Sunday, December 30, 2012

Thoughts of astronomy and space… and a trip report… and the cliff!

One outgrowth of DARPA's 100 year Starship project has been serious attention to certain potential FTL (faster than light) drives that might open access to the galaxy. One that gained a sudden burst of attention (and some slim support from NASA) is described at io9 by George Dvorsky, though it's appeared in SF tales (including my own) for decades. Fascinating, indeed... and also worrisome, in that it would leave only three possible answers to the Fermi Paradox. (1) We're the first. (2) It becomes a terrible weapon that destroys species who use it. (3) it is the means by which fierce, galaxy-wide law is enforced.  Including whatever law now keeps us isolated in silence. Once you get a cheap and easy warp drive, those are just about the only three possibilities that are left.

NASA is apparently thinking seriously about launching astronauts to Earth-moon L2, a spot in space beyond the moon's far side. EML-2 is a so-called libration point where the gravitational pulls of the moon and Earth roughly balance out, allowing spacecraft to essentially park there. Astronauts would ride to EML-2 aboard NASA's Orion capsule, which is being built by Lockheed Martin. Orion would get off the ground atop the Space Launch System (SLS), the agency's huge new deep-space rocket. The launcher's first unmanned test flight is slated for 2017, and NASA hopes the SLS-Orion combo will begin carrying crews by 2021.

Why (Earth-moon) L2? From there, astronauts could teleoperate rovers on the far side with relative ease, helping explore a part of the moon that remains little-studied to date.  But ther's another reason. Though it has many ambitious aspects, setting the stage for Asteroidal and even Mars missions, it will be perched at a point from which it is very easy to get home, should something go wrong.  In fact, it is the farthest you can get from home, and still have an almost-free return ride.

Now the dissenting view:  Is there really any need for this, right now? The Orion and SLS are starting to look like dinosaurs, in an era when Elon Musk's Falcon and Dragon may lead to similar capabilities at far lower cost and several other private space ventures appear on the verge of bearing fruit, as well. When you get right down to it, almost anything humans can do at L2 can be done by robots and the biggest reason to go with humans is to justify the existence of Orion and SLS. Far mor interesting might be to actually start doing something interesting with the International Space Station!  Oh, but that's another story.

Spelunking Rover for the moon? I've met Willaim "Red" Whittaker, who wants to send robots probing lava tubes that we have reason to think may be up there, and that might be potentially great resources to serve as habitats for lunar stations. Serving on NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts advisory board, I helped appraise this cool concept.  The Moon isn't the only astronomical body that is pocked with holes. Pits on Mars, lined up like strung beads above what seem to be lava tubes, promise to reveal details about the planet's inner layers without the need for drilling holes. And underground caves on Mars could shelter ice deposits, or even remnants of life.

== While here on Earth... ==

Out of 13,950 peer-reviewed climate articles over 11 years, 24 rejected global warming. Most of the "papers" claiming to refute human generated climate change are issued by think tanks and not published in the competitive peer-reviewed  journals. Moreover, those think tanks are often politically affiliated and - in many cases - were formerly associated with similar obstruction-denial campaigns that delayed consensus about the disease causing effects of tobacco... or earlier, the smog causing effects of auto pollution.  The chief excuse offered by such folks, when shown the near universal scientific consensus?  That scientists are herd-creatures, timidly following each other and grubbing climate grants. Such apologists have never met scientists, who are the most competitive humans, ever. So what's the next excuse for inaction?

Do you think we in the USA live in times of exceptional danger and division and paranoia?  It ebbs and flows. Periods of reason seem to alternate with wild-eyed plotting and attempted putsches.  Watch this history video about the purported plot on 1934 to persuade Gen. Smedley Butler to lead an effective coup, modeled on Mussilini's black shirts, against the elected government of the U.S.

All political wings have raving lunatics like this.  And yes, they exist on the left, too! But there's a difference.  These guys are inside the Georgia State Legislature.  They are among its leaders. And their kind now chairs the House Science Committee.  The Science Committee.  Of the House of Representatives.  Of the United States of America.

Ah but let's move back from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Inspiring!  Poor kids playing instruments (mostly) made from recycled bits!

== Caribbean sojourn details ==

Though I have posted summaries over the last few weeks, here are some details from our trip. First we flew to Miami to board the Norwegian Cruise Line's flagship, The Pearl, for a 7-day "Not the End of the World" Caribbean cruise (our first cruise ever) featuring speeches and seminars by astronaut Steve Hawley, Mayan expert Inga Calvin, several astronomers including Erica Ellingson and Nick Schneider, Hollywood science-advisor/producers Kevin Grazier and Andre Bormanis, plus a pair of sci fi authors (Rob Sawyer & David) for onboard seminars and great astronomical fun. We marked this event deep within the Yucatan jungle, at Coba, climaxing with 200 skeptics climbing the second-highest Mayan Temple, defying the much ballyhooed completion of the Mayan calendrical b'ak'tun, greeting the winter solstice with the skeptics' incantation -- a headshake and a jocular "naaaaah!"

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd thus we appear to have succeeded at staving off the end of the world. And as Fox tells us, appearances are the same as absolute proof!  So you're welcome.

Oh but the trip wasn't all hard, planet-saving work. Cheryl and I also managed to appreciate the  Pearl, whose gracious chief engineer gave eight of us an exclusive tour of engines, purifiers and other systems. (Cruise ships are marvels: truly test beds for starships, as I depict in one novel.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also danced, tried parasailing and jet-skiing at a tiny Bahamas islet, and then, in Jamaica hiked up the mile-long Dunn's River cascade of waterfalls, went zip-lining and tube river-running. This was followed by more dancing, some eating, met a dolphin or two and then went wreck-snorkeling. Oh and some more eating and using the onboard gym and some more dancing. And eating.  They say you gain a pound a day on a cruise, but Cheryl and I just about broke even. Credit our busy schedule, I guess. Iron tourists!

Rob Sawyer and Carolyn Clink frequently joined us with Andre and Mishe and Kevin and Carrie, at meals featuring talk of ways to get mass media (mostly television and Internet, as film-Hollywood is moribund) back to focusing on cool new ideas and dramas that have content and punch.  Bormanis told us of his work - with Neil deGrasse Tyson -- on the new remake of Carl Sagan's brilliant old show COSMOS.  Sawyer described the rise and fall of Flashback, and Grazier had stories about Battlestar, Eureka, Falling Skies and several new projects in the works.

DSC_0100About a third of the participants were members of the popular online-podcast community Astronomy Cast, a lively bunch who gathered on the fantail many evenings to observe and discuss whatever was up in the sky.  Their hosts, Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay, added zest to daytime astronomical talks.

All told, it was a lovely gathering of science-fans, skeptics, individual thinkers and explorers, seeing things and doing thing they had never done before, expressing faith that the world will go on.

== About the Cliff ==

Finally a prediction good for 24 hours.  The politicians will let us go over the cliff and it won't matter.  They will scurry to pass a stopgap by Wednesday or Thursday . The delay has several roots: (1) After January 2 the bill can be described as a tax cut for the middle class.  A nicer sell than doing it in December and just keeping middle class taxes the same. (2) The rich will see their new, Clinton-era rates reduced by some amount that lets the GOP portray it as a big favor to their patrons.  (3) Speaker Boehner can get himself re-elected by his caucus before having to crack the whip.
In fact, they may wait another week or two, to let the newly elected Congress take over. This will allow: (a) The dems in the Senate to change some of the filibuster rules (I hope) on their first day in session, removing some aspects of gridlock. (b) The GOP margin in the House to shrink down to a range where just 15 moderate Republicans could announce a new "Goldwater-Eisenhower Cauucus" and threaten to break GOP party discipline across-the-board.

If that happened, sure, they'd face Tea Party rebellions in the primaries in their districts.  But moderate Americans could reward it by proclaiming support for any Representative who did this, despite party affiliation! If 15 swing moderate Republicans did this, it would actually give Boehner a face saving way out, letting the new deal pass with nearly all Democratic votes.

This won't work a couple months later, when the dems have their own civil war over cutting entitlements!  But it could buy time.

And now let me wish you all a terrific 2013.  And let's hope when the REAL 21st Century begins (centuries really start on their 14th year) it will be in great and positive directions.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A fascinating end of the year… and the b’ak’tun…

A fascinating end of the year... and the b'ak'tun... 

We just returned from a 7-day "Not the End of the World" Caribbean cruise (our first cruise ever) featuring speeches and seminars by an astronaut, a Mayan expert, several scientists, Hollywood's Kevin Grazier and Andre Bourmanis, and a pair of sci fi authors (Rob Sawyer & me), climaxing in 200 skeptics climbing the second-highest Mayan Temple  to mark the new bak'tun at Coba, Yucatan, staving off the end of the world with a headshake and using the potent incantation: "naaaaah!"   

But it wasn't all hard, world-saving work. Cheryl and I also managed to appreciate the fine efforts of the crew of the Norwegian Cruise Lines flagship, the Pearl, whose gracious chief engineer gave us an exclusive tour of the engines, purifiers and other systems. (Cruise ships are marvels: truly test beds for starships.) We also danced, went parasailing, wreck-snorkeling, waterfall-climbing, zip-lining, river-running, jet-skiing, more dancing, some eating, and met a dolphin or two... inspiring me to choose to write about them next. (There. Are you happy?) 

And now, while wishing you all joyous holidays and a fantastic 2013, let's polish off the year with a potpourri of interesting items for interesting times. 

Starting with a podding -- Chris Mooney and Indre Viskontias had me on their Point of Inquiry show just before we left for the Caribbean.  Topics ranged all across the landscape (and galaxy-scape) - only occasionally touching upon our shared interest in the Enlightenment and its enemies. Note that Mooney is author of The Republican War on Science, an important and interesting book that I (as a part-time libertarian and registered Republican) find depressingly on-target. Though I reminded listeners that the Enlightenment does face some dangers from the opposite extreme, as well. For the most part, though, we explored farther ahead!  Listen in and have some (occasionally infuriating but always fascinating) fun. 

==Optimists and pragmatists, rise up! ==

In an important article, We're living the dream, we just don't realize it, on CNN's web site, Steven Johnson adds his voice to a growing tide of those questioning the news media's obsession with gloom.  Sure, journalists should expose flaws and mistakes and criticize stupidity and criminality! But that is a very different and vastly more helpful thing than wallowing in generalities of hopelessness. The former is how we made a better world and might improve even more.  The latter is just treason. 

In fact, statistics show things getting better for most humans on Earth at a fairly rapid clip.  The reflex of doom is not limited to the Right in the United States but is an addiction shared by the far-left. Have a look at the article.  Then do the thing folks never expect from optimists and moderates and pragmatists, but something recommended by Ray Bradbury. GET MAD!  Get angry at the gloomcasters and cynics. They are actively undermining the can-do spirit of problem-solving and diminishing the future of your kids.   

== Should language be precise? Or liberating? == 

Here's a fascinating article about invented languages... the most successful being Esperanto (George Soros's native tongue)... and especially a new one that is getting a lot of attention.  

"If you imagine all the possible notions, ideas, beliefs, and statements that a human mind could ever express, Ithkuil provides a precise set of coördinates for pinpointing any of those thoughts. The final version of Ithkuil, which Quijada published in 2011, has twenty-two grammatical categories for verbs, compared with the six—tense, aspect, person, number, mood, and voice—that exist in English. Eighteen hundred distinct suffixes further refine a speaker’s intent. Through a process of laborious conjugation that would befuddle even the most competent Latin grammarian, Ithkuil requires a speaker to home in on the exact idea he means to express, and attempts to remove any possibility for vagueness." and "In Quijada's (unpublished)  novel, Ithkuil is used as a “para-linguistic interface for an array of quantum computers that are being used to create emergent consciousness.” and "n Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç." 

Woof! These are marvelous exercises.  And who knows? Sapir-Whorf theory suggests that different languages spur different styles of thought.  Ithkuil seems to be designed to eliminate ambiguity and foster efficient precision... exactly like most of the Galactic languages that I have written about in my Uplift Series of novels.  And indeed, there is something to be said for that approach.  It may very well be that ancient races use such methods and that artificial intelligences (AI) might prefer them, too. 

Nevertheless, I took a different perspective on this question on the pages of Brightness Reef, where I pointed out the downside flaws of languages like proto-Chinese, proto Indo-European and all the other "precise" linguistic systems of old. They used cases, declensions and all of that in order to eliminate ambiguity... and it can be argued that they cast thinking into rigid molds that repressed creative thinking.  Many of the ambiguities and murky edges of modern English, that make it frustrating at times, may also have helped stimulate and spur the "what-if" mentality... the gedankenexperiment culture... that finally burst free of feudalism and assumptions of the past.  And ironically enabled the advance of the Invented Language Movement. 

Read the article, especially toward the end with some twists as the American inventor of Ithkuil meets the academic community of Russians who have embraced his new language as the key to wisdom.... 

 == Science Fiction Old and New ==  

john-milton-paradise-lostA fascinating essay asserting that John Milton's Paradise Lost was the grand-daddy of modern science fiction.  "...the text of Paradise Lost is saturated in science. Milton met Galileo, for the first and only time, in a 1638 visit that Jonathan Rosen compared to “those comic book specials in which Superman meets Batman.” The “Tuscan artist” appears in Paradise Lost more than once. Book I compares Satan’s shield to the moon seen through a telescope. And the poem is studded with scientific details—“luminous inferior orbs” churning through outer space, descriptions of sunspots and seasons, creatures that evolve (according to divine plan, but still). Through it all, Milton, a storyteller, comes off as entranced by the laws governing the universe."

"Also, Milton kinda sorta thought that extraterrestrial life might be possible. In Book III of Paradise Lost, Satan flies down from Heaven to Earth, passing distant stars that, on closer inspection, turn out to be “other Worlds.” Other worlds with aliens on them? Could be! “Who dwelt happy there,” Milton explains, the archangel “stayd not to enquire.”

My friend Ramez Naam, whose nonfiction book More Than Human I really liked, has a novel: NexusCory Doctorow at BoingBoing says “Nexus is a superbly plotted high tension technothriller… full of delicious moral ambiguity… a hell of a read.” I always find Naam interesting and ready to poke at fresh ideas.  

Some kind words from London's top-selling newspaper The Sun - this best-of recommendation for my latest novel, Existence:   

"Science fiction fans were finally given what they crave: Real science explained and possible science dreamed, all wrapped up in an excellent story. After reading it, you feel like you've done an A-level and experienced a cultural event. Daring yet plausible, challenging yet rewarding, it raised the bar for grown-up alien contact sci-fi."

Oh but the San Diego Union-Tribune's "Best Books of 2012" disagrees and instead emphasizes:  

"All of this in an incredibly thought-provoking and fast-paced story, each page loaded with a sense of wonder and optimism that is often lacking in today's science fiction."

Sigh.  I wish they'd make up their minds!  (Oh, it's almost your last chance to order the hardcover. ;-)

YouTubeCh3Here I conclude a series of recorded readings... I now present to you Chapter Three of EXISTENCE. All three can be found at my web site davidbrin dot com. (These three readings and chapters introduce three entirely separate characters and can be taken in any order.) Enjoy!  

== Movies, movies... ==

Finally. We just watched Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT: An Unexpected Journey.  And I had to turn dials.  Meaning that I enjoyed the film... what's not to like about a vision created with such lavish and loving detail? But in order to enjoy the endless, manic, run-on-and-on action scenes I really had to crank down most of my critical faculties re plot and story. 

Seriously. Some fans unfairly criticized Jackson for cutting some aspects out of LORD OF THE RINGS, a nine hour epic that I considered darn near perfect. It would not have been improved by doubling to eighteen.  The story supported nine hours and the action hung upon a plot robust enough to bear up the dramatic battle scenes.

  Alas, in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, Jackson did not cut and trim, he added swathes of plot that were never in Tolkien's oiriginal book (e.g. the entire plot thread of the vendetta between Thorin and the orc king; or the scenes with Radagast the Brown). Thus he sought excuses to bloat a three hour story to nine. Escapade after manic escapade with little to care about, no casualties among the protagonists and almost glacial advancement of the already slender plot. 

Oh, I'll watch the whole thing.  Jackson is skilled and I doubt Tolkien would have felt betrayed by any of the additions. They merely flesh-out (or plump-out or inflate) THE HOBBIT's spare skeleton. But antic fun is all that I expect.  This is a long, long dessert, not soul-food.  (See my essay: J.R.R. Tolkien vs the Modern Age.)

== An Accessible Worldcon - in Texas! ==

This coming August 29 weekend will see the 2013 World Science Fiction Convention come to San Antonio under the name Lone Star Con 3.  Membership, transportation and hotel rates are unusually low for a worldcon, this year and if you buy before January 1st you'll save $20.

It will be a great show.  We'll be there to help provide stimulation.  Sign up and come on down!

==More stuff to ponder... ==

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban has unleashed another volley at Facebook, calling it a giant time suck.  "FB is what it is. It's a time waster," Cuban writes (all emphasis his). "That’s not to say we don’t engage, we do. We click, share and comment because it’s mindless and easy. But for some reason FB doesn’t seem to want to accept that its best purpose in life is as a huge time suck platform that we use to keep up with friends, interests and stuff. I think that they are over thinking what their network is all about."

Rare diseases affect over 250 million people worldwide, yet less than five percent of the 7,000 known rare diseases have any therapy. Now a new effort has gathered 19 companies to donate $400,000 worth of cutting edge technology, services, and cash. And yes, it involves crowd-sourcing and all that. A $10,000 prize for the best idea that will be determined by Facebook voting. To be fair: There are actually many different organizations and institutes for rare and orphaned diseases, with the Office of Rare Diseases Research and NORD being two examples. None of these organizations are inadequate and they all do great work, but the new endeavor diverges by giving all 7,000 rare diseases an equal opportunity to be researched if they just put together a proposal.

Scientists have come up with a clever way to make earthworms fabricate quantum dot nano particles out of raw materials and store them in their livers.

In 1956, on an episode of then-popular game show "I've Got a Secret," 96-year-old Samuel J. Seymour tottered out on stage, sat down gingerly beside the program's host, and proceeded to blow the audience's mind. Over ninety years earlier, he had witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Washington D.C.'s Ford Theatre.

And with that... let's say farewell to 2012.  And remember... centuries tend to really "start" on their 14th year.  What a cheery thought.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Odd Way We Design Our Destiny

ODDWAYIn order to bridge the holidays, while we cruise the Caribbean and use skepticism to stave off the "end of the world"... here’s a classic bit of blather about the future, written way back in the early nineties, when the web was new and when pioneers like former JPL director Bruce Murray were trying out these new conversational methods utilizing a brand new breakthrough called the “world wide web.”  

(New... except portrayed even earlier in EARTH.) In conjunction with the TV show Closer to Truth, I had suggestions for Bruce’s Hyperforum experiment that included some innovations still never seen on sites like Facebook and so on.  Enjoy. – DB 12/21/12)


What will tomorrow be like?  Human beings are fascinated by the future.  We project our thoughts into unknown territory, using the brain's talented prefrontal lobes to explore and envision, sometimes even noticing a few errors in time to evade them.

People acquired these mysterious nubs of gray matter -- sometimes called the “lamps on our brows” -- before the Neolithic.  What has changed lately is our obsessiveness at using them.  Citizens of the NeoWest devote large fractions of the modern economy to predicting, forecasting, planning, investing, making bets, or just preparing for times to come.  Indeed, our civilization’s success depends at least as much on the mistakes we avoid as the successes that we plan.

Do we live in a special time?  In an episode of his science-interview show Closer to Truth, Robert Lawrence Kuhn warned against temporal chauvinism... the ever-present temptation for any observer to believe this particular moment is unique, the crucial fulcrum around which destiny will turn, decisively transforming all future ages. That claim has been made by thinkers in every generation that ever recorded its thoughts.  And yet, Bruce Murray maintained that this era truly does face unique challenges; unprecedented crises confront the world's social, scientific and ecological networks.  Why else would average citizens find shows like Closer to Truth so fascinating?

1984If we face a time of crisis, it isn't with our eyes shut!  Consider George Orwell’s groundbreaking novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published fifty years ago, it foresaw a dark future that never came to pass, perhaps in part because Orwell's chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight “Big Brother” to the last.   Since then, other “self-preventing prophecies” have rocked public awareness. Did we partly avert ecological catastrophe thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and Soylent Green?  Did films like Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, and Fail-Safe help caution us against inadvertent nuclear war?  Above all, every power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, gets repeatedly targeted by Hollywood’s most relentless message... to stay suspicious of all authority.

No, if our prefrontal lobes fail in their crucial job of predicting/exploring/preventing, it won't be for any lack of trying.

This episode of Closer to Truth touched on many contemporary worries. For example, what kind of human population can be sustained by the planet?  Citing the high-densities that today thrive in countries such as Holland, Graham Molitor projected that sixty billion humans may someday share the Earth -- assuming powerful symbiotic technologies arrive in time.  Bruce Murray seemed rather more worried about the planet's near-term ability to support even today's seven billions.  Which of them is right?

The panel also discussed the fate of nationalism, long a controlling force in human affairs.  Today, some countries are creaking and splitting into ethic sub-units while others seem just as busy amalgamating -- eagerly surrendering bits of sovereignty to supra-national groupings like the European Union and the World Trade Organization.  And I should draw attention to a third anti-national trend.

CollapseAbout a hundred years ago, people all over the world began drifting away from priests, kings and national flag-totems, transferring their loyalty instead to fervid ideologies -- models of human nature that allured with hypnotically simplistic promises.  Often viciously co-opted by nation states, these rigid, formulaic, pseudo-scientific incantations helped turn the mid-20th Century into a hellish pit.  But ideology may at last be passing from its virulent phase toward a more commensal one, as millions of educated people pin their righteous passions to more narrowly-focused agendas -- from child labor to animal rights, from privacy to dealing with land mines. In a third de-nationalizing trend, thousands of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, now must be heard and accommodated whenever great powers meet.  It is a chaotic trend, noisy and self-righteous... yet also full of promise.

Even if NGOs offer hazy outlines for a distributed style of world governance, it won't happen overnight. Meanwhile, there remains the perennial question of war.   Robert Kuhn suggested -- and Bruce Murray agreed -- that we haven't seen an end to conflict.  In fact, Pentagon officials are deeply worried that future foes won't ever again let us meet them with our strengths. Instead, adversaries will try to exploit the inherent weaknesses of a complex, interdependent civilization, using inexpensive -- and possibly uattributable -- modes of attack.

One key to our survival will be agility in dealing with whatever the future hurls our way. That means not relying on assumptions just because they worked in the past.  As the late Richard Feynman put it --  “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The panel raised another important issue: how to manage technological change so that it benefits all people, not just those living in the NeoWest.   They also touched lightly on the problem of preserving both freedom and privacy at a time when cameras seem about to prodigiously expand human vision and databases exponentiate human memory. Worthy topics that merit further discussion in our followup hyperforum.

How-to-Create-a-Mind-cover-347x512One more aspect of the fast-approaching future has become a fixation among some of our best and brightest. It is the possibility of a sudden break in the balance of intelligence and power on Earth.   For example, many foresee the imminent arrival of human-level -- and then transhuman -- artificial intelligence.  Optimists expect this transforming event to result in a "singularity," when all humans will share access to all knowledge, advancing together toward a sublime, godlike state.  Pessimists, including Sun Computers V.P. Bill Joy, view the prospect of hyperintelligent machinery with dread akin to what Homo erectus may have felt, upon glimpsing the first fully modern man.

Similar scenarios are offered by those who see either salvation or ruin in some looming breakthrough of biology, or in physics.  Such wild speculations may  all prove to be smoke.  But if any of them -- optimists or the pessimists -- turn out to be right, we will see astonishing changes in far less time than it takes to wreck an ecosystem.  Or to teach a new generation how to cope.

It means we'll have to handle things on the fly, improvizing as we go along.

A final topic always gets raised, whenever we talk about the notion of "progress," and this episode of Closer to the Truth is no exception.  Why has human wisdom not advanced as rapidly as our technology?  How can we hope to deal with all of these new dangers and opportunities, if our moral character stays mired in primitive brutality?

I've heard this question asked so often that a strange thought occurred to me.  Yes, it's a cliche.  But could it also be a lie?

51gDDxs-xlL._SL500_AA300_Consider the famous Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it appeared in 1967, two monumental new projects transfixed the people of the United States -- conquering outer space and overcoming deeply ingrained social injustice.  Now compare the world depicted in the film with the one we live in.  Who would have imagined that colonizing space would prove so grindingly slow -- yet by 2000 we’d refute so many cruel bigotries that citizens once took for granted, back in 1967?

We still don’t have the fancy space stations of 2001, but our astronauts come in all sexes and colors.  And kids who watch them on TV feel less fettered by presumed limitations. Each may choose to hope, or not, without being told you can’t.  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?

Progress doesn’t always go the way we expect it to.

It is sometimes wiser than we are.


And now a glimpse at the sort of thing we were doing around 1996... online polls that were then collated and intelligently discussed in something Bruce Murray called a "hyperforum", some of whose characteristics have yet to be achieved even now, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, alas.


Which of the following fields of human endeavor will bring about the greatest positive changes in the next 25 years?

a.  Advances in physical science (e.g. allowing access to the resources of space)
b. Advances in biology (e.g. extending human lifespan or intelligence)
c. Advances in cybernetics and related fields (e.g. creating intelligent or hyper-intelligent machines)
d. Advances in human sanity, behavior and understanding
e. Something else (write-in) __________________________
Which of the above will have the greatest Negative impact? (Answer a-e, or write-in) ___________


1.  What is the sustainable human population of Earth, assuming that technology keeps advancing?
--Less that one billion.
--One to three billions.
--Three to six billions.
--Six to twelve billions.
--Much more than twelve billions.

2.  Will nation states continue to be important, fifty years from now?
As important or more so.
--Less important but still valuable for organizing largescale efforts.
--Unimportant because of World Government.
--Unimportant because power will devolve to individuals and self-organizing groups.
--Some combination of the above.

3.  Click which statement you agree with.
--My own favorite ideology is a good approximation of what it will take to make a better civilization.
--It will be enough to raise a next generation that is measurably saner and better educated than ours; it's none of our business to prescribe their model of utopia.

4.  Scientific advances suggest that:
--Destructive powers will become available to ever-smaller groups of angry people.
--Error-detecting and problem-solving tools will become available to ever more numerous groups of sincere people.
--Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may enable humans to redesign themselves in fantastic ways.
--Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may enable new forms of "life" to overtake or replace humanity.
--All of the above.

QuestionnaireN5.   Click which statement you agree with.
--Human decency and justice haven’t kept pace with technological progress.
--Wealth and technology have helped us start to address ancient injustices, maturing enough to face new challenges.


One outcome of this exercise was my Questionnaire on Ideology that is still taken by hundreds, every year.  It is less a survey than it is a exercise for each individual to take a chance to re-assess, poking at some of the assumptions that underlie belief and things that we take for granted. 

David Brin
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Thursday, December 20, 2012

It’s a Sci Fi World – as the Mayan calendar turns….

As you read this, Cheryl and I will be (approximately) defying fate and wagering on destiny… hopefully on the steps of a Mayan Temple on the day the Mayan calendar either turns over a new leaf or shudders to a halt. In commemoration, here’s a little potpourri of sci fi and future oriented snippets.

Bradbury SquareOn December 6, 2012 I had the honor of speaking at the dedication of Ray Bradbury Square in Ray's beloved Los Angeles, next to his even more beloved LA Public Library. The event also included remarks by two City Councilmen, biographer Sam Weller, one of the Bradbury daughters, Sue Bradbury Nixon, and actor Joe Mantegna, hosted by author Steven Leiva. 

For the core gist of what I had to say, read the eulogy I wrote for Ray Bradbury (published in Salon Magazine) on the day that he died.

DefinitionHardSciFiThe latest trend online?  Folks editing quick-tight mashups and creating "YouTube Haikus"... moments of distilled poetry. I guess I am flattered that this one (The Definition of Hard Science Fiction).. clipping and condensing one of my TV show riffs to the requisite 14 seconds... appears to be way popular and discussed a lot on Reddit. Oh, sure, good literature must be about character and “human verities” and all that.  Hey, I can do “verities.” But let’s not forget, a good story is also about….

In a clever connection, Anna Gregson of Orbit Books riffs off the new James Bond film SKYFALL into a discussion of how many of my novels ponder the delicate task that humanity faces, stepping carefully through the minefield called the future. And yes, I do tend to come up in conversations about James Bond! Am I a bald-headed villain? Or possibly... Q?

Uplift_B-2-653x1024See also Anna's ruminations about the prospect of humans altering other creatures, connected to the new Orbit Books special omnibus edition UPLIFT - containing three award winning novels Sundiver, Startide Rising and The Uplift War. And in January watch out for the second uplift omnibus…  entitled EXILES.

Oh, and see a new review of EXISTENCE from a different perspective, by a professor who teaches a college course about religion and the future!
And just to show that old masters have plenty of young snap and sens-o-wonder… Larry Niven and Gregory Benford give a talk at Google about their new novel Bowl of Heaven.  A way-cool holiday for the physics hard SF junkie!

== Sci fi in the news! == 

Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4Billion.  Frankly I am amazed the price was so low. Of course, Episode 7 will follow on from Return of the Jedi, not Revenge of the Sith. I find that "good news" yawnworthy.  But perhaps the new episodes will feature underlying themes less undermining of civilization confidence than most of the films (except Ep. IV and V).

On the other hand, while I find the 30 year drift of George Lucas's Star Wars memes toward elitist-romantic anti-enlightenment messages really bothersome… this says a lot about him as a man: George Lucas Will Donate Disney $4 Billion To Education.  Okay, that's cool.

And on the gripping hand -- now witness the power of this fully-formed and operational White House petition: Begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.  As Paul 451 says:  That's no moon.
OnSingularityIn this recent interview, I expected to talk "only" about the singularity. But it wandered through a dozen topics and... well... if you can stand the first 10 minutes then you'll love the whole hour! “What’s important is not me. And it’s not you. It is us.”

Warren Ellis's excellent essay about how to view our present as the Future is an excellent piece.  Alas, though, I think he misses the obvious.. and especially the political implications... that America's long Culture War is in part driven by a large part of the population refusing to admit that the 21st Century has arrived. Nostalgic grouchiness is rampant, and not only on the right.  There are some on the left whose mystical past-obsession almost matches the War on Science that is drum-beat every day on Fox.

When will the future arrive for most folks? I believe it will happen, at last, when one particular technology arrives.  Cheap, convenient, utterly safe and well-targeted liposuction that can be done on a quick, outpatient basis.  When excess body fat can be trimmed almost like getting a haircut, the effects on civilization will outweigh almost any other technological breakthrough.

All at once, clothing styles will transform.  Folks wearing body-hugging spandex will glance at their similarly attired neighbors and murmur: "Okay, okay.  I guess the future has arrived."

== What might have been! ==

Pluralityfull-sized Starship Enterprise in downtown Las Vegas!
A cute and thoughtful sci fi short film PLURALITY, directed by Dennis Liu, turns out not to be about what the narrator's long introduction implies that it's about, at all.  Ostensibly about transparency tradeoffs in the near future, it is something else entirely. More like a proposal for a longer film.  Overall, pretty promising.

An amazing, extended, well-written and logically chaotic view into the mind of Philip K. Dick, written in 1978.

And now… let’s hope the idiots are wrong and that science, reason, and the Maya prove to be right after all.  We are stuck here.  So let’s make it great.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A New Barnstorming Age: the Near Future of Manned Spaceflight

For a recent interview I was asked where is manned spaceflight headed in the near term? Having just had lunch with astronaut Steve Hawley, while headed for the Mayan calendar festival, I figure I'll post this mix of old and brand new items.  Thrive and persevere in optimism!

There certainly is a lot of buzz about big changes in manned spaceflight in the news. From space hero-pioneer Elon Musk ruminating about self-sustaining colonies of 80,000 people on Mars... to a startup called Golden Spike  that seeks to purchase government and commercial vehicles to offer flights - and even landings - on the Moon (two tickets to the moon, yours for $1.5 billion). Then there's Mars One, a Dutch company that hopes to launch a series of robotic missions to Mars that will construct outposts on the surface. Humans will follow by 2023. Part of the funding may come from reality media  -- filming the astronaut training and interactions. Big Brother on Mars?

Okay -- let me say that I see two drivers and two paths ahead for human spaceflight, one slow and plodding, the other quick and exciting.  Both will be needed. Each will benefit from the other.

en_0805_blackstone_480x360Ever since Challenger blew up, NASA's meticulous approach to manned spaceflight has been to redouble caution. To fill in each missing step, then the sub-phases between each step. After Columbia, this fill-in-every-gap method has led to such flawless undertakings as the recent Curiosity lander's spectacular (and spectacularly complicated) landing on Mars.

But that was just a robot.  When human lives are at stake, the process becomes so carefully mature that - in effect - nothing gets flown at all. At minimum, human-rating every component multiplies costs by as much as two orders of magnitude, in some cases. Let's be plain. If this were humanity's only path to human spaceflight, countless thorny problems and sub-problems would be vanquished!  But nothing would ever actually fly with people aboard.

Fortunately, through this process NASA keeps developing new technologies.  So do the civilian world, foreign governments and the military.  These improvements trickle - or gush - and spread. New thresholds have been reached in computers and sensors, in equipment capability and reliability. And in plummeting hardware prices.

One result? We are ready for the dawn of a new era, one of private space ventures. And, fortunately, the politicians seem perfectly ready to welcome non-state activity.  Instead of raising obstacles, the present administration seems bent on clearing a path.

694662main_logo425From the Rutan/Branson Spaceship to Elon Musk's SpaceX, there are dozens of private manned and unmanned missions being planned. Some of them leverage upon the desire of the rising caste of super-rich for unusual experience, starting with sub-orbital jaunts.  Plans are in motion to extend this market, leading downstream to space hotels and - eventually - private moon landings. The new Planetary Resources company plans to access the vast wealth of asteroids.

All of these things can be done now because technological thresholds are falling... and also because they can allow higher risk ratios, because private ventures aren't answerable to the same levels of enforced care as public ones.  The cost effects of allowing part failure rates in the one-millionth probability - instead of on-billionth - is nothing short of astronomical.

== A New Barnstorming Age? ==

We may, at last be ready to embark on the equivalent of the the great age of barnstorming aircraft development, that our grandparents saw in the 1920s, when risk - and even some loss - was considered part and parcel of courage and exploration. When the new frontier was legitimate territory for tinkerers (albeit, today they would be billionaire tinkerers).

If so, it will have come about from a mix of government investment in meticulous process and checklisting a myriad details... meshing well with the unleashing of private ambition. No example so perfectly disproves the idiotic canard that everything must be all-government... or else that government is evil and wholly uncreative.  We are a complex people in a complex age.  But we can rise above comforting nostrums to realize, a careful mix was how we got everything we see around us. A mix that is negotiated by goal-driven grownups - that is how we'll get farther ahead.

== What are pros/cons of each approach? ==

SpaceShipONeThe Branson/Rutan "Spaceship One" approach, and others like it, have the advantage of paying for themselves incrementally, improving their methods and capabilities in the same way. Those offering suborbital jaunts won't have to answer to taxpayers or budget committees. If Branson and Rutan and the others deliver a safe and peerless experience, the wealthy will thrust money at them, hand-over-fist doing us all a favor by recycling some of it into something useful and cool. (Like oxygen, water, food... too much accumulated anything becomes toxic.)

Some of us will also go too, through prizes and lotteries (and gifts to favorite authors?) Calling Fantasy Island!

AME_0003And their next products will emerge in a matter of due course.  Orbital hotels and - quicker than you now might expect - private moon landings. These missions will be of very little scientific value.  But they will leverage technologies developed by NASA and others, transforming them into off-the-shelf tools and something that today's NASA is ill-equipped to do -- actual, risk-taking human crewed expeditions. (All of it perhaps presaged by the Robert Heinlein novel The Man Who Sold The Moon.)

In time, this will transform into own-your-own sub-orbital rocket kits, as I portray in an early chapter of EXISTENCE.  (See this portrayed via some cool images in the vivid preview-trailer.)

SpaceX and others are counting on winning contracts to deliver commercial and government payloads into orbit, predictably and reliably. This will soon include human crews for the Space Station.  The Dragon capsule will not be optimized for paying private customers seeking a "yeehaw" experience.  But I expect there will be some such, as well.

Way back in 1982 I headed a team at the California Space Institute that outlined an alternative space station design, using Space Shuttle External Tanks, that would have been soooooo sweet.  Just five launches would have led to a station larger than the present one and far more capable.  Ah,well.  The tanks are gone.  (But sample the wondrous possobilities with my short story: "Tank Farm Dynamo"!)

Still, some of the new inflatable structures and composites being developed at L'Garde as well as UCSD's new Structural and Materials Engineering building may lead to new, commercial stations that offer hotel experiences in the sky.  And even though the moon is sterile scientifically and for physical wealth (and offers almost no benefits as a "way station"), it may (as said earlier) be enough of a tourist allure to propel us back to that sere, but romantic (if largely useless) destination.

== What about the Old Dream? Missions to Mars? ==

SpaceXOh, we will poke away at the big stuff.  Certainly the shift away from a return-to-the-moon boondoggle, which almost no scientist on Earth supported, was a step in the right direction.  And with private capitalists salivating over asteroids, it does look as if the choice to look that was was a correct one.

NASA will keep developing the technologies we'll need for missions to asteroids, to Phobos (potentially one of the most valuable rocks in the Solar system), and eventually Mars.  We could afford to spend twice what we do and pick up the pace.  The payoffs - just for remembering we're a scientific civilization - would be overwhelming.

screen_shot_2012-03-09_at_9_25_48_am-4f5a10c-intro-1Oh, and of course other nations than the self-centered US will be part of this mix, in ever-greater force.  In EXISTENCE I portray manned spaceflight getting a nationalist impetus when the Chinese start flexing their competence and muscle out there It could help propel interesting times.

Still I was asked about just human spaceflight in the near term.  And the near term to me looks commercial, private, bold, close-to-home, rather lavishly exclusive...

...but fun.