Saturday, April 28, 2012

Credit where it's due...

In a brief return to political matters...  What won’t the candidates be discussing during this election season? Campaign finance, surveillance, patent reform…are among a few issues that candidates are sure to avoid. What else....?  This mini-slide show shows just a few. In fact, the matters discussed at are (in my opinion) more important -- and here you can vote for the top science issues facing America in 2012.

Put aside preconceptions. Give a read to this thoughtful interview from Rolling Stone to get a sense of where the President is coming from and how he thinks.  It's very insightful, whatever side you might be on.

Example: President Obama said a top priority was to get the US exporting again.  Since then, exports are up 34% and on target for his hoped-for doubling. Ford, GM and - yes - Chrysler are now selling top quality, world class products around the world at record-breaking profits. Companies that Obama’s opponent wanted to let go extinct.

But in fairness... let’s keep some balance here and give credit to the other side as well.  Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has a lot to be proud.  His one significant accomplishment as governor - the health care law that he shepherded into place in Massachusetts - after which President Obama modeled his national plan, appears to be working and is 67% popular in that state. Even conservative media admit progress. Way to go, Mitt.

(Though let’s give equal credit to Newt Gingrich, who largely crafted the Republican Alternative health care plan of 1995, on which Mitt modeled the Massachusetts plan and on which Obama... why is it that even when we reach consensus on a good idea, it can never be pleasant, or at the same time?)

== Is experience in government relevant? ==

Alas, there are other issues. For example, is experience in public service relevant in your qualifications to be president?  People used to think so. As recently as 2008, Republicans touted Senator John McCain’s long military record, followed by many productive years in Congress, as evidence that he grasped the elements of government from several directions and knew how to get things done.  Now watch as the murdochian meme of hating all government, all the time, reaches its fruition with Mitt Romney’s record of public service, the skimpiest in 100 years. One term as governor of a northeastern state... period.  That’s it.  Not even an additional day as mayor or dog catcher.

Now, Rachel Maddow has her own axes to grind. Hardly a detached nonpartisan, hereslf.  But the facts deserve a look. Only then recall what Maddow doesn’t mention.  That Romney got a lot done during that one term, creating a model for sensible health care reform for the entire nation. Come on. Rachel, try to be fair.

All right, I admit I was being a bit sardonic there.  Moreover, it is legitimate for Republicans to repudiate their own proposal of 20 years. “We’ve changed our minds” is a fair enough thing to say.

Still, the ironies come thick and rich and we citizens have a right to chuckle over them.  Picture this distillation offered by one member of my blogmunity: "The president was lambasted by his opponents for getting a congress (controlled by his party) to pass their (the other party's) version of a bill on an issue both parties had been debating for decades."

Okay, you can change your minds.  But why be so angry that the other side went ahead and passed your bill?  It’s the anger that’s dishonest.  Indeed, it is foul.

== Why We Need Whistleblowers ==

In his first television interview since he resigned from the National Security Agency over its domestic surveillance program, William Binney discusses the NSA’s massive power to spy on Americans and why the FBI raided his home after he became a whistleblower. Binney was a key source for investigative journalist James Bamford’s recent exposé in Wired Magazine about how the NSA is quietly building the largest spy center in the country in Bluffdale, Utah. The Utah spy center will contain near-bottomless databases to store all forms of communication collected by the agency, including private emails, cell phone calls, Google searches and other personal data.

Hey. Did I ever say the odds were in our favor?  Look at 6000 years of human history.  Our exceptional approach - dividing power so that we can sic mighty elites upon each other, so they won't prey on us - has always been a creaky, nervous bet. It mostly worked for the last two centuries, but only because people kept upping the ante on reciprocal accountability, the transparency and competitive processes that give us positive sum games.  It is what's worked and it might continue working...

...but to do that we must keep pushing hard, dynamically and vigorously, evading the traps.  (For example the meme spread by Fox that the uber-aristocracy and only the uber-rich are trustworthy, eliminating all other, competing elites.)

watchdog-wolfThere are many ways to let government see more (as the NSA will inevitably do) and yet keep a choke chain on the watch dog, so it never thinks that it's a wolf.  These methods would take some work and good will and a political process that's not frozen by culture war.

But it could still happen...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Space Resources: Re-igniting a can-do spirit of ambition

It appears that a small cabal of the Good Billionaires -- those who got rich through innovation and who feel loyal to the future -- are about to to fund a new effort worth some excitement and attention. It aims at transforming not just our Earth -- but the whole solar system. And, along the way, this endeavor may help bootstrap us back into our natural condition... a species, nation and civilization that believes (again) in can-do ambition.

Can that be achieved - while making us all rich - through asteroid mining? 

In its Tuesday announcement, Space exploration company Planetary Resources will claim a goal to "create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources.'... adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP."

Resources from space? It's not a wholly new concept.  Way back in the 1980s, in his prophetic book - Mining The Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets, And Planets, my friend and colleague John S. Lewis explored in detail the range of minerals, volatiles and other useful materials to be found in all the different types of small bodies we know to be drifting about the solar system, from carbonaceous chondrites to stony or iron meteoroids, to dormant comets which (according to my doctoral thesis) may make up to a third of the asteroids we find out there.*

Back then, as a young fellow at the California Space Institute, I recall many long conversations with John and the few others working in the field, striving to come up with ways to get some movement in this area. Before it became clear that the Space Shuttle would suck up every gram of funding or attention.

 What makes this new effort unique is its high-profile support group. The venture is backed by Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director James Cameron, and politician Ross Perot's son, among others.  Moreover, I am pleased to note that John Lewis is, indeed, one of the major advisors for this new company, along with his former students, noted planetary scientists Chris Lewicki and Tom Jones. 

The founders apparently did their homework. (A Cameron trademark.)  They apparently mean business.

== A Long and Hard Road ==

But what kind of business? Is such a grand project feasible? As I see it, there are a several distinct general problem domains.

1) Prioritizing asteroidal science.  Naturally, as an astronomer who specialized in small solar system bodies, I approve of this phase one. (My wife, Cheryl, also did her doctoral work in this area - we're neighbors in the solar system.) 
It also correlates well with President Obama's wise decision to abandon a fruitless return to the sterile Moon, in favor of studying objects that might make us all rich.

In fact, this seems an excellent time for private funding to make a big difference. New thresholds have been reached. The technologies needed for inexpensive asteroid rendezvous missions are coming to fruition rapidly, as we saw at the recent NASA NIAC meeting.  Some, in fact, are downright amazing, opening the potential for missions that cost mere tens of millions, rather than billions of dollars, confirming and characterizing these fascinating - and possibly lucrative - bodies.

2) Shepherding and changing the trajectories of small meteoroids and asteroids.  There are several techniques on the table.  Some of them surprisingly simple, using solar sails.  We might as well get started! And if these guys can give the technologies a boost, more power to them.

3) Legal, safety and environmental impact considerations. Is it even permissible to grab and "own" space resources? The pertinent treaties were left deliberately vague and it may be time to update them, so that investors in wealth-generating processes can be sure of decent return.

Of much more public concern - and sure to dominate the headlines - will be the image of deliberately moving asteroidal bodies toward the Earth. That's sure to prompt a lot of fretting and talk of lurid disaster scenarios. Oh, we'll start small and aim them toward the Moon or Lagrangian Points (e.g. L5), giving plenty of time to discuss issues of law and care in space. But these fellows need to come up with just the right tone of prudence, avoiding the kinds of lines spoken by Michael Crichton's science-hubris villains.  Like: "all contingencies are accounted for - there's no cause for concern!"

Worth pondering on the up-side: these same technologies might someday prove very useful, if we spot something dangerous, on a long-warning collision course toward Earth.  If done right, this is a potential world-saver, not world-killer.

4) Mining, disassembly, smelting and refining in space.  Here we're still in a very tentative, sketching phase. Most concepts involve using large mirrors to concentrate sunlight and process the raw materials. Or else solar energy to drive heat and electro-mechanical processes indirectly. If this can be done robotically and efficiently, all the way off in L1 or Lunar Orbit, then much smaller masses of refined substance could be transported down to GEO... where electrodynamic tugs might bring it to LEO... where cheap, asteroid-made braking shells would deliver the goods safely to collection points on Earth.

5)  Or, better yet, much of the iron and nickel and such could be used up there in orbit to make more cool things and reduce the burden of launching bulk material out of our planet's deep gravity well.  Certainly, storing the volatiles like water and carbon and nitrogen compounds in orbit-made tanks will be a major side-benefit, providing the materials needed most for both life support and rocket fuel. To derive those benefits would entail learning to do many other things in space. Larger habitats and radiation shielding. Possibly solar energy collectors of massive scale, beaming power 24/7 to Earth. Or grand vessels to explore the planets.

6) Economics. It's a lot more complicated than the first calculations might make you imagine. In Mining The Sky, John Lewis calculates that even just one asteroid a kilometer across - of a certain type - might (if smelted down) produce the world's entire steel production for 10 years!  

It gets better. Try the entire world's gold and silver production for 100 years!  That plus a thousand year's production of platinum-group elements.

The good news?  We would be unleashed to do a myriad things with cheap raw materials, while cutting way back on wasteful, inefficient and polluting processes to mine and process the stuff here on Earth.  Much less digging, grinding and greenhouse gas emissions. All that wealth, generated with solar mirrors melting rocks way out in space.  Talk about improving the balance of payments....

One reality check?  Downstream, after this ball gets fully rolling and initial R&D costs are paid off, you can expect the prices of gold and platinum to plummet.  That's a good thing, overall! We have much better uses for gold than leering gleefully over stupid coins and bars. Still, bear this in mind when you start rubbing your hands over how rich you'll get from asteroid mining.

You won't be rich enough to own the world.  Sorry.  Just very very very rich, from doing a whole heap-loads lot of good for us all.

7) Which brings us to the final positive outcome of all this. We'll all benefit.  But the top fellows who are taking the risks, who will reap a lot of the rewards, happen also to be the good billionaires. Archetypes of how capitalism ought to work.  Self-made moguls who got wealthy by helping engender new-better products and services, not by means that Adam Smith himself derided as parasitism.  These guys have proved, time and again, their loyalty to the positive-sum process that raises all boats.  This is the kind of endeavor that will keep them up there as role models, instead of the new feudalists.

It's certainly how I plan to get rich.  By delivering magnificent, daring products that help take us to the stars.

== NOTES ==

A little colorful aside:
In our 1984 novel Heart of the Comet (soon to be re-released) Gregory Benford and I portrayed a dramatized effort to harvest space resources, by sending a human crewed mission to Halley's Comet in 2065, intending to use the controlled evaporation of the comet's own material (an effect long-known) to divert it into orbit near the Earth.
A bit extravagant in its action-adventure aspects (though based on my doctoral work), the book still conveys the best science known about these mysterious and wonderful bodies, including the main process by which some of them evolve into dormant asteroids.
== And Now...Some Science Potpourri ==

Our Interstellar cousins?  Researchers have found two promising stars, called HIP 87382 and HIP 47399, that had the same metal content and were at the same evolutionary stage as the sun, with similar galactic radial velocities, suggesting that they just might have been formed in the same nursery cloud, over four billion years ago.  If so, the idea is that perhaps planets in that cloud cross-fed each other life (due to meteoroid impacts). Possible places to find cousins and compare genealogies in a Galactic 23&Me?  I'm a bit dubious. That is sixteen galactic rotations ago!  A lot of time for smearing.  Still... kind of a cool notion to mull over.

George Dvorsky writes - perhaps a bit too optimistically - about how the project to disassemble Mercury into a Dyson Shell of orbiting solar collectors might be do-able within the lifespan of some kid alive today.

Several start-ups are looking to develop internet services to the four billion people worldwide who have basic mobile phones but no access to the internet.  Example: Mobile-XL is far from being your typical mobile web browser. It is built to work entirely via SMS, the old-style message system. It works on old-style phones that have Java. The only cost is sending and receiving a text message, substantially cheaper than paying for data in most parts of the world. Another startup: with biNu, webpages can load much faster than on a smartphone, and use far less bandwidth. How? Simple, really. Most of the processing is not done on the phone, but in the cloud. "We virtualize the smartphone.”

A mushroom that can eat plastic! Even at the airless bottom of landfills! cool stuff.

The Nikon Small World competition offers startling, beautiful and fascinating glimpses of the sub-microscopic world.

Printable robots?  Or... robots making robots?  As in Stargate?

== And Finally... A Linguistic Anomaly ==

Pompous teacher: “In some languages, a double negative still means negative.  In a few tongues, two negatives in a row cancel and make a positive. But there is no known case in which a double positive makes a negative!”

Answers snide student: “Yeah, right.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Is Technology offering Transparency...or Spying on us?

A look at how technology enables greater transparency...but not always both ways:

Google Goggles... or Project Glass... is finally announced.  See the official preview... and an amusing satire. These futuristic Goggles would project information directly in your field of vision, offering updates on the time, weather, map directions, road closures, upcoming appointments, names of colleagues, buildings, etc. You will be able to leave memos to yourself, send email to friends, read restaurant reviews and take/share photos or video (but can you do all this while walking?). Of course this is just scratching the surface (so to speak).  I portray this technology taken thirty years into the future (including solutions to the "walking problem), so stay tuned in just three months for a glimpse of where it will all lead. in Existence.  Or see it presaged, back in in ‘89, in Earth.

Ah, but is two-way vision always a good thing? At the Consumer Electronic Show (CES), Smart unveiled a new Smart TV that demonstrated how the seamless integration of sensors, built-in cameras and microphones enabled “smart” features such as gesture control, voice commands and all kinds of interactive and connectivity.  But this Smart TV can also turn into a spy within your home, reporting without your knowledge.  There is no indication as to whether the camera and audio mics are on. You can point the camera toward the ceiling ... but there is no easy way to physically disconnect the mic to ensure that it is not picking up your voice when you don’t intend it to. Will your Smart TV soon be spying on you? Onward Orwell!

Navizon’s Indoor Triangulation System allows anyone carrying a WiFi-equipped smartphone, iPad or notebook computer to be tracked (inside as well as outdoors) without their knowledge or consent -- and with no option to opt out. This Buddy Radar enables locating shoppers in a mall, doctors in a hospital, clients in a convention hall…or lost children in a crowd. If this bothers you --- then disable WiFi on your devices when you’re not using it. Not a convenient solution.

And there’s corporate surveillance: Dunkin Donuts installed an employee monitoring system that monitors  their staff with video cameras and tracks every punch of the cash register. The result: a drop in employee thefts by 13%.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, tells internet users they should demand their personal data from giants such as Facebook and Google:  "One of the issues of social networking silos is that they have the data and I don't … There are no programs that I can run on my computer which allow me to use all the data in each of the social networking systems that I use plus all the data in my calendar plus in my running map site, plus the data in my little fitness gadget and so on to really provide an excellent support to me."

I must agree.  The really frustrating thing is not that elites will know about me.  That's inevitable.  But what is dangerous as hell is their reluctance to let us have full access to our own information... or reciprocal information about them.

==Transparency in Science==

Scientists are not immune to bias, and they should be transparent about the sources of their funding. The director of the US National Institutes of Health called for a  compulsory online registry of researchers' interests as a condition of federal funding. "The public may not always understand the intricacies of rigorous science, but most individuals quickly grasp the concept of bias." Nothing came of this proposal. Each university should have a publicly searchable database of academics' external sources of money. And that's fine, so far... but where does this simply become a way to bully scientists, making them look over their shoulders with every step?

If we scientists do have to set this example of transparent accountability, then can we at least have back a little respect?  And start seeing Wall Street follow suit?

 == Dire news on the medical front==

Up to a third of what the U.S. spends on medical care may be wasted, in large part because of over-testing and over treatment.  Now a major panel has cited nine procedures that doctors should resort to far less often.    Fascinating article.

One of the most highly-valued contributors to this blog’s comment community, an emergency room physician, reports,  “We stand on the brink of the post antibiotic era.” One of the worst antibiotic-resistant staph infection strains called cMSRA, which can penetrate even healthy, intact skin, has just learned to defy the last defensive drug that physicians could use without fearing major consequences to children or the allergy-prone.

This is not a good time to back off from science.  In the 1950s, the most popular man in the United States was Jonas Salk.  Today, most Americans have never heard of him, and nut-jobs on both the left and right rail against vaccination and the Medical Establishment.  It seems we get what we deserve.

== Science & Tech Potpourri ==

Experiments are finally moving ahead with solar updraft power towers... of a kind that I mentioned long ago in Earth. These systems use a very large surrounding “greenhouse” - many square km of clear plastic or glass - that heats air to flow up a tall chimney while driving generators.  Efficiency is much lower than solar thermal, but start-up simplicity and load balancing are attractive, as is mixed use of the land below the sheeting.

==On the Lighter side==

Examples of my Uplift meme used in modern humor.

Terry Bisson’s classic, hilarious little story about why we may not have been contacted. “They’re Made of Meat” has been produced for a lovely, ironic radio show.

The Purdue Society of Professional Engineers team smashed its own world record for largest Rube Goldberg machine with a 300-step behemoth that flawlessly accomplished the simple task of blowing up and popping a balloon.

== And finally...  A Sober Thought on Pop Culture ==

Stooge alert!  (woop, woop, woop!)  Like most American males, and all American kids (something happens to women, I guess) I love the Three Stooges.  I haven’t seen the new movie.  I hope it’s good, though even if it’s great I expect my wife to get her year’s quota of eye-rolling exercise!

Now, let me stand up for this in philosophical terms.  The best of the old scenes weren’t the plain hitting. That was always lame. No, it was those stunning metaphysical contemplations of the inherent, hopeless irony of existence.  In other words... art!  In that art  connects the viewer directly to life's inherent poignancy without words or persuasion.

Take some of the most perplexingly ironic-tragic stooge situational dilemmas, like the boys using Curly as a battering ram to punch through a brick wall, then trying to pry him back out with a crowbar. Oh, the expressions on his face, as the crowbar hook moved back and forth in front of him, preparing to strike like a cobra... or like implacable fate. He is hypnotized, transfixed, the way all of us have been, at various train-wreck moments of "real" life.

Nothing better distilled for me the inherent unfairness of the universe... or the absolute impossibility of human beings being able to think our way out of this puzzling quandary called life - the game that you simply cannot win.  And yet the boys never stopped trying. Persevering. Coming up with one "hey, let's try this!" hopeless gambit after another. And sometimes something brilliantly stupid - or stupidly brilliant - actually worked!  And you came away thinking... maybe I should keep trying, too.

I confess, that philosophical depth may just be rationalizing away what’s really no more than Neanderthal immaturity.  (See the “laughter scene” in the amazing paleolithic film QUEST FOR FIRE.) So? Nevertheless, I made my Tymbrimi and Tytlal characters big stooge fans, and for reasons that they found wholly adequate!

Ever see the Stooge flick in which they made fun of Hitler, a full year before Charlie Chaplin started THE GREAT DICTATOR?  Oh, they had guts too.

Final note.  It is a tragedy that we never had a four stooges film, with brothers Curly Howard and Moe Howard sharing the screen with both Larry Fine and the other brother, Shemp Howard.  I consider Shemp to have been a comic genius of the first order and always enjoy him immensely. I hate the fact that he is excluded from Stooge Festivals on TV. History and fans are unkind to him because we compare him to Curly, who was a force of nature - akin to gravity or electromagnetism.

Oh, never forget that the greatest city in the world -- fittingly the home of Wall Street, where stooge-like intelligence and antics are the norm -- was pre-named, as if precognitively, for one of Curly's most perceptive lines. Nyuck Nyuck.

Whether the new film is a fitting tribute or (most likely) a travesty, still carry the deeper lesson with you, every day. Persevere you knuckleheads, numbskulls and dollfaces. A civilization that can produce such art should be able to achieve anything.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human innovative space concepts

"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." --Arthur C. Clarke

In some cool, exciting news, I can now formally announce the fruition of a project that I’ve been helping put together for some time, led by my colleague, UCSD professor Sheldon Brown.

The University of California, San Diego and the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation have agreed to establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination (ACCCHI) at UCSD. The agreement was signed in conjunction with the Clarke Foundation’s annual international Clarke Awards held on April 12 in Washington, D.C.

What intrigued me most about Arthur's work was his ongoing fascination with human destiny. See my personal tribute to Arthur C. Clarke.

The Clarke Center will foster collaborations among institutions and individuals across a wide range of communities and continents in fields such as technology, education, engineering, health, science, industry, environment, entertainment and the arts.

Its mission will be to develop, catalyze and be a global resource for innovative research, education and leading edge initiatives, drawing upon the under-utilized resources of human imagination..."to explore its sources; to weigh its consequences in human development, including in the advancement of science, literature, and the arts; to examine and predict how creativity intersects with historical moments; and to discover and encourage individuals of all nations and ages, gifted with exceptional insight," according to the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation.

In addition to being celebrated for his multidisciplinary legacy in science and engineering, Arthur C. Clarke is considered one of the most inspiring and engaging science fiction writers of all time for such classics as Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey. His visionary books and papers have fueled the imagination and avocations of young and old for more than six decades.

“The Clarke Center will be a focal point for active collaboration on current and future research and an intersection of disciplines for the purpose of identifying and advancing creative and innovative solutions for the challenges of contemporary and future societies,” said UCSD Vice Chancellor Sandra Brown.

NewModernismUCSD is also known as the university campus that has engendered more scientifically-oriented science fiction authors, among its graduates, than any other in the world. Former chancellor Dynes once ventured "it must be something in the water..."

The New Modernism: Blending Science, Engineering, Art and Human Imagination: Here's the text of the speech I gave at the opening of UCSD's new Structural and Materials Engineering Building, where the Clarke Center will find its new home -- a place where collaboration, innovation, and flow between cultures is not only allowed...but encouraged.

The Clarke Center will address questions such as...

--Where does the fantastic gift of imagination come from?
--How can it be taught and nurtured?
--Can we simultaneously unleash imagination with greater freedom, yet better harness it to individual and human needs?
--How can we develop the art of prediction to become a useful art or science?

Learn more about the Arthur C. Clarke Center for HumanImagination at

== NASA's NIAC explores new concepts ==

And while we're on the subject of scientifically grounded imagination and innovation...

...I thought you'd all like this article about the NASA Innovative and Advance Concepts Program Spring Symposium I attended recently in Pasadena -- featuring some of the stunning ideas receiving small stimulation grants from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NAIC) program. Oh there are still great ideas.  Now to restore the confidence and ambition of a scientific civilization: Is NASA Boring? Not A Chance! 

As a member of the NIAC advisory board, I help appraise these cutting edge new ideas.  Here are just a few that I can share with you.

JPL Explores Sending CubeSats to Phobos

Printing entire buildings, even in space: The Case for Contour Crafting

Electrostatic Active Space Radiation Shielding For Deep Space Missions

Radiation Shielding Materials Containing Hydrogen Boron and Nitrogen

Using Lasers as Tractor Beams 

Heat Shields Made From Dirt? Ice Powered Machines? 

==More Science Fiction==

With the recent public release of the 1940 census data online, popular interest surged. But what questions will be asked on the year 2080 census forms?  Like what is your current sex? Fun article.

For even more far-out ideas? See the brand new Publisher’s Weekly preview recommendation (pick-of-the-week for the entire U.S. publishing industry) for Existence.

And... riffing off of that theme... searching of other places to live and work in the cosmos... we just watched the film Another Earth on DVD.  I knew it was 95% a tear-jerker or “chick-flick” and only 5% about the sudden appearance of a duplicate to our planet, visible from here and rapidly approaching.  The science-fictional elements were there - and somewhat contorted - in service to the inter-personal, angst-driven drama of a girl whose great prospects are dashed by a moment’s foolishness -- and she must deal with guilt and redemption as the giant blue framing device gets ever closer to her world.

Having said all that, we found it intelligent, moving, tense, rewarding... and not at all offensive as sci fi.  Oh, do crank down your sf’nal dials!  Some things are preposterous... while others are cleverly explained or played out.  Worthwhile, including the cool ending.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Take the Wager Challenge...and help push back Culture War

The brilliance of Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Prince Waleed and their clade never ceases to impress me.  Twenty years ago, they were subsidizing Rush Limbaugh and the neoconservatives to spread what's become the core notion of today's right. (Though it also crops up on the far-left!) One that is now fundamental dogma to millions of Americans.

The notion that assertions can trump facts.

Ridiculing the “fact based community,” the party line has become completely untethered from any need for consistency or reference to evidence. Leveraging upon a native and healthy American trait - suspicion of authority - it has metastacised into the cancerous nostrum that all experts are automatically wrong because they know a lot.  From scientists to journalists to judges, medical doctors, academics, diplomats, skilled labor... indeed, the list of knowledge castes under attack at Fox is now almost complete.  (Find the exceptions!) Only the Wall Street oligarchy has been left out.  Those "experts" it seems are indispensable.

Not even Marxists ever found so perfect a way to insulate their followers from dogma-dilution.  Is there any way to get past the nostrums recited by Limbaugh listeners and climate denialists and so on?

I found one.  And it works.  It works very well.

Make it a matter of money.  Stone cold hard cash.

I have found that no amount of facts or evidence will shift an “ostrich” republican back to the old ways of Goldwater and Buckley, in pre-Fox days, when conservatism respected knowledge and facts. Back when the average education level of republicans was higher than democrats, when 40% of scientists were in the GOP, instead of less than 5% today.  When knowledge and intellect weren't the openly declared enemy.

Nevertheless, I found a bullet! When faced with absolute denial and perfect assertion-addiction, one thing cracks the turtle shell. Demanding a wager!

“You are absolutely certain about your list of assertions, even those that sound cockeyed and totally over-the-top, or that denounce all of America's knowledge-experts.  So certain are you, of these Ailes-approved assertions, that you're willing to stake our nation’s future on them, even putting back in charge the idiots who ran America off a cliff in the first decade of this century.  So certain that you’ll demonize every opponent, despise all educated people, and trash any talk of negotiation or compromise.

“Fine.  Only then, if you truly are that certain, make a bet!  Take my money! Back it up with cash that we’ll both deposit with some agreed-neutral party.  I’ll even give you odds. If I am the fool, for disagreeing with you, take money from this fool! (And religion is no excuse; the loser could pay the winner's favorite charity.)

“This matters. You are willing to help ignite the latest phase of the American Civil War, convinced that facts back up your side.  Then show some guts. Put money on it!”

== Clear-cut, provable wagers ==

Here are just a few of the matters I have offered to lay on the table, at various times.  I've made some nice cash. But mostly had the satisfaction of calling the other guy "chicken" when he refused... and seeing him stop using some outrageously false, Roger Ailes talking points.

*  You have your panties in a twist over illegal immigration? Well I bet illegal immigration is always worse under Republicans, who upon taking over savagely cut the Border Patrol.  Democrats reinforce it. In any event, illegal immigration across the Mexico-U.S. border has now, under Obama, reached net-zero.  If you don’t believe it, make a wager and take my money!  Or else, stop ranting about this!

(Side note: many white males are instinctively noticing that the USA is no longer theirs to control, alone.  Some react viscerally against this new era and blame illegal immigrants. But in fact, America's demographics have been changed far more by LEGAL immigration, a matter the GOP never ever raises.  Why not? One has to wonder.)

* You claim we’re in steep moral decline, especially in Blue America. Red America is more moral and knows better how to raise kids up, wholesomely; is that right? Okay, have we shaken on a wager? Then here’s just one clear-fact refutation. Teen pregnancies are highest in states with abstinence-only policies. (In fact, get Crazy Uncle to bet on every point of “immorality” from divorce rates, teen sex, STDs, and domestic violence to almost every type of crime, in Red vs Blue regions.  He’ll lose on all counts.  Take his cash. Or call him a coward.)

* Taxed enough already?  That's the outraged Tea Party mantra.  So make a bet on how high taxes really are in the U.S. today, especially for the rich, compared to any time in the last 80 years.  (Actually, we're at one of the lowest points since 1930.) Or what fraction of the US economy is taken up by the Federal government. Or who is paying more tax and getting less in return. (Hint: Blue America pays more taxes, gets fewer benefits, but... key point... Blue America also whines much much less.)

* The Obama stimulus of the economy in 2009 was a "catastrophe" according to Republicans like Mitt Romney, who wanted the US Auto Industry to go into bankruptcy and receivership, and thereby "learn a lesson." It was claimed that the taxpayer would lose trillions... literally trillions.  So have your uncle bet you whether this is still what he believes... then show him the NET PROFIT that we, the people, are making off the stimulus.

(Then ask him if he thinks we got our money's worth from a decade and two trillion dollars and thousands of lives poured into "nation building" in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Ask him if he knows what fraction of that went to companies co-owned by Dick Cheney.  Finally, ask him why he doesn't know, or care.)

* Obama the socialist? BHO got his  party to pass the republicans’ own health care proposal (circa 1994-2004).  “Obamacare” is essentially the Gingrich Plan, later adopted by Mitt Romney. Don't let them weasel by claiming "We changed our mind!" Sure, they have that right.
But you do not have a right to change your mind AND scream "socialist!" at those who implement YOUR plan. Find a way to parse this as a bet.

*  Here’s one that always works. Offer to bet Crazy Uncle that Rupert Murdoch’s top partner and co-owner at Fox News is a Saudi Prince. He'll deny it in screeching outrage... then he'll refuse to make it a wager.  Nail him with that hypocrisy.

I could go on and on.  Indeed, many of you regulars are tired of hearing these same things recited here.  (Well, you knew it would happen in an election year!)  But that’s not the point, this time.

Sure, I know we won’t change many minds with this tactic.  Negotiation and mind-changing isn't in the cards. Not during outright Civil War. Ailes and co. have succeeded in plunging us down that path and nothing is left but to fight it. With the right symbols.

But at least this’ll arm you to help get the nut-jobs to shut the f$#& up over their favorite ranted assertion-incantations!  Because they care, above all, about their money.

== Hence this OPEN CALL! ==

Come to the comments section (below) and offer your own favorite crazy uncle bets, parsed to go to the heart of a right wing "frame" and easily disprove it.  Offer it up as a clear wager... and provide citations for devastating proof/evidence.  Keep them short n' punchy and focused on crystal clear FALSIFIABLE STATEMENTS or wagers subject to potent proof. I'll publish the best ones here.

Oh, and just for fairness sake... you contrarians or republicans are welcome to offer up ways to bait your dogmatic-leftist crazy aunt, too!

They may not be as numerous or dangerous as the Murdochite loons, right now, but I consider them-there-lefties to be fair game.  Only dig this... try to stick to actual unbiased assertions that real liberals (and not a few campus lefty flakes) actually say, not things Glen Beck claims they say.

I’ll post the top ones on CONTRARY BRIN.

Even better, I hope someone will become convinced to run with this concept and create a web site devoted to Big Political Bets.  As contributions to sanity go, you could do much worse.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Politics of Science...of Hypocrisy... and Transparency

 Several off-angle political threads, this time. Simultaneously partisan yet contrary, ornery and proudly free of the stupid “left-right axis.” Stay tuned next time, though, for an important one -- the Wager Challenge.

== Start with science ==

Now is the time to begin a hard push for the 2012 candidates to participate in a debate on science and technology matters, during the coming electoral season.  Make this an issue!  Shoe that you (you-personally) consider this to be a vital matter, and not just for the presidential candidates!

The one thing that will correlate with future U.S. success, more than any other, will be whether we become - once again - a scientifically-oriented, ambitiously pragmatic, problem solving nation.

Seriously, can you picture America being led by a science ignoramus? (Please, no obvious comments about recent history!)

If we get enough ground swell for this science debate to happen, we might see it every election, and scare the ignorami off entirely.  Please do check out the Science Debate site and actually sign-on. Press the issue.

See also: Unscientific America: Denying Science at Our Peril

== Shake that Etch-a-Sketch! ==  

Sure enough, as expected, the day after poll figures showed him gaining in Pennsylvania -  his last big primary to clinch the GOP nomination - Mitt Romney began his much-expected scurry-to-the-center. "We're Republicans and Democrats in this campaign, but we're all connected with one destiny for America...” and “We have a president who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps, or maybe just not enough time working in the real world."

Not exactly the red meat he was tossing to the party’s hard core, till very recently.  (Also, as the LA Times pondered: It is a potentially self-defeating line of attack: Romney spent four years at Harvard, receiving a law degree and an MBA; Obama spent three years there, graduating from the law school. Also, three of Romney's five sons attended Harvard Business School.)

Heck, while we’re at it... will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?  A funky funny video mash.

More intellectually diverting... see the "Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney," a very clever political spoof by a writer who has clearly consumed WAY too many pop-sci articles about quantum mechanics!  I especially liked the “principle uncertainty principle.”  Just when you think he must run out of QM parallels, he tunnels thru to more.

== If only we were still like this ==

“Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability; instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.”
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about the national character he observed in Democracy in America.  

In truth... millions of us still are like this!  It is the mentality of folks who like good science fiction.

== Ah Transparency ==

Robert Wright‘s column in The Atlantic ponders how the Zimmerman-Martin tragedy might have gone very differently, if both men wore Google Glasses, video recording their encounter to the Cloud.  Awareness that there are witnesses affects human behavior, and even if it didn’t, we’d know exactly what happened.  Wright ponders this cogently - citing my nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to choose between Privacy and Freedom? - and goes on to ponder the downsides.  The potential that such records might be misused either by a Big Brother state or by hundreds of millions of nosy-oppressive “little brothers.”

He is correct to worry we are returning to the classic human condition that reigned in villages of old, wherein everybody knew everything about everybody else.  You might be safer from some kinds of random violence by strangers.  But those villages were also oppressed by the feudal lord and local harpy-gossips, who knew everything about you - and how to use it against you.

Our modern notions of anonymity and privacy stem in part from knowing how easily that cozy old village can turn sour.

Is this the kind of Global Village we’ll see, when everyone on Earth wears Augmented Reality Spectacles, or “specs”?  (As portrayed in my new novel Existence.)  Are we doomed by unstoppable omniscience technology to see ourselves trapped in spirals of ever-steepening, conformity-enforcing judgmentalism?

Not necessarily. in The Transparent Society I refer folks to the popular 1960s song Harper Valley PTA, which illustrates the inherent power of sousveillance, or looking back at the mighty.  There is already very strong evidence that it can let us have the good aspects of the village, and eliminate the bad in a true Positive Sum Game.  But only if the power of reciprocal accountability is true, and no mirage.

That is the critical matter before us.  The omni-vision provided by “specs” is coming, like it or not.  But we still have time to make this universal light truly empowering to average folk to protect their personal space and eccentricity, granting them one special capability, above all other godlike traits. The ability to be left alone.

== More on this. Reciprocality can be a bitch ==

What goes around comes around.  See how the landlord of an abortion clinic politely, but effectively, turned the tables on protesters who started targeting his 11 year old daughter.

A good example of reciprocality at work. Alas though, things keep getting worrisome.  I began writing The Transparent Society back in 1987, when I lived in Britain and witnessed the bare beginnings of the U.K.’s love affair with massive police surveillance.  Now that country is exporting the technologies to oppressive regimes around the world. Privacy International, which monitors the use of surveillance technology, claims equipment being exported includes devices known as "IMSI catchers" that masquerade as normal mobile phone masts and identify phone users and malware – software that can allow its operator to control a target's computer, while allowing the interception to remain undetected.

Want to see the latest salvo, fired by those who want society to go back to feudalism?  Conservatives are arming up for their war on public universities, trying to de-fund them, destroy them, and replace them with for-profit colleges. Seriously, it is even a slogan.  “Defund public universities.” If this is what conservatism has become, then we know what that whirring sound is: the spinning in Barry Goldwater's grave.

== The Good News on U.S. Energy Independence ==

Not only has the United States reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years, it has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency. The natural gas industry, which less than a decade ago feared running out of domestic gas, is suddenly dealing with a glut so vast that import facilities are applying for licenses to export gas to Europe and Asia. ...  This surge is hardly without consequences!  But the turnaround may buy time to move to more sustainable energy sources.  And it may prove a factor in this year’s U.S. elections.

== Next time... the Wager Challenge! ==

I plan to offer a silver bullet for Culture War.  Oh, it won't solve our current political insanity, but it should offer sensible, fact-oriented folks like you and me a way to corner those loonies of the far-left and the entire-right who have transformed political discourse in the United States from a matter of pragmatic negotiation into outright Civil War.  Maybe even a way to get some of them to shut the &$!# up.

Come back next time for the Wager Challenge!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

From The Brick Moon to Telstar

It's well known that in 1865, Jules Verne published his novel, De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), which includes the concept of human spaceflight. And yet, Verne never discussed the far more practical notion of of an artificial satellite orbiting Earth.

For that it took an American, Edward Everett Hale (author of The Man Without a Country).  The Brick Moon was published serially in Atlantic Monthly starting in 1869.  And it is absolutely amazing.  Almost every other paragraph you are either chortling over some bit of what we’d now call scientific naiveté... or else staring at the page in disbelief that some folks back then had such clear notions as geo-stationary navigation satellites. 

The entire book is available on Project Gutenberg -- where you can download for free much of our literary heritage.

The Brick Moon, 200 feet in diameter, was a polar-orbiting satellite (built from 12 million bricks) intended to establish a space meridian to assist with navigation—to help ships determine longitude. Hale called it "the blessing of all seamen." And how was it launched? With two massive flywheels:

Then, before we began even to build the moon, before we even began to make the brick, we would build two gigantic fly-wheels, the diameter of each should be ever so great, the circumference heavy beyond all precedent, and thundering strong, so that no temptation might burst it. They should revolve, their edges nearly touching, in opposite directions, for years, if it were necessary, to accumulate power, driven by some waterfall now wasted to the world. One should be a little heavier than the other. When the Brick Moon was finished, and all was ready, IT should be gently rolled down a gigantic groove provided for it, till it lighted on the edge of both wheels at the same instant. Of course it would not rest there, not the ten-thousandth part of a second. It would be snapped upward, as a drop of water from a grindstone. Upward and upward; but the heavier wheel would have deflected it a little from the vertical. Upward and northward it would rise, therefore, till it had passed the axis of the world. 

It would, of course, feel the world's attraction all the time, which would bend its flight gently, but still it would leave the world more and more behind. Upward still, but now southward, till it had traversed more than one hundred and eighty degrees of a circle. Little resistance, indeed, after it had cleared the forty or fifty miles of visible atmosphere. "Now let it fall," said Q., inspired with the vision. "Let it fall, and the sooner the better! The curve it is now on will forever clear the world; and over the meridian of that lonely waterfall,—if only we have rightly adjusted the gigantic flies,—will forever revolve, in its obedient orbit, the—BRICK MOON, the blessing of all seamen,—as constant in all change as its older sister has been fickle.

One complication ensues:  the satellite is accidentally launched, with people aboard… and yet more mixtures of hilarity and awed respect proceed to unfold.

In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke published an article, Extra-Terrestrial Relays, in Wireless World magazine envisioning a global communications network, using satellites in geosynchronous orbit. This was twelve years before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, setting off the Space Race to the moon. A time of enthusiasm and innovation that is sorely lacking today.

Twenty years later, Intelsat I Early Bird, the first commercial geostationary communication satellite was launched. Since then, satellites have become essential to our daily life, as we rely upon them for telecommunications, weather prediction, geolocation and defense imaging.

See this interactive History of Satellites Timeline, ranging from Jules Verne to Telstar to DIRECTV and beyond.

==Miscellaneous Items==

See a collection of my articles: Speculations on Science Fiction. As well as resources for using science fiction in the classroom to teach and illustrate science.

Humans have created a vast population of robotic workers to take on the tasks that they no longer want to carry out themselves, resulting in a disenchanted robot underclass that that takes over the Brixton area of South London. This is the premise of an incredible short film called ‘Robots of Brixton’ by Factory Fifteen, a collective of six animators based in London.

A cool, quasi-classical piece inspired by my characters and stories is available on iTunes.  “Tytlal Wave” has both beauty and whimsey - by Maestro Siderious.

 == Fund science & explore the world with renowned researchers == 

So far, science has been funded by gracious-rich patrons, or by governments or universities... so how about crowd sourcing to help fund science research: Choose your own projects through Petridish: a crowdfunding site, where scientists  can showcase their research to the public. In exchange, you will receive updates, acknowledgement and/or various rewards (photographs, DVD, field samples, journal acknowledgment, or invitations to talks/dinner), plus the satisfaction of assisting scientists trying to understand our world. (Donations are not currently tax deductible.)  Way cool.

A cute and zealously enthusiastic (and much too blithe) essay on the coming singularity.

And a brief - but more broad and cautious - essay of mine (tangentially related to my latest novel, Existence) appeared on the site of the TechCast virtual think tank, tracking the technical revolution: “Is there such a thing as human destiny?”