Saturday, July 27, 2013

Galactic Self-Reproducing Probes? (Plus tweet-ready miscellany!)

HideBigBrotherCropFirst a note: my op-editorial, If You Can't Hide From Big Brother, Adapt was syndicated around the world in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune and a longer version, Snooping vs. Privacy: Lessons for an Age of Transparency in the Christian Science Monitor, among other venues, offering a little wisdom about the value of calm pragmatism in the defense of liberty and safety in the Information Age.

Oh, and regarding a matter that's "completely different": In The Immortality Debate"Decision theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky, biologist PZ Myers, author David Brin and moderator Eneasz Brodski discuss the potential pitfalls and implications of human immortality - both biological and socio-political. Disagreement on the desirability of indefinite lifespans leads to a fascinating conversation."  

== Are alien probes already in our solar system? ==

It's Easier for Aliens to Visit than previously thought: George Dvorsky lately reported - on the ever-brash io9 site - about recent calculations suggesting that "Von Neumann" self-replicating probes, (which I've put into my fiction since 1983) might be able to "fill the galaxy" -- leaving one copy at every star in the Milky Way -- within just 10 million years after the first such probe was launched into space.

That is a mere eyeblink, in comparison to the Milky Way's 10-to-12 billion year age, or its 220 million year rotation rate (at our distance from galactic center.) This new calculation is based on a number of assumptions.  First that Einstein rules. Sorry, no warp drive or even traveling faster than 10% of the speed of light.  In other words, it's a robotic mission.  (Though, as I show in Existence, that doesn't mean it can't be 'human.")

Second, while the traditional Von Neumann probe would decelerate into the next star system, then use asteroidal resources to make and launch its copies, the recent paper by Nicholson and Forgan, offers a unique version, based on a speculative notion: that probes might gather enough raw material (and energy) to copy themselves while hurtling across the cold, black near-emptiness between stars. By building its daughters out of interstellar atoms -- not having to stop and mine asteroids -- a mother probe might drop one into a system that it passes and toss others at varied angles past the new sun, using a slingshot effect to hurl them in varied directions with great efficiency.

I'm rather skeptical of the core assumption -- building robot copies extirely from collected interstellar atoms… but I'm willing to ponder it, maybe in a future story!

OpenLetterAlienLurkersIn fact, I have been working at this general topic -- both as a scientist and as a science fiction author -- ever since I attended the Los Alamos conference on Interstellar Migration around 1983, when Jones and Finney first analyzed the rate at which such "Von Neumann probes" might be able to set a daughter in place around every star in the galaxy.  By the way, they calculated a figure even lower than Nicholson and Forgan.

Of course, the question of why we haven't yet encountered such probes in our solar system is provocative.  It makes the already puzzling problem of the "Fermi Paradox" or Great Silence even more daunting. Folks can read a dozen reasons why such probes - lurking in our solar system - might choose not to respond, even to earnest entreaties that have been made already, by radio and internet. Or else, read more about SETI.

I chose to make this quandary, in fact, the core element of Existence.

That is less a "plug" than simply a followup and offer to those of you who wish to follow up this teaser with scads and skeins of threads leading in new directions. There are many quirky aspects to this one idea, and the number of possible variations can be mind boggling. Even (especially) to the voraciously curious!

== Amazing Miscellany ==

It can be difficult to know what's real and what's fake when it comes to digital art these days. But don't torture yourself worrying about it now: Here are some of the most photorealistic 3D renderings on the web.

Bites from a voracious tick known as the Lone Star are leaving some suddenly allergic to red meat.  Unlike most food allergies, the symptoms typically set in three to six hours after an affected person eats beef, pork or lamb—often in the middle of the night. The bite that seems to precipitate it may occur weeks or months before, often making it difficult for people to make the link. Geez one could come up with a dozen sci fi scenarios behind this one. Hm. Villainous PETA conspirators… honey, call agent!

Daily closing of India and Pakistan Border crossing -- a terrific show. Almost a Monty Python comedy skit, but actually kind of encouraging as it is choreographed and sure beats use of nuclear weapons!

== TWEETable Highlights! ==

Bowing to the inevitable, I have decided to do my latest dump of amazing miscelklany in handy, tweetable bits, for your convenience! That means both linking and displaying the web URLs.  We'll see if folks like this.

How the Tesla Model S is made -- Behind the scenes: a wonderful video.

adriftRivers and tides of fog and clouds and air, flowing around the bridges of San Francisco.  A gorgeous video homage - Adrift by Simon Christen.

xkcd offers perspective on the changing pace of modern life. Still… Twitter lobotomizes.

Forty websites that will make you cleverer right now!

Gorgeous view of America's waterways...Zoomable map highlights extensive #USGS data 

New life for hobbled planet-hunter #Kepler? Microlensing could allow continued search for #exoplanets 

Quirky Quark Quartet…First particle containing four quarks is confirmed 

We need a Fixer not just a #Maker Movement

The difference between Geeks & Nerds -- based on Twitter Research:

This Robotics Dad makes me feel wholly inadequate as a father!

Chinese anti-pervert stockings. Girls wear these hairy panty hose to deter men with inappropriate intentions.

Ten epochal inventors who did not get rich.

Existential Star Wars: If Sartre had co-written StarWars!

Here's what Elon Musk's new project may look like:

Like Synthpop electronic music?  Try "Drunken Saucer Attack" and others by Talin.

The great Pitch Drop experiment.  Since 1927, only eight droplets of the decade-slow goo have plummeted from funnel to cup.  Finally, caught in the act!

All right, this is fascinating. Why are testicles kept in a vulnerable dangling sac? It’s not why you think.

or follow more tweets on

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

From Google Glass to License Plate Tracking: Transparency Updates

I've been busy with a few national interviews. One of them, on the NSA, transparency and aggressively looking back, has already appeared on the David Seaman Hour; other topics ranged 
GenerationChallengfrom SETI to SciFi. See also my interview on NPR News:  The Man Who Predicted Google Glass Forecasts The Near Future: Every generation has been challenged by new powers of vision, memory, perspective, attention and reach. If wearable technology will allow for some segment of society, say, government, to "spy," then all of us should want and have the same technology available.

"How do you see research and innovation making a difference for a better future?" The European Union asked questions like this of about a hundred "sages" in preparation for the Horizon 2020: Digital Agenda for Europe conference that I will help keynote in Vilnius, Lithuania, in November.  You can view my 90 second answer… and the other participants' answers… or learn more about the conference.

== Transparency News ==

The most important civil rights matter of all - a citizen's right to record his or her interactions with police and authorities in public places - took several major positive turns last year, with both the courts and the Obama Administration firmly declaring it to be "established" that we have that right. Alas, it will be hard to implement day-to-day.

At the recent Future in Review (FiRe) conference, Google visionary Vint Cerf said: "Anonymity or pseudonymity is a very important part of democratic society. On the other hand, I don't think that people should be free to cause harm." His solution: an Internet "fire department" that analyzes and compares the IP addresses one's computer is communicating with to ID known botnets or malware IPs.  This is not my preferred approach, which is to create commercial pseudonymity services that are strongly encrypted and reputation linked… and to encourage all responsible sites worldwide to snub non-reputationed sources.  But Vint is very smart and I'll always try a Cerf idea on for size.

== Get used to it ==

blog-alpr-imagepool-500x280-v06Massive tracking of license plates -- via cameras mounted on patrol cars, bridges or stoplights. They snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers, times, and locations. Data are stored for months or years in police databases. And you expected… what?

Predictive policing.  It's happening.  Give us the same tools. Reciprocal accountability to look back at the watchers.

Data privacy researchers have been able to identify the names of hundreds of participants in the Personal Genome Project (PGP) using demographic data from their profiles.  And you expected… what?

Oh but we'll do it to ourselves! Motorola researchers now propose a “vitamin authentication” pill --  a small tablet that contains an electronic chip. After someone swallows the pill, the stomach acts as an electrolyte in the chip’s battery and powers it. The chip has a switch that turns on and off, generating an 18-bit signal like an electrocardiogram. One's entire body would be the authentication token, just like the fobs that many office workers carry to get on corporate networks. The implications… the implications… my head hurts just tracking some of them….

Privacy: Does Face Recognition cross the line?  Bah. We'll only be safe when all of us can access multiple different and redundant and overlapping and independent face-recog systems, all the time.  And when those systems report to us whenever anyone is glancing at our face... exactly what happens in "real" life.

Oh, and blogmunity member Jonathan S offers this: "One of the prizes offered last week on The Price is Right was an iPad with a paired remote-control, camera-equipped electric helicopter. Total cost, including the iPad: about $850 US. Yes, that's right, for about the price of a middling computer, you too can have the surveillance capability many people in the US want to deny their police forces because it's "too intrusive". Go to the park, with fully-charged tablet and 'copter; sit on a nice bench somewhere, and watch everything going on in the park."

Yep.  And we are at the fork in the road. Ban these things - they will shrink, the mighty will get them anyway, and we won't.  Or else embrace them, and you will be able to access a million eyes, and catch those who are staring at you.  Choose.

== Micro-Payments to the rescue? Saving Journalism too!  ==

jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-futureJaron Lanier opines that the internet should be changed to incentivize a myriad micro, nano or pico transactions between sovereign users and dispersed content creators (like you and me) so that we benefit from others' use of our own information -- a new utopian notion to replace one that he helped to coin, but that hew now rejects, that "information wants to be free."  Alas, Jaron is rather vague about how such a new system would work and - more important - what powerful interests in society might be marshaled behind helping to make it come true. (read more in his book, Who Owns the Future.)

In fact, I agree with his goal, which would empower dispersed citizens of a vast, middle class commonwealth. But I'll settle (for now) for two important things:

(1) a much more transparent world in which our present institutions of democracy, science, justice and markets work more effectively and

(2) a system of micropayments that would save the profession of journalism from possible extinction.

As it turns out, I've long explored parameters of the former… and I am pretty sure I know how to do the latter.  Indeed, #2 is do-able in a surprisingly efficient, simple and probably-effective way that will - almost overnight - persuade millions to pay a nickel per article to, say, the New York Times and thus save that journal and hundreds of others.  Think that's impossible?  That folks are too addicted to the free?

I'll bet you a nickel.

== And Transparency Miscellany! ==

The Seattle Police Department became the latest department to equip its officers with wearable cameras.  You saw it in The Transparent Society - back in 1997 and in Earth (1989).

In The Verge appears a fascinating report about the company behind the non-lethal stun guns that have become commonplace around the world, Taser International, which has set out to transform policing once again – this time, with Axon Flex, a head-mounted camera with a twelve-hour battery life that officers can use to record interactions. The device is constantly on, but it only captures video of the thirty seconds before its wearer begins using it, and then both video and audio while police are speaking to a citizen. Footage is then uploaded to a cloud-based service where it can be accessed by the police department. It includes an audit trail to reveal who has accessed the information and when.  (from Watching the Police: Will Two-way Surveillance reduce Crime and Increase Accountability?)

In a major victory for the community radio movement after a 15-year campaign, the Federal Communications Commission has announced it will soon begin accepting applications for hundreds of new low-power FM radio stations.

theprivateeye_01enr00-1-300x181I'd be interested in folks' opinion of The Private Eye,  a graphic/comic series that posits a future when all internet secrets got spilled in a single day… and an over-reacting society clamped down to make "privacy" a fiercely enforced right. (A sham of course, hence the tale.)  Explore and report back here!

== Eyes and ears in conflict ==

Ever experience cognitive dissonance between your ears and eyes? This YouTubed remix of a speech by John F Kennedy is overwhelmingly worth a visit, to hear one of the finest odes to an open and transparent society ever delivered by any politician… at least since Pericles.  Alas, or else hilariously, the visual part is one long screech of paranoiac conspiracy theories, re-contexting JFK's words into attacks upon everything from Freemasons to mainstream media.

Especially amusing: while Kennedy is describing the skulking methods of the Soviet Empire, the youtubers show image after image of US government agencies. Pithy!  Gotta hand it to em! Mind you, I do believe there are conspiracies! The ongoing effort to re-establish rule by secretive owner-oligarchy manifests in many undeniable ways, such as the list of top owners of Fox. (Or the less numerous but equally nutty leftist "truthers" out there. Yipe!) But these fellows do us no service by plunging down kookooland.

Listen to JFK's words, though.  Please do. While chuckling and shaking your head over the use of dishonest imagery to repurpose them.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Transparency - is it so hard to understand?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVariety, the news-zine of the entertainment biz, just ran a pair of articles on the pro vs con aspects of Google Glass.  Space was limited, but I conveyed the "pro" side -- or rather "No law or regulation  could possibly put this genie back into the bottle. It's inevitable so let's embrace the good aspects and use them to limit the bad."  Sarah Downey wrote about the potential dangers to privacy.  Alas, without offering any solutions.

 As nearly always happens, she addresses the thing in front of her -- Google Glass -- and makes no effort to look farther ahead, to when this hulking, borg-like contraption will shrink invisibly into the frame of a regular pair of sunglasses. Can anyone doubt this will happen?  Heck, I know folks who are already compressing many of these features into contact lenses. In such a world, laws banning Augmented Reality (AR) gear, like Google Glass, will only prevent average citizens from getting them. Luddism only ensures  a world where elites of government, wealth, criminality etc can survey us like gods, and we are powerless to look back.

IndinationWhat hand-wringers never do is consider how technology can help us, rather than threaten us. For example, what if your own AR glasses can be programmed with an app to detect when other specs are staring at - or photographing - you?  To detect the voyeurs and peeping toms, empowering you to catch those who stare and thus deter them.  Is that so hard to imagine?  Isn't that exactly what you do today, to deter those who might stare or eavesdrop in a restaurant?

People who use tech to bemoan the rise of tech that they will soon consider a regular feature of life... and who offer no alternatives, only hand-wringing ... jehosephat.

Read the essays pro and con... and weigh in on it!

== Cogency on Transparency ==

TransparentSocietyTransparent Society Revisited, Arnold Kling's July 1 (2013) featured article on the Library of Economics and Liberty site referred cogently to my book The Transparent Society , which he evidently both read and understood. Kling's paraphrasings and interrogations of the concept -- universal reciprocal accountability -- were on-target. 

 Alas, I have found this to be rare, with most pundits skimming for a strawman caricature, such as "Brin opposes privacy." Nothing could be more false.

Kling captures the notion of the Positive Sum Game… that not everything must be either-or.  Smithian enlightenment nations have benefited from so many win-win arrangements -- in science, markets, democracy and so on -- that the concept should be second nature.  Instead, it appears to be very hard to grasp.

Going back to our roots, Adam Smith did not demand zero government.  Indeed, he saw civil servants as one  counterbalancing force to set in opposition vs. the clade that truly repressed freedom and markets in 99% of human cultures: inheritance-based owner-oligarchy. Yes, civil servants can become oppressive too! Especially when captured by an owner-oligarchy.  Hence, the logic should be extended.  Keep erecting new, diverse, dispersed, opposing centers of perception, knowledge and power, so that we benefit from positive-sum, creative competition and do not fall for the failure mode of 6000 years -- leadership delusion.

LibertyFlourishes Getting back to The Transparent Society, my emphasis has been upon "sousveillance" or empowering citizens to look back at every sort of power or elite, from government and commercial to criminal, foreign, technological or oligarchic.  This has been, in fact, the very reflex that brought us to this festival of freedom and creativity-generated wealth.  Yet, it seems difficult to get people to parse HOW this is best achieved.  The reflex to seek power parity by blinding others -- by limiting what elites can see or by cowering or encrypting or hiding from them -- is so profoundly wrong-headed, yet it fills the punditsphere as handwringing commentators demand that government powers of surveillance be curbed… without ever explaining how this can be done, let alone showing one example from history when elites actually let themselves be blinded.

Recall "Total Information Awareness"?  The endeavor of John Poindexter at DARPA to scan all the internet, all the time for signs of danger?  Public opposition shut it down right?  Only we find its parts simply found new shadows to root, and grow within.  

The opposite approach is what can, has and will work. Last year, in a civil liberties event vastly more important than PRISM and all that, federal courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be "settled law" that citizens have a universal right to record police activity on public streets.  Sousveillance triumphed… and hardly anyone commented. (Indeed, it will be a battle all our lives to prevent local cops from smashing our cameras "by accident.")

== And on to the the Ridiculous ==

Internet "security expert" Bruce Schneier is at it again, creating fabulous dichotomies that have almost no bearing upon the true dilemmas the lie before us.  He starts by laying out a genuine concern, that the FBI and other state agencies are striving to win maximal legal and technical access to the Internet - including all decrypted traffic - in order to do their jobs with maximal efficiency.  Bruce does some good work at the beginning, covering several hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Alas, then he goes on to say:  "The FBI believes it can have it both ways: that it can open systems to its eavesdropping, but keep them secure from anyone else's eavesdropping. That's just not possible. It's impossible to build a communications system that allows the FBI surreptitious access but doesn't allow similar access by others. When it comes to security, we have two options: We can build our systems to be as secure as possible from eavesdropping, or we can deliberately weaken their security. We have to choose one or the other."

losersWhere to begin? The government and other powerful elites are NOT intrinsically as transparent as we are. They can create intranets and keep them secure from the methods that let them spy on regular internet traffic.  Lots of agencies already do this.  Yes, their adversaries can also set up secure intranets -- but if those loci are within US borders, the FBI can then legally (with warrants) break down doors.  Meanwhile, in any race for security and privacy through shrouds, we -- you and me -- are automatically destined to be the losers.  That is not a race we can win.  But we can change the race.

The dichotomy is not between technologically secure and un-secure.  It is between letting elites exercise surveillance unsupervised or … supervised. It is whether we wise up and start demanding a price every time public agencies claim they need to see better, in order to protect us.  I see no point in investing all our strivings into blinding them, when the next major trauma will result in the next Patriot Act, giving them all the powers they claim would have prevented catastrophe. It is the ratchet effect and it dooms all such measures.
Anyway, I'm not sure I want our watchdogs blinded.  I care much more about retaining control over the dog… a choke chain of close supervision… to remind the dog that it's a dog, and not a wolf.  There are measures we could demand, such as more powerful inspectors general.  Citizen inspectors (based on the old Grand Jury concept) vetted and cleared to enter any room (especially the surveillance control rooms) and ask any questions. There are many such measures that, instead of trying futilely to restrict what elites can see and know, instead fiercely clamp down on what they can DO with that information.

Ponder... information is slippery and infinitely copy-able.  But the actions of physical agents of authority -- arresting you, slandering me, firing that dissident across the street... THOSE things we have a chance of detecting, deterring, controlling.  If we make the real world the thing that we care most about.

That distinction - between what agencies and other elites can SEE and what they can DO -- seems to utterly escape Schneier and most of today's hand-wringers.  If we give in to their notion of a tradeoff between safety and freedom, then we all will inevitably lose, since we will have sacrificed the very notion of a positive-sum, win-win game.

All of our radicalism should be aimed at forcing new, innovative and better forms of supervision and sousveillance upon powerful elites, instead of hopelessly trying to blind them.

== To the creepy ==

The NSA is quietly writing code for Google’s open source Android OS. Google says anyone has the right to do so. Read the aricle carefully because while nothing illegal was done, some care should be taken to parse consequences.

I am less upset than you'd expect.  If the NSA experts are offering "Security Enhanced" systems for Android... and they are open source inspected by thousands of bright private individuals, then we can presume two things:1) Hackers and others will find it harder to break Android security. 2) If the NSA has inserted some kind of back door, it's one that it considers so safe from discovery that it is not worried about the open source community.

Number 1 sounds okay.  Number two is frightening, at first. But if they are that clever, they could have introduced it using one of their thousands of fronts and false identities in the hacker, open source or anonymous communities.

In fact, what matters is not what the NSA sees.  That has never been the point.  What matters is not letting them look at us without being supervised by a diversity of adversarially skeptical watchdogs!  Again, that distinction between what they might see/know and what they might do is crucial, though, alas, too few make it.

Obsession with limiting the vision of elites is not only historically unprecedented and futile, it stymies clear thinking and perpetually stops us from talking about how to supervise them better.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ultra-short science fiction tales - a couple of mine… and one that's better

I just found out something that gave me a moment of envious joy, with a colleague and friend.  While we were both in Fort Worth for a speaking event, Rob Sawyer and I were relaxing over beverages, discussing unusual forms of literature… when I raised the issue of "drabbles" or short-short stories that are constrained to specific lengths.

SixWordStoryFor example, back in 2006, Wired Magazine ran a contest for six word tales…. a rather impossible length, though I sent them a dozen entries.

The one they chose ("Vacuum collision. Orbits diverge. Farewell, love.") did have everything you need in a story… pathos, drama, events, emotion and three separate, sequential scenes!  (None of the other contestants did that, so there...) 

BangPostponedSeveral of mine can be found on my website, including: "Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back."

But I especially like the 250 word story. To meet that precise allotment - no more and no less - is excruciatingly difficult, but it can be done with a full dramatic arc. And so I told Rob about a contest I once entered, "Sci-Fi Scenes" that was run by the Village Voice back in 1981, just a year after my first fiction sale (Sundiver).  I entered the 250 word challenge and my tale is pretty darned good!  (See below.)  But I then told Rob about the brief-epic that won the contest, this cool story about a guy with a malfunctioning teleportation belt who is running desperately from a Tyrannosaur….

"Oh, that was mine," Rob announced, "My first fiction sale, in fact. And it was an Allosaur, not a Tyrannosaur."

Argh!  After much yelping and internal turmoil, I expressed my joy over a serendipity of time.  And now you can read Rob Sawyer's 250 word first publication: If I'm Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage (plus take a look at his new, near-future book, Triggers.)

And then go on to read (below) two of my own  250 word drabbles (which are also gathered in my short story collections: Otherness and The River of Time.


Toujours Voir, from The River of Time
by David Brin

RiverofTimePurple     "Folks!" the bodyguard announced. "In moments Lasselovsky will be here. You all know what that means."
     From my regular booth by the window, I saw several customers abruptly leave. The brave, or curious, remained.
     "He's the Oldtime spacer who returned, but didn't hide, right?" Sam, our bartender, asked.
     "Yeah, so don't bother him! If anyone here strongly resembles someone from his past, and triggers a deja-vu attack, we could find this building on another planet..."

     Deja vu. I suppose everyone's felt this clue to Time's true nature.
     Epileptics once dreaded it as an "aura," foretelling seizures.   And historically, people feared epilepsy, never suspecting grand mal hinted a door to the universe.
     Today only Oldspacers suffer lingering aura shock. I hear neuroconvulsive hyperdrive is perfected nowadays. Modern pilots needn't endure terrifying seizures to attain that special mental state which propels a spaceship starward.
     To modern spacers, induced deja vu is a key.
     To Oldtimers, though, it's pure terror.

     "...sudden recognition could trigger a jump seizure. So don't approach him. If he feels safe, maybe he'll mingle..."
     Talky bodyguard.

     Most Oldtimers retreated to cozy surroundiings and stayed put. Ex-crewmates avoid reunions.
     Stubborn Lasselovsky, though, keeps moving. He's a free man, so the authorities send bodyguards ahead to warn people.

     Time's funny. It flows, then surges like a convulsion.
     I sit and wait, feeling the years.
     Through the window, I see a familiar face...
     I should have left before this. Already my hands are shaking.
     Still, it is nice to see, again, the stars.


Myth Number Twenty-One, from Otherness
by David Brin

NewOthernesscover     Elvis roams the interstates in a big white cadillac.
It has to be him. Flywheel-bus and commuter-zep riders see plumes of dust trailing like rocket exhaust behind something too fast and glittery for the naked eye.
     Squint though, and you might glimpse him behind the wheel, steering with one wrist, fiddling the radio dial, then reaching for that always frosty can of beer.  “Thank you, honey,” he tells the blonde next to him as he steps on the accelerator.

     Roar of V-8 power. Freedom-smell of gasoline. Clean wind blowing back his hair... Elvis hoots and lifts one arm to wave at all true Americans who still believe in him.

     Chatty bit-zines run blurry pictures of him.  “Fakes!” claim those snooty tech types, ignored by the faithful who collect grand old TwenCen automobiles and polish them, saving ration coupons for that once-a-year spin, meeting at the nearest Graceland Shrine for a day of chrome and music and speed and glory.
     They stop at ghostly, abandoned filling stations, checking for signs that he's been by. Some claim to find pumps freshly used, reading empty yet somehow reeking of high octane. Others point to black, bold tire tracks, or claim his music can be heard in the coyotes' midnight serenade.

     Elvis roams the open interstates in a big white cadillac.  How else to explain the traces some have found, sparkling like faery dust across the fading yellow lines?
     A pollen of happier days... the glitter of rhinestones.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ocean Fertilization redux… plus the politics of science

My last posting about Climate Change remediation got a lot of attention, positive and negative,  so let me emphasize: I do not consider any form of "geoengineering" to be a substitute for responsibly investing in energy efficiency and finding ways to maintain a great civilization without ruining our planet. Even if a few such methods are found that work well, without crackpot flaws and/or gruesome side effects, that won't let us off the hook from our shared and individual responsibilities, which include seeking alternate, sustainable forms of energy to replace the irresponsible spewing of greenhouse pollutants into our atmosphere. Those who have been lured into participating in a War on Science must be introduced to its value. But the cynical men who are financing this cult are enemies of humankind.

PushPullOceanPumpsOnly now… some additional insights. A variant on ocean fertilization has been proposed by my friend William Calvin, one of the smartest guys I know. Bill agrees with me that the best approach for geoengineering and partial remediation of carbon driven climate change would be to emulate and enhance the method that Nature herself already uses, to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.  That means doing it via natural processes at-sea, forming carbon rich solids and letting these settle as sediments to the ocean bottom.  (While, as a side-benefit, stimulating new fisheries.)  See Calvin's Proposal: Emergency 20-year Drawdown of Excess CO2 via Push-Pull  Ocean Pumps.

Earlier we discussed the drawbacks of the bludgeon-like initial attempts at ocean fertilization, that have created crude plankton blooms by dumping iron powder into currents.  We also saw that care must be taken to make sure that (as when arid land is irrigated) the new zones of fecundity must be "well-drained" like the Grand Banks and Chile, and unlike the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, where "fecundity" can translate into  a poisoned morass of algae and jellyfish.  My conclusion: if you want to emulate the main life-process that removes CO2 from the air, do it by lifting submerged nutrients to higher, sun-lit realms, exactly as Nature does it.  Several methods have been proposed and I showed a couple of them way back in in EARTH (1989).

Let me pause to add that there are non-living process that do the same thing, in parallel.  Even more effective at drawing down atmospheric CO2 is the weathering of continental rocks by the rain cycle, washing silicates to sea via river estuaries, reacting and combining with dissolved carbon and sealing them away in sediments without intervention by biology. (Indeed, this is the principal driver of the "Gala Balance" that makes a natural ocean world self-regulating.)  I have never seen any proposals to expand continental, river-carried weathering… though I imagine a lot of dust will go to sea if we continue to spread deserts… or if desertification results in nuclear war.

CarbonSoupBudgetBut let's get back to Bill Calvin's concept.  He starts with what I've been pushing… systems that emulate natural upwellings by bringing up nutrients from below, using either windmills or wave powered systems.  (Have a look: some are very clever: especially using 3000 abandoned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.)

He then deals with a serious problem, that most of the CO2 sequestered by a plankton bloom does not either sink or feed fish, but simply returns to the air after the plankton dies.  Calvin solves this by having another windmill-powered tube situated down-current from the upwelling one.  This second one pumps the carbon rich surface water back down again.  I'll let him explain:

Calvin's push-pull pumps:  "An easy-to-visualize method to do push-pull pumps uses floating windmills. Long pipes hang 15 to 30 stories down into the slowly moving depths. One windmill operates traditionally, pulling deep water up to the surface.  The nutrients in this cold water create a sustained bloom of algae (and algae thrive in cooler water). The other windmill pump pushes the enriched surface water down to where it cannot resurface for millennia. Pumping down stores the carbon in the brand-new algae as well as canceling out whatever carbon dioxide was first pulled up from below the thermocline. That’s the first big payoff from going with push-pull pumps."

"Even more importantly, it sinks the 240x larger amounts of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from the feces and cell debris. (Algaculture throws out the dissolved part of their organic crop.) DOC ordinarily becomes carbon dioxide within a week or two and then escapes into the air as winds stir the surface layer. Stashing it as well is the second big step up in efficiency achieved by push-pull pumps."

These things merit discussion.  Do have a closer look.  Because reducing CO2 at the source will no longer suffice.  We have to push for that!  But it will take more.

See my article: Defining Climate "Deniers" and "Skeptics." Without any doubt it is possible to be a skeptic who helps science by critiquing the flaws in any standard model. Such skepticism, propelled by curiosity and the natural competitiveness of science (indeed, science is the most ferociously competitive of all human endeavors) is natural and wholesome.  Alas, 95% of those calling themselves "climate skeptics" do not fit this description.  Their stance is driven by political loyalties and participation in an ever-deepening War on Science and everything that it stands for. And the worst example of all is...

== Politics and Science ==

The Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives -- continuing its almost blemish-free record of jibbering inanity, with members from the majority party almost universally unqualified and propelled by fanatical dogmas.  Take Mississippi Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo, who chairs the Space Subcommittee. His revision of the Administration's NASA budget request would slash the requested Earth science budget by a third (from about $1.8 billion to $1.2 billion) next year.  This from the party that proclaims "we need more research!" in order to determine whether human activity is promoting climate change and global warming.

researchfunds(This year's Fox-declared dogma is to backpedal and admit (at last) that major global warming is obviously taking place, but continuing to declare human causes to be "unproved." And further proclaiming that lemming-herd-like scientists are all cowardly-timid yelpers after teensy grants. Even though half of all climate researchers are doing great, earning nearly all of their funds from perfectly safe research into weather prediction, having accomplished the spectacular feat of transforming the old, two hour weather report into a ten day miracle. Geniuses, chivvied by their opposites.)

Keeping true to form, the targeted slashing of science continues. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which supports the development and commercialization of new energy technologies, would receive $50 million, $215 million — or 81 percent — less than what was enacted in fiscal 2013.

stormsofmygrandchildrenThis is not the science-loving GOP of 1980, but some aberration that has sabotaged Earth science for twenty consistent years. Indeed, they several times tried to remove Earth observation and ocean/climate studies from the mission statements of both NASA and NOAA.  Can any modern person rationalize this?  Or convince himself/herself that this has anything to do with "conservatism" anymore?

Read also how the Space Subcommittee Republicans demand that funds be shifted away from asteroidal research, which offers the possibility of accessing vast wealth and resources, -- a new Gold-Platinum Rush in space -- while providing a useful intermediate mission for astronauts to develop deep space skills.  Instead they prefer an utterly pointless return to the sterile-useless-heavy Moon, and then armwave talk of a Mars Mission that this generation is nowhere near ready to even design.

Who - on Earth or anywhere - would try so hard to ALWAYS be wrong?

== Science Miscellany ==

Astronomers from 11 different institutions in the UK have joined forces to hunt for alien life, setting up a network to coordinate their activity. The UK SETI Research Network will fund research that considers new ways to find extraterrestrial intelligence. The group will also buy listening time on radio telescopes.

==And Finally==

Striking correlation between infection and mood disorders: Researchers have found that every third person who is diagnosed for the first time with a mood disorder had been admitted to hospital with an infection prior to the diagnosis. That notion adds another facet to the "hygiene hypothesis" that links a variety of autoimmune conditions to an inflammatory response caused by the loss of healthy bacteria in the gut.

Changes to the English language so subtle you don't notice; i.e. from "they started to walk" to "they started walking."

"Standard IQ tests are problematic on many levels — not least, because they do very little to tell us about the quality of our thinking. Looking to overcome this oversight, psychologist Keith Stanovich has started to work on the first-ever Rationality Quotient test." An interview that forges into deep territory, revealing just how difficult it is for humans to do the thing we are most proud-of.