -- the fantasy and science fiction that are sometimes dismally dismissed as "childrens' literature" by minds that have lost all flexibility and that cling desperately to an illusion of static "eternal verities." Young people know less, but they are certain that change will come. And they are much more courageous about facing it.

=== Looking to the Future  ===

Someone file this in the predictions wiki! ”I think that may be the most important thing to notice, as we turn away from the past and face the future. The road ahead remains long, hard and murky. Our achievements often seem dim compared to imperfections that are left unsolved. But at this rate, who will bet me that a woman or a person of color won't preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars?”

That is from my year 2000 essay about “2001 and the real milestones of progress.” I had forgotten about that! Gee willikers! What does it take to get some cred around here!

And while we’re at it... one more for the predictions registry! This appears to validate the notion of my “probationers in my novel SUNDIVER. ”The latest neuroscience research is presenting intriguing evidence that the brains of certain kinds of criminals are different from those of the rest of the population.” (Someone please go post these!)

This amazing pictorial chronology of Science Fiction, by Ward Shelly, charts the genre’s rise from fear and wonder, legends and mythology, on to Space Opera, the Golden Age, New Wave, and Cyber Punk, with side branches toward Gothic Novels, fantasy and horror. Click on the high resolution image to see details.


“Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences.”

Though I don't always trust the Atlantic -- (their war against science fiction goes back decades and reflects an inherent hatred of the future, proving that the left can (on occasion) be almost as bad as the right) -- I do find this topic fascinating. The potential obsolescence of the human male, who seems very good at inventing civilization but less suited to living in it, was explored in my novel GLORY SEASON.

Man-down-abramsSee also Man Down by Dan Abrams: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About Everything Else.

A research team at Georgia Tech hopes to make augmented reality (AR) on smart phones more useful by developing an open standard for it.

Alien Planet is a 94-minute docufiction, originally airing on the Discovery Channel, about two internationally built robot probes searching for alien life on the fictional planet Darwin IV. It was based on the book Expedition, by sci-fi/fantasy artist and writer Wayne Douglas Barlowe, who was also executive producer on the special. It premiered on May 14, 2005.

An absolutely stunning virtual walk through of the Lascaux caves and their prehistoric artwork. You’ll feel like you’re there. In fact, since they are closed to the public. This may be as close as you'll ever get… Alas. Try to imagine them doing all this by torchlight. Imagine their lives and thoughts. This was part of the first great awakening.

The other day I was in Palo Alto, at a workshop held by the Institute for the Future about “open fabrication” -- the future of “desktop factories” that will empower pwople to design components or items by computer and then print them out, much as they print a document today. (I was poking at this field as long ago as 1979!) There I met Scott Summit, a young guy whose small company makes stylish and cool outer "farings" for artificial limbs. This slide show is worth seeing. But he brought samples of others that were even cooler. One woman client of his has ordered a dozen different limb covers in different styles and now she wears skirts!

See some cool goin’s-on in this area! e.g. Welcome to the Thingiverse. “This is a place to share digital designs that can be made into real, physical objects.”

Perhaps you thought the four-legged BigDog robot wasn’t eerily lifelike enough. That’ll change soon. BigDog’s makers are working on a new quadruped that moves faster than any human and is agile enough to “chase and evade.”

Physicists have built the world's first device that can cancel out a laser beam - a so-called anti-laser. The device, created by a team from Yale University, is capable of absorbing an incoming laser beam entirely. But this is not intended as a defense against high-power laser weapons, the researchers said. Instead they think it could be used in next-generation supercomputers which will be built with components that use light rather than electrons.

What would YOU spend a billion dollars on? The question is posed to a number of scientists by Scientific American.

“Life” observed in another meteorite? Ah. As I wrote, the very day the story broke, the telltale is the source journal with a hifalutin name - the "Journal of Cosmology." I've dealt with these people before. They are champions of the Panspermia Theories of interstellar life-transmission promoted by Chandra Wickramasinghe and are far from unbiased on the matter. Indeed, I find this "journal" to border on the amateurish. Articles that appear there may be credible... but should be viewed tentatively, contingently and with caution.

That is not to say that comets or asteroids won't ever show signs of lifel! Wickramasinghe's speculations, while a bit wild, are not entirely implausible. In HEART OF THE COMET (1984) I forecast exactly this kind of discovery! I just feel we should exercise care when judging "science articles" and always consider the source.


Dr. Anthony Atala, a regenerative medicine specialist at Wake Forest University, is pioneering the use of printing techniques to reconstruct and repair human flesh and organs. The basis is a combination of cultured human cells and scaffolding built or woven from organic material. In one staggering setup, a patient lies on a table and a flatbed scanner literally scans her wound, followed by a printer that adds just the right types of tissues back on at the right depth. The next evolving step is the use of 3-D printers, which I wrote about on Tuesday, to rebuild human organs.

An important shift in transparency law! Read all of this posting by the federal trade commission regarding truth in advertising, which is undergoing important changes. It’s all interesting and important. But four paragraphs down you’ll find that even amateur blogger must make some kind of disclosure if they are pushing a word-of-mouth campaign for a product, and they have a pertinent, substantial relationship with the company making or offering the product!

Do not expect the endorsement police to come crashing in on you. This is mostly for celebrities or the new generation of “super-shopper” folks who spread viral fads on purpose and for profit. Still, it is worth keeping up to date on this trend. A trend that is good, overall, but that bears some caution, agility, and ongoing awareness.

See a blog that lists some of the best blogs written by... authors!

Eek! Creepy! Way into the Uncanny valley. "The Geminoid family, a series of ultra-realistic androids, each a copy of a real person, has a new member: Geminoid DK, a . The robot has lifelike facial features and movements, blinking, smiling, frowning with incredible realism. The Danish researcher, Henrik Scharfe of Aalborg University, teamed up with Japanese animatronics firm Kokoro and roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro to create his robot twin, which he plans to use to study human-robot interaction and cultural differences in the perception of robots. This is the first Geminoid that is not based on a Japanese person; it's also the first bearded one."

Home chemistry: making luminol., You ought to find this cool, even if you don't understand it!

At a joint press conference Monday with Virgin Galactic at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, XCOR, SwRI, and others, Astronauts for Hire Inc. announced the selection of its third class of commercial scientist-astronaut candidates to conduct experiments on suborbital flights. Among those selected was Singularity University inaugural program faculty advisor, teaching fellow, and track chair Christopher Altman, a facebook friend, BTW. frontier-in-space

Spike-driven uplift? Oy! "Sex would be a very different proposition for humans if -- like some animals including chimpanzees, macaques and mice -- men had penises studded with small, hard spines....

"Published in Nature, the research also suggests a molecular mechanism for how we evolved bigger brains than chimpanzees and lost the small sensory whiskers that the apes -- who are amongst our closest relatives and with whom it has been estimated we share 96% of our DNA -- have on their face.

"Inserting the chimpanzee sequences into mouse embryos revealed that the former sequence produced both the hard penile spines and sensory whiskers present in some animals. The latter sequence acted as a kind of brake on the growth of specific brain regions -- with the removal of its function appearing to have paved the way for the evolution of the larger human brain."

Okay, now this is starting to look scary-like uplift...


Announcing the availability of The Transparent Society on Kindle!  Called one of the most important works on freedom and privacy in the last three decades and winner of the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

Also new on e-books - Contacting Aliens too, and Star Wars on Trial! And the Uplift novels as well.

---- And finally ---

Cute look at a japanese exoskeleton at work: Skeletronics.

Check out SMBC Comics. Har!

Fave intellectual jokes.

And finally.  The future we could’ve had! These retro-futuristic images date back to 1910. Flying firemen. Mechanical barbers. Wiring books directly into student’s brains – powered by a handcrank! A home fireplace heated by radium.