Monday, January 27, 2014

Turn Your Heads! Question Assumptions...

A friend recently asked me to explain our present political insanity, in the United States of America.  Especially, he was puzzled as to why there are elements of anti-science mania on the left (e.g. "anti-vaxxers" who oppose vaccination) when the War on Science is clearly in large part an epi-phenomenon of the maniacal right

I replied: "you have to dig deeper, Russ. Down to where both wings share deep assumptions and mental habits they absorbed when they were young."
Consider the dominant themes of propaganda that are issued regularly by Hollywood and most mass media, suckled from an early age by not just young Americans, but people all over the globe, what constitutes a major proselytizing campaign, shifting basic attitudes everywhere.
Clearly visible in the first few minutes of almost any popular film Are visible (if you pay attention) messages that the viewer should:
Suspicion-of-authority1- appreciate eccentricity - most protagonists exhibit some eccentric trait early on.
2- appreciate tolerance... a villain is spotlighted by some early intolerant act.
3- be suspicious of authority (SOA) - some power oppresses the character and must be resisted.
4- relish contempt for your sheeplike neighbors  - almost all your fellow citizens are fools and their institutions almost never function well.
I elaborate on these themes (especially #4) in Our Favorite Cliché: The Idiot Plot.
But one more message caps them all -- the deliberately fostered delusion that...
5 -  "I invented all these rebel qualities!  I didn't suckle them from Hollywood!  I and my pals are the only ones suspicious of authority! We aren't the sheep!"
Now mind you... I generally approve of the first three of these propaganda messages! Well, naturally I do, since I was raised by them, like you were!  Indeed, they resonate with some deep-strong social imperatives that I won't go into here, that cause a wealthy and free and partly-satiated society to expand its horizons of inclusion… but more on that elsewhere
It took some time for me to overcome #4 and #5, even after I became aware of them. The ego fights back and struggles to hold onto those two, they are so voluptuously satisfying.
It took even longer to see how all five messages play into America's spiraling Culture War of sanctimony and self righteous indignation.  But once you notice the shared themes, it becomes easy to see that the deep difference between democrats and republicans consists of one simple thing -- which DIRECTION they envision Big Brother (BB) arising from!
Liberals see Big Brother coming from the far-right… from a vast pool of conniving aristocratic-oligarchs and faceless corporations. 

Conservatives fear accumulations of undue power and authority by snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats.
Libertarians dread Big Brother arising from all four. (At least… that is what libertarians claim they do.) 

All of these groups see themselves as the defenders of freedom.
Voila. In fact, when you put it that way, the answer is "Duh!"  Doesn't history show that threats to liberty can come from all of those sources, and more? Should any quadrant be left unguarded against would-be tyrants?
So far, so good!  We should be watching each others' backs!  That is, indeed, how it has been sometimes, in America. "I'll hold accountable your elites. You hold accountable mine!"
Only, alas, we have lately become stiff necked in our stoked-up anger.  Conservatives now are unable to turn their heads and even admit that it is remotely possible that their own favored elites -- of wealth and aristocracy - could possibly be dangerous!  This despite the fact that owner-oligarch-lords were exactly the villains of our American Revolution. That they were destroyers of freedom and markets and competitive enterprise in 99% of human cultures, across 6000 years. And that (according to Adam Smith) their return as a threat to freedom and true capitalism (the open/creatively-competitive kind) is absolutely to be expected.
mooney-republican-war-on-scienceIndeed, you can clock attempted oligarchic putsches to once per generation… and our ancestors' genius came in stymying it, each time, without abandoning a creatively-competitive system.  A fact that today's dominant version of libertarianism fervently ignores, spurning Adam Smith and declaring that owner-oligarchy can do no wrong. In other words… most of today's "libertarians" do not even remotely deserve the name.
Although its SOA paranoia is somewhat less stiff-necked and rigid, the Left can be just as reflexive and unthinking.  While their ire is mostly aimed at oligarchs and corporations, leftists spare some paranoid rants for government and yes... they sometimes join in the Fox-Right's War on Science. Like the fervently indignant campaign against vaccination and similar, simplistic reflexes.  Leftists seem more flexibly paranoid… but still kinda crazy, I maintain.
== The Fourth Political Genus ==
sciencelftbehindLIBERALS are an entirely different species.  They are not "leftists" in any meaningful way -- despite the railing assertions of Sean Hannity. Indeed, liberals desperately need to learn to separate themselves, carefully, from their crazy-leftist allies.  Let me explain.
Liberals are the one sane group left in America, able to turn their heads to look at threats in all directions.  Want evidence? Liberals did far more DE-regulating of obsolete or captured government agencies than the GOP has ever ever done, or even tried to do. Ever heard of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)?  Or the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB)?  The Internet? All deregulated (along with trucking, telecom and so on) by Democrats. Goppers talk deregulation, but wind up actually only doing it for one industry: finance. With blatant results.
There is a whole suite of clear traits that distinguish liberals from leftists, but I don't have room here for a full cladistic breakdown.  Suffice it to say that if Liberals were to actually read Adam Smith, they might be amazed and reclaim the "First Liberal," while any leftist would remain deeply offended by Smith. Liberals want all children to be confidently capable of engaging in Smithian competitive enterprise. Leftists despise the word "competitive."  No wonder Sean Hannity desperately pushes the Big Lie that liberals and leftists are the same.
And there you have it -- my thumbnail of why you have anti-science "vaxxers" on the left, mimicking almost exactly the rhythms and incantations of Fox-watchers.  Because the FAR-left is almost as crazy as today's ENTIRE-Right. 

We desperately need to get back to the kind of sanity that allows negotiation.  That says "you zap my elites, and I'll skewer yours." This phase of our recurring Civil War will only be over when that happens.
== Here is the crux. Can you turn your head… at all? ==
The one litmus of political sanity in contemporary American political life is this: "Are you able to swivel -- even just occasionally -- and see threats or dangers or flaws among the elites on YOUR side of the political spectrum… as well as the elites you fear most, on the other side?"
If your Suspicion of Authority can only aim in one direction… the direction that your side's elites and propagandists tell you to aim… and you can only ignore or brush aside evidence for your own side's blatant faults… then perhaps you badly need to see a philosophical chiropractor.
Threats to freedom and to our Great Experiment loom in all directions. So relearn how to turn your f#$@g! head.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Recent Sci Fi and other Cinema… Can there be drama without villains?

The world keeps becoming SF'nal in interesting ways.  Yesterday, I gave a talk at Google for Vinton Cerf's Interplanetary Internet Group, aiming to extend out cyber networks across the solar system… (you may recognize Vint not only as one of the "fathers of the Internet but also portrayed as the "Architect" in The Matrix series.) Pictures forthcoming.
Meanwhile, I stand amazed as obstinacy at last starts to fail and Americans finally declare they've had enough of major parts of the insane Drug War… which reminds me of what Winston Churchill used to say about us Yanks, that we could be "relied upon to do the right thing -- after trying everything else."
And in that spirit...
== pocket film reviews -- drama without villains! ==
EuropaReportLast week we enjoyed the modest and sweet SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN, which was quite lovely and - for a refreshing change - portrayed no male vileness among any major characters.  Just the ups and downs of love while solving a somewhat zenlike scientific-technical problem.
Interestingly, I might say much the same about EUROPA REPORT, which also completely lacked any villains, just brave astronauts trying to survive and get their jobs done amid accidents, (some plot-convenient blunders), and monumental discoveries…
…which also kind of describes the magnificent Cuaron film GRAVITY, again with no villains, other than nature and the harshness of space.  How interesting to spot this theme among a small number of recent films.  That you do not need red-glowing eyes or gloating-evil bad guys, or even men-behaving-badly to - on occasion - make interesting cinema.  (See a lagniappe about GRAVITY, below.)

Oh, there are other Sci Fi movies with no villain, pitting protagonists against nature or simple error: Apollo 13, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Marooned, and 2010.
See my musing, Name that Villain: Bad Guys and Aliens in Sci Fi Movies. And of course, my explanation of the "idiot plot" laziness that has propelled so many recent dystopias and silly scenarios that seem nearly-always to portray civilization as hopeless and all our neighbors as sheep.
Contionuing in this vein, I stumbled upon a late-night TCM viewing of THE BEGINNING OR THE END.  No, not the trashy 1957 Peter Graves sci fi flick that I loved as a kid -- that replaced "or" with "of" in the title -- about giant locusts eating Chicago. Rather, this is a 1947 docudrama about the making of the Atomic Bomb, starring Hume Cronyn as Ropert Oppenheimer and featuring actors playing Albert Einstein, Erico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Vannevar Bush and so on.  Some scenes were altered/exaggerated or shifted for drama.  Still, it takes you through  history - much of it scientifically accurate - from 1933 through 1945 - and had some rather moving segments!  Including a placard at the end -- a message to "viewers in the 25th century" hoping we handled these new powers well.
Buck-rogersOh, have a look at the original Buster Crabbe - Flash Gordon movie! (The beginning of a serial series of cliffhangers.) It actually starts out not-too hokey! Pretty sci fi'ish, in fact. It even includes climate change!
The short film “Danger: Humans” by Tom Scott is a terrifying look at our species from the perspective of extraterrestrials. I contributed a number of its elements in the preceding, informal blog event that inspired Scott. Like the bits about capseisin, walk-hunting and our weird sonic-vibration sense!
Do you miss Firefly? Okay then, here's some good clean fun.  A collection of the best curses in Mandarin Chinese from that wondrous show.
Finally, aw heck, I can't help it. Some time ago I linked to WIRED's super-short sci fi story contest that featured one of mine (the only one with a plot, three scenes, conversation, action and drama)… and a perceptive reader just pointed to striking similarity with a recent, smash-hit motion picture!  Judge for yourself:
Vacuum collision
Orbits diverge
Farewell love.
Ain't it obvious which recent film we are discussing?  Look, Alfonso Cuarón, earned from all of us the greatest respect.  Still, in Hollywood-law they judge the spectrum of coincidence - from homage to 'borrow' - by a standard of percentages -- of fractional point-by-point overlap.  So... can you see even a single point of my story that does not overlap with GRAVITY?
Is it worth at least a beer or two, hm? ;-)  Hey... (to use the phrase much in vogue among my kids)… I'm just sayin'.
UPLOAD-SELF-COMPUTER== sci fi news ==
George Dvorsky at iO9 explores Why you should upload yourself to a supercomputer… some of the pros and cons and possibilities.  A fun -light rundown.
Taking those ideas more seriously… in Economic Consequences of AI and Whole Brian Emulation, GMU economist Robin Hanson has been exploring what would be the motives, capabilities and incentives of software beings, living and working in virtual or cyber realms.  While there would be inherent differences, it is surprising how Malthus (the law of limited resources) will rear his head even in a domain of variable clock speeds and the power to copy one's self.
Astounding-world-future,jpgGo see this mid-20th century newsreel featuring amazingly accurate predictions of the year 2000.  All right, okay, it's sarcastic.  Very very very very sarcastic.
Still, think positive! Here's an amazing look back at how far things have come. The two thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area get a chance to download (a 2 hour process) a pure text copy of the newspaper!
Oh my.  Canada's former defense minister is a … believer: Aliens will give us tech if we quit wars!
On the other hand, we are definitely on an upward path when Dr. Who replaces Santa Claus! 
Ray Bradbury's 1960s Prunes Commercial… hilarious!
== quickie shares ==
This optical illusion is so so SO worth your time.  
Water-wheel-welloJapan's huge magnetic net will trawl for space junk.  Compare to the first chapter of Existence!
This is a breakthrough for developing countries: The WaterWheel lets individuals (often women and children) transport water without carrying jugs over long distances.
== When is homage something else? ==
Chris-voss-glenn-brown-sci-fi-paintingControversy rages over sci fi artist Glenn Brown, whose paintings sell for millions… and whose works are almost always direct copies of other artists.  Contemplating this bizarre story makes the mind reel, because Brown makes no effort to hide his sources of "inspiration" but rather cites well-known SF cover artists Anthony Roberts and Chris Foss and others in the very titles of his paintings, which repaint - without digital copying - the Roberts and Foss originals in meticulous detail, mostly altering color, shading etc.
It is easy to understand the outrage, but I'm not sure anyone has a legal leg to stand on, as painters have long copied other painters and sold their copies.  If a movie used any of the creative elements, Foss would likely be the copyright owner. Only his version can grace book covers or advertisements. Indeed, I'd be surprised (tho I'm just guessing here) if Brown can even get away with selling prints -- and indeed, this legal quirk (that he can't sell prints) might help to explain the prices folks pay for his originals… copies that they are!
Is all this outrageous? Sure. The absurd chutzpah has me ticked off and deeply irritated.  On the other hand, I always swivel and interrogate my own reactions. And so, the contrarian in me asks: has the resulting publicity harmed Foss and Roberts and Curtis? Oh, and that is just the beginning of head-scratching. See also a posting by Scott Edelman on this issue.
My wife posed it to me this way.  "What if someone sat down and read Startide Rising and used it as "inspiration" to type a new version, only much better, copying every scene in slightly-altered words? And though he could not publish it, he sold the typescript copy for a million bucks?"
OUCH!  Touché, woman.  Touché.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Steering the Future: on Earth and in the Heavens

Skype founder Jaan Tallin, in conjunction with the Gruber and Templeton Foundations, is sponsoring an essay contest: "How Should Humanity Steer the Future?"
HOW-SHOULD-HUMANITY-STEER-THE-FUTURE"Dystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are more rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes. Our ever-deepening understanding of physics has enabled technologies and ways of thinking about our place in the world that have dramatically transformed humanity over the past several hundred years. Many of these changes have been difficult to predict or control—but not all. In this contest we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades."
Ponder it!  But most of all, believe that we can steer the wheel of destiny. Cynics are of no use to anyone.

==Conquering the future==
Future Perfect - Coverweb A look at...The Future of Transportation, by Sci Fi author William Hertling (The Last Firewall).
Fellow author Joe Haldeman (The Forever War) on Why the future of war will be even bloodier.  Ouch. Got… to… make… Star Trek

For a view that progress is possible, see Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson. 

== The libelous distraction that scientists are lemmings  ==
In The Very, Very Thin Wedge of Denial, Phil Plait discusses one stunning disparity between the blog-claims of climate change deniers and the way that actual mode-consensus is achieved by real scientists, who can read data and understand the Navier-Stokes Equations.
EDGE-DENIAL-CLIMATEFox-centered denialists claim that the 97% of atmospheric scientists who agree that humans are altering the climate (less than 1% dissent) are doing so out of lemming-like herd mentality, chasing pathetic Al Gore inspired grants -- never explaining how ditto-agreeing with a standard model will get any researcher even a penny. In fact, the top atmospheric scientists already have stable incomes (thank you) from their fantastically successful day-jobs creating (for example) the miraculous ten-day weather forecasts we now rely upon (much improved from a mere two hours, 20 years ago), or successfully modeling climate on six other planets. I know these guys and gals and lemmings they are not. Rather, top scientists are the smartest and most fearlessly competitive humans our species ever produced.
Plait offers an example of how the openly questioning competitive process works: "In 1998, two teams of researchers found evidence that the expansion of the Universe was not slowing down, as expected, but actually speeding up. This idea is as crazy as holding a ball in your hand, letting go, and having it fall up, accelerating wildly into the sky. Yet those papers got published. They inspired lively discussion (to say the least) and motivated further observations. Careful, meticulous work was done to eliminate errors and confounding factors, until it became very clear that we were seeing an overturning of the previous paradigm. It took years, but now astronomers accept that the Universal expansion is accelerating and that dark energy is the culprit.
"Mind you, dark energy is far, far weirder than anything climate change deniers have come up with, yet it became mainstream science in a decade or so. Deniers have been bloviating for longer than that, yet their claims are rejected overwhelmingly by climate scientists. Why? Because they’re wrong."
twoda-brinAlas, Plait never mentions my own strongest argument against the denialist cult.  That their smug-pat jpegs and Fox-snips are all financed by the industry that will become less outrageously profitable if humanity develops more efficient energy systems. Promoting efficiency falls into the category of TWODA - or Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway.  Even if human generated climate Change were to prove 100% false, we would all be better off for taking reasonable measures toward energy efficiency… and those so vigorously preventing TWODA are enemies of our species, no matter how many twisted ways you rationalize or cut it.
== Science miscellany! ==
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) researchers are developing an electrodynamic tether designed to generate electricity that will slow down space-based debris.  Such a system features prominently in chapter one of my novel Existence, written when this notion was a glimmer in the eye of brilliant space engineer Joseph Carroll, who almost singlehandedly kept the technological doors open for this approach to solving problems in space.  It's good to see the problem of space debris given serious attention, perhaps inspired by the movie GRAVITY.
In my fiction I have oft portrayed "gill masks" that allow a diver to extract oxygen directly from the surrounding water.  Has this miracle already arrived?  I would bet no.  But how cool if this actually works?
Ultrasound is one of several noninvasive methods that stimulate the brain. Another is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which apparently provokes more activity in the brain with magnets. A third is transcranial direct current stimulation, which uses electrodes to deliver a weak electrical current to the brain through the scalp. The new study suggests that ultrasound may be the best of the bunch.  (Though I still think reading is a more effective way to stimulate thinking. ) Oh what a brave (or interesting) new world.
cosmos-tysonThis spring will also see the premiere of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. According to Deadline, the series will debut on Fox on March 9th at 9PM, with bonus footage coming to the National Geographic Channel a day later at 10PM. Tyson's show is a reboot of Carl Sagan's revered Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a short series with a broad scientific focus that first aired in 1980. Tyson's Cosmos will explore the discovery of physics, with a promise to present complicated concepts in clear ways and with a proper dose of grandeur.
== Looking outward…to Space! ==
Terrific footage of the new Chinese "Jade Rabbit" lunar lander, at touchdown and then letting the rover roll off, putting new human tacks onto Luna.  Congratulations!
inspiration_mars_headerDennis Tito has a backup for his plan to  take advantage of a once-per-30- years opportunity for a Free Return flyby past Mars -- like Apollo 8 & 13, there would thus be no need to schlepp a landing capsule or return fuel, bringing a human crewed Mars mission forward by perhaps 30 years. (Tito wants to send a "qualified, older married couple" ...and my wife reminded me we both have PhDs in Planetary Science and the kids are almost out of the nest!)
Alas, with less than 5 years to prepare, there seems no way Tito and his Inspiration Mars team can pull this off. Especially now that NASA has begged off Tito's request for $700M and use of the new NASA heavy launch system. Still, all may not be lost.  "There is a backup to the proposed 2018 flyby to Mars mission which envisions a 2021 launch that would feature flybys of both Venus and Mars. That would add 88 days to the just over 500 day mission and would involve more radiation hazards to the two person crew."  Also, since $700M is kind of chump change for such a major undertaking, Tito has begun talking to the Russians and the Chinese.
Including Venus may add some radiation hazard. But Yipe. To be first living humans to TWO planets? And I would get so much writing done, while huddled inside the water tank, hiding from cosmic rays!
nasa-funding-cutsSo…. Has there been a recent "collapse" in funding for planetary exploration? It appears to be so, at least in the United States.  Have a look at a simple chart from The Planetary Society showing how our efforts to explore outward, which had been rebuilding in the first Obama term, suddenly fell to pieces amid the battles over shutdowns and health care.  This merits your attention. (Though always look at such charts to see if the bottom was chopped-off!)
Redefining the Habitable Zone: Here is good discussion of the Sun's "goldilocks" or Continuously Habitable Zone, where water might remain on the surface in liquid form for evolutionary time scales.  And a related article on the search for "life" exoplanets. Yet again we see that Earth might be exceptional in one way… that we skate near the inner edge of our sun's CUZ. Which helps explain why even a little human generated greenhouse gas can make a real difference… and may help to explain the Fermi Paradox.
The European Space Agency plans to re-awaken the Rosetta Probe!  It has been dormant out at more than 4 AU, saving energy till the day its orbit could approach a comet from behind at a great distance (the only way it can be done: you listening Hollywood?)  The hope?  To "land" on the comet before it gets too active and study its physical characteristics.  Then, harpooned to the surface, attempt to ride out the violent passage by the sun that we described in HEART OF THE COMET.  Hoping to learn how much my doctoral dissertation got right!
moon-expressIs Mining on the Moon's Horizon? Moon Express, based in Mountain View, Calif., just unveiled the design for a small robot spacecraft about the size of a coffee table that it says could move about the moon's surface powered only by solar panels and hydrogen peroxide. The company hopes to build the robot and send it to the moon by late 2015, win the $30 million Lunar X Prize from Google for the first privately funded moon rover, and eventually get around to putting on the moon an operation capable of extracting valuable minerals.  
Um what minerals are they talking about?  I know of none to be found in that wasteland that we can at-present use. Sorry, you luna-tics out there, but in the near term, asteroids are vastly the better bet… though I do approve of some continuing lunar activity!  The best possibility?  Let billionaires finance it with tourism junkets.  Call it money-recycling that will have a positive outcome.
Telescopes that unfold light weight plastic optics, these may open up a new era of astronomy or earth science -- or spying -- in space.
Kinda weird.  Using gravitational "microlensing" -- an almost-fey capability that would have given George Ellery Hale the creeps -- a team thinks they have found a candidate for a pair of bodies comprising a free-floating exoplanet-exomoon system.  Wooof!
Most common exoplanets are weird 'mini-Neptunes.' "Mini-Neptunes dominate the inventory of 3000-plus planets discovered by Kepler," says lead scientist and planet-hunter Geoff Marcy.  Worlds up to twice the size of Earth are dense and probably rocky, resembling our own planet. Those between two and four times Earth's width are lighter, so are either wetter or gassy – more like versions of Neptune, which is itself four times Earth's width.  Several observational bias effects make it difficult to make good statistical predictions based on the Kepler discoveries.  But every month we seem to have new "huh!" stuff to ponder!
Folks ask me for examples re my prediction of a looming "Age of Amateurs" in which ever-more expertise will be found in realms outside of the licensed professions… in avocations, retirees and so on. The trends are all around us, but nowhere more vividly than in amateur science.  See this especially vivid example of a passion for astronomy.  And yes, I portray this becoming dramatically important, in some fiction.
And finally. This optical illusion is so so SO worth your time.  I mean it.  You'll thank me.

== Late flash from Mars ==

This very recently from the Curiosity Rover: a mysterious rock appeared on the planet's surface that wasn't there just a few weeks ago.  Strange properties!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Your Cell Phone becomes a tricorder!

See the heat. FLIR ONE, the first consumer-oriented thermal imaging system for a smartphone, displays a live thermal image on the phone’s screen, letting you see in complete darkness. A family can detect intruders in total darkness, find a lost pet, or see through smoke in an emergency.
seeing-detectingThis is just one element of the huge renaissance in detection and seeing which is about to proliferate into citizen hands. In this case though… it will also (let me predict here) let you see through skimpy clothing to the "warm" nudity beneath. (We went through all this 20 years ago with the SONY Handycam.)

Beyond the standard camera, microphone and GPS location sensors, smart phones are rapidly getting smarter. The growing array of capabilities includes accelerometers, proximity sensors, inertial and light sensors, as well as a magnetometer, digital compass, gyroscope, altimeter, and soon...chemical sensors to monitor toxins, radiation or air quality. How about sensors for pH levels, UV sensors, or carbon monoxide levels, plus healthcare monitors for heart rate, stress levels, body temperature, glucose or alcohol levels.
A new laser rangefinding and volume and location analysis device attaches to the back of your smartphone. It contains patented laser, compass, and bluetooth technology that integrates with your phone's camera and GPS.   Laser measurements are accurate to within +20 cm and correlates with GPS location within +1 meter.  Survey and map everything in front of you, outdoors, with a tool that fits in your pocket.

And is this for real? The GammaPix(TM) Lite App, developed initially for several federal agencies, turns your phone into a detector of ionizing radiation. 
All of which will pale in importance compared to facial recognition apps!  (The most dangerous thing we can do it to refuse them.) And soon after? Apps that turn face recog into a lie detector.  These are tools that - if some elite monopolizes them - will ensure Big Brother forever.  But if we all use them, it will mean freedom forever.  (Privacy is another matter.)

Next? You can expect localization features like iBeacon to tell stores that ping your device where you are, letting you have local, indoor mapping with varied degrees of info like store projections of what you might want or need.  Creepy factor aside - whether we finally reach a balance between Push and Pull - this will bring us augmented reality the way it must come.  Not with goggle-glasses (at first) but on carried screens.
Also, this year, Siri-style personal assistants will surge back.  Also on the horizon, tech-seer Mark Anderson predicts the under $100 smart phone and under $250 tablet. Low prices will be propelled by something very good… the arrival of two BILLION more consumers in the (lower) middle class, across Asia and the south.
That is, it will be good news if we can manage to provide them with that life style very very very efficiently. No tech will be more important than efficiency and sustainability tech. And those who obstruct such things are the purest villains ever produced.
Open-worm Oh but then there's this! A major breakthrough! Creating a virtual C. elegans nematode in a computer by reverse-engineering its biology—  has now developed software -- Open Worm -- that replicates the worm’s muscle movement. The failure to model C elegans - with just 302 neurons - has long been a glaring rebuke to neuroscience. If they truly have a model now, then mazel tov! Now… on to ants!
==Colonizing the Galaxy==
In “Virulence as a model for interplanetary and interstellar colonization – parasitism or mutualism?”  Jonathan Starling and Duncan H. Forgan  model the relationship between an intelligent civilization and its host planet as symbiotic, where the relationship between the symbiont and the host species (the civilization and the planet's ecology, respectively) determines the fitness and ultimate survival of both organisms. They perform a series of Monte Carlo Realization simulations, where civilizations pursue a variety of different relationships/strategies with their host planet, from mutualism to parasitism, and can consequently ‘infect’ other planets/hosts…..  As the colonization velocity is increased, the strategy of parasitism becomes more successful, until they dominate the ‘population’. This is in accordance with predictions based on island biogeography and r/K selection theory. 
Of course this scientific model appears to coincide remarkably with the more speculative and dramatic version that I present in my recent novel Existence. Their conclusion suggests that the galaxy might pass through very difficult times – waves of virulence – that eventually settle down to a pattern that rewards symbiosis and health.
Want a cool synergy? This is exactly the perspective that China's stunning new science fiction talent Liu Cixin developed for his amazing novel The Three Body Problem.  The galaxy may pass through very difficult phases, before growing up.
==A Rise in Infectious Disease?==
infectious-disease-riseBack in 1980 I was a graduate student in physics with medical school housemates.  One of them asked me my view on what specialty to choose.  Without pause I said "Infectious disease."  He looked at me, puzzled and asked: "Isn't that kind of… well… over?"
"Mark my words, I answered.  We are living in a fool's paradise, a narrow window of time when infection only seems to have been conquered. Any time now, we'll learn how flexible parasites are, as they come roaring back."
My friend took my advice, and was at the Centers of Disease Control, in Atlanta, when AIDS struck society like a hammer blow. Since then, we've seen inanities like the addle-brained anti-vax movement, hospital generated diseases and countless other signs of resurgence by old and new enemies.  Read more about it here: Major Gaps in Country's Ability to Counter Infectious Diseases. A majority of states reach half or fewer key indicators.
Interesting, if true.  Fungi found growing on the walls of the highly radioactive Chernobyl reactor core might -- and let's keep that contingent "might" -- actually flourish on gamma radiation. Hmmmm
==Genetic Markers and Identity==
Male-female brain differences? This new result suggests that men have more connections forward and back… between sensing and action parts of the brain… and women have more lateral connections between left and right … logical and intuitive… portions.  This is consistent with known differences in spatial vs communication skills.
break-stereotypesBut… always remember that any such differences between classes of people only apply to averages.  The study found many exceptions.  And protecting an individual's right to BE an exception to any class/gender/race generalization was one of the great breakthroughs of our civilization.
A truly excellent (long) article about a new theory of autism -- that is is largely a problem of over-sensitivity and over-stimulation by an "intense world." (Not at all inconsistent with my depiction in Existence.)
Scientists were stunned to discover that genomes use the genetic code to write two separate languages. One describes how proteins are made, and the other instructs the cell on how genes are controlled. One language is written on top of the other, which is why the second language remained hidden for so long.  This is getting complicated!  Nature had a long time to work this stuff out.
==The intersection of Bio and Tech==
Researchers have built a small vehicle whose flying motion resembles the movements of a jellyfish or moth — a new method of flight that could enable miniaturized future robots for surveillance, search-and-rescue.
While algae has long been considered a potential source of biofuel, and several companies have produced algae-based fuels on a research scale, the fuel has been projected to be expensive. Only now, Department of Energy researchers have found a new technology that harnesses algae’s energy potential efficiently and incorporates a number of methods to reduce the cost of producing algae fuel.  Add this to breakthroughs in continuously growing algae from CO2 from cement plants and agricultural runoff wastes, and you can see some of the promise that I describe (in passing) in Existence. The possibility of creating multi-path synergies .  This could be a large scale game-changer.
But this is the year for one medium scale game changer.  The year to start (if you haven't already) swapping out the light bulbs in your home (starting with high traffic areas) for super-efficient LEDs. Prices have dropped and the economics are so good, it isn't even "virtuous" anymore. Just practical.
IBM's predictions for five years from now seem a bit better and more on target, this time.  Some will make you go huh!  These are all plausible near-future developments.  They only require one thing.  That we go back to being people who believe in a can-do, pragmatic approach to progress and making things better,
Digital communication via -- aromas? Or pheromones or trace molecules?  In this research,  binary signals are “programmed” into pulses of evaporated alcohol molecules to demonstrate the potential of molecular communications. The first demonstration signal, performed in Canada, was “O Canada,” from the Canadian national anthem. It was sent several meters across open space before it was decoded by a receiver.
Message Passing Inference with Chemical Reaction Networks: In a related development, researchers showed that an important class of artificial intelligence algorithms could be implemented using chemical reactions. This kind of chemical-based AI will be necessary for constructing therapies that sense and adapt to their environment. The hope is to eventually have drugs that can specialize themselves to your personal chemistry. It also opens some sci-fi-ish possibilities for Chemical AI.
==Tech Run-down==
TechnologyNewsThree-D printing, using hot metals and other sophisticated techniques, has taken another step forward, making a complete, working loudspeaker.
Fascinating Infographic on temperature: a billion degrees of separation: from absolute zero to 'absolute hot.'
And now a tech run-down from Brian Wang - starting with:
A SANDIA roadmap for making 10 MW supercritical turbines commercially ready by 2020, using highly compressed CO2 as the working fluid. Combine this with molten salt cooling systems and fission power systems might shrink by a factor of 100 in volume and mass.
A real-life Turing Machine that does the whole thing mechanically… using LEGO pieces. "A group of students at the computer science department at Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon built a working replica of a Turing Machine out of Lego bricks, with 20,000 elements used including 32 pneumatic cylinders, 50 meters of pneumatic tubing, and over a thousand gears!" Maker culture does great things. (Remember this from Infinity's Shore?)
The new "bushite" federal government of Canada appears to be bent on outdoing any US administration in its hatred of science. The latest example is egregious.  Seven of the nine world-famous Department of Fisheries and Oceans [DFO] libraries were closed by autumn 2013, with spectacular haste and almost no effort to either digitize or find new homes for materials going back to 1803. "…precious collections were consigned to dumpsters, were burned or went to landfills."
An astronomical object called SBW2007 - sometimes nicknamed SBW1 - is a nebula with a giant star at center twenty times more massive than our Sun. Within its late-evolution nebula, SBW1 shows similarities with a star that went supernova 26 years ago, the famous SN 1987A. Early Hubble images of SN 1987A show eerie similarities to SBW1. Both stars had identical rings of the same size and age, located in similar HII regions… This blogger says that … "At a distance of more than 20 000 light-years it will be safe to watch when the supernova goes off. If we are very lucky it may happen in our own lifetimes…"  Hm…. I agree it would be spectacular.  And maybe that distance truly is "just right." Still. Let's do more calculations before wishing…
This YouTube video describes fascinating work done recently on how the brain distributes work on visual objects according to their type: e.g. "mammal-> living" or mobile objects or immobile objects. The layout, on an unfolded surface of the cortex, is fascinating! In other words...
Some version of mind-reading will be here in ten years.
We need a decent, open accountable, calm and truly worthwhile civilization, by then!
It's the one vital thing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Who benefits from the politics of outrage?

Outrage-industryThe authors of The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, have offered an interesting and balanced article on Politico appraising why so much of the media has become polemical and angry-immature, here and now in the 21st Century.  In Are Americans Addicted to Outrage? -- Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj suggest that we the viewers are to blame, by flocking to the hate-waves for our daily doses of sanctimonious thrill.
And, of course, at one level they are right….
And yet, we should note that this cynical payoff is not homogeneous or uniform:
(1) MSNBC's profits are a fifth those of Fox.  Moreover, as Berry and Sobieraj point out "talk radio, which is more than 90 percent conservative, offered only a modest selection of liberal programs, all with much smaller audiences; as a result, only two of the 10 radio programs we studied are oriented toward liberal audiences."
(2)  The liberal stations favor a return to "fairness rules," even though those doctrines, if once again enforced, would compel them to change their business practices, inviting top opponents to offer rebuttals onscreen. In contrast, Fox and Clear Channel and the outrage industry of the right act as if they are utterly terrified of the prospect that their audiences might hear one minute of rebuttal for every 20 minutes of biased ranting. That is a fundamental difference, not one of just amount.
politics-outrge(3) Who does it all serve?  Follow the beneficiaries. There are reasons that Fox is co-owned by the Sa'udi Royal House and that coal and other carbon barons finance the right's propaganda machine.
And yes, Big Labor influences the left.  Granted. Only ask yourselves this.  Which power center is growing, and which has become… pathetic… during the last generation? Is there, even theoretically, any level that the labor movement can decline to, when you'd admit "Okay, I'm not afraid of them, anymore… and maybe there are other, rising centers of influence that are a bit more worrisome"?
== The beneficiaries of broken politics ==
It isn't all about carbon barons though.  Much discussion has recently focused on the skyrocketing disparities in both wealth and income between the very richest 0.01% and the hard-pressed U.S. middle class.  While the ratio between a company's average employee wage and that of its CEO was in the teens and twenties in the glory-days of American capitalist entrepreneurship… the 1950s, 60s etc.
CEO--pay-ratioAmerica now has by far the biggest disparities. Major U.S. execs now pull in, on average, over 350 times the pay of America’s rank-and-file workers. Even the most successful Japanese firms, by contrast, don't exceed ratios of seventy to one. See a global comparison of CEO to Worker Pay Ratios.
This will get clearer, soon. "The federal Securities and Exchange Commission, after four years of delay, will likely release this year new regulations that require America’s top corporations to annually reveal the ratio between their CEO and median worker compensation, a disclosure that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act mandates."
The aspect to all of this that I find most surprising -- as I illustrated in the year 2040, in EXISTENCE -- is the notion among today's conservatives that this trend might simply go on and on, without reaching an inflection or tipping point. Without eventually raising the kind of radicalism and push-back that has not been seen in American life since the 1930s.
== Push back begins ==
In Massachusetts, nurses have collected over 100,000 signatures for an initiative that would levy fines against any hospital in the state, profit or nonprofit, that compensates its CEO over 100 times the hospital’s lowest-paid worker.  In Switzerland last year, young activists ran a referendum campaign to cap Swiss CEO pay at 12 times worker wages. This pay cap proposition was running even in the polls until an ad blitz sent the measure to defeat.
percentage-signCould 2014 be Year One of the Pay Ratio Era? A vigorous article at Truthout -- while of course partisan -- nevertheless makes a strong case that these measures portend a rebellion brewing, against what I've called the Oligarchic Putsch -- the transformation of America from a diamond-shaped society, dominated by an empowered middle class, more toward the classic pyramid of privileged (and largely inherited) power that dominated 99% of human cultures across 6000 years.
In fact, though, let me briefly give voice to my libertarian side: I do not see this disparity being solved by simple-minded ratio laws.  Socialist decrees and price-setting are not a long-term or even desirable solution.
What is needed is a return to the principles of Teddy Roosevelt - that market economics is best when it is competitive,  This would require, especially, the breaking up of a cartel of cheaters, restoring the natural synergies and feedback mechanisms of capitalism!  Think about it --
== If you truly believe in market forces… ==
By capitalist theory, high rates of compensation in a particular field of human endeavor should attract talented people from other professions, drawing them to compete with these top-CEO guys, thus swelling the pool of managerial talent until prices… go… down!
Nothing could be more fundamental.  It is basic market forces 101. It is the sine qua non, and the whole justification for competitive enterprise. Supply rising to meet high demand. No matter what the field of endeavor, whether it be the availability and pricing of local plumbers or the allocation of fields to next year's wheat or soybean crops, or hedge betting on interest rates - markets are supposed to self-correct great imbalances.
Failure of this to happen is prima facie evidence for collusion and cheating.
This is so basic that it bears reiterating in other words: If capitalism works, then these high CEO wages should be attracting brilliant talent from elsewhere, till demand meets supply and the wages fall.  How can supposed defenders of capitalism proclaim their fealty to a system that they, themselves manipulate to fail in its core process?
Essential-man-CEO1-  On the rare occasion when a member of this caste comments on this contradiction, here is their excuse. At the very highest managerial level, they are irreplaceable!  They are in effect calling themselves "mutant geniuses" like NBA basketball players -- worth any price. And hence, market forces do not apply to their own compensation. (See: The Syndrome of the Essential Man.)
Only, this comparison fails.  For top NBA players are fiercely measured by statistics. Explicit performance parameters, not only in scoring but in ticket sales. But not one study has ever verified a clear correlation of CEO compensation with long range company success.  In fact, fudging and obscuring any such metrics would appear to be a top priority of the cartel.

In fact, NBA player salaries would not be this high but for the strength of their union. A huge irony, as CEOs cite them in justification. That parallel strengthens the notion of a cartel!  Only dig this: even the rich-powerful NBA players do not control their own statistical performance appraisals, the way that the CEO cartel does. Mutant geniuses, indeed!
2- The cartel is maintained by a system that was supposed to be banished more than 100 years ago.  Interlocking directorships, in which companies that are purportedly in competition with each other feature amazing overlap in their boards. Oh, there are efforts to keep these relationships "once-removed," substituting partners and family members, or appointing each other onto the boards of companies that aren't in direct competition… Gerbers and Boeing, for example, thus evading any enforcement of  the creaky, (needful of tuning) anti-trust laws. It still amounts to "vote to raise my compensation and I'll vote to raise yours."
Can stockholders fight this?  Many have tried, but systems of shell corporation ownership enable contrivances where a few men can control major enterprises with very small boiled-down minority share ownership. And most small stock-holders (let's be frank) never exert their proxies. If corporations truly are our future form of governance, then "owner democracy" is going to have to be refreshed with more fairness, or (again) people will start to radicalize.
GuidedAllocation3- Critics of socialism cite Friedrich Hayek and proclaim that any control over an economy by the state -- by civil servants -- will fail. Because, no matter how smart a set of top-down allocators are, they will be foolish simply because their numbers are few.  Because of limited diversity of knowledge and insight and perspective.
In-groups are delusional. It wasn't just Hayek who said this.  So did Adam Smith. And so testifies the horrifically bad statecraft of 99% of oligarchy-led human cultures.
Indeed, history does show that narrow castes of "allocators" do inevitably perform poorly, over the long run.  State-capitalist mercantilist trade empires like Japan and China have done well in stretching out their successful phase. But we know the inevitable end-game, as complexity and chaos and lack of market correction inevitably prove the limits of in-group hubris.
So sure, I don't want the government "picking winners and losers" … that is, unless there is a clear and proved need to lay extra weight on certain market forces, for the sake of our kids -- e.g. to encourage the development of efficient and sustainable technologies, for example.  And national defense.  And vital infrastructure. And fulfilling Adam Smith's goal of maximizing the fraction of kids ready to compete… and…
But still, beyond that sort of thing, I know that state -controlled "allocation" can be clumsy, inefficient and wrongheaded, compared to the wisdom of mass markets!  Let us always remember that there is a core essence to libertarianism and conservatism that (despite recent craziness) should have a place at the table.  Extreme statists are just as bad as oligarchists.
hayek-road-serfdomOnly in that case…  how is a secretive cartel of 10,000 or so conniving, back-room-dealing, circle-jerking, self-interested golf buddies intrinsically better allocators than say 500,000 skilled, educated, closely-watched and reciprocally competitive civil servants?  Both groups suffer from delusional in-group-think, Hayek had a good point.  But the smaller clade - more secretive and inward-looking, uncriticized and motivated solely by conniving greed - is inherently more likely to fail.
Again, 6000 years of history testify to that. Capitalism only started taking off and prospering when capitalism agreed to wear a leash.
== What's needed? ==
We need fierce measures to stop interlocking directorships and the in-group mutual stroking of 10,000 golf buddies -- a criminal conspiracy that not only has stolen billions but runs diametrically opposite to the entire notion of competitive enterprise.
We need to demand that hypocrites either stop pretending to believe in market forces, or else show us those market forces at work, correcting a blatant campaign of theft from citizens and stockholders.
We need to break up the worst cartel of all, the "seated members" of the great stock, securities and commodities exchanges, an archaic arrangement that serves no benefit to people or capitalism -- especially in the new era of electronic trading -- and one that amounts to pure, vampiric parasitism.  All seats should be converted into ten, tomorrow, with nine of them to be sold off to the widest diversity of bidders. Or else, let Google handle all trades for 0.001%. You think they can't?

Want a radical reform? That still stays loyal to Adam Smith and enterprise markets?  Simple. Hayek said markets work best when everybody knows mostly everything!  Hence, there is no excuse for hidden-secret ownership. If you control something, you should have to openly avow "I own that!" There are no viable rationalizations not to require this, which would help every honest businessperson and citizen on the planet, and undermine cheaters everywhere.
TransactionFeeTerminateFinally, tomorrow, for the sake of our children, we must inpose what more advanced nations in Europe and Asia have imposed -- a tiny High Frequency Trading (HFT) transaction fee.  Just 0.1% or one thousandth per trade would push these fellows back into earning their livings by helping real humans to find value differences or gradients that are useful to genuine investers or sellers. See my article: A Transaction Fee Might Save Capital Markets...and Protect us from the Terminator?  This is urgent, in some very surprising ways.
Now please take careful note: not one of my proposals is leftist or anti-capitalist. Adam Smith would have no trouble with any of it.  Every single item that I raised would have the effect of invigorating markets by re-establishing actual competition.
These measures are inevitable, as the boomer generation's delusions start to fade and we become aware - again - of humanity's perpetual problem of class.   problem that seemed to vanish - in America - for an entire human lifespan, because of rooseveltean reforms and the burgeoned middle class.  

As that era passes, and we face our duty to renew and restore the social contract, proposals like the ones I offered (above) will come to the table. When these reforms start looming the best course for the rich and members of the cartel would be to negotiate, since the first wave of reforms will aim to -- as FDR did -- actually save capitalism from the otherwise inevitable volcanic fury of the sinking classes.
CompetitionAlas, as happened when the First Estate fought all-or-nothing for their privileges, in 1789 France, that negotiation will probably not happen. (See Class War and the Lessons of History.) Instead, lacking a Roosevelt, there will instead be dullard obstinacy.  We'll hear howls of outrage by a rising oligarchy and their media shills. 

But don't be fooled. That is noise rising from the ancient enemies of market enterprise.  Not socialism, but a far more deadly destroyer of fair markets -- feudalism. And they have no idea that modern versions of tumbrels are being fashioned, by their own hands.