Friday, February 28, 2014

Transparency news… Light battles its way in

First some pertinent announcements!
March 1 is Future Day …even though it should have been March Forth (into the future!)
The initial episode of NASA’s Unexplained Files airs on Sunday 2nd March at 10 pm on the Science Channel.  I was interviewed as one of the talking heads… though how you're edited always depends upon the style of the show. Here's hoping they went for (at least some) serious science!  Episode 2 is on Thursday 6th March, Episode 3 Tuesday 11th March and Episode 4 is on Tuesday 18th March.
The embryonic Science Fiction Museum in Washington DC is closing its crowdfund activity on March 9th – if you haven’t already done so, look it over and consider making a contribution before it ends:  - all contributors will appear on the website as “Founding Colonists.” 
And now… back to the crucial issue of our time.
==Sousveillance battles Surveillance==
Dragnet-Nation-cover-artIn this transparency posting, let's start with a solid book: In Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, Julia Angwin reports from the front lines of America’s surveillance economy, offering a revelatory and unsettling look at how the government, private companies, and even criminals use technology to indiscriminately sweep up vast amounts of our personal data.
In a world where we can be watched in our own homes, where we can no longer keep secrets, and where we can be impersonated, financially manipulated, or even placed in a police lineup, Angwin argues that the greatest long-term danger is that we start to internalize the surveillance and censor our words and thoughts, until we lose the very freedom that makes us unique individuals. Appalled at such a prospect, Angwin conducts a series of experiments to try to protect herself.
More than that, Angwin struggles between the twin impulses -- trying to hide from surveillance and ultimately neutralizing its power to do harm by looking back.  In the end -- especially the last two paragraphs of her interesting book, she makes (what I consider to be) the definitively wise choice.

Listen to Angwin's interview on NPR.
== Light battles its way in ==
US prosecutors are chasing 14 Swiss banks for allegedly helping wealthy Americans dodge U.S. taxes.  Credit Suisse's private banking and wealth management division has already put aside 175m Swiss francs (£118m) to fight a U.S. investigation into hidden offshore accounts in Switzerland.  The bank has said it was "working towards a resolution" with US authorities but has not given a time-frame of when that resolution might be reached.
My prediction? A deal will be struck.  Swiss and other secret banking havens know the era when they can thumb noses at Europe and the U.S. are passing. Besides, helping western mere-millionaires writhe out of taxes is not where the real action is. The big profits come from sheltering and protecting the seamier side of sovereign wealth funds and stashing loot stolen  from developing nations by local kleptocrats.
Those business lines will be protected at all costs. Even if it means tossing a few hundred mere-millionaires off the sleigh.
transparency-word-cloudWill your light switch turn on you?  Philips, one of the biggest names in lighting (and especially in the new world of low-cost LED lighting), has figured out a way to use light as a communications method.  The wonderful LED bulbs we're all installing (this is the year; do it!) can't be used this way...
...but a future generation of them can and will someday be controlled as emitters whose subtle variations can contain signals we won't notice as the bulbs talk to each other… and to computers far away. The advantages and uses will be myriad!  And any room will be whispering data about us.
Want to stop that?  Good luck.  When will folks cease futile railing against the future and start admitting it is a tsunami.  What we need is not absurdly useless stop signs and whining.  What we need are surfboards.
Wearable computing pioneer and University of Toronto professor Steve Mann has offered the following poly-lingual riffs on the core idea that he and I both promote:
 Surveillance     Sousveillance
 Oversight        Undersight
  Supervision      Subvision

Elaine Scarry tackles these issues in Transparent Citizens, Invisible Government, in the Boston Review.

Meanwhile…India enters the sousveillance age. And Turkey steps closer to a surveillance state.
Tesla-peak-oilWhere will the next crisis come from? Here's an interesting article from investor Jeremy Grantham concerning Tesla motors, peak oil production and peak oil demand, the mining industry and phosphorus, and fracking's possible role in increased earthquakes. Well worth reading, especially for the many overlaps with my predictions in Existence, coming true much faster than I expected...
Again, privacy activists are up in arms over license plate scanners proving that you can be right to be concerned about the possible looming of a Big Brother State… while being stunningly dense and stupid about what's practical and what might actually help to prevent Orwellianism  Those who believe that they can stymie such a system are probably right… for a year or two… till optical recognition becomes so ubiquitous that there is no "system" at all… when every person will have access to billions of cameras, all over, getting smaller/cheaper and more numerous each month.
Seriously. You think trying to rail and whine about increasing vision will stop it?  Try stopping the tide. Earth's orbit. Or time.

There is, on the other hand, a different way to stay free.  Read the wiser people out there.  Dragnet Nation could be a good start.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Politics, Ideology and Moving Forward

NEUTRALIZE-GERRYMANDERINGIt's time.  The primaries are approaching. You and all your friends have a chance to vote in the 2014 elections that matter… the ones in the spring, not the fall!  Tell everyone you know to use this one little trick and we all, as individuals, can help defeat gerrymandering and de-radicalize American politics.
YOU can help do it.  By getting all your friends to re-register using this one little trick… though it may require that you hold your nose…A Modest Proposal to Neutralize Gerrymandering.
== Good news… live with it! ==
President Obama has ordered another cranking up of mileage standards for medium and heavy trucks.  The last one, in 2011, brought mileage improvements from 8% to 28% and won over all industry stake-holders.  So much so that there is almost no resistance, this time around. Manufacturers and trucking companies and associations are all tentatively accepting of the next stage, which bodes to recoup the costs for truckers within 18 months of purchase.
Add this to the spectacular success of the CAFE standards, which are now saving American drivers billions at the pump without costing a single job (delayed for 25 years by the GOP, thanks guys.) Some things can happen without involving the worst and laziest Congress in U.S. history.
bailoutsWill even a single Fox News prediction ever come true? Recall how rescuing GM & Chrysler would fail, after costing the taxpayers hundreds of billions? Both companies are now thriving and nearly all the money was repaid. Car mileage standards would kill Detroit!  No, they didn't; we're now getting far more efficiency, saving countless billions and getting better cars… and US automakers are doing fine.  And now…?  Remember Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?
These mortgage companies were so horribly mismanaged under the Bush Administration that they became a huge calamity, threatening the entire economy. When they were bailed out under Obama, the stockholders who had negligently ignored the mess deservedly took a big loss… but the taxpayer didn't.  This week it was announced that Fannie and Freddie had repaid every single cent to the US government.  From now on, the proceeds will pour in as… profit.
The same thing happened with AIG. But NOT to the bailouts done under Bush. Have a look at the graphic here. You wanted government run in a businesslike way? Never vote republican.
That is… not till the Goldwater-Buckley types get up off their behinds and get mad over what Rupert Murdoch has done to the party of Lincoln.
== What we could've been doing… instead of culture war ==
How tragic. We in the 21st Century finally have data that could let us figure out, with sophistication, which tasks government is good-at and which it should be used-for as a last resort.
GOVERNMENT-PROBLEM-SOLVERExample: Government is often great at addressing acute crises.  Feed THESE children right now!  Kill Hitler!
Chronic problems are different. Dilemmas that go on and on… like how to reduce unemployment or regulate product quality in business… these are areas where government should always face at least a basic burden of proof. "Are you sure there's not some other way to get this fixed, than reaching for the coercive power of the state?"
The traditional right (not its current loony version) made this distinction, demanding evidence that socialist methods would not be captured or create permanent constituencies. That demand was a fair one, often made by Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley… though  such evidence often can be provided. Indeed, government also does some chronic things well.  Like federally funded research that looks beyond the corporate five year ROI (return of investment) horizon.  Or building and maintaining (when funded) vital infrastructure. Or justice and defense.
Actually eliminating poverty? There's real cause for argument there! And the old Goldwater conservatism had a point when claiming that dependence on welfare is dangerous ground.  (Some of the worst moral hazard was reduced by the Clinton-Gingrich Welfare Reform Bill of 1995, the last time the GOP cooperated with a Democratic president in any way, even over adjourning for lunch.) But a basic social safety net is something most Americans agree with.  And few of our elderly live in grinding poverty now, as used to be the case for many millions.
Education? Government should absolutely provide the baseline, default system, at as high a set of standards as can be achieved. Adam Smith wanted this, and criticism of our current schools should be tempered with appreciation for the changes public education wrought, from was came before. And yet, I am libertarian enough to also want experiments. I don't like how charter school options are currently set up, many of them serving as vehicles for people with radical axes to grind at taxpayer expense.  But the idea of unleashing some market forces to supplement… yes… I become decidedly un-leftist over that.
==Leftists vs Liberals==
left-liberal-3dOne major distinction, that I will describe however many times as required, is the divide between "leftists" and "liberals".  Nothing makes more clear the insipidness of modern American political discourse than the failure to make this clear. And of course, anyone who watches Sean Hannity knows what spectacular propaganda-lie efforts are made to conflate these two, and to tar the hundred million or so American blue-liberals with being the same as their side's… ahem… crazy fringe.
Leftists tend to prefer state/socialist/paternalist approaches to everything. They also tend (with much variation) to want to "equalize outcomes."  Hence they are direct enemies of Adam Smith, who taught that competition is the root property that enables human beings to create wealth and solutions to problems. He also taught that competition without careful tuning and regulation is doomed to be suborned by cheaters….
Liberals tend to accept Adam Smith ("the first liberal") in his essence, though millions have been talked into thinking he preached cut-throat, social-darwinism (an outright lie). Liberals know that market capitalism created the cornucopia of overall wealth that made all our subsequent do-gooder efforts possible (e.g. taking on racism and sexism and poverty and environmental neglect). They do not want to kill the golden-egg-laying goose, however many times Hannity repeats that slander.
But that mini-rant wanders afield from the core topic, which is -- can we get the conversation away from insipidly simple-minded doctrines -- that all of our problems stem from too much or too little government? Or the reciprocal… that the behavior of oligarchs and monopolies and market cornering cabals reflects poorly on "capitalism," when flat-fair-open, smithies capitalism is one of the main victims of oligarchy?
Might we start a scientific appraisal of when the tool actually works? When we should somewhat prefer private solutions?  And when we should exercise our mastery as citizens, point our fingers and declare "Wither!" at some agencies and powers that -- by all reason and decency -- no state should ever have?
== Give yourself an ideological checkup =
QuestionnaireNFor years I've circulated a "Questionnaire on Ideology" that  aims to nudge folks into re-evaluating some underlying assumptions. (I collect the responses, but haven't had time or energy to collate or turn them into a publishable study.)
One of the most important questions: "To what do you attribute your own set of beliefs?  And then: how do you think your ENEMIES came to their beliefs?
Among the choices are "logical appraisal of the evidence," or "traits of character and mental ability," or "propaganda and cultural influences."
These can have interesting implications. Indeed, we often tend to say "My beliefs came about from logical appraisal of the evidence," while our opponents are either motivated by greed or propaganda or flaws in their character.
(I've noticed lately that some folks seem to suspect the "gotcha" trap this question offers.  They check "character" as their reason, implying that they have their opinions because they have higher character than those who have differing opinions... though, when pressed, they admit that they do feel they are the logical ones; their foes' opinions came from propaganda, but their own came from logic!)
DisputationArenasArrowCoverOf course all of this boils down my famous "Disputation Arenas" article, where I make the point that the Internet is far - very far - from becoming the "fifth arena" of our Enlightenment…..(see the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University) Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition.")
Until internet debates include systems for adjudication and "ritual combat," I see little hope they can become transcendent problem solvers!
== End Pax Americana? ==
A completely different matter is whether the whole world might be better off led by a slightly-farther-ahead America that keeps innovating and stimulating planetary civilization with its ideas, inventions, products, universities and brash culture -- along with the unprecedented general peace that has come from the continuation of a loose and (generally) benign Pax Americana. Or if, perhaps, it is time to move on and accept that an era is over. It's time for Whatever Comes Next (WCN).
If you disdain the first sentence (above), please show me any other era in the history of our species that did even 1% as well for people overall.  And of course, we'd all love to see your plan for WCN.
Post-AmericanIf you would not mind Pax Americana's continuation, and believe it can be mostly benign while (mildly) leading the world toward an elevated plane that becomes more rich, equal and consensual,  then it truly matters whether America is declining -- in real, and not relative terms.
Was that provocative enough for you all?  Then see more about the debates raging over "declinism"… whether the United States is in irreparable tumble, whether it can make a soft landing, whether the appearance of "decline" is only because of the "Rise of the Rest" … or whether America can shake off its early 21st century funk and Civil War, give itself a stiff slap across the kisser, stop wallowing in dystopias and get moving again… amazing the world. (See Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World.. And the Rise of the Rest.)
That_Used_to_Be_Us_(Cover)That last is the position offered by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World That It Invented and How We Can Come Back

The book was reviewed in an article, Declinism's Fifth Wave, by Josef Joffe, author of The Myth of America's Decline: Politics, Economics and a Half-century of False Promises. 
Joffe offers his own list of reasons to doubt the "declinists," citing the continuing dominance of U.S. universities in the planet's intellectual life, for example. And the willingness of Canada and the US to continue accepting the bulk of the world's migrants. As for economics: "All the Asian dragons and tigers started out at double-digit speed, then came down like Japan to nothing, or South Korea to 4%" growth, Joffe notes. "The [export-driven] model runs out of steam" because it's based on investment at the cost of consumption, and features too much state interference leading to over-investment in certain sectors, leading to declining marginal returns, he explains.
My own quirky take on it all? When I see science fiction burgeoning in other cultures, I will be willing to talk about their role in WCN.  Till then… no one else is qualified… yet.
Some arguments are iffy. I'd be interested in the way others respond to this book.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Are "rights of way" key to better mega-cities? Plus science news!

My talk at TEDx San Diego-2013 -- What's Next? The Horizon of our Dreams --  is now posted for viewing by all.  It was very popular, but challenging for the smart audience, as I took them on a rapid tour of human history, society, evolution… and our galactic destiny… all in  12 minutes!
Rumors abound that Elon is dickering for Apple to buy or collaborate with Tesla Motors and -- of course -- create the "iCar."
iCar-Tinkerers copySounds cool…
...though my only real comment is this illustration from my 2010 graphic novel about American industry called TINKERERS.
== Aggressive help to vitalize "mega-cities." ==
Here is a fascinating article about the dilemma of megacities... and some innovative new, technological approaches that might help make them livable: Our Fragile Emerging Megacities: A Focus on Resilience, by Kevin C. Desouza.
Riffing off of this piece, I have long believed that one key, seldom-mentioned aspect for saving megacities is the problem and opportunity of rights-of-way (RoW).  Any of these megacities could be vitalized by a process that -- at first sight -- will seem brutal, but that does not have to be.  It is the demolition of -- and rebuilding upon -- a 200 meter wide corridor extending from the port, to the urban center, then out to the industrial parks and airport and then countryside.
Within this razed band, every major, revitalizing service can then be inserted at very low cost, using simple trenching methods: utilities, sewer systems, water, underground metros and a grand boulevard.  There would also be room for new-innovative services like pneumatic tube delivery of goods, eliminating much of the truck traffic that clogs streets.
Atop the easily-trenched service corridors might not only be a grand boulevard but also farmers markets, booth-bazaars and a slim but beautiful urban park… that incidentally would allow cheap and trivial access to utilities for repair or upgrade, a terrible design problem in most legacy cities.  The land on both sides would skyrocket in usability and value, for more than a kilometer in both directions, a linear approach to urban development that worked so well along Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles.
Rights-of-way-mega-citiesThe efficiency of this system would bring huge returns to investors, despite having to carefully allow for: 
(1) dealing with corrupt governments and 
(2) setting aside 1/3 ownership rights in the new commercial frontages to the original inhabitants who were uprooted.  

Indeed, the biggest challenge, requiring great care, would be acting covertly in advance to secretly discover and document every person living along the RoW -- even in slums and favelas -- and vesting them in their shares before local elites get a chance to interfere or cheat… and then providing housing for the displaced until fill-in is completed.
Sorry, but I've been thinking about this for decades, developing  details, waiting for some "I want to change the world" billionaire to come to me for my list of ways to both re-shape tomorrow for the better… and get even richer doing it. This particular one would seem an opportunity of almost transcendent importance, requiring deep pockets and even deeper guts.
But some zillionaire could change the world, and get every penny back, ten-fold.
== About… us… ==
The Evolution of Fairness through Spite:  A study done by philosophers Patrick Forber of Tufts University and Rory Smead of Northwestern University, suggests fairness in societies evolves out of a fear of spite from others, rather than due to an increase in altruism.  Interesting how this resonates with both my short story "The Giving Plague" (free online) and this contrarian perspective on whether altruism might pervade the universe, as some fervently believe.
outrageIs this related?  A major study has found quite significant correlations between Internet trolling behavior and general personality nastiness.  Specifically, trolls score highly in personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).
Internet trolls (who are frequently anonymous) have a polarizing effect on audiences, leading to politicization, rather than deeper understanding of scientific topics. This puts a strong incentive on the rest of us to explore potential alternatives to pure, accountability-free anonymity.  Proposals for sheltered pseudonymity are on the table, which could provide all the benefits of anonymity -- freedom to explore and reduce inhibitions/fears -- without making malignancy outcome-free.
Only a fraction of trolls self-identify -- the focus of this study. But a majority believe that their passion is always and inherently justified, an indignant state that they return to, far too readily and frequently to be anything other than an epiphenomenon of addiction. See my article: An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry and Social Psychology.
Ah… but then there are the relatives of trolls… wargs.  War-fighters And Gossip Spreaders. They move in packs, leaving scorched earth. And they feel no need for anonymity.
== Space! and Tech==
A fatwa—an interpretation based on Quranic scripture—issued by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment in the United Arab Emirates, has declared that the Mars One endeavor, to hurry a mission to Mars by making it a one-way attempt at colonization, is too close to suicide to be permitted.
Mars-simulation-arcticHow will humans adapt to space -- and cope with the stresses of continuous close contact in a space module? Support the IndieGogo campaign: A One-year Mars Simulation in the Canadian Arctic. Why aim for Mars? See Robert Zubrin's book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet... and Why We Must. 
Penn State University chemists and engineers have, for the first time, placed tiny synthetic motors inside live human cells in a lab, propelled them with ultrasonic waves, and steered them magnetically.
Google is offering advice to Google-Glass users: don't be glass-holes.
The Bluetooth Orb is a a Bluetooth finger ring with scrolling display, built in microphone, and the ability to transform between a ring and an earpiece. Early versions wowed audiences and electronics shows… then it vanished! (I have better things in mind, anyway.)

Synthetic muscle made of fishing line is 100 times stronger than the real thing.
Frequency of random events on xkcd: mesmerizing!
Dangers of ... sitting? Regardless of exercise, too much sedentary time is linked to major disability after age 60.
Mottled-transparency== Transparency News ==
Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande will review plans to build up a trustworthy data protection network in Europe. The challenge is to avoid data passing through the U.S. after revelations of mass NSA spying in Germany and France.
Merkel has been one of the biggest supporters of greater data protection in Europe since the revelations that the U.S. tapped her phone emerged in a Der Spiegel news report in October -- based on information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Hm… I am skeptical it'd work.  But variety is spice.

See also my interview on Virtually Speaking with Jay Ackroyd dealing with issues of Transparency on BlogTalkRadio.
== Wonders ==
See pictures of swirling tornado-like forms which turned out to be thousands of fish in the midst of a reproductive courtship.
Really interesting… how wolves change rivers.
Human and dog brains both have dedicated 'voice area.'

Monday, February 17, 2014

Optimism, Responsibility and… Satire!

Warning all: it's political this time!
== The optimism debate continues ==
The-Rational-Optimist_220xV"Today," Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, "of Americans officially designated as 'poor,' 99 per cent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 per cent have a television, 88 per cent a telephone, 71 per cent a car and 70 percent air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these."
Yes… though Cornelius had tons of servants, and they lacked these things too. But the thing they noticed, above all, was who was servant and who was the master.
But never mind that. John Mauldin cued me over to Morgan Housel over at the Motley Fool who has written a piece called "50 Reasons We're Living Through the Greatest Period in World History."  Oh, I fumed at about a dozen of the statistics, sputtering "but… but that ignores…."  And you should avoid complacency too!  There's still a world to be saved.  Still, the flood of tentative good news suggests that we have some basis for confidence that we can save it….
… or can we, after all?  Why California's drought may be the worst in 500 years. Denialism is not confidence.  It is being a sap.
== Putting interesting spins on things ==
One of the best pieces of political-social satire I've seen stabs right at the heart of how our enlightenment process of flat-open competition is undermined by… Krony-ism!  Collect all five Krony action figures! Ready to take on any competitive threat to their power!  (Note: while this is clearly inspired by the better (Smithian) wing of libertarianism, one might call it ever so slightly rightward-tilted. And I don't mind! 
(Still, it will be better when they come out with the needed SIXTH action figure…  The Oligarch-Puppeteer, the one made of money bags who actually controls Big G. And a seventh… The Hypnotizer... who waves a bible and has the head of a … Fox.)
PersonalINcomeTaxIn a similar vein but turning a bit more specific… One of the sharpest "Smithian libertarians" out there is Brin-blogmunity member Carl Milstead who has long struggled to help shift libertarianism back to sensible emphasis on competition, and less on the Cult of Selfishness.  Carl has a very interesting tax simplification plan that offers attractive common ground - or at least basis for negotiation - between liberals and libertarians.  It might be too big a shift to achieve in today's American political climate.
But one way to get there incrementally would be my own tax simplification proposal called "No-Losers," which would let us simplify in stages that are politically achievable.
== If only this were satire, too ==
It's stunning how lockstep conservative columnists are in denouncing the bipartisan voting commission's recommendations for more early voting, allowing citizens to go to city poll stations up to a week before election day. Along with many other tactics to cheat… I mean limit citizen access to franchise… states of a certain color are moving fast to limit early voting, which helps working men and women to fit this civic duty among their many other chores.
This is not Goldwater-Buckley conservatism.  It is something else.  Why not admit it?
Capital-twenty-first-centuryEconomist Thomas Piketty’s new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” argues  that the six-decade period of growing equality in western nations – starting roughly with the onset of World War I and extending into the early 1970s – was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period, Piketty suggests, represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.  His fatalism disturbingly opines that capitalism cannot continue - each generation - performing a miracle… using democracy to correct its contradictions.  Especially the biggest one -- that winners in the competition then try to cheat in order not to have to compete anymore, as happened across all cultures for 6000 years.
I agree that that is the inherent tendency of capitalism.  But (1) Marx explained all this ages ago, and earlier so did Adam Smith. (2) The fact that western democracies did keep refreshing and renewing a relatively flat and competitive version of capitalism, always enticing activity to get rich, but somehow preventing the toxicity of oligarchic wealth concentrations, suggests  this is a process that could continue.
It must.  Socialism never raised out of poverty as many as market economics has, nor innovated so many solutions.  But those markets were not "blind." Nor did Adam Smith demand that they be!  They succeeded precisely because they have been tuned by sapient populations, societies and institutions who have kept negotiating solutions to steer economies away from the cliffs that ruined markets and freedom for 6000 years.
Capitalism-vs-democracyIt is the pragmatic, non-dogmatic, mixed-economy approach that prevents oligarchic toxicity while retaining Smithian success lures.  That takes new discoveries and new technologies into account, as well as new threats and externalities like pollution. That invests in the species and its youth so that those youths can have the health and education needed in order to be confident competitors in vibrant Smithian markets.  Our ancestors for 250 years used a suite of methods, only some of which were "liberal" or Quasi-socialist…
Forget the Clinton-Bush dynasties… calling for a Roosevelt!  Ideally one like TR… but FDR might do.  We have to believe we can do this again.  Or there will be no Star Trek.
== Who's Responsible? ==
spending-us How Spending Has Fallen Under Obama: This CNN site backs up my assertion that our cliches about U.S. deficit spending are all wrong.  The all-important Second Derivative of deficit shows whether an administration is serious about fiscal responsibility.  If the 2nd Derivative (2D) is negative, then skyrocketing deficits become successively less steep and gradually turn downward toward the black. If 2D is positive, surpluses become deficits and deficits steepen into hemorrhages. And members of the public have a diametrically wrong impression that Democrats are somehow worse than Republicans on this matter, just because Republicans say so.
In fact, 2D is almost always positive (that's bad) under GOP administrations (post-Eisenhower) plunging the U.S. into worsening debt.  And 2d is almost always negative (that's good) across the span of Democratic administrations.  Conservatives invariably squirm when confronted with this huge and nearly uniform fact, that absolutely demolishes every cliche. But if they truly are "conservative" in the older and wiser sense of the word, they must eventually wake up and realize.
No one is asking them to swerve left.  But please… veer away from the monsters who have hijacked your movement.  Steer away from crazy.
== The miscellany stack - political news! ==
PolarIceSee this stunning video showing 25 years of satellite data on dwindling Arctic sea ice. Look at it. Just look at it!  Then rent CHASING ICE. Hold a home viewing party.  Invite your crazy uncle.
Climate change is already hurting American farmers and rural residents, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that the U.S. would regret any failure to adapt and prepare for shifting weather realities. The list of increasingly daunting issues that the Ag Dept is helping farmers deal with is growing larger and more intense yearly.  And still, fools watch Fox.
All told, health care costs have been growing more slowly over the last three years than at any other time period since 1965. More recently, yearly health cost growth slowed from an average rate of 3.9 percent between 2000 and 2007 to 1.3 percent between 2011 and 2013.
This rumination about potential conflict between China and Japan is deeply disturbing.  And it does not mention there is another set of reefs, farther northe, that are equidistant from China, Japan and South Korea, that are under dispute.  And other islands rimming the Philippines and Indonesia and Vietnam.
But the East remains a realm potentially rife with surprises. I had to blink several times when I read the following off-the-cuff thoughts from the deeply insightful Scott Foster, who I see each year at the annual SNS Future in Review Conference.  If any of this comes true, you'll know where it came from:
"[Japanese PM] Abe is reportedly planning to meet Putin in Sochi. A professor of international politics I know here expects them to make a deal over the Southern Kuril Islands (Japan's "Northern Territories"). Having just visited Yasukuni Shrine, Abe is Nixon enough to get away with it (anyone else would probably be assassinated). That would enable a peace treaty and make it a lot easier to increase economic ties, which could expand several fold. Beijing might s**t a meat axe, to use a phrase I've never been able to forget.
 "The professor's take on North Korea is that Kim is purging the pro-China faction and getting ready to do a Myanmar. Japan has reasonably good relations with North Korea, considering the circumstances, and very very knowledgeable journalists and other experts on (and in) the country. Russia and South Korea are talking about a gas pipeline through North Korea. Just when it looked like things in North Korea might never change, they might change."
== Calling all Roosevelts! ==
Vampire-squidThe  bill to remove the 60 year old financial industry regulations, passed in 1999 by the GOP Congress, did more than encourage the insane antics that led to the later Great Meltdown.  It has apparently unleashed the top banks to own and operate every kind of resource manipulation industry.  Read  about this… and try to picture: "why are they doing everything in their power to resurrect Teddy Roosevelt?"  Because that is where we will ultimately turn.  Preferably that, over Robespierre.
== A libertarian "gem" of a flick? ==
J. Neil Schulman's hyper-libertarian novel, Alongside Night, was worth reading as a polemic that -- though tendentious and spectacularly one-sided -- nevertheless raised some very important points about one of many kinds of potential failure modes that could bring us crashing down.  Alongside Night is worth a look for the same reason that I read Ayn Rand and Karl Marx, because: damn if I will let myself become a blinkered dogmatist, worried about only one kind of abusive authority!
Human beings are born with spines that can twist, allowing them to look for threats on all horizons.  So what if polemicists and dogmatists (of left, right and weird) are satisfied to fuse their political vertebrae, insisting that only the authorities THEY hate could ever threaten freedom. I will listen to their rants and sift for rare gems amid the monomania.  I can turn my head.
Can you?  Then you might enjoy a wallow in polemical monomania: Alongside Night: The Motion Picture! Directed by J. Neil Schulman! And starring Kevin Sorbo.  I admit I haven't seen the film… it's only available for viewing in a few cities. But here is how to find out where:
libertariansNeil is one of the more cogent members of the cult of Rothbard-and-Rand that has hijacked libertarianism from its proper, Smithian emphasis on creative competition, down paths of incantation that ignore all of science and history and human nature.  Which is a pity since a more moderate libertarian movement -- that remembered Adam Smith -- might have helped us marginalize the truly dangerous beast: the undead monster of today's GOP.
See one alternative: what a pragmatic, Smithian libertarianism might look like, in my article: The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism.
== and politically redolent… ==
RepublicanExtremismA brief section from the Sean Wilentz's Rolling Stone overview: Republican Extremism and the Lessons of History: How has a faction consisting of no more than four dozen House members come to exercise so much destructive power? The continuing abandonment of professional responsibilities by the nation's mainstream news sources – including most of the metropolitan daily newspapers and the television outlets, network and cable – has had a great deal to do with it. At some point over the past 40 years, the bedrock principle of journalistic objectivity became twisted into the craven idea of false equivalency, whereby blatant falsehoods get reported simply as one side of an argument and receive equal weight with the reported argument of the other side.
There is no shortage of explanations for the press's abdication: intimidation at the rise of Fox News and other propaganda operations; a deep confusion about the difference between hard-won objectivity and a lazy, counterfeit neutrality; and the poisonous effects of the postmodern axiom that truth, especially in politics, is a relative thing, depending on your perspective in a tweet. Whatever the explanation, today's journalism has trashed the tradition of fearless, factual reporting pioneered by Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow and Anthony Lewis.
Here's something you don't often see. An interesting… if somewhat shallow and tendentious riff in defense of communism that ran in Salon. Yipe! If we do not perform Rooseveltean reforms soon, we will see a LOT more of this. We are witnessing an IQ test whether the rich can act in their own self-interest.
The plague of self-righteous indignation that is poisoning America reared its head again in a firestorm of sanctimony over the death  Philip Seymour Hoffman, with some writers venting volcanic fury at others, who considered the actor's deep and fatal flaws worthy of critical comment. In this cogent discussion of the outrage industry, Sara Stewart offers cogent appraisal.  She also refers to my own work, diagnosing indignation as a noxious modern addiction that is tearing apart especially the United States, undermining our native genius at moderate pragmatism.
And that long stack is just a fraction of what got stored up.  It's a political year, sigh, get used to it.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Innovations to help us conquer space

I just attended the NASA Innovative and Advance Concepts group (NIAC) symposium at Stanford -- (I am on NIAC's Council of External Advisors) -- watching and appraising and questioning terrific presentations about future-potential "game-changing" space technologies.  In four days the recipients of NIAC seed grants, showed us how NASA's small but strategic investments in exceptional… even risky… technologies might prove valuable -- even vital -- if given a chance.
NASA-NIACThe presentations, open to the public, were live-streamed and are now archived for your viewing pleasure.
Punctuating the technical talks, our first keynote speaker was Jamie Hyneman, famed producer and co-star of The Mythbusters TV show. He was most inspiring, logical, humble and sensible about seeking the proper balance between play and risk and responsibility... an excellent perspective, very apropos for NIAC.  (During break, Jamie also told me I had been one of his favorite authors, way back when… till the show took all his time and banished reading. Ah well!)
Other keynotes included my friend Peter Norvig, head of research at Google (also hugely inspiring) and SETI Institute chief scientist Seth Shostak, who gave a clever-dynamic speech about how likely it is that "everything will change." We have our disagreements, but Seth does deliver high octane big-think. There was also an interesting reception and speech by two experts about venture capitalism in space, hosted at SETI institute HQ, of all places.
The talks by NIAC fellows themselves were way-interesting. Several innovators aim to use "tensegrity," which gives separate roles to tension and compression elements in new kinds of light weight structures.  One group wants to make tensegrity "balls" that can cushion a landing payload, then controllers back on Earth might command the rover to tug-shrink various tension members, in order to roll around.  Another team wants to use tensegrity to make torus space habitats, starting at 10 meters then expanding all the way up to space colonies.  (The use of tensegrity in innovative structures is illustrated in my graphic novel: Tinkerers.)
image-volcanoOther talks were even more amazing. Can we see inside super-dangerous volcanoes like Vesuvius? Hiroyuki Tanaka of the University of Tokyo reasoned that the throat of a volcano could be "x-rayed" with energetic muons produced in cosmic-ray showers. The number of muons passing through the volcano would depend on the density of intervening rock, so measuring the number of muons passing through various parts of the volcano could yield a crude, 3-D view of the interior.  So, can we use this in space? One of the fellows with a NIAC grant showed us even more spectacular potential application… a way to peer inside asteroids!
Then there's Red Whittaker who has made progress developing a robot that can lower itself (rappel) on a cable into some of the lava tube tunnels that we're now pretty sure exist on the Moon and Mars, after we've spotted some of the "skylight" openings that have caved-open, exposing some of them... potentially ideal places for early human visitors and colonies to inhabit. Those settlers would then supplement the caves with other NIAC innovations! Like with "printed" concrete that uses sulfur to replace water.  Or polymers to bind regolith with water - only the water gets recovered for re-use.
torpor_inducing_transfer_habitatforhumanstasistomarsRobert Hoyt talked about his group's truss-making "trusselator" … then a biomedical team reported on their scenario for using "torpor" -- human hibernation -- for spaceflight! (Just don't leave a crazy AI in charge, while you sleep.) Another bio group has been studying ways to tailor and refine organically-derived useful materials in space. Then… how about combining fusion and fission, maximizing neutron use and getting the best of each for a very high ISP rocket!
Here's a great one studied by two separate groups… 2-D "landers" that are like sheets of paper and flutter down to planets, needing no complex rockets etc… with printed circuits and instruments! Then we saw an effort to mimic Geoff Landis's great sci fi story "A Walk in the Sun" by having a rover circumnavigate the poles of Mercury or the Moon, moving just fast enough to stay in twilight, where there's solar power, but not so much you get scorched. Another team wants to use a base station lander to aim reflected empowering sunlight at its rover. (I actually quite liked that one).
590487main_strekalov_226Or how about balloons that are also telescopes, made from mirroring their spherical bottoms?  Or ultra thin film (and spectacularly broad) telescopes that keep perfect optical shape because their chemically-treated undersides are written-on by a laser? Or using the quantum diffraction of whole atoms to make an orbiting interferometer more than six orders of magnitude more accurate than any other, allowing detection of minute gravity waves? 

Think that's weird? There was also a project to use "ghost imaging" to picture things in space that no one can see!  Compared to that, an ideas for a whirling-bola permanently-aloft aircraft and propulsion via photonic thrusters seemed positively mundane… (and I mean that in a good way!)
All along, there was lots of talk of using cubesats, inexpensive and very small satellites and probes that bring costs way down.  Interesting stuff!
And… even more important… examples of our tax dollars (mostly) well and efficiently spent on the seed corn from which future industries might grow.
== Other space news ==
Even if no rogue state attacks with an EMP… the sun eventually will.  We should have been hardening the grid and civilian electronics for 30 years.  Indeed, such hardening would make an attack less tempting and thus less likely.  It is called robustness and should be a core national - and civilization-wide - goal.
For two weeks, humans and a humanoid robot lived in a simulated Martian environment inside a habitat module-- in Utah!
Take a kewl tour of just a few spectacular images from Mars.
A NASA experiment to seek ultra-low temperatures -- as low as 100 pico-degrees Kelvin -- will be put aboard the Space Station in order to eliminate the effects of gravity. The hope is to study deep quantum-statistical effects of matter, such as Bose-Einstein condensates.  The NASA research team believes that they will be able to create work in this proposed coldest known location in the universe in intervals of up to 20 seconds and that they may be able to create atomic wave packets that are capable of being seen by the naked eye.
TankFarmCoverNewIn other cool NASA news that gets far-out but plausible... a new series of "NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction," has grown out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor books. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.  (Along similar lines, see my novella, Tank Farm Dynamo.) 

What is so cool is how this kind of return to the old, confident, can-do spirit is exactly what we need to counter act the swamp of dystopias and same-same hopelessness that currently infests YA fiction. 

==Colonies in Space==

Okay, saving the dreamiest for last. It seems that a whole new generation is being awakened to the delightful vision so many of us had, in the 1980s… of artificial colonies in orbit. 

Sure the recent movie Elysium portrayed a "Stanford Torus" serving as the ultimate enclave-metaphor for class oppression.  (It also had a magical force-field that somehow was useless against incoming ships.) But even in that case, the gorgeous habitat become a source of hope for all humanity.

This dream -- which goes back to J.D. Bernal's marvelous design of 1929 -- is being given a kick by some low-scale NASA backing

We should all help re-introduce another generation to this notion, which is the ultimate expression of the confident, assertive, Can-Do Spirit we so desperately need, here on Earth.

Let "we can do it" be the theme for a century that begins this year!

And now… onward!