Sunday, November 30, 2014

Space Marvels - galaxies, space-power, "my" asteroid... and comets...

One of the best things I have ever watched: Invest four minutes for the video clip Wanderers! This -- rather than anger and cynicism -- is what being human must be about...or else, why bother?

Oh, also note: almost all of the places depicted here are real. Many of them extrapolated from photos taken already by our robot emissaries. “We” have already been to these wondrous spots. We are already titans!  On our way to unimaginable greatness.

(Though I will keep trying to imagine.)

== As we move ahead... ==

Could life exist in the Kracken Mare Sea on Titan?  I am working on stories… but right now I am simply jazzed by this image… sunlight glinting off one of Titan’s “seas” of liquid… methane? Ethane? Gasoline?  Take a look at the video: NASA's Cassini captures sunlight glinting off Titan's seas.

You are a member of a civilization that does stuff like this!  Stop letting cynics and fear-mongers undermine your confidence in us.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft comes out of hibernation on December 6 -- in preparation for an encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto. Closest approach will take place in July. 

NASA/JPL have just released a gorgeous new high-resolution image of Europa -- its icy surface crisscrossed by cracks and ridges. Beneath its icy surface, Europa may have more liquid water than Earth. In NASA's video: Europa: Ocean World, astrobiologist Kevin Hand discusses the possibility of life on Europa. Phil Plait’s “Bad astronomy” site offers a cool riff about a possible mission to Europa. 

It is estimated that Europe’s new Gaia probe will have discovered some 20,000 Jupiter mass exoplanets by the time it completes its survey in 2019. Unlike the transit-eclipse system used by the Kepler mission to discover most of the 2000 or so confirmed exoplanets, Gaia will use the astrometric measurement technique, where planets around another star show up as a tiny wobbling motion of the star as the planet orbits around it. Somewhat less likely to discover Earthlike smaller worlds, Gaia will be far less dependent on just happening to find systems whose ecliptics are lined up toward us.  It will also be far better at detecting planets that orbit farther from their star.

Here’s a fascinating astronomy blog that takes on some big topics. This particular posting tells of Antarctic lichens that seem to have adapted well to  Mars-like conditions.... amazing in its tentative implications.

== New Insights into Galaxies ==

Scientists believe a mysteriously bright object in a galaxy 90 million light-years away could be a rogue black hole evicted during the merger of two galaxies.

A really thought provoking paper suggests that of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, only one in 10 can support complex life like that on Earth. The reason, most other galaxies are either smaller or lower in “metalicity” and therefore have many more Gamma Ray Burst events that can destroy the ozone layers of life-worlds for thousands of parsecs in all directions, conceivably knocking down all but the most primitive, ocean dwelling organisms, making galaxies resemble the image Isaac Asimov portrayed in his novels, one with scads of biospheres, owned only by single cell life forms.

Short gamma ray bursts last less than a second or two; they most likely occur when
 two neutron stars or black holes spiral into each other. Long gamma ray bursts come from supernovae.

Tsvi Piran, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and 
Raul Jimenez, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Barcelona in Spain, 
explore that apocalyptic scenario in a paper in press at Physical Review Letters.

Compared with the Milky Way, most galaxies are small and low in metallicity. As a
 result, 90% of them should have too many long gamma ray bursts to sustain life, 
they argue. What’s more, for about 5 billion years after the big bang, all galaxies were
 like that, so long gamma ray bursts would have made life impossible anywhere. And inward of 10,000 light years from the center, our galaxy is still dangerous.

Researchers sending up NASA’s Cosmic Infrared Background Experiment on short duration rockets  have discovered something remarkable in the universe's diffuse background light: As many as half of the stars in the universe may have been stripped from their home galaxies and flung into space. Studying the extragalactic background light, Caltech astronomers  say there's just as much background starlight coming from these dim rogue stars as is coming from all of those giant galaxies.

== Reaching toward the sun ==

 A probe will be sent to visit the Sun.  I am interested - of course - in any human effort to … er… sun-dive.  Only there is an interesting design twist here.  Solar Orbiter will have a titanium foil heat shield on the outside painted black, with a hint of charred animal bone.

A very interesting exploration by Keith Henson of the economics and practical aspects of   lifting to GEO a solar power satellite system whose first use would be to laser heat the exhaust of Skylon lifters taking yet more solar power systems to GEO.  A bootstrap method that could (in theory) soon result in vast amounts of clean energy coming to us from the sun... via our collectors in space.

Some portions of this method have received preliminary seed grants from us at NASA NIAC. But many other sources will have to solve many puzzles along the way. It's good to have folks pushing this... while others push to make it unnecessary by vastly improving solar here on Earth.

== Comets and Asteroids ==

Given the results that have come in from the Rosetta Mission's rendezvous with a comet, I thought I'd offer you all a glimpse at my 1981 doctoral dissertation! It dealt with what happens when an icy mix of volatiles and grains gets heated from above. Naturally, some volatiles (e.g. water) sublimate and leave at high molecular velocities -- that get higher as the comet approaches the sun. Large dust grains may stay put but smaller ones get entrained into the escaping stream and become part of the Dust Tail. (Comets have two tails.)  

This means a mantle or coating layer of larger grains starts to build.  This will eventually be thick enough to shield the virgin material, slowing down the rate of sublimation.  Like a thermos coating. But the comet is heading sunward so the grains get hotter and a wave of heat penetrates inward, causing a delayed but large pulse of sublimation which will, here and there across the surface, cause an explosive blow off of the covering mantle, resulting in a surge of heavier grains in the dust tail and venting off pressure from an area.  Some of the heavier grains then rain down elsewhere on the comet surface, causing some areas to build such big layers that they choke off, semi permanently.  When this happens everywhere, the comet goes dormant and begins to resemble an asteroid.

Note that the one visited by Rosetta -- 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko -- is not a virgin but has gone through a number of perihelion brushes with the sun, so it's been baked a fair bit. Oh, if only the harpoon anchors had worked to dig the Philae lander onto a good vantage point! I fear that the little lander may not get enough sunlight to do much more science.  And even if it does, those gases shooting out of the mantle layer will likely blow the poor thing into space, before any of the real action starts.  At which point we'll still have the main Rosetta Orbiter...

... for which I am grateful! It's always nice to see your graduate work confirmed, At least superficially, it looks like I shoulda stayed in comet studies.  I was on a roll! Could have evaded the sci fi rat race....

== More personal news from outer space! ==

My own asteroid had its closest approach to Earth on November 18. Asteroid 5748 Davebrin passed within 1.256 AU for a summer that's actually pretty balmy and close.  So close that humanity might someday include it in efforts to access the fantastic riches out there.  May it be disassembled and turned into wonderful things! I just have two wishes. 

First, to share in the action! Hey, I got a claim.

Second? To go out there in person and kiss my...

...oh, never mind. ;-) May you ALL get your own space rocks.  

And each live for fifty more of its orbits.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The War on Science... a War on Earth... and by Christmas?

The U.S. military leadership is in unified agreement that climate change is real, that it is human caused, and also that it poses a clear and present danger to the US and especially its armed forces. "The Pentagon's thinking is revealed plainly and publicly in its own 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which features no fewer than eight direct, specific, and unambiguous evaluations of climate change as it relates to geopolitics and military strategy."

See also: The Pentagon's Guide to Overcoming Climate Change Denial.  And note this: the U.S. military officer corps is the third best-educated clade in American life, after university professors and medical doctors. The senior ranks are filled with brilliant men and women... (plus about 20% blithering... but no comment about that.)

 Ah, but the U.S. Officer Corps is no longer respected in the heartland.  As of November 2013, 23 percent of Americans said they "didn't believe in" climate change.  Which will be about as effective as not believing in a bullet that's been fired at your nose.  No wonder a cult-like tenor has set in, waging war not just on science but every other clade or profession of knowledge and skill in American life. (Name one exception.)

(Multiple datasets have confirmed it was the warmest October on record for the globe, keeping the planet on a course toward its toastiest year.)

To be clear, the unequivocal position by the U.S. military has had some effects upon the Fox party line.  Facts like Russian bases erupting along the Arctic Ocean and the opening of the Northwest Passage to summer shipping are pretty undeniable… so Hannity and company have veered to changing the message: "All right, the climate is changing… but… but… climate has ALWAYS been changing and that don't mean we gotta do anything!"

In fact, that's a lie, top to bottom. The last 6000 years has been among the most stable, climate-wise, in the last 20 million… and even so, small perturbations like the 1500s Little Ice Age wrought horrible havoc on nations and peoples. Any astrophysicist will show you how closely Earth skates along the inner edge of our sun's "goldilocks" or habitable zone… and hence why we can afford only traces of greenhouse gas.

But the greatest sign of stunning low-IQ is how Fox-viewers never notice the change in catechism!  From "there's no warming!" over to "all right it's hotter: but prove that it's human generated!"  It's like the millions of Glenn Beck followers who never once asked "WHICH eight foreign governments did you say George Soros toppled?"

These and dozens of other, never asked questions show that this is the greatest know-nothing campaign against a sapient, scientific civilization in 150 years. Possibly since the Inquisition.  And you have to ask: what do Rupert and his partners hope to gain?

While the vast majority of scientists in climate, atmospheres and weather agree on the essentials of human induced climate change, there are some areas wherein intense argument and discussion rage.  Such as whether the steady and dramatic arctic warming trends (leading the U.S. Navy to plan how to counter 12 new navigable ports bring built by the Russian Navy) might reach a "tipping point," releasing megatonnes of methane from both permafrost and undersea hydrate ices.  If that happened, the burst of greenhouse gas would make Al Gore look like a pollyanna.  But can it happen?

Well, it will have to be investigated by Europeans and Asians, because Legislatures in the U.S., Canada and Australia have been deliberately sabotaging the research we need, in order to settle these matters.  There is no greater treason to humanity, of course, than banning objective research into a potential civilization failure mode.  And if the worst does happen, there won't be a human being on Earth who will admit to ever having been a republican.

== Skeptics vs Deniers ==

Let's drill down into one of the top denialist rationalizations... that they are doing science the service of Skeptical questioning.  That it is about "skeptical-free minds posing questions that science should answer." 

In fact, this is a lie based on a powerful truth -- that science does need to be incessantly poked by vigorous critics, in order to function well and evade many types of observer bias. In fact, that process continues, completely outside the denialist cult. And here is where I describe how to tell the difference.

Skepticism and questions? Sure. Berkeley's Richard Muller showed how to do that. Muller revealed how aggressively competitive science is, normally. Indeed, he shrugged off some intemperate reactions  and stuck to his guns, demanding answers... till finally the climate science was good enough to satisfy his pre-set criteria. At which point he said: "okay I'm convinced."  What he did NOT do was move the goal posts, in service of a dogma. 

(This story is typical among scientists, the most competitive and smartest and (generally) sanest members of our civilization, and the folks against whom Fox is most openly at-war.)

No, this is about dogmatic cultists refusing even to negotiate. How can they refuse even to discuss RandD efforts that would be economic win-wins? Arm-waving that any measures to improve energy efficiency  will mean "impoverishment" and "shivering in the dark," they ridicule even the possibility of "compromise" investments -- Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway (TWODA).  Masures that could increase efficiency and save consumers billions? (As the 2009 CAFE standards have done?) 

Measures we should take, out of simple, rational precaution... just in case the scientists who actually know stuff turn out to be right, after all.

Read that several times. Can anyone defend such a reflexive stance? Pushed by the exact same forces who proclaimed "cars don't cause smog" and "tobacco is good for you."

Ask this: Who on Earth benefits from continued energy inefficiency? That small group happens to perfectly overlap with the funders of the cult.

See a way to tell the two apart, here: Distinguishing Climate Deniers and Skeptics.

 == Historical Context ==

“The Church has, for decades, taken the position that faith and science need not be opposed to one another. As the Catechism states, “methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”

“Political leaders never used to care who scientists voted for or whether they believed in God. Scientists were not seen as Democrats or Republicans. (This change did not begin with Ted Cruz and his Luddite colleagues.) In 2006, I wrote a piece for The New Yorker on the Bush Administration’s war on science. It noted that “Vannevar Bush was a conservative who opposed the New Deal, and not quietly. Yet President Roosevelt didn’t hesitate to appoint him, or to take his advice. 

"In 1959, after Dwight Eisenhower created the position of science adviser, in the wake of Sputnik, the Harvard chemist George B. Kistiakowsky assumed the post. Jerome Wiesner, a Democrat who subsequently became president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sat on the Science Advisory Committee—which met each month with Kistiakowsky and often with the President. When John F. Kennedy took office, Kistiakowsky and Wiesner simply switched roles.” None of that would be conceivable today.”

== And pertinent... ==

Lessons from history: Apparently extensive drought destroyed the indestructible Assyrian Empire. A lesson for those os us downstream who are facing similar problems. (Or in frantic-psychotic denial.)  

Wow, unpleasant to contemplate: “The global debris layer created by the end-Cretaceous impact at Chicxulub contained enough soot to indicate that the entire terrestrial biosphere had burned. Preliminary modeling showed that the reentry of ejecta would have caused a global infrared (IR) pulse sufficient to ignite global fires within a few hours of the Chicxulub impact. This heat pulse and subsequent fires explain the terrestrial survival patterns in the earliest Paleocene, because all the surviving species were plausibly able to take shelter from heat and fire underground or in water.” 

== And Science News From the Kurzweil Files ==

In radio terms, “full-duplex” refers to the ability to transmit and receive signals simultaneously, as in cell-phone conversations. Till now it required a magnetic-based “recirculator” the size of your palm. Now an advance may let itbe miniaturized, freeing bandwidth.

Either we grab this power for the people, or we meet Big Brother. University of Washington electrical engineers have developed a way to automatically track people across moving and still cameras by using an algorithm that trains the networked cameras to learn one another’s differences. The cameras first identify a person in a video frame, then follow that same person across multiple camera views.  – Seriously, read the first two pages of TheTransparent Society.

Nick Bostrom thinks three looming technologies might pose “existential risks” nanotech, synthetic biology and super artificial intelligence.  Notably in this talk at UC Berkeley, promoting his new book SUPERINTELLIGENCE: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, he downgrades “last week’s” obsessions — nuclear war and ecological degradation.  One interesting assertion is that   a key may be to get these things “in the right order.” Certainly if we get super intelligence first — and assuming we get a soft landing into a pleasant and accommodating kind of AI, then it might help us resolve all the other threats.

“It’s an open question” whether we’ll get super-intelligence via artificial (AI) systems or else by enhancing biological powers of thought.

== The War by Christmas ==

It would be one thing if the fanatics bent on expanding Christmas beyond all reason were all about proselytizing the messages of that bearded-beaded hippie, Jesus. At least that would be un-hypocritical. But why the all-out assault on the best and most-pure holiday in the American calendar... Thanksgiving?  The only one not ruined by commercialization or polarization.  That is, till this year ended every last pretense.

Like Halloween, Thanksgiving is spreading around the world purely on its merits, without any of the aggressive hype that is being used by the forces of Christmas... who are now blasting past Thanksgiving and Halloween with jingles and "black" door-buster days, determined to spread the "cheer" of fanatical greed and crass-manipulation past Columbus Day (now "Indigenous Peoples' Day" -- a topic for another time) and the equinox, with their gaze set upon the real objective...

...Independence Day.

That movie didn't lie.  We are under attack.  Ho-ho-ho.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sci Fi Cinema... great things coming!

Before diving into a flood of great new movies on the horizon... or in the past...

== The Long View of Civilization ==

The Long Now Foundation is one of the funnest expressions of techie zealotry (with a bit of Stewart Brand/Ken Kesey thrown in.) Their new bar-slash-hangout-for-fulture-oriented-folk -- The Interval -- is one of the hottest new things in San Francisco.  Managed by my old ArchiTECHS chum, Alexander Rose, the Foundation is also running a brickstarter campaign to support the creation of a MANUAL FOR CIVILIZATION.... starting by collecting a library of essential books for rebuilding civilization.

I had the honor of joining the coterie of mavens helping make the list.  See this article showing my choices…which include Brunner's  Stand On Zanzibar and Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky -- then take a look at the choices from epochal futurist sages Daniel Suarez and Bruce Sterling -- including Asimov's Foundation and Sagan's Contact

Donate to support the forward-looking vision of The Long Now Foundation.

And now... Science Fiction Cinema!

== On Ambition...and Creativity ==

I have hope for cinema, as I view some of the terrific short films of recent years. io9 now links you to one called “Ambition” that seems, at first, to be a whiney-mystical fantasy trip… but turns into a paean to human optimism and science and belief in our future.

Wow, just published online, for the first time, an original essay by Isaac Asimov about inspiration: On Creativity: How do people get new ideas?”....

"It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable..."

== SF'nal Visions of Tomorrow ==

On io9, Esther Inglis-Arkell offers a fascinating look at the trend of simplistic dystopias in fiction, presenting  10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore, " ending with, "Afterwards, there will be mythology for the losing side."

In novels as diverse as Make Room! Make Room! and Ecotopia, Science Fiction has explored and envisioned the city of the future...Can Science Fiction influence -- not just scientists, but urban planners?  Annalee Newitz writes about the Dystopian City -- and Why Urban Planners Should Read More SciFi.

I have my own take on why the helpful trend of critical, self-preventing warning talks has turned into a plague of cynical doom, undermining our faith in a can-do civilization.

But fight back! By buying the recently released anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Tomorrow, filled with great tales about winning back our confidence in a hopeful future! Optimism as an antidote for dystopia...

== Science Fiction and Hollywood ==

The exciting rumor? HBO and Warner Bros. TV are teaming to produce a series based on Isaac Asimov's “Foundation” trilogy that will be written and produced by “Interstellar” writer Jonathan Nolan. As one of the authors of the Foundation universe — having tied up Isaac’s loose ends in Foundation's Triumph — I am very excited. Especially given the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the Nolan Brothers.

Meanwhile, Kim Stanley Robinson’s agent/producer (and mine) - Vince Gerardis - has “picked up” KSR’s famous (and fabulous) Mars Trilogy for some kind of cinematic or television adaptation.  

If so, terrific! Red Mars offers visions of a can-do society launching into the solar system.

Wow!  They are making a movie - Predestination - of the classic Heinlein story, All You Zombies. THE classic time travel story.  From this trailer, it seems they have tried very very hard to stay faithful to the basic structure and logic of Robert A. Heinlein's tale.  Though from what I can see, the Spierig brothers embellished several added layers of plot.  Nothing wrong with that, per se!  You have to, in order for a movie to work.  (Just as you must CUT layers from a novel, to go to film.) And from the clues, it seems likely they've done so pretty well.  I am looking forward to this.

Still, the tasty way this story - and other great stories - leave you breathless and hanging, with a TONE reverberating in the air... that aspect cannot survive the expansion.  All you can do is hope there will be enough filmic art to make up for that.  They are different works. They are different works. They are different works. They are different works. They are different works. They are different works. They are different works. 

Speaking of great media and the cross-fertilization of SF and science …See How building a Black Hole for Interstellar led to new scientific insights… 

Kewl, a fun article about 10 things you probably didn't know about Star Trek: The Original Series.

This would have been so cool if only they'd had the budget back then ... Nick Acosta frame captured scenes from Star Trek TOS that were panned across a set and turned them into freeze frames showing what the show would have looked like in Cinerama super wide screen.  I Wannit!

== Movies that could'a done better ==

Something I wasn’t sure I’d ever see… according to Movieseum, Kevin Costner’s film adaptation of my novel, The Postman, is right up there with Blade Runner, as one of the Top Ten Great Movies that Failed at the Box Office (at first).

Hey, it’s good to see The Postman movie get some positive recognition for a change. I have always deemed the first half of the film to be exquisite -- and I never really minded the directors' choices to simplify my plot. The character's core ethos is identical to mine. Indeed, the whole thing displays a great big, thumping lot of heart! Oh, and visually and musically? The Postman is visually and musically one of the most beautiful motion pictures of all time.  You can read my more detailed reaction here.

But ranking it up next to Blade Runner?  Even putting aside my personal feelings about Mr. Costner (who treated the original author with unearned and bewildering contempt), I have to say that the last third of the flick was something of an incoherent mish-mash that could have done with sincere story workshopping. This version of the ending left audiences with the kind of let-down that is death to any “classic” ranking. Alas.

The real disqualifier for the Movieseum list, however, is Costner’s other work that’s present.  Waterworld.  Really?  Sure, there were some creative visuals. But… really?  Please.

I am left bemused, falling back upon a standard piece of advice for all of you.  Read the original book!  I offer guarantees.

==And More Science Fiction ==

A podcast, Flotilla Online, poses  questions about writing to the great Sci Fi author Allen Steele - and me and rising star Dan Haight - in an hour-long interview.  And yes, after the first 10 minutes or so I do calm down!

Bizarre aliens, a genius heroine and fantastic new cover art for Jeff Carlson’s FROZEN SKY series!  

In his project Signs from the Near Future, blogger Fernando Barbella takes a wry look at how our street signs may also have to change to take account of driverless cars, internet-connected contact lenses and solar roads.

==  A worthy kickstarter? ==

Here's an interesting one. CounterCrop aims to teach people an innovative, modern way to grow their own food. A remote controlled, self-contained indoor gardening unit that's "so fun and simple literally anyone can grow fresh, abundant veggies on their kitchen counter." The video, at least, seems way-cool. Someone try it out and report back here? 

I've been asked to ask as many people to "back the project" as possible the morning of Dec. 4th. Jack Abbott also promises the first 50 contributors will get unites at a steep discount.  Oh, see what I do with this concept in the imagined future of my short story, "NatuLife"!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Peering at the Future...

This weekend's posting is mostly a potpourri of interesting miscellany. But we'll start and end with some items about... prophecy!

No, not reading tea leaves or goat entrails, but the kind that obsesses everyone from bureaucrats to corporate heads to school teachers to stock brokers to moms n' dads. Using those "lamps on our brows" -- our imaginative prefrontal lobes -- to poke a stick into the future we are running across, discovering opportunities and errors just in time.

I'll start with an item in the news.  Today -- very, very quietly -- the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee finally issued its report on the tragic deaths of four American diplomats at the hands of terrorists in Benghazi, Libya.  The predictions about this report, touted for upwards of three years by Fox News and almost every Republican pundit and office-holder... (and many of you out there)... had been that the Obama Administration would be at-minimum revealed as incompetent and deceitful and more-likely criminally negligent cowards engaged in a Nixon-level illegal cover-up, possibly leading to impeachment.

Those of you who made -- or religiously repeated -- this forecast, do have the honesty to raise your hands?  

We'll have a look at the actual outcome from that committee -- chaired by my own republican representative Darrell Issa, lower down in this blog -- and see how you scored.

== Can we forecast the future? ==

Elsewhere, I explore this idea more formally, starting with the obsessively delusional methods of our astrologer ancestors and moving on to today's favorite delusions. For example, I have long called for a predictions registry that could track the simplest but most important metric of a public figure’s credibility… whether they turn out to be right a lot… or seldom!
 Go have a look at how I lay it out. There is probably no more-useful endeavor that some philanthropist might fund (cheap) than a service to score -- in a non-partisan way -- who in our civilization tends to be right a lot. 

It's a criterion we should use a lot more than the current standard for allocating power... those who are persuasive.

Is this a start?  Now Nate Silver’s gives an A through F score for pollsters over the last decade... rating which ones have some credibility and which seem relentlessly biased or do poorly.

Can we use these scores to refine how to more accurately predict the future?

== Some people do want to achieve this? ==

In an article for Salon, Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government: Matthew Burrows -- author of the new book The Future Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action (for which I provided a cover blurb) -- describes the work he has done in the past for National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report. These reports explore changes that may take place in the near future -- over the next 15 to 20 years.  

I have read many of these reports and found them very useful cogently laying down a range of possible futures that policy-makers and implementers may have to face as we weave the minefield of the near future.

They are, of course, most useful when they offer choice points and potential branchings that might still be under human control

== College and Success: The miscellany begins! ==

My Ice Bucket ALS challenge video is up!  It's all YOUR fault!!!  (Those of you who ponied up for a good cause.  Clearly I suffered terribly, at the hands of my new-freshman son, who delivered the icy deluge! The important thing is -- not to view this as a prank -- but as an opportunity to give to worthy causes -- exercise your power of Proxy Activism.

Speaking about freshmen, heading off to college. Want them top get the most out of these university years? Every autumn I pull out my ten minute video of “Advice for College Students” and offer it to you all to pass along to that bright young person you know.  There are several tricks for making the most of his or her time at university, but the best and coolest one I save for last.  Any student who does this one trick is guaranteed — yes, guaranteed — to have a far more positive and enriched four+ years.

Ahem, while we're speaking of colleges, there’s news about college rankings....can I be forgiven for preening a bit about my alma maters? Okay I lucked out.  My bachelor’s degree is from the 12th best university in the world (10th in the U.S.) — according to the CWUR system.  My doctorate is from the planet’s 20th best campus (15th U.S.)  Oh, they’re #5 and #6 in the world, in the category of “influence.”  Gotta work on that.  Caltech would rank even higher if it weren’t too small to have a heap of majors.  

UCSD is still quite young (established in the 1960s) -- by far the newest in the top 20 --and we just set up the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, which ought to boost the campus a few more slots!  

Bragging? Well, in fact, I kind of stumbled into attending both places.  And stumbled a bit, while there! But the key point is that I came away having squeeeeeeezed them both, using the methods I recommend in that advice video above... methods that any college student can use, to double value that they get out of their years at university. 

Again, my advice to college students.

== On Aliens and Religon ==

An interesting question: Which religions would have the hardest time accepting aliens? io9 starts off the discussion…

…referring to book: Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With it? by David A. Weintraub.

Alas, in this Scientific American interview, Weintraub displays some worrisome shallowness.  For example when he says: “In Judaism it doesn’t matter—there’s very little in Hebrew scripture that relates to the question.” But this is false when it comes to Talmudic and rabbinical commentaries.  Likewise, when I get the book I hope I will find the catholic discussions of C.S. Lewis and James Blish and other eminent science fiction authors who dealt with the theological implications of alien life with extensive thoughtfulness.

I do intend to buy this tome, which overlaps two areas of special interest to me.

== Miscellaneous Items ==

Giant Manta Ray Tangled in Fishing Line appears to 'Ask for Help' from Divers.  Actually, I mulled on events like this one long ago, in STARTIDE RISING... in that I sense that animals have a powerful sense of hierarchy in Nature.  Dolphins will play with orcas, till they sense they are hungry. Creatures who come to humans for help know that the humans are both powerful and not in a hunting mode.... All of this comes into whether it would be right to "uplift" animals.

Miscellany?  You want miscellany? Okay then let's veer to... scan through the photographs: all the stuff soldiers carried in battle from the 11th century to today.

What was that? A guide to the military gear adopted by police departments since 9/11 and used in Ferguson.

The Moscow Times is reporting that Bulgarian pranksters are repainting Soviet-era monuments so that the Soviet army types depicted are recast as American Superheroes.
A stunning video shows just how much skill and hard work goes into some of the fantastic “photo-shopped” images we are seeing nowadays.  Anyone who says we aren’t in an era of truly high art is crazy.  There’s never been a “renaissance” like this one, and we should shout it!  

Sci fi - historical-ish humor?  How to explain the Internet to an 1835 London street urchin.  

The more someone smoked pot as a teenager, the more likely that person would struggle as a young adult.

How prosthetic limbs are becoming more bionic. Amazing TED talk by Hugh Herr, with a very moving final ending.  

Okay, now I am just proud to be human. 3D gun makes - and shoots(!) paper planes.

Okay… here’s yet another reason to be proud to be human. ‘ The Airgonay drone club, based in the French Alps, organized a race in the forest for lightweight drones that bob, weave, and generally fly at up to 40 miles per hour. These are remote controlled drones, not autonomous, so operators have on-board cameras to see where their devices are going and take snazzy in-race footage.’  Reminiscent of the best scene in “Return of the Jedi.”  The report is in French, but you'll understand what's happening within a minute.

== Back to Benghazi ==

Okay, so, how did you fellows do?  You who predicted impeachment, prison terms and roiling scandals, when the GOP-run U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee finally issued its report on the tragic deaths of four American diplomats at the hands of terrorists in Benghazi, Libya.  How did you score?

Ah, let's see. "An investigation by the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee has concluded that the CIA and U.S. military responded appropriately to the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, dismissing allegations that the Obama administration blocked rescue attempts during the assault or sought to mislead the public afterward."

Further: "After a two-year probe that involved the review of thousands of pages of classified documents, the panel determined that the attack could not be blamed on an intelligence failure, and that CIA security operatives “ably and bravely assisted” State Department officials who were overwhelmed at a nearby but separate diplomatic compound."

And: "The committee also found “no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support,” rejecting claims that have fed persistent conspiracy theories that the U.S. military was prevented from rescuing U.S. personnel from a night-time assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans."

Earlier this year, the United States captured one of the militants accused of orchestrating the attacks in a raid in Libya. Ahmed Abu Khatalla now faces trial in the United States.

So... how did you score?  Note that this was issued by the most partisan U.S. House in 50 years, under a republican leadership that routinely and regularly threatens the president with impeachment for everything under the sun. Indeed, this house -- the laziest in 200 years -- held almost half of its total hours of hearings on just this one "heinous" matter. (They never showed the slightest interest in investigations the eleven "benghazis" that occurred under George W Bush, see accompanying image.)

No, there is only one "conspiracy" here. Delaying this stupendously exonerating report till after the election. Fox News covered this report in less than 30 seconds. Oh and Darrell Issa, chairman of the committee? After two years of grandstanding and tirades promising to "hold the criminals and traitors accountable?"

Mr. Issa's office ignored calls requesting a statement. He has been avoiding the press.  It seems... for once... he has nothing to say.