Friday, April 19, 2013

See-it, believe-it proof… plus smart mobs and cool science

We'll start this time with CHASING ICE -- a documentary by and about one of the world's greatest adventurers, who spent years with his brave & hardy team designing, building and setting up some of the world's toughest cameras to endure the planet's harshest environments, all to track by time-lapse whether glaciers are growing or shrinking.  It's spectacular to watch, long before you finally get to see the hard-won footage.

chasing_ice_xlgThis nature show is a game-changer. Watch it and make everyone you know watch it.  I saw an early version and it left everyone speechless in awe. Check local listings or find it on Amazon).  And yes, your  denialist uncle will find any excuse to avoid watching, because he will know in advance where this goes, where it has to go, where undeniable, bald-faced video footage takes anyone who has the basic curiosity and honesty to watch.

Oh… you have never seen anything till you've watched a chunk of glacier the SIZE OF MANHATTAN break off of Greenland and go belly up in a spectacular roar. Watch it 95% just to know there are still adventurers in the world who can bring home to us tales of wonder, worthy of Amundsen.  

== Tracing back the clock of life… TEN billion years? ==

Has the complexity of life been increasing along a path similar to Moore's Law?  If you trace-back the doublings of integrated circuit complexity, halving the number of transistors per chip every 18 months (Moore's Law) you get to zero around 1970… pretty much when it all started.  A similar back extrapolation was done with Hubble's Law, way back in the 1930s when the expansion of the universe was discovered, giving an early estimate for the Big Bang that was correct within an order of magnitude.  Now scientists have done the same thing with the expansion of the genome. And although this is only one possible measure of life-complexity, this particular trace-back yields shocking results. See: Moore's Law and the Complexity of Life in Technology Review.

If you discount the vast tracts of "redundant" DNA in mammalian chromosomes, then the log curve plots straight back in time, past eukaryotes and prokaryotes, to suggest that life had its origins… almost ten billion years ago.  Since the Earth itself is less than five billion years old, this suggests that either:

(TimeReborn1) life began de novo on Earth (the standard model) and then had a phase of exceptionally rapid genome growth (akin to the inflationary phase of expansion that some say followed the Big Bang), or

(2)  life began elsewhere and was seeded on the early Earth, in accordance with the Panspermia Theory of Arrhenius, and later Hoyle and Wickramasinghe. (As well as Heart of the Comet.)

An altogether fascinating prospect, either way.

== Science and the Spirit of Innovation ==

See 27 sci fi things that are coming true.  Such as a robot that can navigate an obstacle course, spray on skin, invisibility cloaks, 3-D printing of houses, chimera monkeys made from several embryos, artificial leaves, new, cheaper solar cells, and  exoskeletons!

Yet, are any of these advances as epochal as breakthroughs of the past? Has the engine of our innovation broken down? The incredible stodginess of Hollywood, these days, with remakes of remakes, is only matched by the stunning "me-too" notions seen in most net-web startups.  I run into it all the time.

HowAmericansEvery decade since 1940 has seen the United states and its economy swayed by two major forces - a vast trade deficit that wound up being the great driver of world development, raising billions out of poverty around the world... and a wave of made-in-america innovative products and services that generated enough wealth to pay for it all.  From jet planes to rockets and satellites; from telecom and pharmaceuticals and fiber optics to xerography, CCDs and the internet, these breakthroughs came in rapid succession and enabled us to buy trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed, thus uplifting the world.

That is, till the first decade of the 21st Century, when much of this engine stalled.  Is it simplistic to blame it on social matters like the culture war against science, waged especially hard during the Bush Administration? Of course that was a factor, at a time when extremes of both right and left preach cynical disbelief in the possibility of technology serving us in its traditional, problem-solving role.

That attitude is opposed by (among others) President Obama, who mentions sci-tech more often in speeches than any two other presidents, combined.  But there has to be more to it than that. A component that drives deeper than politics.

This article in the Economist, Has the ideas machine broken down? tries for perspective… and at least succeeds in offering background.

One thing you can do: Sign a petition to increase NASA's budget -- and support cutting edge developments in space and technology.  But above all, think about it!  Talk to others about re-igniting the can-do spirit.

==Bio-Science Miscellany==

A thoughtful, brief article  about the prospect of uplifting animal intelligence appeared recently in the Boston Globe, By Emily Anthes.

uBiomeAn absolute must-read about  the importance of the next frontier in biology and medicine, the Micro-Biome  ecosystem of bacteria and microbes who inhabit the human gut, skin, mouth etc.  Aldous Huxley wrote about this in a great novel 80 years ago. Today, both doctors and quacks are touting both real and fantasy cures that might arise from tailoring or re-building these symbiotic networks that are often wiped out or thrown into imbalance by excessive use of antibiotics.  Reinforcing the old saw that one generation's brilliant "solution" winds up creating new problems that the next generation must deal with.  So it goes.  (Get your own personal microbiome analyzed at

Brain Scan Predicts Whether Convicts Will Re-Offend: Welcome To The Sci-Fi Future.  Activity in one very particular part of the brain shows a high correlation with recidivism. Men in the bottom half of anterior cingulate cortex activity were 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes and 4.3 times more likely to be arrested for nonviolent crimes. Should this become a factor in parole hearings?  The future is arriving.

Graphic shows how vaccines have changed our world.  And now yet more studies provide overwhelming refutation of the loony notion that vaccines cause autism. An area where the "left" is bona fide easily as cloud cuckoo as the right.

Researchers at Stanford University have developed a way to make genetic parts that can perform logic calculations.

Laser light to the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex apparently zaps away cocaine addiction – or conversely turned non-addicted rats into compulsive cocaine seekers. The effects were seen in rats gene-spliced to have light-sensitive neurons that can be turned on-ff by laser, hence, a different approach must be used for human therapies. Still, knowing which neurons are active in inhibition/addiction control could be of great value and there are other (e.g. magnetic) ways to have similar effects.

==Science and Society==

SavoyOne of the latest TED talk sensations is Allan Savory, who has spent his life combatting desertification, and who now believes we've had it all wrong for two generations.  He claims that deserts are prevented, rather than created, by large herds of grazing animals.  His presentation is worth watching and the re-evaluation that he triggers is delicious to my contrarian mind!  On the other hand, it isn't hard for me to do a second, ornery veer and say "yes… but!"

Oh so many buts.  Like the fact that vast deserts clearly grew as human pastoralists were able to protect their herds from predators. Overgrazing is just as much a threat as undergrazing and Savory's technique requires the transient passage of large/dense herds of grazers, who stomp and fertilize an area without denuding it. A cavil that will require either intense supervision and daily management… or a return to predator-dense situations that keep the herds packed and moving.  Moreover the grasslands that he has restored are anything but "healthy" ecosystems in their own right.  Improved, but still denuded of trees by the very herbivore herds that Savory extolls. For true health you need at least partial coverage by trees, and that takes active management too, in order to protect them from the herbivores, like cattle, elephants and giraffes.

Finally, Savory's method emphasizes vast herds of cattle that are burdensome in their own right.  One of the hopeful prospects on our horizon will be vat grown meat.  If it can satisfy our appetites at three pounds of grain per pound of meat, then there will be more food and hope in the world, at far lower Karmic cost.   I will not let go of that hope… though I appreciate Savory's input of an eye-opening realization.  One that will do good!  Just let's not get carried away.


Read about one man's lifelong wrestling match with his atheism against religious heritage in the context of a scientific world. Sample an excerpt from The God Problem, by Howard Bloom, in Utne Reader.

Ever read a blog on chemistry that was hilarious? See this one about di-oxygen di-flouride… or FOOF.  Yes, it is as horrible a substance as it sounds!  And the blog is gut-busting… if your funny bone is tickled by something that makes water ice explode at minus two hundred celsius.

io9 offers you one of their great lists:  "Want to get smarter during your commute? There are a lot of fantastic podcasts that will teach you new things in a thoroughly entertaining way. Here are 13 podcasts that will expand your brain with cutting-edge science and cultural analysis."

== Smart Mobs and the Boston Bombings ==

Just one quick comment amid the mid-April terror crisis that has become all-too familiar in recent years. Evidently the FBI gets it and has called out a "smart mob"… or at least asked for public help identifying potential culprits in the Boston bombing from street video footage.  All may change, by the time this blog is posted, so I am putting off making my own appraisal.  But this could be a seminal moment, when all of society came to realize… we'll be better off when all citizens share in the power to see.


Ahcuah said...

Regarding the origin of life, PZ Myers throws a heap of cold water on the "study". They left out any data that disagreed with their conclusion. See here.

Matt G. said...

The commentator my favorite radio station had to talk about the smart mob phenomenon for Boston (how the smart mob effort paralleled the police effort) tried his hardest to raise FUD with respect to the danger of false positives.

I guess he couldn't imagine a self-editing/filtering structure would develop, and that any results should be taken with a heap of salt until one could be put in place by the smart mob.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Ah yes, the "Things I Won't Work With" blog. Full of explosion-y goodness.

If I can get vat-meat that tastes as good as, and close to the same price or cheaper than farmed, I have no qualms about switching. We had a discussion the other night, DH idly wondering if vegetarians and/or vegans could eat vat-meat. And would they?

efitab: the other other white meat!

Justin said...

One kid - you can find his name easily enough but I'd rather not repeat it - and his family experienced more than their fair share of terror when he was fingered by the "smart mob" as a possible suspect (or whatever weasel words the redditors are using in place of "suspect" in order to avoid accepting any responsibility for fingering an innocent guy). A result which was immediately picked up and printed by a Rupert Murdock paper, of course. Said paper is also rejecting the notion that it should retract the story that printed that kid's picture since, hey, they didn't print the word "suspect."

The striking thing to me in this case isn't the methodology of the smart mob. Anyone who has ever worked in a large, loose organization on a technical problem can picture how that all functioned. The striking thing is the reminder of how much a mob - smart or otherwise - really is a big, amoral, dangerous machine which facilitates diffusion of responsibility.

My sense in chatting with a few of the redditors (who I hope aren't representative of the whole) is that, if some redneck vigilante had assassinated that kid before he went and talked to the police, the redditors would have felt no responsibility for causing that outcome whatsoever. In their view it is someone else's fault for using what they created the wrong way, for reprinting it, for misunderstanding. It's certainly not their fault for scaring innocent people. If they're innocent, why should they be frightened? And so on.

David Brin said...

The word "smart" in "smart mob" is supposed to distinguish it from the ugly mob of tradition. I do not claim we will enter that world smoothly and without dismal acts & injustices. What I assert is that the only way we will develop and immune system against dismal acts and injustices is by moving ahead and empowering the innocent to call up possees of their own.

David Brin said...

MaDLibrarian... by coincidence at the NASA NIAC meeting biologist Penny Boston told me she would stop being a vegetarian the instant vat grown meat was proved and finished jumping all the needed hurdles. I am sure millions would agree and other millions disagree. But I do know that a generation later, those who eat flesh that had walked and thought will be in steep decline and then grow scarce.

(BTW I know chickens walk. I am just not convinced they think. Pigs on the other hand? Their descendants will sue our descendants.. Reason enough to leave em be.

Duncan Cairncross said...

It is off subject - but I though you guys would like to hear from a (right wing)NZ politician on gay marriage

Tony Fisk said...

Rather amusing to read David's defence of smart mob startup issues wrt 'diffusion of responsibility'! Not easy to avoid phrasing a response in a way that doesn't prove the point!

Pigs suing hogscoffing humans? Maybe, although I haven't heard of anyone taking certain Maori populations to task.
Perhaps some porcine time travellers will go back and help establish the Kosher food laws?

Tony Fisk said...

PS Thanks for posting Savory's talk.I've been waiting for it to be put up.

Jumper said...

Thanks again for another posting full of good links. I bookmarked the chemistry guy after reading it.

On innovation, I think of Arthur Clarke's tales of the White Hart, defining a sort of bull session among educated people, and imagine Arthur himself participating in some such real milieu at some point during WWII. A good creative stewpot yet involving alcohol, a seemingly counterintuitive idea. I wonder if increasing suppression of marijuana among the midlevel production people (by threat of random testing) has any effect on slowdown of innovation?

Also, I remain unconvinced that there is a dearth of low-hanging fruit to pick. I am pretty sure the next, or one of the next, really big deals in physics, will be along the lines of Einstein's simple thought experiment(s). Some crazy thing which no one followed deep enough. Who is Rafael Bombelli?

Carl M. said...

You can have a pound of meat for zero pounds of grain right now. It's called grass fed beef. You just have to cook it slower if you don't want it to taste terrible. Those omega 3 oils from the green stuff don't take searing temperatures well.

You might have a look at what Joel Salatin has been doing with meat animals to restore soil in Virginia as well.

Tim H. said...

This amused me:
A house painted in rainbow stripes, across the street from the Westboro baptist church.

Derek Lowe said...

Thanks for the link! I've certainly had a good time reading your work over the years, so I'm happy to be able to return the favor.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Carl,
You can have a pound of meat for zero pounds of grain right now. It's called grass fed beef. You just have to cook it slower if you don't want it to taste terrible.

Here in NZ all our beef is grass fed - it tastes great!

We even have pigs that eat grass - they taste good as well - not to mention the sheep

TheMadLibrarian said...

A small part of our food problems could be resolved with RESPONSIBLE hunting of overpopulated deer and other game animals in some locations. The natural predators are gone, and deer are reproducing madly, putting pressure on their food supply (even in parks and forest reserves), and getting into places that cause trouble like suburban yards, freeways, and ecological preserves. They also were introduced in places for sport hunting, and the Law of Unintended Consequences took over.

incyil: synthetic venison -- yum!

rewinn said...

"... RESPONSIBLE hunting of overpopulated deer and other game animals in some locations..."

Here in Seattle, we have a BIG problem with wild geese. They eat too much, poop too much and just don't die. The logical thing to do is figure out some sort of hunting season so that those who are so inclined can covert an appropriate fraction to food. It wouldn't cost anything since there are people who would pay for the privilege. We could even insist they use non-toxic shot (lead's bad for us all) and other details like how to accomplish this in an urban environment, but the real reason it hasn't happened is because geese are cute. Thank goodness it's not swans!

Paul451 said...

Hunting by humans with rifles doesn't replicate hunting by natural predators. When being hunted by lions/etc, the best defence is tight herds (which requires constant movement to fresh ground, which is what prevents long term overgrazing).

With humans, the best strategy is to stay away from easily spotted groups. Wrong behaviour for the desired effect.

Maybe hunted by humans with short knives?

Paul451 said...

Recent Slashdot thread on programming languages suitable for an 8yr old non-English speaker, prompted someone to post this:

...Talk about "smart mobs".

(It's a few years old, so I assume David has posted it before, but it's worth another look.)

Tony Fisk said...

Randy Winn said: "Thank goodness it's not swans! "

...or tribbles!

Tacitus said...

Regards Boston.

No doubt David is just about to start a new thread on the topic....I always get around to posting a day late!

Cameras a'plenty did speed up the resolution of the case, or if it is still ongoing has advanced the matter.

Many things went right. There are so many vulnerable targets out there but in this instance there was a remarkably active and capable response from health care workers. First aid tent right there and perhaps the best medical system on earth minutes away.

I will give Officials from local on up a B plus. The right things were done and said pretty much on cue.

Two areas that demand attention.

If the FBI interviewed one of these guys in 2011 why did it take so long to ID him? I hope the failure to pick him out as a threat was simple human error not political correctness (as in the Fort Hood case). But seriously, the street photos of the suspects should have been of decent enough quality to compare to file photos of every guy the Boston branch interviewed in recent times. It can't be thousands and hundreds is doable in an hour...where did this get screwed up?

There are some media figures who should be fired. I do not care if it is done for incompetence or bias. But listening to NPR in early hours all you heard was speculation about tax protesters, Tea Partyers and Patriot Day.

Conservative media generally said it could be damn near anybody but the MO sure sounds like jihadi wannabees.

Even now you can read entire articles without seeing any of the Forbidden Words.

I know, when talking heads do not have facts they just blather. See above provision regards incompetence..


Unknown said...

wisdom from Tacitus

Acacia H. said...

I am very glad I don't have television news. I filtered the level of bullshit by reading online news reports and when it started going over-the-top hitting the little X button to close it. Though what I found amusing was someone started going on about how this was why we shouldn't allow immigration reform... and was hit by a graphic of a half dozen U.S.-born children and young men who had killed far more people with their own attacks on schools and the like.

The truth is that people will use events like this to affirm their own beliefs and opinions, no matter what the truth of the matter. We as intelligent readers and viewers need to learn how to bypass our own prejudices and preconceptions and also find a way to determine which news articles are the least slanted and most likely to provide an accurate look at things.

Oh, and stop the damn "Challenger Syndrome" of repeating the damn explosion over and over and over and over again. Sheesh!

Jim Baca said...

Allen Savory is an interesting man. When I served as State Land Commissioner he converted me to his way of thinking. The problem is that most ranchers are poor managers who simply don't have the ability to manage such an intensive systems. They also don't want to change.

And sadly well educated youngsters from ranching families don't want any part of the business. They leave for, ahem, greener pastures.

rewinn said...

As a practical matter, we just might be firing the media ... at least the paid media. For better or worse, lots of us pretty much ignore the TV these days.

Tony Fisk said...

Interesting contrast to that described by Jim Baka. Different strategy, but Ray Thomas is actively being sought out by farmers in NE Vic. who are concerned by the changes in their landscapes due to widespread death of paddock trees. Turns out the main cause is well manured but isolated trees being eaten to death by insects whose predators have no understorey to shelter in.

Differences to TX ranchers? Smaller holdings? A national broadcaster puncturing insular views?