Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Looking for a Conservative Phoenix

I have long yearned to see a rising by old-style American Conservatives against the hijacking of their movement (even its zombification) by the cynical murdockian cabal, a process that Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley and Billy Graham all saw in early phases and denounced.

A process that none of us could have imagined would go as far as it has, with all of the GOP members of the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee deliberately and vociferously proud to be anti-science.

Elsewhere, I describe the sort of thing that's called for.  Something akin to what liberals and democrats did in 1947, when they decisively cut themselves off from the mad-communist left, and thereby saved the relevance of their movement.  Alas, while millions of U.S. conservatives do express discomfort with the transformation of Buckley's intellectualism into a know-nothing mob, few on the American right have roused to do anything about this tragedy for the republic. (And let's be clear -- it is tragic if we're compelled to look only to one party for a semblance of sanity. I prefer a competitive marketplace.)

Some voices of protest have risen, now and then, e.g. on the pages of the American Conservative, decrying how Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Republican Party (assisted by the Koch brothers, radio shock-jocks and the Saudi Royal House) has systematically reversed dozens of hallmarks of the Goldwater-Buckley era, especially the notion that grownups engage in debate, not hysteria, with the aim of negotiating pragmatic solutions in a complicated world. That conservatism's natural skepticism vs "activist-meddling" should not mutate into rage against everything in the last lines of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

It has become clear that this rising of conservative adults won’t be happening soon, to any degree that actually matters.  Amidst Phase Three of the American Civil War, the side that stuffs ballot boxes and gerrymanders in order to stay in Congress will go down in flames, as did the Confederacy, and decent conservatives will then have their chance -- rebuilding from the ashes.

Still, there are such men and women out there, making sincere efforts to at least talk about the problem, offering hopeful manifestos for what the conservative phoenix might look like.  Take this one by Andrew Bacevich in the Imaginative Conservative. I highly recommend that you read it…

… especially if you are a liberal or progressive!  Because you, above all, need to begin parsing what a sane conservatism would look like. Because half of your fellow citizens do ascribe to a conservative worldview, and that is not going to change. You will achieve more by pointing them toward a more adult version than by ridiculing them in blanket terms. Let me reiterate that: I hope all of you liberals do read Bacevich's article.

Consider the following passage: “Conservatives, therefore, are skeptical of anything that smacks of utopianism. They resist seduction by charlatans peddling the latest Big Idea That Explains Everything.”

I believe that (putting aside the "charlatans" snark) he hits it on the head, here.  That conservatives will always – by personality and nature – be wary of externally imposed and frenetic “improvement campaigns.” And this trait will always make them inherent opponents of meddlesome, gotta-save-the-world liberalism. They will have this trait, even when Goldwater-sanity in restored. Moreover, in this reflex they will not always be wrong.

Progressives – driven by a manic need to solve this problem right now(!!!) … and that problem and that one(!) … naturally drive half their fellow citizens batty.  And liberals’ inability to recognize that visceral response is one reason the Koch-Murdochs have been able to nurse resentment into fierce political power.  In other words, liberals, Fox is partly your fault.

The crux: progressives see a world that needs saving and many things that desperately need improving.  They are correct about this… but often insane in their mania and inability to listen.  Their worst crime is often refusing to admit that many past progressive measures actually worked! Refusing ever to give the citizenry a pat on the back for past, partial victories against racism, sexism, prejudice, and environmental blindness. By emphasizing guilt trips and chiding … and only sanctimonious chiding… many progressives have been Sean Hannity's favorite people and the source of much of his power.

ConservativeIn contrast, conservatives react to nagging with hackles.  They find the constant hectoring to improve things aggressive and often rude.  They have a perfect right to feel that way. Meddlesome chiding (justified or not) truly is rude.  But that emotional response blinds them to the simple fact that liberals have been correct in nearly every improvement campaign that they’ve raised for 80 years.  The world does need saving and the proper role of conservatism is not to obstruct with volcanic fury.

It is to act as the voice of skeptical reason, demanding proof and reality checks and evidence. To insist, as Buckley and Goldwater did, that “solutions” always contain as much as possible of the element most in need of preservation from would-be meddlers -- a generous helping of old-fashioned free will. That is what conservative negotiators would be insisting upon right now... if conservatism still negotiated.  If it were still sane.

When you read Bacevich, you get the sense of a fellow who would take up that latter role, as Barry Goldwater did.  A role that would serve us all well… even when you deem it retro, overly recalcitrant or overly nostalgic.

Sure, when you read his essay, you will find much of it rather old-fogey. Tough. You must learn to converse with folks like this. Learn to talk Fox-watchers into veering away from the Hannity-Limbaugh hate fest  and listening instead to folks like Bacevich.

You will never make the conservative personality go away! (If you dream of that, then you are a would-be tyrant.) But you can try understanding it better, so you can ease your neighbors’ pain. The dread and fury that has transformed them from debate-worthy fellow citizens and estimable opponents into rage-drenched soldiers in the New Confederacy.

=== Can you hear the tumbrels? ===

AirlineDeteriorationDelta, United and American Airlines have all announced plans to upgrade their business-class seats for cross-country and transcontinental flights. Then there’s Emirates, which now sells first-class suites — complete with a shower — that go for a tidy $19,000 on the New York-Dubai route.  At the other end of the economic spectrum, low-cost airlines that re-create the thrill of traveling in steerage are thriving, too. The new business model, apparently, is to shrink the seats, charge extra for everything and offer nothing for free.  Elsewhere I have discussed what all this means (See Airline Deterioration and the new Elite).  When the rich abandon a mode of transport, or can truly divide castes of travel, that mode goes to hell.
What does it all mean? Harold Myerson of the Washington Post lays it out in A Hard Landing for the Middle Class:  "The upgrading of business and the downgrading of coach present a fairly faithful mirror of what’s happening in the larger economy: the disappearance of the middle class. As University of California-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez has documented, between 2009 and 2011, the incomes of the wealthiest 1 percent of American families grew by 11.2 percent while those of the remaining 99 percent shrunk by 0.4 percent. Median household income has declined every year since 2008. Profits, meanwhile, have risen to their highest share of the nation’s economy since World War II, while wages have sunk to their lowest share."

I'll let Myerson have the last word: "The U.S. economy has not stagnated over the past four decades, but so much of its wealth has been claimed by the very top that most Americans have experienced it as a zero-sum game in which they’ve lost ground. As tax rules favored the wealthy, as employees lost the power to bargain for their wages, as globalization reduced the incomes of millions of workers, the rich grew richer at everyone else’s expense. That’s the reality that today’s air travel illustrates, as the comfortable standard seat that once was the norm goes the way of the dwindling middle class."

They truly haven't a clue what they are doing. History shows where this leads.  I even tried to warn them, in Existence.

=== High Speed Trading Redux ===

TransactionFeeTerminateI've discussed elsewhere the problem of High Speed Trading or HST, which allows a cartel of "seated members" of stock exchanges to game the system, exponentially augmenting their already unfair advantage over other traders (like you and me.)  Now see how institutionalized this unfair practice has become, as the New York Attorney General reveals that Thomson Reuters would allow you access to the Consumer Confidence data a full two seconds earlier than the rest of its subscribers… if you pay them thousands per month.

There are three levels to this: (1) The insider trading aspects are intrinsic to human nature and all we can hope for  in transparency, wary regulators and whistle blowers. (2) This is made far, far worse by the cartel of seated exchange members.  Even if this generation does nothing about it, a future one will, so the brightest cartel members should start looking for ways to benefit from helping us.  (3) HST offers a potential for a true doomsday scenario.  One akin to TERMINATOR.  I mean nothing less.  See my article for reasons to fear.

=== Political Miscellany ==

As Congress braces for a possible government shutdown next month and the fresh danger of default before Thanksgiving, there is a surprising exodus of senior GOP staffers that has worried people in both parties.

NamesInfamyThe appalling poor taste of Rolling Stone - a journal I generally admire - in putting the face of the surviving Boston Bomber on their cover - had the Net roiling with anger.  My simple reaction? Refer folks to my Salon Magazine piece proposing a solution. That we  "re-name" people who are decisively proved guilty of heinous deeds.  It's called the "Herostratos Effect" and it has compelling logic.  We deserve the right to shun those who harm us grievously, denying them the attractive "immortal fame" that derives (in a sick mind) even from infamy.

Here's a link to the offensive cover, which has drawn hundreds of marriage proposals from deeply sick women who seriously ought to enter the Darwin Awards contest... as (thank heavens) The bomber clearly has.

The Boehner-led Congress has been the least productive since record keeping began, in 1940.  And yes, that includes their stated goal of reducing government or repealing laws… they've done less of that than any democratic-led Congress.  

Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society. These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

Lawrence Kotlikoff has been doing yeoman work drafting legislation for which he has now lined up significant bipartisan support in Congress. This bill would require congressional budgeting offices to actually state the long-term fiscal impact of current legislation on future generations. He also has support of 12 Nobel laureates and over 500 economists. I urge you to go to and sign up yourself and pass the word to your friends and associates.

=== Oh… the hypocrisy! ===

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz To Renounce Canadian Citizenship. Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta, on Dec. 22, 1970. His mother was born in the U.S. and his father was a native of Cuba. And all of a sudden that's just fine for a fellow who's blatantly already running for president in 2016.

Um really?  Seriously?  All of the sudden having an American citizen mother is more than enough, even if you were born overseas?  Um…. birthers?  Does your hypocrisy know no bounds?

== The Deadly "smoking gun" memo? ==

If this is even ten percent true, then you have to conclude that the world's master connivers are nowhere near as smart as they think they are, since the only possible place for this to lead is tumbrels.  "The Memo confirmed every conspiracy freak’s fantasy: that in the late 1990s, the top US Treasury officials secretly conspired with a small cabal of bankers." The less this mess is attributable to conspiracy, the more it has to be stupidity.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Ritual of the Street Corner -- a "tonic" exercise in humility

As time passes, many of us are coming to realize that our current political and social struggles - especially within the United States - have much less to do with "left versus right" in any classic sense, than they are about future versus past, optimism versus pessimistic cynicism, and confident pragmatism against varied dogmatisms that preach despair.  

You can see this not only in the fanaticisms of far-lefist and pan-rightist politics, but also in culture. Take the way novels and films of fantasy and so much science fiction -- filled with dystopias, apocalypses and lavish feudal settings -- today push notions of nostaligia and rejection of the modern world.  A world that gave the authors and directors and screenwriters  lives that any king of old would have envied. Indeed, very much like the lives of gods.

FavoriteCliche copyElsewhere, I talk about some of the economic drivers and lazy plotting temptations that too-often cause storytellers to choose this path.  A cheat that can make money, for sure! But one also spreading poison through the blood and heart and brain of a society that badly needs confidence. A society that has earned confidence, after beating down so many ancient evils, like racism, sexism and our ancestors' blithe contempt for nature.  In that essay, I reflect upon how some dour tales are truly great!  When they warn of a danger we might thereupon be inspired to solve -- making those stories self-preventing prophecies. We don't need happy endings... but neither do we need dull-repetitive propaganda for hopelessness.

Project Hieroglyph is one effort by a coterie of science fiction authors to reverse this trend and challenge readers with an impudent notion... that the future might be better, if we seek it with vigor, courage, goodwill, a spirit of negotiation... and adventure.  Lots of great drama and adventure! I helped establish Reading for the Future with that goal in mind.  It underlies the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD.

(Note: there will be an RFF meeting among the great activities at next weekend's World Science Fiction Convention, in San Antonio Texas.  I hope to see some of you there!)

== An Exercise for Cynics ==

Here I'd like to challenge readers to try a little experiment, one that is sure to chip at the stylish cynicism we absorb from both media and our own sanctimonious egotism.  Are you honest and willing to reconsider?  Most people who do as I recommend (below) come away at least a bit inspired, less sure that their fellow citizens are complete sheep, and possibly stoked with just a little more confidence that we can do it - cross the next 50 years of minefields and quicksand pits, so that our children will get to something better. 

For starters, have you heard one of the oldest arguments for cynicism? Some variant on:

“A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are.”

Yep, it's one of the great smug-cliches of all time. And I can only respond with --

”What is a cynic who snaps out of it even FARTHER? Enough to realize that, despite the gruesomely stupid, self-delusional and abysmally corrupt aspects of human nature... things are getting phenomenally better? And have been for quite some time?

I mean, which is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic -- and a macro-civilization -- that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature?

156209451So here is Brin’s Exercise... I command you to go forth and do this!

Go to a street corner, preferably one with a very busy four-way -- or eight or twelve (via multiple lanes) -- traffic not controlled by electronic lights, but simple stop-signs -- where people and cars and bicycles must balance traffic rules every second, negotiating  right-of-way and movement with quick eye contact, lazy little hand-flicks and brief nods. Watch for a while until it all sinks in. Allow yourself to be amazed at how easy it seems. How relaxed and bored everyone is, with this libertarian miracle of self-regulation.

Yes, if you stand there long enough, you'll spot someone doing something stupid or rude. Fine. Tally it up. Get a ratio.

Then do a slow 360. Notice all the other things that are working! The quiet and efficient courtesies, the technologies, the tiny acts of honesty and cooperation. That person over there could have stolen from that shop, but didn't. Those telephone lines and power cables have been working, nonstop, for at least a decade... and so on. Parse it smaller and smaller.

Notice all the hidden competence of a myriad professionals that make all the switches turn on time and fill the restaurants with food. Do not let a patch of one square degree pass your view without comment, or noticing something that you took for granted! If you finish the turn having counted less than a hundred bona fide miracles, start over!  Better yet, ponder what any of your ancestors would have seen, doing a similar slow turn, at any point across the last 6000 years.

People accuse me of being a flaming optimist, because I have a naively positive view of human nature.  How absurd! No, friend. I am a flaming optimist because I understand just how wretched human nature is! I am uniquely qualified, as a student of all sciences, of history... and a licensed professional alternate world builder in the mighty genre of Speculative History (also clled science fiction)... and a person whose third and fourth cousins were all murdered by unprecedented rationalization and unspeakable human savagery...

... as one who awakens every morning surprised that Cossacks have not yet burned my home, taken my wife and kids, burnt me at a stake and ruined my proud civilization.

Not yet.

Hence the ferocity of my optimism, oh my friends and co-rebels against any chance that the bad old days might return. (A possibility that I portrayed in The Postman.) Hence my deep and abiding disdain for cynicism. Because it isn’t helpful. And if it isn’t helpful in this fight, I have no time for it.

We have one hope. The Modernist Agenda -- combined with a little faith. It’s a program that’s worked so far. Indeed, we cannot properly fight for it without conceding -- indeed, AVOWING! -- that it has worked. Fantastically. Epochally. Better than any other program for living and working together ever devised.  Because no other system even tried to eliminate racism, sexism, feudalism and every other noxious ism that limited human potential.

== Must I also like... my neighbors? ==

Like everyone else, I am drawn to cynical contempt-for-the-masses around me. Masses who seem so dimwitted... who support imbecile politicians... who don’t know where Rwanda is or what happened there... who actually think we are at “war”... who raise such dopey, X-Box-addicted brats...

RitualStreetCorner...only then I do the exercise. I go to that street corner and start turning. And every time I finish one of those 360 degree rotations, noticing the myriad marvels all around me, the incredible courtesy and skill and competence that it takes to (ironically) make a civilization that is proof against the individual incompetence of countless fools...

... I find myself forced to make a concession. To grasp that (as the best scientists say)... I might be wrong.

And that is when I mutter, grudgingly --

”My neighbors simply... cannot be as stupid as they look.”

Yes, they look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. Together, we get smarter than we ever deserved to be.

It is called an Emergent Property. And, friends, you live in comfort and wallow in information and freedom because of it. Moreover, the shortsighted dogmatists who hate complexity have no idea what it is that they are prescribing, when they offer their simplifying nostrums:

"All government is vile, all the time," or -

"All competitive capitalism is vile, all the time," or -

"Anything western or american is automatically better," 

...or the recently more pervasive poison see in nearly all Hollywood films:

"Anything western or american is automatically evil and disgusting, without any redeeming properties!"

Pay no attention to the simplistic prescribers of right or left.  What they are offering is to take it away -- all the marvelous complexity -- and replace this marvel with rule by philosopher kings. By platonist prescribers of left, right, libertarian or religious or weird. Dig deep and it's all the same thing. Dolts and ingrates who despise while wallowing in the fruits of the very civilization they hate. Who would end the complexity in favor of a theory. Who would kill the goose that gives a flood of golden eggs.

Oh, yes, some of our neighbors are fools, after all.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ocean Geo-Engineering, Whale Poo, SeaLand and Rising IQ

== Back to the oceans "geo-engineering"… and more science! ==

Some of my earlier postings discussed ocean fertilization as a means of geo-engineering remediation to address rising carbon dioxide levels and global climate change. Now here's a really interesting, if slightly icky realization: Sperm whale poo may be a vital part of keeping the seas vibrant and healthy!

whalesVital Giants: Why living seas need whales: It seems that each whale takes iron from the depths where they feed and scatter it above, fertilizing the sea and removing CO2. Indeed, whales may be even more important than that, creating turbulent areas that mix nutrient-rich cool (lower) waters with sunlit but barren shallows -- in an exact parallel with proposals that we emulate this on a big scale.  Some think the seas were more fecund with life before humans almost eliminated the top of the food chain through whaling... then stepped back from the brink in time to save not only the great behemoths, but (in time, as their numbers recover) vast swathes of rejuvinated ocean.  We can hope.

And now supporting evidence: Scientists solve a 14,000 year old mystery: At the end of the last Ice Age, as the world began to warm, a swath of the North Pacific Ocean came to life. During a brief pulse of biological productivity fourteen millennia years ago, as Ice Age glaciers began to melt and sea levels rose, they submerged the surrounding continental shelf, washing iron into the rising sea and setting off a burst of life.

Oh!  consider this.  When global sea rise starts inundating coastal cities, won't that add lots of iron and calcium and other important nutrients, as well?

Regarding the ocean zones suffering from nutrient-based choking -- the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Gulf of Mexico -- these represent pictures of Gaia in trouble. Hypoxia and algal blooms are associated with decreased total biomass (and carbon).  They also lead to increased emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas.  These regions are sick places, but they all share the trait of bad drainage… just like realms like the ancient Fertile Crescent,  where primitive and ill-thought kinds of irrigation spread salts without washing them away to sea. Fertilization in the open ocean is unlikely to lead to hypoxia which is typically found in enclosed waters such as lakes or partially enclosed waters such as bays and gulfs.

So each zone calls for different kinds of intervention.  (Assuming all is tested, experimentally validated and proved safe.) In some well-drained ocean zones with fast currents, go ahead and stir in iron and other nutrients, or use wave power to stir upward nature's own nutrients from below the thermalcline, imitating the wise intervention of whales.  Let's at least find out if that would both remove atmospheric carbon and spur new fisheries.

Considering the Gulf of Mexico and Black Sea are suffering from a lack of oxygen, why not set up floating windmills to push air underwater? As you do for a fish tank. Tell me how that isn't at least worth trying?

== Oh, but who will thrive if the oceans rise? ==  

Sealand_stampA perennial topic is the recurring libertarian fantasy of creating "sea-steads" or sovereign "nations" somewhere beyond the reach of today's meddlesome, busybody legacy states.  I've long been fascinated by this notion going back to childhood and  still feel its draw, which especially pervades the community of science fiction authors. Indeed, I have portrayed such havens taking shape in EARTH (1989) in EXISTENCE (2012) and in online essays comparing the notions of Seasteading to Shoresteading and free-moving alternatives like Sea-State.

Naturally, big-thinkers have tried to make dreams real. The oldest and most famous of these experiments is SeaLand, a former WWII anti-aircraft platform, seven miles off the English coast, that has been the site of comic-opera posing for more than 50 years.  Now an article by James Grimmelmann takes you on a tour of how attempts at creating pirate radio… then data… havens have never worked out as utopian dreams collide with the real world.

And while we're talking about advantages of living with the sea… According to a new study, after iodized salt was introduced in America in 1924, there was an increase in IQ of 15 points in iodine-deficient areas.

Alas, as Paula Luber points out: "The scary thing is, iodine consumption in the U.S. has dropped by 50% in the last 30 years. When we were young, our moms cooked our meals with liberal use of iodized salt, and commercial bakeries used iodine as a dough conditioner - one slice of wonderbread and you had the RDA for iodine. Now bakeries use bromine in place of iodine - bromine has no known use in the body, but does block iodine binding, making the situation even worse."  So is idiocracy coming… because "I… oh… iodined all alone…"

== Speaking of which ==

FallInCrimeAn interesting article in the Economist, The Curious Case of the Fall in Crime, documents the stunning drop in crime in the western world: "Last year there were just 69 armed robberies of banks, building societies and post offices in England and Wales, compared with 500 a year in the 1990s. In 1990 some 147,000 cars were stolen in New York. Last year fewer than 10,000 were … " 

Cherished social theories have been discarded. Conservatives who insisted that the decline of the traditional nuclear family and growing ethnic diversity would unleash an unstoppable crime wave have been proved wrong. Young people are increasingly likely to have been brought up by one parent and to have played a lot of computer games. Yet they are far better behaved than previous generations. Left-wingers who argued that crime could never be curbed unless inequality was reduced look just as silly."

They don't mention the coincidental elimination of lead in gasoline, which correlates with low IQ and violent crime.  Nor do they mention the "abortion effect" that legalized abortion abruptly increased the ratio of kids were were actively wanted by their parents, another proposed explanation for the fall in crime, about 17 years later.

Well, well.  There are many theories for why intelligence seems to have been (to gradually!) rising in the industrialized world -- The Flynn Effect.  And why we seem to be getting (too slowly!) a bit calmer too.  (See my own small role in getting the lead out of our air.)  Our descendants will know a hundred other factors and shake their heads over our tragic inability to notice what should have been obvious!

That is… if we only had a brain...

== Science Stuff! ==

Ultrasound vibrations applied to the brain may affect mood and potentially could lead to new treatments for psychological and psychiatric disorders.

It's known as the Hum, a steady, droning sound that's heard in places as disparate as Taos, N.M.; Bristol, England; and Largs, Scotland.  What causes the Hum, and why it only affects a small percentage of the population in certain areas, remain a mystery.

3-D printed rocket parts have the potential to save NASA and industry money and to open up new affordable design possibilities for rockets and spacecraft.  Now engineers have tested rocket parts critical to engine combustion in a hot-fire environment.

And finally, having just passed the annual Moon Landing Day (July 20) I am reminded that Robert Heinlein suggested future generations will mark their calendars from the moment Neil Armstrong said "Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed."  Following that proposal, have a look at the "Tranquility Calendar" which is far too sensible for ornery humans ever to adopt.

University of California San Diego neuroengineers have developed a real-time electrochemical biosensor that can alert marathoners, competitive bikers, and other “extreme” athletes that they’re about to “bonk,” or “hit the wall.”

Use of "phages" or viruses to attack diseases or pests has long been promised.  Now one crop devouring moth is in the cross-hairs.

It happens daily. A tsunami of good things. While we spend most of our time either complacent or ... whining.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reasons for Optimism and Concern: Can Technology Save the World?

== Can we save the world?  ==

TechnologyHopeI cannot recommend too highly an excellent article that appeared in The Guardian -- Technology as Our Last Best Hope -- about the concept of ecological modernism, which sees technology as key to solving big environmental problems.

"The prophets of ecological modernism believe technology is the solution and not the problem. They say that harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship -- coupled with a strong overall goal of efficiency, sustainability and moving toward a smaller human footprint -- can save the planet and that if environmentalists won't buy into that, then their Arcadian sentiments are a problem, not a solution," writes Fred Pearce.  This, by the way, is exactly the choice offered by my two "Gaian mother" types in my novel, Earth - one of them driven by nostalgia and primitivist mysticism and the other by a science-driven wish to save the world by a different route… by humanity growing up.

Pearce continues, "The modernists (e.g. Stewart Brand) wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanisation and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change. They say they embrace these technologies not to conquer nature, like old-style 20th century modernists, but to give nature room. If we can do our business in a smaller part of the planet — through smarter, greener and more efficient technologies — then nature can have the rest."

The article is thorough, thoughtful, and well worth your time.

EnergyTrendsAnother important piece - by Amory Lovins - suggests that progress is possible. His three major energy trends to watch include accelerating improvements in efficiency,  and in renewables,  and in distributed power.  The last of these three is of particular importance, if we want a robust civilization that can roll with many coming shocks. (So I tell folks in Washington, once a year, every year, for 25 years.)

Excerpt from Armory Lovins: "The business of installing solar modules is booming. Germany took it to scale -- 8 GW a year -- and installed more photovoltaics in a single month in 2011 and 2012 than the U.S. added all year. That volume also cut the German installed system cost to half our costs, even though we all buy the same equipment. If the U.S. did that too, it'd have really cheap solar power, because Germany gets about as much sun as Alaska and far less than the mainland U.S. But even so, U.S. solar prices are now low enough that photovoltaics on your roof, financed with no down payment, can beat your utility bill in over a dozen states. In fact, solar accounted for 49 percent of new electric capacity installed during the first quarter of 2013 and all new utility electricity generation capacity added to the U.S. grid during March, according to SEIA and FERC."

All of these signs of tech-propelled improvement have been fought tooth and nail by the mad right… and quite often by a smaller, but genuinely unhelpful political cult, the mad-far-left.  Somehow, amid political lunacy, science has pushed ahead, spurred by both government and market forces along with simple common sense on the part of real people.

In other words, humans and their civilization may save the world, almost despite ourselves.

== And more cause for science optimism ==

Then there is… N-Fix is a naturally occurring nitrogen fixing bacteria which takes up and uses nitrogen from the air. Applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular) via the seed, it provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen. Plant seeds are coated with these bacteria in order to create a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship and naturally produce nitrogen.

Wow, do you have any idea how much would be saved -- in energy, fossil fuel pollution and digging and waste -- if most of our crops could be self-fertilizing in nitrogen?  Now add efficient algae-culture and tasty vat-grown meat, please?

==Technological solutions ==

SwedenGarbageSweden’s waste management and recycling programs are so good only four percent of the nation’s waste ends up in landfills.  (In contrast, over half the waste generated by U.S. households ends up in landfills). Yet, Sweden needs trash to fuel the waste-to-energy factories that generate electricity for a quarter of a million homes and provide 20 % of the entire country’s  heating. As a result, Sweden must now import trash from the landfills of other European countries -- and those countries are now paying Sweden to do so. Alan Pierce writes, "You read that correctly, countries are paying to get rid of a source of fuel they themselves produced so that Sweden can continue to have the energy output they need. You don’t have to be an economist to know that’s one highly enviable energy model." And an example of efficiency that is an inspiration for a more sustainable future.

In parts of the developing world, anemia is a serious problem -- affecting 44% of Cambodians, and two-thirds of the children. Chris Charles, a Ph.D. student developed an Iron Fish (the Cambodian symbol of good luck), which can be added to cooking pots, to offer relief from anemia.

Technology has made a difference to quality of life in the developing world: Examples include introduction of widespread bicycles, inexpensive off-grid lighting, low-cost water purification systemswireless internet accesssolar ovens for cooking, refrigeration for vaccinescommunity radio, and so on...but access to reliable electricity remains a major problem.

Over at, the question, Can Technology save the world, is under consideration, and the responses are running 50-50.
In Abundance, The Future is Better Than You Think, X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis and journalist Steven Kotler, write, "Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, women and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them....Abundance for all is within our grasp."

== Oh but for every bit of good news… ==

There have been mistakes -- and setbacks -- as Silicon Valley sets out to defeat global poverty and improve the quality of life in the poorest countries around the world. In ForeignPolicy, Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur detail how some revolutionary ideas, such as the highly-touted Soccket ended up as failures in the real world.NASA image shows a nearly ice-free Alaska on a clear day.

Disturbing reflection on our priorities: Who is the highest paid public employee of each state? In 27 states, the highest paid employee is the football coach, in 13 it's the basketball coaches, and in one state, it's the hockey coach. The other states include five college presidents, a medical school chancellor, a medical school department chair, a medical school plastic surgeon, and a law school dean. (That gets you to 51 positions because Minnesota’s football and basketball coach are each earning $1.2 million.) All earn more than the states' governors.

Oh, but sometimes cartoonists distill truth perfectly.  Here is one example.

And ammo against grouches, from xkcd.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Much ado about "nothing"… and nothing but science

My friend Robert Lawrence Kuhn has collaborated with University of Guelph professor John Leslie on a book whose title is both provocative and… well… especially redolent to me and to my own readers.  The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All? In the current issue of Skeptic magazine, Kuhn summarizes his own approach to the subject: “Levels of Nothing” laying down what Kuhn calls a “taxonomy” or “hierarchy” of kinds of nothing, from least to most absolute.

MysteryExistenceI especially liked this excerpt, which speaks to something that (as a physicist) I always found perplexing: "What physicists contemplate—the sudden emergence or “tunneling” of universes from “Nothing” — is fascinating and indeed may be cosmogenic, but the tunneling process or capacity is not Nothing. The Nothing of physicists is thick with the complete set of the laws of physics, and so between the physicists’ Nothing and Real Nothing lies a vast, unbridgeable gulf."

Exactly.  The Heisenberg-Quantum based notions for universal origins (that of probablistic fluctuations in spacetime and energy) may be sufficient to explain the Big Bang "universe" we see around us… and possibly even the ongoing and evolving meta-universe of Lee Smolin.  

But from whence didst come about the context within which quantum probabilities fluctuate?

Hey, just askin'...

== And science that's more than nothing ==

A giant gas cloud is on a suicide mission to the black hole at the center of our galaxy. As the cloud (named G2) spirals into oblivion, the black hole's extreme gravity is stretching it thinner and thinner, from an egg-shaped blog to a long ribbon.  When it collides with the black hole, we should see some fireworks and learn tons about these weird things.

The sun's magnetic field is about to flip, in the next few months. 

Hubble finds the source of the Magellenic Stream...a long ribbon of gas that stretches nearly halfway around the Milky Way galaxy. 

The Kilonova -- a new type of cosmic blast -- may result from the collision of hyper-dense neutron stars, emitting huge bursts of gamma rays.

ku-xlargeA kewl io9 photo essay on possible places that humans might choose to live (safe from radiation) in our solar system, starting with the "skylight" holes that were recently dicovered on Mars and the Moon, leading (it seems) to underground chambers or lava tubes. We at NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts (NIAC) group have funded an initial study of ways to go spelunking (robotically) into such enticing caverns.  Other possibilities: Jupiter's icy moon Europa...or even the asteroid belt.

Astronomers discovery a graveyard for comets -- from which 'Lazarus (or zombie) comets' occasionally return to life.

Scientists test the Planetary Lake Lander in the Chilean Andes. The swimming robot is intended to float in the liquid methane seas of Titan.

CuriosityMarsYearCuriosity's first year on Mars -- compressed into two minutes.

==Bio & Tech==

French researchers are now reporting the discovery of the biggest virus yet. The pandoravirus, as they’ve dubbed it, is 1,000 times bigger than the flu virus by volume and has nearly 200 times as many genes . 

Giant viruses may lurk harmlessly in our bodies, invading the amoebae we harbor. Whether they can make us sick is an open question.

Harvard researchers create a brain-to-brain interface: allows humans to control...rats (or at least their tail) with thoughts alone.

New electronic sensors can stretch, flex, and dissolve in the living world of the human body.

Quantum software has finally left the dark ages with the creation of the first practical, high-level programming language for quantum computers. Called Quipper, it could guide the design of quantum computers and make them easier to program.

Apparently, long -term zoo studies show that when female mammals somehow choose the sex of their offspring, they are doing so strategically to produce more grandchildren. The mechanism is not known.
HumanRaceFutureBerleantHave a look at: The Human Race to the Future: What Could Happen — and What to Do, by Dr. Daniel Berleant (388 pages), the first book published by the Lifeboat Foundation.

The NFC Ring is a finger ring that would turn on your cell phone or other secured device when it is nearby, leaving it disabled if you lose it or it's stolen or messed with out-of-sight.

And finally: Total Recall? Fake memories implanted in mice with a beam of light....From nothing to something?