Monday, April 27, 2015

Potential Game Changers for the Near Future

Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. “Some say that gene editing in embryos could have a bright future because it could eradicate devastating genetic diseases before a baby is born. Others say that such work crosses an ethical line: researchers warned in Nature that because the genetic changes to embryos, known as germline modification, are heritable.” For another take on this, see my posting on the Heinlein Solution.

Brian Lacki of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, has done calculations to ask: Has an advanced alien civilization built a black-hole-powered particle accelerator to study physics at "Planck-scale" energies? If such an accelerator exists, it would produce yotta electron-volt (YeV or 1024 eV) neutrinos that could be detected here on Earth. As a result, Lacki is calling on astronomers involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to look for these ultra-high-energy particles. This is supported by SETI expert Paul Davies of Arizona State University.

Science reveals the underlying tradeoffs between cooperation and competition.  But the ratio (and the fraction) of “cheaters” can be adjusted by the environment.  In other words, by the society we design. (Tangential comment: Good design will require “liberals” to admit the benefits of competition… and for “conservatives” to admit that cheating is a massive problem that wrecks competition far more often than bureaucrats ever have. Cheating cannot be swept aside by referring to an “invisible hand.)

== Potential game changers ==

Radical new high-speed liquid technology could bring 3D printing into mainstream manufacturing. Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP), manipulates light and oxygen to fuse objects in liquid media. It works by projecting beams of light through an oxygen-permeable window into a liquid resin to rapidly transform 3D models into physical objects. Exciting breakthrough in rapid manufacturing!  On the other hand, the following statement is not true: "This is the first 3D-printing process that uses tunable photochemistry instead of the layer-by-layer approach that has defined the technology for decades."  In fact, using lasers to excite tunable photochemistry for this purpose was tried at Battelle Labs (and I consulted) around 1982! Just not… successfully. The use of an oxygen-permeable transparent layer is brilliant and appears to solve the problems.

Re solar energy... and the drought: I want a possible win-win... a vast-long solar-cell roof to run along the California aqueduct!  Shading it and reducing evaporative loss. And running the power lines along that right-of-way would be trivial.  Kill three birds with one cliché. Why are we building vast solar "farms" on virgin land when this'd be far easier and a potential win-win-win?

Tentative huge good news both for planet Earth and our karma… and likelihood that advanced aliens might deem us civilized.  The era of tissue-culture,vat grown meat seems to be approaching fairly quickly. I can think for few technologies with greater promise for transforming civilization and our prospects on Planet Earth.  

Close behind?  Massive scale indoor farming, as I depicted in EXISTENCEAt a site in Japan, 25,000 square feet producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day (100 times more per square foot than traditional methods) with 40% less power, 80% less food waste and 99% less water usage than outdoor fields.  

Joschka Fischer - German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 - 2005 – writes: “Is the U.S. Shifting Partners in the Middle East from Saudi Arabia to Iran?  Why do I list this under “game-changers?” Think about it.  The House of Saud has to be re-thinking the antagonistic and manipulative agenda of 70 years, infiltrating and suborning especially American resilience, toward the blatant goal of replacing our mostly-benign and secular pax with one of their that their own. Machinations that have now been rendered impossible, by events of their own creation.  No political event on Planet Earth will help us turn the corner more than when they snap out of their New Umayyad fantasy and join us, making a fair and pluralistic world.

== Game Changers of another kind ==

Here’s a thoughtful article about why so many top minds are worried about the downsides of developing Artificial Intelligence or AI. As told by James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era: “In the last year, artificial intelligence has come under unprecedented attack. Two Nobel prize-winning scientists, a space-age entrepreneur, two founders of the personal computer industry -- one of them the richest man in the world -- have, with eerie regularity, stepped forward to warn about a time when humans will lose control of intelligent machines and be enslaved or exterminated by them. It's hard to think of a historical parallel to this outpouring of scientific angst. Big technological change has always caused unease. But when have such prominent, technologically savvy people raised such an alarm?”

Well, for one thing -- the money now spent on developing“artificial intelligence” or AI for finance, equities or commodities trading, etc vastly exceeds the AI research budgets at the top 100 universities, combined.  And nearly all of it is done in secret, to develop programs whose ferocious drives are predatory, parasitical and all-devouring insatiable. That’s some combination!  As I've said repeatedly, “Skynet” won’t come out of the military.  It will come out of the portions of our economy that win every political battle and every tax break.  Indeed, what better clue that our AI overlords have already… come awake?

Did you know your cell phone probably has a chip that could receive FM radio? Except for Sprint, your cell co. hates this and has suppressed the ability, on the lamest of excuses, thus depriving us all of at-minimum the capability to listen to emergency broadcasts, and entertainment far from the cell cos’ coverage zones.

Oh, but it’s much much worse than that. By suppressing our ability to pass texts peer-to-peer, when there’s no cell tower nearby, they have deprived civilization of one of its most powerful potential sources of resilience in any emergency.  See this near-treason detailed here: “Designed To Let Us Down... our deliberately frail cell phone system.”  

Fixing this – by simply commanding the cellcos to turn on backup p2p – might almost overnight make our nations vastly more robust and capable of weathering any disaster or storm.  Ignoring this might qualify as criminal neglect, bordering on treason.

And more game changers!  Will this work?  See about a network of biohacker labs across North America where individual bio-nerds can do their own experiments and also keep an eye on what each other's up to -- a means of self-enforcing transparency, in exchange for access to good equipment and help and collaboration.  Well, we can hope it will work out that way.

A good article: Moore’s Law turns 50, but it may soon cease to exist: In 1950, at a time when there were fewer than 10 digital computers worldwide, Bill Pfann, a 33-year-old scientist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, discovered a method that could be used to purify elements, such as germanium and silicon. He could not possibly have imagined then that this discovery would enable the silicon micro-chip and the rise of the computer industry, the Internet, and the emergence of the information age.”  

A thumbnail track pad?  I know how to do this much better...

Okay kewl!  NASA’s new self-driving vehicle uses fully-separate in-wheel drive to achieve maximum dexterity, potentially for any terrain, including Mars or Titan.

Tel Aviv University researchers hope to turn smartphones into powerful hyperspectral sensors that determine precise spectral data for each pixel in an image. As with the Star Trek tricorder, the enhanced smartphones would be capable of identifying the chemical components of objects from a distance, based on unique hyperspectral signatures.

Announced on WIRED: "Over the next few months, we’d like to tap the wisdom of you, our readers, to include your #maketechhuman intelligence in our reporting on AI and robotics, quantum computing, environmental science, privacy and security, biotechnology, and other issues—and help us sort out the promise from the peril. As Berners-Lee said, “the outcome is not a foregone conclusion, that tech will in fact end up working in humanity’s best interests. But we have a choice! So it is up to us, where ‘us’ is humanity. And in general, about us, I am optimistic—so long as we keep our eyes on the prize.”  See: "How We Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bots."

A computer with input/output, battery and so on, smaller than a grain of rice.

== Game Changers in BioSciences ==

A research team from the University of Houston has created an algorithm that allowed a man to grasp a bottle and other objects with a prosthetic hand, controlled only by his thoughts.

Expanded lifespan? Google spinoff Calico’s stated mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. Google’s Larry Page has also backed Singularity University. Its co-founders Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis are big fans of immortality — or at least living till 700.

Can a low dose of electric current enhance a specific brain pattern to boost creativity? Flavio Frohlich of UNC (University of North Carolina) claims that using a 10-Hertz current run through electrodes attached to the scalp enhanced the brain’s natural alpha wave oscillations, triggering of a specific and complex behavior – in this case, creativity.

Damage to neural tissue is typically permanent and causes lasting disability in patients. But a method for reconstructing neural tissue using patterned nanofibers in 3D hydrogel structures promises to one day help in the restoration of functional neuroanatomical pathways and structures at sites of spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, tumor resection, stroke.

== Upcoming Crises? ==

As forecast in Existence, we seem to be heading for a Phosphorus crisis.  Over the long term, through depletion of easily accessible phosphate supplies.  Over the near term, by poisoning many isolated water systems with agricultural runoff.  (Note that such runoff into high circulation ocean currents is not a problem, but low circulation bodies of water… freshwater lakes and rivers, the Black Sea and Mediterranean.. are in real trouble.)  

There are potential… or at least SF’nal… solutions.  Better crop and fertilizer management.  Feeding agricultural runoff into deliberate algae fams that also take in CO2 from heavy emitters like cement plants. But we need to wake up and make solution-seeking a part of our agile crossing of the 21st Century.  You out there who are active or passive members of the science-haters cult… you will be remembered as part of the problem that almost killed us all.  Do you really want to be classified in the same camp as… as… this towering cretin...

Choose.  Stop waffling and choose whether you will keep making excuses for a "side" that promotes such knuckleheads... or instead pay attention to facts. Like --

team of scientists has discovered that ice shelves in the West Antarctic are shrinking a lot faster than they realized. The rate of shrinking has increased by 70 percent over the past decade.

In addition, there was less sea ice coverage in the Arctic this winter than in any year since satellite measurements began nearly four decades ago, and now you know why the Republicans have tried to sabotage Earth sensing satellites and science for 20 of those years.  And those of you still in denial that your side is waging acive war on science, on behalf of the only oligarchs who benefit from this campaign… well… smoke away! Because you also think tobacco is good for you.  

So where will you move the goal-posts, next?Abandoning years of official skepticism, Oklahoma’s government on Tuesday embraced a scientific consensus that earthquakes rocking the state are largely caused by the underground disposal of billions of barrels of wastewater from oil and gas wells.”  How many times will you denialists backpedal before you admit that the sciencey side is right more often?


Alex Tolley said...

A more sanguine view of AI risks from Kevin Kelly.

Bruce Sterling's short Edge piece on AI and the Singularity

Super AIs will no doubt happen, but they will not be human like AI and have very different drives and goals. Peter Watt's novels explore some of this well. How they integrate into the world will be interesting to see - as neutral, powerful analyzers, or more predatory agents?

Alex Tolley said...

Putting the solar PV aqueduct idea in context.

California aqueduct = 1129km long x 10m wide
= 1.129E7 m^2
Assuming solar energy 1.2 KW/M^2, with 20% conversion efficiency:
= 0.27E7 KW
= 2.7 GW

California electrical energy is ~45GW

Existing CA solar = 0.53% = 0.23GW

So it would provide 10x the existing solar power base in CA alone.

Depending on cost (and this can be built out incrementally), it makes a lot of sense. It also brings power to the Central valley that could be used to recycle ag water, the main water use (80%) in the state.

I'd vote for this project if it were put on the ballot.

Stefan Jones said...

The bit about vat-grown meat reminds me of something I've noticed recently:

The use of blatantly SF-ish ideas in "mainstream" TV shows.

In the Fox crime drama "Backstrom," the titular character's brother / room mate is a hustler who juggles many schemes and scams. In last week's episode he gets involved with high-tech counterfeiting of vintage wines. He also casually mentions that he is getting into a new connoisseur market for vat-grown meat! This isn't the "MacGuffin" of this episode; it is just tossed in there as an example of something very rich dilettantes might consume.

NBC's "Elementary" is set in an alternate universe . . . one where no one has heard of Sherlock Holmes, literary character, because he is a real eccentric detective working in Manhattan. Last season, I believe it was, several murders were traced to tiny remote-control drones . . . artificial insects with lethal stings. Holmes traps one in a glass jar and holds up written messages to the operator.

Now, as an engineer I doubt such a thing could be built with today's technology; the problem of power supply alone would be formidable, not to mention the power required to transmit video images to an operator at least several blocks away. But still, what a splendidly SF-ish item!

What makes "Elementary" NOT SF is that this little gadget is never heard of or considered again. In fact, these devices would, once the cat was out of the bag, result in wide-ranging changes to society. They would change the game, quite radically. Holmes would, if he had any sense, equip the Baker Street Irregulars with the devices, and have to arrange countermeasures to keep the target of his latest investigation from killing him with them!

As Alfred North Whitehead put it, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous, and it is among the virtues of science that it equips the future for its duties."

Alfred Differ said...

@PSB: [snip]Gay-bashing got to be epidemic long before we started hearing much about gay rights, which largely became mainstream after... [snip]

What I was pointing out can still hold if you realize the selection bias here. Gay rights weren’t discussed in the mainstream. They were discussed on the bulletin boards at student unions on college campuses. That’s where I saw it happening anyway.

Regarding AIDS, I have no doubt that converted a few people who were otherwise willing to sit things out into becoming opponents of gay rights. Disease has a way of grabbing us by our instincts and convincing us to act stupidly. Thought I didn’t think of it this way at the time, I wouldn’t be shocked if our current inclination toward monogamy and serial monogamy comes from a hard lesson our ancestors learned without realizing they learned it. Anyone breaking that lesson would be perceived as a threat without there being a clear reason why we think they are threatening.

Alfred Differ said...

@matthew: (from previous thread) You don’t get a significant fraction of 8 billion people off the planet no matter what we try in the next century. You get a few thousand out there and then breed like rabbits. That’s essentially how modern humans left Africa, arrived in Australia, arrived in the America’s, and spread across the southern Pacific. Small, trading populations colonize new territory, but stay relatively close so they can trade as much as they can. In the near future, Earth will be like Africa. Most humans will stay home.

You are paying too much attention to the propertarians among us. The classical libs side with them to some degree, but mostly because property is a convenient measure of liberty. Our real interest is avoidance of coercion… and yes… that includes people telling us what to do and what not to do with our property.

You are dead right about the pogroms and purges, though. It’s embarrassing. The best defense I can offer is it wouldn’t happen if more classical libs recognized the value of aligning with us. The rabid residue that carries the pitchforks and torches would be voted out of their local party positions. That’s what we’ve been doing in the county where I live.

@Jerry Emanuelson: (also from previous thread) I joined up with an L5 fragment in the early 90’s and then moved over to the Space Frontier Foundation a couple years later. Many of the followers of O’Neill were over there including just about every classical lib I’ve ever met that had an interest in creating a space fairing civilization. I’ve seen the SBSP work rise and fall a couple of times as market conditions changed, but the issue of raising ANY capital always made it look like a pipe dream to me. The only argument I’ve ever seen for it that makes business sense occurs with a scenario where the US has to fight a land war in Asia (from Poland to Romania against the obvious foe) and our oil supply lines cannot be properly secured. We would obviously need electric engines for the Army and a way to beam down power to the grid behind the front line. Only the US on a war economy could afford such a system and the work will obviously go to big contractors in the scenario. After the war, the system would still be available, but only then could commercial business cases close profitably. Since this scenario strikes me (currently) as unlikely, I think it will be well after my lifetime before we are beaming power around.

Laurent Weppe said...

Frankly, I think you're waaaaaay overestimating the scope of the Sauds' ambition: their behavior does not betray a desire to revive the (short-lived and which ended rather ignominiously) Umayyad empire but rather an intent to retain their arabic dominion (and the adjoined privileges and material comforts) for as long as possible.
And even if they had had such lofty hegemonic ambitions, their regime is so frail, so intrinsically unstable that they'd never have the mean to achieve such dreams.

David Brin said...

Alex thanks. I will bring this up with Elon.

Now factor in four added benefits:

1) No appreciable environmental tradeoffs. Very little additional land need be set aside for this power plant, unlike the vast solar arrays now being erected in sensitive desert areas.

2) Access is simple and secure. The roads and infrastructure needed for construction are already in place. Indeed, the accompanying power lines can simply follow existing aqueduct rights-of-way, saving costs.

3) Excess power has an immediate use, pumping water over the Tehachapis to holding reservoirs that can then be swiftly tapped for hydro power, when clouds come in.

4) Prevention of evaporative loss from the aqueducts themselves. This is, of course, the biggest win-win benedfit, in times of drought. And this is where a call to the smart mob comes in. Can anyone find estimates of what this saving would amount to?

Indeed, one must wonder about unintended consequences, as some evaporation would then condense on the solar roof’s support structures. Anti-corrosion will have to be part of the basic planning….

David Brin said...

Laurent, there is little evidence for aggressive Saudi ambitions on the physical ground -- other than the vast sums they have spent on Wahhabi radical schools built everywhere in the Sunni world.

But there is plenty of evidence in their machinations to weaken Pax Americana. There, it has been relentless. They stymied every possibility of Arab -Israeli detente. They adopted and managed and controlled the Bush -Cheney families and Fox News etc, using them to weaken us in every conceivable way.

Think. If you were an enemy of the US and saw how high we were riding in 1997, what would YOU do to harm us? You would look at US history for our past, almost lethal mistakes. You'd then use a suborned and utterly-controlled US presidency to:

1) re-ignite the American Civil War

2) destroy the reputation of politics as a problem solving method

3) embroil us in land wars of insurgency-futility in Asia (repeating Vietnam).

4) Devastate American science, with the beneficial side effect of preventing energy efficiency.

Look at the list. That is precisely what their puppets did to us.

So why am I optimistic? Because the Iran-Shiite-Isis thing may have chastened them. The "caliphate" brand has been ruined, such that the West will see any future such proclamation as a declaration of war...

...and the rise of China is no longer viewed as a way to curb American strength. Rather, they must now realize that a Chinese Hegemony will be far, far more constraining than a mostly-benign and tolerance-memed American pax.

If -- and I still think it is a minority improbability -- if they are reconsidering, then you may see surprising movement on the Israeli-Palestinian thing. If so, they had better act fast, while Obama is president.

Alex Tolley said...

If you want to reduce evaporative losses, the cheapest solution is to float the equivalent of pool covers on the surface.

The energy produced is also unfortunately a literal drop in the bucket needed to desalinate (recycle worst case) ag water. However, it would represent a 1/3rd of the energy needed to desalinate water for residential use. Purification might be even better energetically.

The sheer scale would demand low panel prices, and teh support structure trivial. So the key is to keep all costs low with truly competitive bids. This is so simple, that it can be structured in a host of ways to use local labor and materials, just sourcing the panels from a big supplier, like Solar City.

It might also boost the demand for batteries to even out the grid supply, driving down battery prices that would help everyone else too.

It would be a stand out project, putting California in the forefront of solar/renewable energy supply. I think the numbers could look really good, especially if the energy could be used to meed CO2 reductions, electric charging stations, stop fracking (contaminating ground water), etc, etc.

Alfred Differ said...

Regarding solar power cover on our aqueduct, there are two issues I see, but both should be workable. The first is the question of who owns the generation capacity. From my experience in the power industry, I'd strongly suggest the State lease the rights on a long term contract to private industry and include on the lease enough land to connect the transmission lines to the grid. Let industry bid for the rights and own the hardware involved. The second is the issue of the time it takes to get such projects through the courts when interest groups object to some piece of it. Unless there is a lot of money to be made, private industry will avoid this cost, so we may need a ballot initiative to fund the core elements that help the lease winner succeed.

Alfred Differ said...

The folks at Stratfor have been predicting much of what we are seeing with respect to Iran and the Saudi’s. You don’t have to look go to the Huffington Post level to see people ‘beginning’ to realize this.

From the 2015 Q2 forecast:

U.S.-Iran: Stratfor's long-standing forecast that the Iranian nuclear controversy would culminate in a political rapprochement between the United States and Iran is on course, with the signing of a framework nuclear deal April 2 paving the way for a final comprehensive agreement later this year. As we articulated in previous forecasts, we do not believe the dissenters — including members of the U.S. Congress, Israel and hard-liners in Iran — will be able to derail this negotiation.

The debate over the next three months will focus primarily on the sequencing and phasing of sanctions relief for Iran. Minor crises in the negotiations will punctuate the weeks ahead as both sides press their demands further. In the end, a final deal will emerge involving a U.N. Security Council resolution providing the political foundation for sanctions relief, with a heavy emphasis on Europe easing sanctions in the early stage of the deal while the United States relies on executive waiver authority — not Congress — to suspend sanctions in phases.

Saudi Mission in Yemen: The Saudis have come to terms with the fact that their main patron will have a relationship with their greatest adversary. Stratfor forecast that the U.S.-Iran negotiations, along with Turkey's internal distractions, would drive Saudi Arabia into a leadership role for the Sunni Arab world. This outcome came into full view in the first quarter with Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen, its crippled southern neighbor. Though we underestimated the territorial ambitions of the Houthis and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Stratfor forecast that Saudi Arabia would carry out airstrikes in Yemen this year when the need arose. But an air campaign alone is not going to settle Riyadh's concerns over Yemen.

(There is lots more in the forecast including Sudanese support of activity in the Golan Heights, Egypt following the Saudi's, and so on.

I spend the money to subscribe every year I can and consider it money well spent.)

Jerry Emanuelson said...

@Alfred Differ. There are several reasons that I think that it is very important to always keep the L5 Society out in front of people, even though the big problem has always been, "How do you get there from here?" Once you get there, paying for things is a straightforward matter.

One day, a way to make the leap from here to there will either become affordable or simply become critically necessary at any cost.

The most important thing is that Gerard O'Neill's original question that started the whole thing was, "Is the surface of a planet the right place for an expanding technological civilization?" The answer that he kept getting over and over was "No." That was 46 years ago, and the evidence just keeps on accumulating that he was right, yet every one of the nearly 8 billion of us are all still living on the surface of a planet. Even worse, it is still just one single planet.

Also, one thing that triggered O'Neill's original question was the large anti-science and anti-technology attitude prevalent at the time (for very different reasons than today). The L5 idea still has the potential to reverse a lot of anti-science trends (for very complex reasons).

On a parallel matter, if you want to get very large numbers of people interested in terrestrial solar power who are skeptical or neutral about climate change, the best thing to do is to get them concerned about the fragility of the electric power grid. Concern about the fragility of the power grid will get them enthused about solar power really, really fast.

Laurent Weppe said...

* "other than the vast sums they have spent on Wahhabi radical schools built everywhere in the Sunni world."

Spending large amount of resources to control religious education isn't surprising in the least coming from a dynasty that still uses a variation of the divine right of kings to justify its very existence.


* "Think. If you were an enemy of the US and saw how high we were riding in 1997, what would YOU do to harm us?"

The problem with your logic is that any aristocrat sufficiently crafty to mount such a plan would have to be smart enough to realize that his lied not into harming the US or the Western World in general, but into converting as much as his wealth as possible into western-located assets, sending his kids into western schools, and make everything in his power to ensure that his family survives the inevitable regime collapse as unscathed as possible.

Besides, none of the events you cite require exterior pressure: inept and arrogant heirs enjoying undeserved influence inherited from their forefathers are already present among the american citizenry in sufficient numbers to sabotage the system without needing outside help.


* "and the rise of China is no longer viewed as a way to curb American strength. Rather, they must now realize that a Chinese Hegemony will be far, far more constraining than a mostly-benign and tolerance-memed American pax."

Frankly, I'm more concerned about the potentially massive and uncontrollable consequences of a complete political collapse of the Chinese regime brought forth by decades of embezzling, books-cooking, and authoritarian abuses than by the very hypothetical risk of a Chinese Hegemony's rise.


* "If -- and I still think it is a minority improbability -- if they are reconsidering, then you may see surprising movement on the Israeli-Palestinian thing. If so, they had better act fast, while Obama is president."

Right now, the main obstacle to peace in this conflict is the israeli patrician class: the Likud-led right-wing coalitions which tremendously increased their wealth at the expense of the israeli plebs need the settlements because the heavily subsidized settlers make a captive electorate: you can't have peace while settlements continue, but ending settlements means the end of Menachem Begin's heirs stranglehold over israeli politics and the eventual drastic reduction of the israeli upper-class' privilege and excessive slice of Israel's wealth.

You know what the more likely scenario is? A repetition of the end of French Algeria: the wealthy Pieds-Noirs refused any and all compromise with the impoverished and oppressed locals, but they knew (at least the smart ones among them) that they were merely transient lords, that their rule wouldn't last: so when the Algerian independence war started, they discreetly sold their assets to suckers who didn't see the writings on the wall and migrated back to France long before the war ended, leaving the middle and working-class Pieds-Noirs alone to face the eventual fallout of 130 years of colonial oppression.
Expect something very similar to happen in Israel. In fact, the process has already started.

Duncan Cairncross said...

In the last posting
Rob King said

"History of life on Earth tells us high-level intelligence as unique to human is not a requirement for reproductive success or not planetary dominance. Eg. Bacteria, Dinos."

I look at the fossil record and I see something different

The bulk of species tends towards the "brainless"
But the edge of the distribution (the brainy) keeps moving further away from the bulk
As time goes on the brainy side of the distribution becomes brainier

Even taking humans completely out of the picture largish animals have become brainier
Dinosaurs were not pea brained morons
But something like a tiger has a much larger brain/body ratio than a T Rex
And an elephant is almost certainly brighter than a brontosaurus was

I see our fossil history showing a continual increase in brain/body ratio in the larger animals
(everything above rat size)

It is possible that we have now reached a level where the costs of a larger brain balance the benefits (in animals)(without civilization/technology)
But I think "braininess" is still increasing

Alfred Differ said...

@Jerry Emanuelson: The NSS chapter in Sacramento still went by its L5 name back when I joined and we were more project-focused than the usual ‘social event’ groups I knew of on the NSS side. I knew a couple people in the Oregon and Alabama chapters because of their project focus too. Doing something is what drew me to them. The SFF group tended to encourage people to belong to any and every group that did anything beyond yapping and it’s from them that I got my first O’Neill sermon. The people involved came from SSI and wanted to work both the politics and the projects which SSI wasn’t so willing to do.

I remember the industrial civilization question, but I also remember that there were two basic answers once he realized that the first part of both of them was ‘No’. You could move the civilization or you could move industry. It was not necessary to do the first to do the second as we saw through the 80’s and 90’s. Jobs move were they make sense in the labor market. Obviously, they can’t move up there yet, but you don’t need billions of us up there to move industry. You only need ‘enough.’ What convinced me of this was how I realized the answer was ‘No’. I was looking at the mining and refinement process for platinum group metals to be used in manufacturing. Ugh. Messy. Only people with piss poor options would want to live or work anywhere nearby.

Honestly, though, most of us aren’t going to space. Even when we have a spacefaring civilization, most of us won’t go. The history of human migration shows this in a way I found rather depressing. Even under enormous pressure like war, disease, and famine, most humans won’t pick up and move elsewhere. Some obviously do, but most hunker down and simply have more babies. There was only one thing I found in my studies that seemed to break this rule. Unemployment when there is an obvious place the unemployed can go to find work without too much risk has worked. For example, I’m just now reading our host’s Kiln People (half way through). If in that story there were off-world options for people on the purple wage, I’d argue there is enough evidence to reasonably believe that many of them would go. There would have to be a beacon luring them, though, like the US lured many from all parts of the world in the 19th century. Though I would love to see most of us being able to go, I’m a little squeamish about creating the conditions I think would be required. Short of such a calamity, we will do as humans did when they left Africa and then Asia. Some of us will go, face hardships that encourage the women to have lots of babies, and everyone who survives will trade with anyone nearby.

Alfred Differ said...

Seems to me like the hyperspectral sensors combined with facial recognition software would completely annihilate any chance I had of bluffing someone in a poker game. A decent set up combined with a blue-tooth connection to something that squeezes your toe inside your shoe would do me in. 8)

Alex Tolley said...

@Jerry "Is the surface of a planet the right place for an expanding technological civilization?" The answer that he kept getting over and over was "No."

That may have been true in the 1970's, the answer is certainly not so obvious today. We now know a lot more about how biospheres work, and the importance of the rich microbe ecosystems that maintain them. O'Neill though it might be easy to keep agriculture running in the colonies, and just sterilise disrupted crop ecosystems. We knew nothing about microbiomes, and the impact of the space environment on these microbes.

The Biosphere II collapse added weight to the difficulties of maintaining small, enclosed ecosystems.

Space colonies may work fine, especially with abundant energy inputs, but we really don't know. Terraforming is also not so easy. Mature planetary surfaces may well turn out be the best places to maintain a civilization.

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - I concur that the biological record shows increasing encephalization with time, primarily with vertebrates.

Humans may have peaked, possibly in the late stone age period and before civilization got going. But we can compensate with cultural and technological tools.

Alfred Differ said...

'Hallelujah' cries every woman who hears brain size peaked long ago. Then she asks why it couldn't have happened sooner. 8)

Regarding O'Neill's question today, I think the answer is still 'No'. Under pressure, I've no doubt we can clean up much of our industrial processes, but at a cost. I'd rather we pushed them off-world instead so the purple wage crowd doesn't get stuck down here when the environmental rules get too tight.

David Brin said...

Alfred, I know the Stratfor guys. Please share snippets with us, from time to time! In fact, I think they are fairly timid. The question I would ask is why Egypt and Algeria and Tunisia are permitting chaos in Libya? They should have moved in, long ago, bribed by a desperate Europe.

Attica Musings said...


I have been reading your writing for a LONG time! Love it.
However as Battelle employees' child
please correct the spelling! Great article!!! :)


Alfred Differ said...

They argue that the Egyptians are paying attention to jihadists in the Sinai and a need to consolidate power internally. They are dealing with internal issues regarding a parliamentary election and intend to focus on appearing to help the Saudi's for PR purposes.

Algeria is dealing with succession, so don't expect much except a pause and continuation of what they are already doing. They will focus on security until afterwards.

Apparently the foreign stakeholders in Libya are trying to form a unity government. Pfft. They are lobbying the Egyptians, but the situation sounds so complex I'd imagine anyone with sense would stay out until a few more of the smaller groups decide what they intend to do. The way it is described makes it sound like Libya isn't a viable state, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. It was held together by force earlier.

Libya isn't going anywhere this year. Anyone with any power appears to be playing a containment game regarding jihadists.

I've seen others mention that they are timid, but I think they are intentional about that. They don't make predictions they don't think they can back up with evidence. They'd prefer to admit they don't know. They also start from geopolitical assumptions that largely ignore many of the human particulars about leaders of nations. For example, they wouldn't give your Saud conspiracy idea much credence, but they would point out that trying to control their patron makes perfect geopolitical sense. Causing #2 and #3 makes good sense in terms of statecraft. Causing #1 is unlikely since that fault line has existed in our nation for a long time and anyone can try to exploit it. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn't. As for #4, I doubt they'd support the idea that Science itself was attacked, but the rest of it makes perfect sense as an attempt to control the patron. It didn't work, though. Canadian and Great Plains fossil carbon fuels are changing everything.

Treebeard said...

Does Stratfor have any projections about disruptive scenarios for America such as: race war, secession, civil war, revolution, mass civil unrest, etc.? I’ll be fairly surprised if at least one of these doesn’t occur in the next 5-10 years. I think Nick Hanauer was right: the pitchforks are coming out soon in the Divided States of America.

Interesting; now we can add the Saudi conspiracy to sabotage America to the Chinese one you mentioned before. Any other conspiracy theories we should know about? I love those. Wanna hear some of mine?

dgaetano said...

@Alex Tolley:

Your stats for California solar are a bit off.

California currently has 6GW of utility scale solar (and somewhat over 2GW of residential solar I believe).


Rob Kim said...

@Duncan Cairncross
I agree there is something wonderful about the brain. It's less specialized and more programmable than specialized nervous systems embedded into most organisms that are nevertheless perfectly successful in the habitat they occupy.

Modern computer systems with their generic programmable CPU coupled to short/long term storage units could be seen as blatant rip off of what little we know about workings of the brain. Yet the fact we are starting to fear the potential capability of AI systems against us is testament to potential capability of the brain.

However, what good is the fastest CPU and largest memory unit in the universe if it was stuck inside, say a dolphin? Dolphins may be truly smarter than humans, and know all about astronomy yet what can they do to avert an incoming asteroid strike?

Jumper said...

Here is interesting but somewhat unverifiable reading on sneaky statecraft:

i_/0 said...

Regarding water supply and California. I find it staggering that a state with such a shortage of water and abundance of sunshine doesn't develop solar powered desalination plants along the coast, possibly linking to power generation and evaporation schemes like the canal project mentioned.

Some entrepreneurs are beginning to do this for hot arid countries in the east.

So what am I missing?

DP said...

Biohacker labs were predicted - and feared - by Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems in his classic essay "Why the Future Does not Need Us":

Each of these technologies also offers untold promise: The vision of near immortality that Kurzweil sees in his robot dreams drives us forward; genetic engineering may soon provide treatments, if not outright cures, for most diseases; and nanotechnology and nanomedicine can address yet more ills. Together they could significantly extend our average life span and improve the quality of our lives. Yet, with each of these technologies, a sequence of small, individually sensible advances leads to an accumulation of great power and, concomitantly, great danger.

What was different in the 20th century? Certainly, the technologies underlying the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) - were powerful, and the weapons an enormous threat. But building nuclear weapons required, at least for a time, access to both rare - indeed, effectively unavailable - raw materials and highly protected information; biological and chemical weapons programs also tended to require large-scale activities.

The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.

Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.

I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals....

Awareness of the dangers inherent in genetic engineering is beginning to grow, as reflected in the Lovins' editorial. The general public is aware of, and uneasy about, genetically modified foods, and seems to be rejecting the notion that such foods should be permitted to be unlabeled.

But genetic engineering technology is already very far along. As the Lovins note, the USDA has already approved about 50 genetically engineered crops for unlimited release; more than half of the world's soybeans and a third of its corn now contain genes spliced in from other forms of life.

While there are many important issues here, my own major concern with genetic engineering is narrower: that it gives the power - whether militarily, accidentally, or in a deliberate terrorist act - to create a White Plague...."

What happens when a biohaccker, either for terrorist reasons or just for fun" creates a super small pox, or a real live Captain Trips in his basement?

i_/0 said...

"Indeed, what better clue that our AI overlords have already… come awake?"

Isn't there an overwhelming case for the information equivalent of SETI? Looking at world information systems and asking a more refined question:

'What would we look for, what might we expect to see, if searching for characteristics not just of intelligence, but of life within our information networks.' Only than can we intelligently assess whether or not it is becoming aware.

Another series of thoughts which have struck me on more than a few occasions, what would the experience of such an entity?

This has been mined plenty in SF and in Sci-Fi, but mostly from a viewpoint in which the AI appears uncannily rational and human in it's thinking and goals, often with undesired results.

How would such a consciousness interpret the sheer wealth of what would equate to 'sensory data'? Wouldn't there have to be some kind of community which offered the equivalent of culture, of learning and context? We may have the hardware for complex consciousness to arise in us, but as the evidence suggests, in the absence of culture, and specifically of language, it doesn't. Not to any comparable degree.

So, how might a singular consciousness accidentally becoming aware amount to more than a simple 'organism' with the relatively simple behaviour of such.

What if it discovered that doing certain things with it's 'body' elicited a pleasurable sensation? Let's say for example that it discovers 'pleasure' through seeding misleading information among it's own networks, creating fictitious evidence of a threat to one part of it's being from another, leading to war in human terms, but what is the merely equivalent of orgasm in it's own terms.

What if it simply failed to see us, would our ego be able to recognise that we simply don't occur in it's world view? Any more than say, mitochondria or sperm cells appear to us in ours.

I apologise in advance for my ignorance of current thinking on all this, the proper terminology etc.

raito said...

The endgame of vat-grown meat:
(For the tl;dr crowd 'selfitarian')

And on the subject of positive-sum thinking:
"As my thinking goes today ― I win and I do, by making sure I always see others as winners."
from an unlikely source -- Julie Newmar.

I'm not terribly comfortable with a lot of the gene stuff, any more than I'm not much of a fan of the demise of analog broadcasting or the loss of POTS (plain old telephone system). A lot of the GM crops exist solely as a rent-seeking device anyway. But my problem comes in the form of emergencies. Analog broadcasts can degrade a lot and you will still get information. Digital, much less so. We're getting to the point where a good disaster will be nearly impossible to recover from.

Alex Tolley said...


Thanks for the info. I have looked at the CA power figures and they do reflect a lot of imports and utility vs residential electric power generation. suggests 4,075MW (4GW) commercial solar in 2013.

Solar photovoltaic energy also experienced significant commercial-scale capacity additions in 2013, more than doubling total capacity from 2012. By the close of 2013, in-state solar capacity was 4,075 MW, up 254 percent from 2012's 1,150 MW capacity. Annual in-state energy totals for solar rose to 4,291 GWh from 1,834 GWh in 2012. Solar capacity additions continue to occur outside of California in Nevada and Arizona. Recent additions include, but are not limited to, Desert Sunlight in Riverside County, Ivanpah (I, II, and III) in San Bernardino County, Silver Ridge Mount Signal in Imperial County, and Topaz Solar Farms in San Luis Obispo County.

The same source has solar at just 2.15% of in-state electric power generation, which given CA imports, is even less as a total of consumption.

So let's say the aqueduct project would add 50% to CA's solar generation, for no loss of land (especially ag). Not huge perhaps, but a dent in the mix. Not the 10x I calculated from probably incorrect figures :(

locumranch said...

The Saudi puppet masters stopped being a global threat the moment they 'jumped the shark', lost plausible deniability and choose to engage in direct military conflict in Yemen. Now, everyone knows that they are de facto combatants, and it is only a matter of time before the jihad they created enters their privileged palace and devours their own precious children.

That said, a large amount of our host's future optimism is misplaced, especially when (1) solar panels over the No-Cal to So-Cal Canal will only legitimize the continued theft & wasteful lifestyle of So-Cal narcissists, (2) massive indoor farms like those pioneered in Japan are only made possible by the imminent democalypse-driven collapse of Japanese agriculture (the average age of the Japanese farmer being 67!) and (3) the possibility of human immortality will only guarantee the rise of an immortal oligarchic ruling class like the Koch Brothers FOREVER.

Like Baltimore, our current social order has passed the point of diminishing returns wherein its perpetuation will require the exponential application of force AND the presumed availability of near infinite resources, making a collapse both likely & imminent, our only hope being to accept the inevitable and preserve the best our society has to offer while letting the rest go.


Jerry Emanuelson said...

@raito: Regarding the conversion of broadcasting to digital. A big problem is that in addition to television transmissions in the United States (and soon the rest of the world) being all digital, both television and radio studios consist of nearly all digital equipment that is very fragile and not at all mobile.

Even though some FM has a digital signal riding on top of it, basic FM broadcasting is analog and will remain analog for the foreseeable future. This makes it easy to have a complete FM broadcasting station, including the transmitter and antenna, carried around in a van during disasters.

A small complete 500 watt broadcast FM transmitter costs less than 5000 dollars, and a 5 pound FM broadcast antenna that will mount on a ten foot pole costs about an extra 1000 dollars. In most cases, a mobile van parked in a high spot in or near a city would cover the entire city easily with this equipment. (This, of course, depends upon the terrain and total area of the city.) In many cases, coverage would go well into the surrounding area.

A simple old-fashioned microphone mixer can be plugged directly into the back of the FM transmitter. Most FM stations already have a mobile news or broadcasting van. For an extra 6000 dollars, it could be converted into a complete mobile emergency broadcasting station, easily powered from an inverter in the van.

Very few FM stations have such a system, but at least one station in every area should have one.

Technically, in the U.S., one is supposed to get a Special Temporary Authorization before operating an FM transmitter away from its licensed location.

In practice, the FCC and other governmental authorities consider the continuous availability of emergency information during a disaster to be much more important than normal legal technicalities.

Alex Tolley said...

@locum solar panels over the No-Cal to So-Cal Canal will only legitimize the continued theft & wasteful lifestyle of So-Cal narcissists,

You want to explain that comment more fully? As a Brit transplanted to CA, it just sounds envious to me. I have heard so many Republican commenters claim California is a failed experiment/cannot work and yet CA is still one of the most most attractive places to live and work in the US, with constantly reinvented vibrant technological industries, and a place where the future is being invented, rather than the past being resurrected. And the climate is unbeatable (as long as we can get fresh water. Lucky the ocean is so close should we need massive desalination plants).

Alex Tolley said...

@locum ) massive indoor farms like those pioneered in Japan are only made possible by the imminent democalypse-driven collapse of Japanese agriculture (the average age of the Japanese farmer being 67!)

Nonsense. Vertical city farms have been mooted for the USA for years. The argument is local, fresh production, high intensity production, easier pest control, etc. The downside is cost.

Individuals are already doing small scale vertical farming in houses and gardens, very successfully. There is a lot of scope for doing this at the community level. Theoretically, freeing up production from a function of land area makes a lot of sense, as there is more than adequate sunlight energy for crop growing in the US.

David Brin said...

“Like Baltimore, our current social order has passed the point of diminishing returns wherein its perpetuation will require the exponential application of force AND the presumed availability of near infinite resources, making a collapse both likely & imminent, our only hope being to accept the inevitable and preserve the best our society has to offer while letting the rest go.”

It is locum’s “meta” that always fascinates me, not the intelligently and articulately parsed utter-drivel that he thinks is his content.

Notice amid the dyspeptic growling pessimism, there remains never ever a single SUGGESTION that might add to a wave of other innovative solutions and fight to save a civilization that’s been very very very very very good to the ungrateful wretch.

This recent blog is filled with Game Changers. What? If 100% all of them come true, we STILL have no chance?

No, it is precisely this lazy-ass, self-indulgent, nose-picking-and-eating-it sneering sanctimony of cynicism that is the enemy of our children.

Alex Tolley said...

The Bal6timore riots, as well as the other demonstrations going around the USA today are being compared to the 1968 riots.

So it was already hopeless then? I don't think so. Things improved noticeably. What has continued to get worse is the attacks on the social safety net, making employment for many a miserable choice, scapegoating the poor and the active coddling of wealthy elites.

That doesn't take INFINITE resources to fix, just some sensible readjustment of socio-political priorities.

Alfred Differ said...

@treebeard: Stratfor talks about US scenarios often. You probably won’t like what they have to say, though. When I talk about Pax Americana being secure for this century, I’m mostly paraphrasing them. It’s not that we won’t have internal upheavals (they happen about every 50 years). It’s that we can handle them and come out ahead. If you read their material on us, they make it extremely clear why the US should be thought of as an empire that didn’t intend to be one, but couldn’t really avoid our path once we secured the Greater Mississippi River Basin from Mexico. Between the east coast and the river basin, there was no way any other empire could stop us from accumulating overwhelming wealth. It is the overwhelming power that comes from that wealth that makes us what we are.

The Stratfor folks also refer to our focus on Middle East Jihadists as a passing distraction. They point to recent things we are doing as us coming to understand our role as a world empire… as THE world empire.

George Friedman has a book out discussing what he sees happening in the next century in terms of geopolitics. You might want to take a peek at it. You won’t like it, but you’ll see what some of us are seeing and why we believe it.

Alfred Differ said...

@Locumranch: There are days when I wonder if your material is written by a keyword filtering script. If so, I’d like to hire the person who wrote you. I’m sure we can make some money licensing you to political parties during campaign seasons.

It’s not hard to understand what the Saudi’s are doing. It’s the same thing our host said the Penn’s should have done during the lead up to our revolutionary war. Sacrifice a couple of sons to fight with the rebels to ensure the family wins no matter who wins. The Saud’s have done something similar in their effort to control their patron (the US). If the control levers work, they benefit. If not, they can disown the sons involved and continue the relationship.

That the relationship (patronage) exists can be seen in a recent accident of language. The Saudi action in Yemen went through a transition the other day. The way they said it sounded like they had failed and were trying something different according to their own people and many others in the Middle East. If you look at the precise language they used, though, it makes perfect sense if you correctly identify it as the way the US Air Force would describe the transition. One phase of the air campaign ends and the next phase starts. Americans are used to this language and didn’t make the translation mistake. Guess who taught the Saudi military to think using our terminology?

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex Tolley: I lived on the northern end of the state for about 25 years and now the southern end for 5 more. There is definitely some bad blood regarding the diversion of northern water to the south. It’s the same kind of attitude that occurs when one of your relatives lives beyond their means and expects to leech from your income to make up for it. It’s an ancient problem, though… almost as old as our State is. It turns into a painful boil with every drought.

Lovely state, though. I don’t plan to live anywhere else if I can help it.

dgaetano said...


Looking at 2013 data for solar in California is still going to give you the wrong impression. The CASIO link is to the current grid output (including imports, though not residential solar).

Literally, as I type this (Tuesday afternoon), the California utility grid is generating over 6GW of solar power (not including residential generation).

Yesterday it generated over 56GWh of electricity via solar (and again, that's not including substantial residential generation).

Last year utility solar made up 5% of California electrical usage (including imports), this year if one includes residential it's going to be 10% ish.

I'm not trying to throw cold water on the aqueduct idea, another 2.7 GW is great, I'm just pointing out how massive California's solar infrastructure already is, and how crazy fast this exciting change is happening!

Treebeard said...

LOL @ America as world empire. How could anyone object to that? After all, we are the Good Guys, in a world of nose-picking ingrates that want to enslave our children. And I’m sure George Friedman is absolutely objective on this issue, and wouldn’t think of publishing something to further his own status, ideology, and influence.

Predicting the long-term future of a place like America is largely (ideologically-informed) guesswork, particularly when so many of its problems are rather intangible, involving culture, spirituality, identity, myth, etc. It requires a different language and method of prognostication than bean-counting. Usually this amounts to the promotion of self-fulfilling “prophecies” and propaganda (see Wired's "Long Boom", Dr. Brin's novels, John Michael Greer's "The Long Descent", Sheikh Imran Hosein's “Black Flags from Khorasan”, Sarah Palin's "Rapture", etc.). Such “futurism” is a key part of the most important battlefield of all: the war to colonize minds and dominate the plane of myth. For Dr. Brin, this means global Pax Americana pro-Federation cultural programming and the marginalization of all competing myths and priesthoods as “anti-science”, “regressive”, etc. For jihadists, it means the peace of Dar al-Islam, Sharia law, thousands of mosques and madrassas around the world and all-out war against the infidels.

Hopefully we’ll get some strong alternatives from somewhere to this latest battle of Manichean totalisms, ‘cuz many of us don’t want either kind of Pax. Maybe the best hope is for Eastern cultures like China or India become superpowers, because frankly the linear, totalist myths of Western civilization, whether toward Apocalypse or Techno-Rapture/Singularity, seem totally bankrupt and insane to me. Even better, a Third Way may emerge from within the West, an “internal proletariat” that isn’t buying either mythology, and doesn’t want a “world empire” of any kind. Imagine that!

Alex Tolley said...

@ dgaetano

Good news indeed! I was reading that solar is growing so fast globally, that there is a decent chance that we might transition away from fossil fuels much sooner than was thought possible.

Couple that with the talk of stranding fossil fuel assets in the ground and there are going to be some interesting fights ahead. One can only imagine fossil fuel companies wanting to support TPP so that they can sue governments for taking actions against their "profit rights".

Alfred Differ said...

@treebeard: Heh. Okay. I’ve saved you some money avoiding a purchase of his book then. 8)

Seriously, though, you are confusing personal morals with statecraft. He talks about that too when it comes to how Americans confuse people in other nations. It is a special problem in how the Russians interpret us. Much of the current conflict in Ukraine can probably be tied back to the good intentions of some US NGO’s teaching democracy and the fact that Russia couldn’t understand those actions as being distinct from the will of the State. America isn’t the US Federal government. America is a nation of people who only occasionally act through the federal government. For example, most of our foreign policy is determined by corporate boards.

You are welcome to think in terms of good guys and bad guys if you wish, but I find that vision frightfully simplistic. Verbally thrash our civilization to your heart’s content, but I’ll take the side of those who listen occasionally and then work to avert your predictions.

…and yes. They talk a lot about India and China too. Both can be strong regional powers if they choose to be. Both are hampered, though, in ways the US is not. Both face huge costs governing beyond where there current borders are, so they are trapped into competing with us in a system we helped create and we currently enforce.

David Brin said...

I’ve been asked why I don’t call these guys “trolls.” Why? Because their dyspeptic ingrate rants are both fascinating to watch, psychologically, (e.g. locum’s evident intelligence, yet utter color-blindness re positive sum games)… or else simply hilarious, as in Treebeard’s relentless, blithering stupidity.

Seriously. The only meme in human history that has preached human diversity of viewpoints as a central-core value… and he attacks it because (dig it) western liberalism – (led but not dominated by a liberal American Pax)… inherently represses other viewpoints! Decrying: “the marginalization of all competing myths and priesthoods as “anti-science”, “regressive”, etc.”

Even dumbos can reveal fascinating ironies. For example, only one aspect of this memic “war” is zero-sum. The PORTIONS of those other “myths and priesthoods” that are brutally zero sum and inherently repressive… those portions must be made extinct. Because those portions will render us extinct as soon as they possibly can, and end all possibility of diversity.

All other aspects of those “myths and priesthoods” that are compatible with non-harmful cohabitation are welcomed by the only macro culture that encouraged diversity.

But the irony that such fools will never perceive is THAT they are whining and yammering in an appeal TO OUR MEME! Without exception, every other culture –including the collapsed, Max-Max feudalisms this fellow yearns for, would squash him like a bug. He utterly relies upon the very trait that he proclaims to despise.

Yammering appeals to tolerance memes, while yelling AT tolerance memes. Oh. Droll.

Jumper said...

There's a large group for whom cognitive dissonance is the water they swim in. It's not all that funny, though. Not like Steve Martin or Al Franken, for instance.

Besides, usually all this bad stuff they mention and blame progressivism on is usually the exact opposite of what progressives actually want.

locumranch said...

I have been challenged to offer SUGGESTIONS that might serve to save a civilization that’s been very very good to the ungrateful wretch that is myself, and I have hesitated to do so because many of the solutions are dystopic to an extreme:

We COULD quiet civil unrest without the exponential application of force through aggressive behavioral modification as in Damon Knight's 'Analogues' or Robert Sheckley's 'Status Civilization' ...

Or, we could improve and 'purify' the human genome (been there, done that) through the eugenic elimination of anti-social and other 'undesirable' character traits...

Or, we could follow matthew's anti-libertarian preference and favour progressive mandates by totalitarian fiat...

Or, we could recommit ourselves to the western culture preference for unrestricted cancerous growth in restricted global environment.

The problem is that all these solutions are equally horrible, so much so that that the cyclic model of civilization (involving collapse followed by renewal) is much to be preferred, excepting the rather tired plot device of a last minute 'Deus Ex Machina' rescue by phantasmogorical 'singularity'.

It would be much easier if we (as a culture) accept that all sorts of bubbles 'pop', that failure is the inevitable byproduct of our most recent success, so we may begin preparing for the collapse so we may rise again, rejuvenated, without such a long tedious climb up from barbarism.

But, no. We would rather 'play the market', buying on margin, throwing good after bad, in the hopes that 1929 will never come again, because winners give 130% AND failure is 'inconceivable'.


Jumper said...

Don't be obtuse. Progressivism didn't cause Wall Street to spin out of control, do-nothings did, and fraudsters. All the stuff you lust for is going on in Africa and the Middle East right now, so are you grinning with joy? No.
Shouldn't you be finding some kid's birthday about now so you can charge in scowling and piss on their birthday cake while ranting like Savonarola?

matthew said...

Mine is not so much a preference against the libertarian stance as a belief that it is unworkable, given where we are regarding the long-term viability of our planet.

My repeated questions about how libertarianism can defend the planet's carrying capacity have been met with silence (I don't consider Jerry's musings about off-planet power generation to have answered my questions about how to defend the commons, given 8 billion independent operators). And the only other way I can see to defend the carrying capacity of the planet from the existence of 8B humans is taxation and regulation. If you regard taxation and regulation as "authoritarianism," well, that's on you loco, not on me. I'd love to hear what our resident arch-libertarian Alfred has to say about it, but he is silent thus far. Not being arch here; like I said, if someone has a non-liberty-threatening way to protect the long-term viability of the planet, I honestly urge you to speak up.

David Brin said...

I can’t help myself. Some of you cannot tell the difference between treebeard and locum, but I find the disparity huge and delightful! locum seems to be a smart and generally amiable - if relentlessly dsyspeptic - fellow, with great big HOLES in his percept, holes that he cannot bring himself to admit exist.

Hence, he actually believes the strawmen he creates, to stand in for views that he simply cannot comprehend, even as the words flow through.

Hence he just answered my relentless demand for suggestions… by attempting to appease, by offering gigantically unacceptable calumnies, implying they are the only POSSIBLE suggestions and then backing out of the challenge. It’s as if the long list of potential “game changers” in the original blog simply cannot enter the mind. There is a hole in the way.

Matthew, again I urge parsing between Smithian Libertarianism, which is also liberalism, the unleashing of truly flat-open-fair competitive and accountable creativity…

…vs the monstrosity that calls itself libertarianism in most quarters, today, justifying the crushing of flat-open-fair competition under the ancient boot heel of feudal propertarianism.

Alfred Differ said...

@David: The reason I know these guys aren’t trolls is they aren’t stirring us up into an emotional froth and supping from the anger. Real trolls would have starved or moved on. They want something else and appear to be getting it.

This really IS an interesting place. 8)

@locumranch: The trick to offering suggestions is to think in first person singular terms. Instead of say ‘we’ try ‘I’. What could YOU do that might serve to save this civilization. It’s scary at first because it’s like looking in the mirror and realizing partial blame applies to the one you see, but it gets better real quick when you realize you are already doing some of those things and can’t do more than you can. Try writing just one suggestion in first person singular mode. Take the responsibility upon yourself.

@matthew: The reason I don’t touch your carrying capacity question is I think you’ve started off with a false assumption. There is no such thing as a carrying capacity in an economic system such as ours. For that concept to make any sense, you have to freeze innovation (no possibility of good black swans) and then look at the hairy resource planning problem as a system of (hopefully linear) equations to be solved. Since that problem in inherently unsolvable (not enough information available without omniscience or backward time travel), I don’t see the point of considering the scenario. Our markets ARE attempts to solve the resource planning problem and as far as I can tell, they are the best we can do. Since I’d love for people to have what they want when they want, that is a big motivation for me to avoid messing with the markets beyond what is necessary to squish cheaters.

Alfred Differ said...

@jumper: There is one thing we might reasonably blame the progressives for regarding Wall Street. Good intentions don't always map to good results. We want many of us to participate in the joys of home ownership (compared to permanent renter status) and we twisted the laws to encourage the lending market to make it happen. Very good intentions. As we learned, though, fraudsters gamed it, extracted bazillions, and hurt a lot of people along the way. Not all of the people who did the harm were fraudsters either.

Good intentions are to be applauded, but they are also worthy of a bit of skepticism. When creditors offer you a loan at a rate near the prime and don't ask detailed questions proving your income, something is seriously wrong. They obviously aren't running the calculations with any assumptions about your credit worthiness, but they might not be guilty of fraud. They might be looking at the worthiness of the loan guarantor and the real rate they charge is a hint as to who that is.

(I worked in the sub-prime industry from '96 to '04.)

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - what law changes are you referring to? Banning discriminatory red-lining?

The financial melt-down was due to:
1. Repeal of Glass-Steagal separating investment and retail banking and allowing proprietary trading to suck up retail bank loans.
2. Fraudulent loan repackaging where the instruments were wrongly (and deliberately) rated.
3. Increased bank leverage to increase profits, shadow banking, hidden toxic assets.

So liberal fairness was to blame, rather than bankers? Seriously?

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: Since I am a liberal of sorts, don't think I'm trying to accuse 'someone else.' The good intentions were also mine, but since I worked in the industry, I recognized the stench when brokers came knocking at my door offering to help me refinance my home at a lower rate than the already decent one I had.

The laws involved in the US were the ones that enabled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy the loans. The moment we did that, creditors began to think of them as guarantors and loan rates came down.

Good intentions sometimes have foul consequences, but we can't stop trying to help people. What we have to do is be honest with ourselves afterward and learn from the lesson. Cheaters love it when good intentions are in play just like sports gamblers love it in Vegas when college fans show up to bet on their alumni. The books re-balance as if a fulcrum moves and savvy gamblers recognize it is time to pounce.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - but isn't that the purpose of risk reduction through creating of a loan portfolio with securitization? I get that meant that banks just became loan mills to feed the financial system and swell it, but I don't think that could have happened without the repeal of Glass-Steagal that created the conveyor belt.

As I understand it, the investment banks created a huge demand for the product that in turn created a huge demand for loan origination.
After that, everyone got into the act, loan brokers, realtors, retail banks...

Rob Kim said...

Earlier this year I came across this simple, eye-opening map. Is the disruptiveness to existing non-solar energy providers the main cause behind the delay of inevitable?
The red squares represent the area that would be enough for solar power plants to produce a quantity of electricity consumed by the world today, in Europe (EU-25) and Germany (De). (Data provided by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), 2005)

Given their energy situation I think Japan could be one of the first to transition to big scale solar (via orbital?

That is if their government can commit. A Big if given their not-so-insignificant dependence on nuclear energy and sheer size of their nuclear power related industry.

Jumper said...

Nonsense. The ratings agencies knew they were junk tranches and rated them AAA.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

@matthew: I was evading your question about the problem of the commons in a earlier thread because you wanted a answer in terms of the propertarian form of neo-libertarianism that started becoming quite popular around 1970. This is simply something that I don't agree with. I looked at it around 1970. I was even in communication with some of the people who were developing and popularizing it. I found it flawed exactly because of the problem of the commons.

I don't believe that there are any authoritarian solutions to the problems of the commons either. If all individuals submit to a central authorities, there are at least 193 central authorities (nations) that can't agree on anything; and one nation alone can radically mess up the entire commons of the planet.

I do believe that the Earth's commons can be patched up (but not fixed) for the foreseeable future. (Things like lots of cheap solar electricity before global warming gets too overwhelming.)

Eternal patches are not the same as a fix. It looks like the commons of the Earth is doomed to eternal patches.

One of many basic problems with propertarian neo-libertarianism is that it just breaks up division of the commons of Earth into even smaller chunks than nation-states (but the Earth still has just a single commons). It is not a solution to the problem because it just multiplies the problem.

Fortunately, O'Neill's question about whether the surface of the planet was the right place for a expanding technological civilization came at about the same time as the rise of propertarian neo-libertarianism. O'Neill's question was also only a year later than Hardin's famous "Tragedy of the Commons" article in Science magazine.

I think that only O'Neill was exactly on the right track. In a multitude of smaller, more manageable "commons," space habitats can provide a viable solution. Planetary commons are simply too unwieldy and fragile in the hands of rapidly-advancing technology.

It is also remarkable how many of the postings to this blog inadvertently show that the answer to the O'Neill question is "No." For example, see Daniel Duffy's posting earlier in this thread.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Most people who believe that the answer to O'Neill's question is "Yes," (and that planetary surfaces are fine and that space habitats are impractical for coming decades) are extrapolating human history in a linear fashion.

Most people assume that human history will proceed linearly because humans are so adept at handling major historical discontinuities (especially the good ones) that they don't even recognize a major discontinuity when they are living through it, or even helping it to happen.

The "immigrants in time" discontinuity of 1945 was a major one. Another one that most of us lived through was the near-simultaneous release of the Internet for commercial and individual activity and the creation of the world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee. This was a major discontinuity in human history that seemed gradual to most of us, but which changed everything.

Suppose that all of human history before 1990 were suddenly erased, and people had to try to re-create human history by extrapolating backward though history linearly. I think that the result of this linear journey backward in time would not only be very wrong, but it would quickly become so bizarre as to be obviously impossible.

Similarly, I think that any linear view of the progression of the human future (without discontinuities) is the view most likely to be completely wrong.

Paul SB said...

I have been too busy with work to keep up here, but I saw Matthew's question and wanted to ask for some clarification. Matthew, are you referring to carrying capacity in the traditional, biological sense? Alfred seems to be saying that it is a matter of economics, but I don't think that is at all what you are getting at. In ecology K is a measure of the maximum population of a species within a specific environment. This has very little to do with economy. For all other forms of life on Earth it is simply a matter of population verses resources.

Humans, however, are more complicated. Humans have been able to invent technologies that allow us to expand our carrying capacity, from the Acheulian hand ax to the invention of fire to horticulture, irrigation agriculture, artificial fertilizer, transportation technology and direct genetic modification of organisms. All of these technologies have allowed human populations to grow far beyond what K was for us a couple million years ago. Experts hesitate to try to estimate K for humans because you never know where technology is going to take us in the future.

The fact that population growth is slowing in many countries might indicate that we are on the cusp of K right now. Hydrologists were warning back when our population reached 7 billion that we already exceeded the capacity of Earth's water cycle to produce fresh water. We have a technology for that - reverse osmosis - but it's extremely expensive, and in that sense there may be an economic connection. But because technological advancement is unpredictable, and the economies that support them are not stable over periods of centuries, we just can't say for sure what K is for the human species.

Paul Ehrlich's dire "Population Bomb" predictions haven't all been borne out. Human civilization hasn't collapsed yet, though we know previous civilizations collapsed because of population resource imbalances (not because of lazy, self-entitled freeloaders or any sort of "spiritual" crisis), so we can't rule out the possibility it won't happen to us. Societies that react to their problems by trying to do the same things they always did (being conservative) end up on the extinct list. Societies that innovate and advance, trying new ways to deal with their problems have more staying power.

If you are looking for a suggestion more specific than allowing creative, intelligent people to solve our problems, I can't give you one. I thought I had a solution 10 years ago, but I realized that if it were possible, someone would find a way to undo it. our best bet, it would seem to me, is to do what we have always done - promote creativity and critical thinking and try to adjust our fecundity through cultural mechanisms. It hasn't always staved off collapse, but with the rate of technological growth in the past century, its possible we can work it out, one issue at a time.

DP said...

As for the coming radical changes in agriculture, there is a great summary here:

Bioprinting of Meat: Modern Meadow is a Singularity University company that uses bioprinting (tissue engineering and 3D printing) to grow meat (beef, chicken, and pork) and leathers in a lab.

Their vision is to do this at scale and dramatically reduce the environmental impact of meat production. In 2012, it took 60 billion land animals to feed 7 billion humans. If successful, bioprinting meat has huge advantages: 99% less land, 96% less water, 96% fewer greenhouse gases, and 45% less energy.

Genetically Engineered Crops: We will increasingly rely on genetically engineered crops. In 1996, there were 1.7 million hectares of biotech crops in the world; by 2010, the number had jumped to 148 million hectares.

This 87-fold increase in hectares makes genetically engineered seeds (GEs) the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. After 30 years of research, a great many of our fears about genetically engineered products have been quieted. More than a trillion GE meals have been served, and not a single case of GE-induced illness has turned up.

Vertical Farming: We will grow our food in AI-controlled vertical buildings, rather than on horizontal land.

Vertical farms will be immune to weather, so crops can be grown year-round under optimal conditions. One acre of skyscraper floor produces the equivalent of 10 to 20 traditional soil-based acres.

Employing clean-room technologies means no pesticides or herbicides, so there's no agricultural runoff. The fossil fuels now used for plowing, fertilizing, seeding, weeding, harvesting, and delivery are gone as well. On top of all that, we could reforest the old farmland as parkland and slow the loss of biodiversity. Companies like FarmedHere, Green Sense, and groups like MIT's CityFARM are making strides in the field.

Food Production Closer to Home: The average American foodstuff travels 1,500 miles before it's consumed. As 70% of food's final retail price is from transportation, storage, and handling, these miles add up quickly. With vertical farming and genetic engineering, production will become decentralized and distributed, allowing food to be produced nearer the location of consumption, and food's price to plummet.

Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods are companies turning plants into foods that look and taste just like meat and eggs. Hampton Creek's data scientists are actively weeding out billions of proteins from hundreds of thousands of plants to learn what could form the equivalent of a chicken's egg. The company is seeking to create the largest plant database in the world.

DP said...

The main benefit of vertical farming and vat grown meat? We can restore the 40% to 50% of the earth's surface currently used for farming and ranching back to natural wilderness in a its biodiversity glory:

Food production takes up almost half of the planet's land surface and threatens to consume the fertile land that still remains, scientists warn.

The global impact of farming on the environment is revealed in new maps, which show that 40 percent of the Earth's land is now given over to agriculture.

"The satellite data tells us where cultivation is occurring with good spatial accuracy, while the census data is able to tell us what is being grown there," said Navin Ramankutty, a land-use researcher with Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE).

The maps suggest that an area roughly the size of South America is used for crop production, while even more land—7.9 to 8.9 billion acres (3.2 to 3.6 billion hectares)—is being used to raise livestock.

And with the world's population growing rapidly, the pressure is on farmers to find new land to cultivate, the study team says.

"How can we continue to produce food from the land while preventing negative environmental consequences, such as deforestation, water pollution, and soil erosion?" Ramankutty said.

DP said...

Vertical farming and vat grown meat are not just for starry eyed dreamers and optimistic futurists. They're attracting hard nosed, bottom line oriented venture capitalists and their money:

From my vantage point of doing deals across a variety of segments, this is an area that has potentially massive long-arc potential for growth. Global demographic and environmental change is reshaping our world, and we, as inhabitants of this world, must in turn change as well. 850 million people, or one in nine people on Earth, today go to bed hungry. Without some sort of disruptive paradigm shift in today's unsustainable agriculture model, the 850 million will surely increase.
These global changes are, and will continue to, impact us all. While the sequencing and severity may vary by region or economic standing (first world versus third world), the challenge, and opportunity exists everywhere.

For investors, this might be the next big thing....

Yet there is a proliferation of these innovative agriculture companies. Whole Foods has provided funding in the Chicago area to FarmedHere, a vertical farm that also raises tilapia, with the nutrient-rich byproducts in the water being filtered off to benefit the produce crops. Sometimes funding comes from surprising places. Japanese electronics conglomerate Panasonic has moved into farming technology, helping provide equipment for what it says is the first licensed indoor farm in Singapore.

Some companies will benefit (especially groceries like Whole Foods who can now vertically integrate their supply chains) and hurt others (the suppliers of fertilizers and pesticides like Monsanto, and farming equipment like International Harvester, etc.)

How would that affect Whole Foods Market and Monsanto? The country's largest organic food supermarket has already announced plans to eliminate products containing ingredients produced from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, from its shelves by 2018 as well as plans to boost store count by 20%. Vertical farms appear to fit with the company's mission quite perfectly. Perhaps Whole Foods Market will become a vertically integrated business (no pun intended) by owning everything from food production and product distribution. What better way to supply urban stores throughout the country than with a vertical farm right next door?

The arrival of vertical farming will be one of the most important changes in the history of agriculture. Suddenly, a 1-acre plot of land could support 30 acres of farmland (in a 30-story building), food can be produced in the heart of population centers, and the amount of resources needed to grow crops could be greatly reduced. The possibilities are endless and the advantages undeniable, but a third major food production method doesn't have to mark the end of biotech seeds -- far from it. In fact, I think it's quite possible vertical farming spurs decades of growth for Whole Foods Market and Monsanto. Savvy investors will certainly want to keep an eye on developments in the field, er, warehouse.

DP said...

And the biggest beneficiary of vertical farming?

Legal recreational cannabis.

And you thought all of those stoners growing pot under grow lights in their college dorm room closets weren't going to amount to anything.

Think of the quality control.

Think of the productivity.

Think of the profits.

CEO Ram Mukunda stated, "We are excited to partner with TerraSphere as we look to both develop proven pesticide-free organic growing intellectual property and secure a meaningful footprint of high tech facilities, in important states, for ultimately growing legal cannabis. In the interim, we expect these facilities to generate accretive revenue from other plants as part of our strategic short-term goal of building profit, while simultaneously moving IGC closer towards meeting our long-term goal of becoming a dominant player in the emerging legal cannabis space." - See more at:

Jumper said...

What's the sum total of all south-facing building exposures in the northern hemisphere compared to acreage currently under cultivation?

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper What's the sum total of all south-facing building exposures in the northern hemisphere compared to acreage currently under cultivation?

A better question to ask is what is the limitation on growth for the available sunlight? How much can the available energy be transformed to maximize crop productivity?

We know that crops use only a fraction of the available sunlight. We also know that multi-cropping, even in forests works. So what we need to consider is how much surface area (or volume) can be expanded to make best use of the available energy, by going vertically?

We can use optical approaches to distribute the sunlight. We can also convert it to electricity and then use LEDs tuned to emit at peak chlorophyll absorption frequencies to maximize conversion in the plant.

Alex Tolley said...

@Daniel - the cost of vertical farming isn't trivial, especially if it will require dedicated structures and technology to be useful (just think of the rental costs of city space). My guess is that vertical farming will be most useful for products where freshness and other premium factors (e.g. seasonality) demand a high price. And yes, cannabis demands a high price.

Factory meat production might well be a good way to go, although it is early days yet. I've tried the chicken from Tofu product and while it is getting there, it is noticeably not like chicken in texture. It works well as an ingredient, but not a substitute for say a grilled chicken breast. It wasn't cheap either at Whole Foods.

I think we should separate transport for storage and handling costs. Shipping is usually less than 5% of total costs, so I really don't care so much about distance. If transport was by some sort environmentally clean ship, I wouldn't care how far it traveled. Storage in warehouses, markups etc may be more important. Also bear in mind that food is wasted even at the retail level, and 30% of food is wasted post-retail. I thought it was understood that global food production was adequate for the planet, the problem was distribution.

Having said that, I think there is immense scope for transforming agriculture from an almost pre-technological level using relatively flat surfaces under the sun to a more industrial, factory based approach. It is a pity that the factory work is food processing today, rather than production.

One thing that I do see happening as meat substitutes improve is a reduction in animal farming, especially cattle. Industrial meat production has become horrific, with the US (some states?) even making filming of abattoirs illegal. We need to become much more humane in this regard.

Alex Tolley said...

Campaign Against Glyphosate Steps Up in Latin America

If Glyphosate is carcinogenic, then this adds another argument for pesticide free framing methods - whether organic or in vertical clean farms.

DP said...


All very good points. But I believe that the infrastructure costs associated with vertical farming can be greatly reduced by reusing abandoned warehouses and factories in our inner cities. In Detroit alone there are millions of square feet of abandoned enclosed shop space left behind by the the auto industry that are siting idle.

Alex Tolley said...

@Daniel - That is a good way to start, but it will have to migrate to purpose built structures designed for vertical farming. At a minimum, they will be open steel structures, with some sore of enclosing paneling (transparent initially) with floors, irrigation systems, air circulation, power, commons etc. Even low cost goods storage is not cheap, because land costs in cities is high. Expect cities in CA to be part of the vanguard, but even well-heeled SF wouldn't be able to much purpose built vertical farming due to costs.

I recall that Tokyo has city [rice?] farms due to a quirk in the tax laws regarding this activity. So strange things can happen.

But yes, start with retrofitting farms to existing structures as pilots, then work out the economics for building out to scale.

One benefit I really agree on is that this approach to farming (rather like space colonies) compartmentalizes disease risk, potentially reducing the spread of diseases, and certainly the release of GMO pollen. This is far better than just hoping distance between crops is sufficient.

The downside, for the likes of some groups is that we are potentially expanding the possibility of the human population further away from any natural carrying capacity. A major failure for any reason - (Carrington even) - could have devastating consequences. On the upside, these sorts of seasonality independent farms (and factory production) could make replacement food much faster than traditional farms, alleviating seasonal crop failures/famines.

To me this is mostly good. Restoring wilderness as well, is a win-win. A much better future that avoids the "Soylent Green" dystopia of overpopulation, minimal food, and dying oceans that was expected with the "Limits to Growth" and "Population Bomb" memes.
It might still all go to hell, but at least we have opportunities to work our way through the problems.

In O'Neill's " 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future", he describes arcologies, which are almost terrestrial bound space colonies for teh northern latitudes. To me, this approach to cities makes a lot of sense and integrated factory/vertical farms will be part of those habitats.

David Brin said...

All are tweaks, compared to the real thing that saved us. The ability of (most) women, when fully educated and empowered, to be satiated at two kids.

That fact has (so far) saved the planet. And it cannot last more than a few generations for obvious reasons... and hence we are under a time constraint to make Star Trek. Five generations, maybe.

But that is the thing that makes all the Game Changers possible -- if most of them come true -- world savers.

matthew said...

Regarding the naming conventions in libertarianism - doesn't make sense to use "libertarian" in it's current usage of propertarianism and use the original "liberalism" of Adam Smith to mean the free-rights, open competition-type libertarian? After all, today's "liberals" seem to be remarkably short on socialist-type solutions to problems.

Or to put it differently, just because some libertarians used to care more about personal liberty than property rights doesn't mean that they get to keep the naming rights of their movement. See Progressive Republicans, Southern Democrats, etc. for a history of political parties changing their root ideological basis without changing their name.

Gary Johnson was the last public bastion of social liberaltarianism in his party, and even he is pretty darn propertarian from the conversations I've had with him.

Anyway, I do get David's point about making a distinction. And Jerry PSB, Daniel, Alex, your points are excellent. The direction this discussion is going is exactly what I was looking for from this group.

Alex Tolley said...

BTW, one foodstuff that is easy to grow, has high protein content and doesn't need light, is mushrooms. Given we treat so much nitrogen sewage, it would make so much more sense to recycle it back into mushroom production in enclosed containers. These mushroom farms could be easily attached to old buildings and provide a valuable protein source. Far better than outlandish ideas of farming insects. Unless one hates the taste or texture of mushrooms, they are nutritionally sound and can be easily processed for other food and non-food applications. Fungi grow so fast that they could even be part of the carbon fixation cycle to remove CO2 from the atmosphere (probably don't use edible mushrooms for this).

Alex Tolley said...

All are tweaks, compared to the real thing that saved us. The ability of (most) women, when fully educated and empowered, to be satiated at two kids.

Which is arguably a result of enlightenment thinking, and certainly facilitated by the results of the sci-tech of such thinking by reducing infant mortality rates that changed childbirth habits from the Victorian era and earlier. Today that is reinforced by the high cost of child rearing in the post-industrial nationsm exacerbated by the increasing inequality of income distribution.

locumranch said...

Tweaks are for twits.

Jerry_E's comments on the presumption of linear history versus historical discontinuity sing to me as they paraphrase (and explicate) my distaste for our misplaced pseudo-religious faith in the progressive magic of incrementalism.

Incrementalism is not necessarily bad, in & of itself, and it does have certain obvious short-term benefits, yet the accumulation of minor improvements cannot and should not be confused with the non-incremental advancement due to paradigm shift (as evidenced by the non-contiguous nature of Newtonian and Non-Newtonian physics).

Major Advances are non-incremental. They require RISK-TAKING, a leap of faith, and a willingness to sacrifice present advantage for the possibility of future benefit despite no small chance of cataclysmic failure.

Unfortunately, our society has become so risk-adverse, lazy, fat, decadent and ever-so entitled that, in its incremental haste to absent itself from all potential adverse consequence or failure, it denies itself the possibility of glorious triumph AND Advancement Ad Infinitum.

"If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same ...

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss ...

(Then) Yours is the Earth, the Stars, and everything that's in it.

Or not if you prefer a coward's death.


Jumper said...

Every tall building casts a shadow, so I'm not sure where the advantage lies - not in the shadow, that's for sure. And anyone advocating burning coal, wood, corn,(!) or even biowaste, to power lights for indoor farming is going to have to cope with me and my "hell no!"

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: Securitization of a loan portfolio is definitely the way to go. That approach should be listed as a game changing innovation in the financial markets and I wouldn’t want to harm it too much. The problem comes from the fact that bond buyers and equity buyers think different… and should. When the risk rate for credit default swaps dropped, that was a sign that insurers perceived a guarantor that had very deep pockets. We should not have allowed that because it allowed cheaters to take risks with the expectation that tax payers would pay for the mess. Bond buyers should be at risk of losing everything and they obviously thought the risk was low.

The repeal of Glass-Steagal was a mistake, but some of us who supported the idea did so with good intentions. I’ll admit to being one of them. I thought the errors that required its passage had been worked out with modern financial innovations. I was very, very wrong. In my partial defense, I can say that the bank I worked for was the only one handled properly. The FDIC tore them to pieces and a good chunk of my retirement investments evaporated. Ah well. I wish the others had been dealt with as harshly.

My take away lesson is to watch the behaviors of bond buyers as if they were health monitors of the financial markets. They matter more than the ratings agencies. What they buy and sell speaks to what they believe.

Alfred Differ said...

@Jerry: I get the feeling I should already know you or have run into you in past years. 8)

I’ve seen the youngest around me try to do that backward linear extrapolation you describe. Some of the active duty officers are very young (barely half my age) and it’s kind of fun to watch them try. It’s kind of scary too. I suspect I did much the same to my own father half a life ago.

The analogy I use for them is Taleb’s one involving Extremistan. You can’t predict much about unknown unknowns. About the most you can say is they will happen, change everything, and in a bigger, well connected market they will happen more often.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: Technology occurs because we innovate in our attempt to solve the resource planning problem. If we were more mindless, a carrying capacity would make good sense because we would not be locked in the positive feedback loop associated with prediction engines that are moderately successful in the real world and occasionally successful in our subjunctive ones. As long as we innovate, we change ourselves and make carrying capacity rather meaningless. Which species are we? Are we the humans that topped out at a few million just before the ice retreated? Are we the humans who didn’t trade much across bloodlines? Are we the humans who mostly grew low quality grain and huddled around trading villages?

Probably the most inspiring TV series I ever watched was James Burke’s “The Day the Universe Changed” from the mid-80’s. Anyone who saw Connections could see the formula, but that series focused less on the web of knowledge and more on what happened to humanity. I remember him holding that little microchip on his finger in the last show and talking about alternate paths we might take. I was still living with my hope/no hope dissonance at the time, but hope was beginning to win and I teared up the first time. I still do today when I watch it, but for a very different reason. I can now see who among us ‘blew everything wide open’ as he phrased it. They didn’t plan to do that, but they DID follow the process Burke described and as a result, they changed humanity yet again. His series only described eight of these events, but they are going on around us in such abundance I now find it hard to imagine my life with dissonance.

Economics is really part of a larger subject area involving the study of human action. When we took our first tentative steps to trade with people outside our immediate bloodlines, we became something not seen on this planet before. We became hard to define because we remained human while we became an ecosystem for our memes. What is the carrying capacity for an ecosystem? See why I think the concept is meaningless?

raito said...


The US Ggovernment encouraged buying houses the first time it allowed mortgage interest as a deduction, whenever that was. Why? Because it wanted people paying property taxes. No pie-in-the-sky stuff about the joys of ownership.

But it does bring up an amusing story from my past.

I worked for an AI company and in 98, I was asked to do a project for one of our investors, whose money came mostly from a mortgage aggregator. He wanted me to figure out how to approve sub-prime mortgages over the web without having to get those pesky humans involved. So I went to do my study on how we'd do it. Turns out that not a single person that I talked to who approved mortgages could tell me the criteria by which the mortgages got approved. Not one.

Fortunately for my job, I found some research on self-organizing maps that would have worked very well. That method relied on having a lot of test cases and their results, and you know the company kept the applications and knew the performance of every mortgage it had made.

The hitch was that the CEO had his (ancient) PhD in AI, but only knew expert systems (which we couldn't do because the experts couldn't tell us how they did the job).

Didn't matter anyway, as the company supplying the guy with capital had Fannie Mae catch on. When defaults were at about 4%, their were at 14%. They got caught, got their contract cut off, and were forced to buy back all the bad loans.

Dr. Brin,
I recall reading up on global economic modelling way back in college. One of the texts was the papers from a conference. The most interesting thing was that where the researchers were from definitely colored their models. The second most interesting thing was that there were 2 primary indicators of whether an economy was going to succeed. Those were education (higher is better) and birth rate (lower is better).

And lucky me, tonight I get to interact with people who'll treat me with bovine stares when I say that I want my children to create the future, and who get hostile when I say that their wish to have the schools make their children good workers is setting their sights set much too low.

And as a slight point on solar, here in WI in 2008 the statutes changed such that solar installations can now only be challenged on the basis of safety (screw you, HOA's, etc., they grandfathered it) and that once you have it up, no one can build in your sunshine (though there is a provision to keep you from keeping someone else from building something by suddenly putting in solar).

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - we basically agree except for this: When the risk rate for credit default swaps dropped, that was a sign that insurers perceived a guarantor that had very deep pockets.

Bond buyers rely on rating agencies to grade bonds. Most bond buyers cannot possibly analyze bonds, so they need these rating agencies. These agencies need to be honest. What happened was that the agencies vied for the rating business of the investment banks, in effect offering higher ratings in their competition. (This is not unlike the accounting firms offering laxer auditing to get consulting business). This drove down the ratings and made the packages appear less risky than they were. It didn't help that no-one seriously looked at what a market panic would do either. The repackaging allowing relatively poor loans to increase the ratings of a portfolio of tranches to be higher than it should have been - ie money was minted.

You may recall after 2008 that the agencies, particularly S&P tried to wriggle out of their obligations and pretend that their ratings were "just opinions" and caveat emptor.

We also know that bond buyers, e.g. pension funds, got royally screwed, and a number sued the investment banks, especially when it was found out that some packages were built to fail and support short selling hedge funds.

So while Fannie and Freddie were not exactly managed in a good fashion, the principle problem was the investment banks and the lack of regulation, rather than any "do good" social legislation. The bad actors were primarily the banks and their paid for legislators. A situation that hasn't changed much, and may even be worse today.

DP said...

@Alex - I'll add O'Neill's book to my reading list.

Arcologies are a fascinating study in themselves. And they would go a long way to answer one of the chief objection to human colonization of space: Why colonize mars or build L% colonies when we haven't colonized Antarctica, the Gobi desert, underground tunnels or the oceans here on earth.

So we first build arcologies on the Earth's surface to learn all we can about building a self contained community safely here on Earth. Then use this knowledge to build orbiting colonies, colonize the Moon and Mars, the skies of Venus, the asteroid belt the Jovian ice moons, Kuiper belt objects and the Oort cloud.

Alex Tolley said...

@locum - you are arguing that society isn't taking risks, and in part I agree with you. However there is a lot of risk taking in some areas, e.g. VC backed technology.

But in terms of societal risk, it is clearly in teh hands of liberals, not conservatives. In the case before the SCOTUS, it is conservatives throwing up FUD, while it is liberals that are saying take the risk and redefine marriage in accordance with modern thought (and the majority in the US, BTW).

Where I see low risk taking is in being much more cautious about environmental damage (a good thing to avoid the excesses we saw up to the 1970's) and in the space program, where the risking taking seems to be shifting to the NewSpace companies (as it should be).

Could you provide an example of where we have been too cautious, or we should have taken more risk in some area of technology, business or even social changes?

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper - Yes buildings cast shadows. What you don't want is to visualize the vertical surface replacing the horizontal surface. You need to think about the energy falling on the top surface and how that may be maximally used.

You could make the same argument about the use of solar PV, and again it is primarily the top surface that is relevant, not teh sides of teh building.

Alex Tolley said...

@raito who get hostile when I say that their wish to have the schools make their children good workers is setting their sights set much too low.

Huzzah! Go get 'em.

Alex Tolley said...

So we first build arcologies on the Earth's surface to learn all we can about building a self contained community safely here on Earth. Then use this knowledge to build orbiting colonies, colonize the Moon and Mars, the skies of Venus, the asteroid belt the Jovian ice moons, Kuiper belt objects and the Oort cloud.

I'm right with you there.

Even if we never colonized another world or build an off world space habitat, arcologies would be worth building, IMO. They certainly will tell us a lot about building fully enclosed colonies, and whether that is even possible, or whether they need some material and life exchange to stay healthy. And of course they will instruct us in building interstellar worldships too, should that be a desired technology. (I actually think DB's idea in Existance is a far better approach, as I don't think meat humans will be the dominant players in interstellar colonization).

TheMadLibrarian said...

TWOTDA: In a couple of weeks, we are installing solar panels on our newly redone roof. We will be able to halve our grid power consumption; we would have liked to do more, but the initial cost was prohibitive, and we still haven't allowed for battery storage. We were lucky; our local power company is doing everything it can to quietly block homeowners from putting in solar. Our installation got its permit just in time to miss the restrictions on feeding power back to the grid, and we can expand later.

On a slightly smaller level, I am diverting my washing machine graywater into the yard to water trees and shrubs. I'm also going for xeriscape, at least out front, with cacti, succulents, and low-water planting. Diverting all graywater isn't practical for us (some things I've read advocate disconnecting your bathroom sink drain, putting a bucket under it, and using the runoff to fill your toilet tank, for example), but I feel at least a little good about our choices.


Alfred Differ said...

@raito: Sorry. I was being sarcastic when I spoke of the joys of ownership. I didn't mean to imply pie-in-the-sky stuff for all involved. Since the support cadre was large, I'm sure the reality is closer to a mixed set of motivations. My progressive friends with good intentions DID intend for joy, but they weren't numerous enough to explain what happened.

It doesn't surprise me you couldn't find someone to explain how mortgages got approved, but thank you VERY much for confirming what I suspected. From what I saw there were formulae for screening people into various risk buckets, but the ultimate decision had to be made by a real human. The sub-prime lender I worked for considered it's methods to be proprietary, but also understood them to be perishable. We did well for awhile until the Ruble crashed and wiped out some of our competition while we survived by getting bought. The next wave of competitors arrived and we were suddenly the maladapted dinosaurs in the age of mammals. Embarrassing.

With what I know now, I'm certain the best approach involves an AI/human collaboration much like the top competitors in chess are today. I'm not even slightly tempted to write those tools, though. A big part of my anger regarding cheaters comes from this part of my employment history. I'd be too tempted to string my bosses/partners up with a noose.

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: I'm not disagreeing with you and I really should know better than to argue with a Brit about how banking/finance works, however... 8)

Bond buyers who rely upon anyone else to determine the risks they face are being really, really stupid. Bond buyers have everything to lose when things go sour and only the interest rate to earn when things go well. They are lenders with little in the way of collateral. Any bond buyer who isn't suspicious of every claim made by everyone doesn't belong in the business. Having said that, I recognize that a lot of bond buyers behaved stupidly during the boom period. Blaming their stupidity on the cheating that occurred among the rating agencies is like a kid trying to explain why he walked off a cliff following his friend who said it was a good idea.

Seriously, I don't blame my progressive friends much for this. I blame pretty much everyone for the ignorance we suffered, but not in a way suggesting I'd want to punish anyone. I ask only that we learn from it by recognizing our part in the drama. By all means, punish the cheaters who exploited us, but recognize how we contributed so we can avoid it next time.

Alfred Differ said...

We haven't colonized the Gobi or Antarctica because neither of them are on the way to anywhere else that doesn't involve a cheaper path. Unless there are resources worth exploiting in a region, we don't backfill hostile biomes unless they act as a barrier between two human environments that wish to trade. It's not worth it until the group considering it becomes fabulously wealthy.

This is the underpinning idea connecting geography to geopolitics. Barrier environments aren't rigid, but we don't convert them without a good excuse to spend our wealth.

Space will go the same way. Anyone wanting to colonize the Moon had better think seriously about cis-lunar space. Is it worth filling for other reasons besides trading with a lunar colony? If reasons can be found, transportation costs between the terminal traders can be reduced by intermediate trades.

Smurphs said...

re: That said, a large amount of our host's future optimism is misplaced, especially when (1) solar panels over the No-Cal to So-Cal Canal will only legitimize the continued theft & wasteful lifestyle of So-Cal narcissists...

Honest question from someone in PA here. The information I am getting says that the vast majority of CA water use/overuse is Central Valley Big AG. 70%, 80% 90%??? The numbers differ depending on source.

Could you locals please enlighten me?

Acacia H. said...

Brian Lacki? Well now, that's a name I've not heard in several years. I "met" him online with his online persona of "The Reflection" where he wrote a couple of enjoyable science fiction stories (Outside ad Naggarok's Children) based on the game "Homeworld" - I suspect it's the same person, seeing Brian was majoring in physics and astronomy, and it's not like it's a common name (like Robert Howard, for example).

Heck, our e-mail conversations ended up becoming novel-length at times as we layered responses on multiple levels carrying on various points in the discussions. It was quite enjoyable having intelligent conversations with him on a variety of fields including writing and storytelling, science, society, and the like.

It is good to see he's doing well.

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

As for covering the aqueducts in California with solar paneling to reduce evaporation, produce power, and the like... consider for a moment the cost of building a framework over the aqueducts. This structure has to be earthquake-resistant, especially seeing that it's over water used for drinking and the like, and solar paneling often uses metals and other materials in it that we don't want in our water supplies... so a collapse of the paneling would cause an ecological problem (not to mention electricity and water).

There is the expense of building this infrastructure. Wiring it into the grid. Producing solar paneling that can handle the humid environment. Ensuring that the base structure is able to handle being in a damp environment seeing condensation WILL happen anyway and stick to the structure... and inevitably get into the solar paneling itself.

It is a grandeous idea that runs into some roadblocks when you sit down and consider what could go wrong and what could cause problems with the idea.

Of course, you inevitably have ideas around these problems, so I would gladly hear them. Just please try to avoid the insults as I'm providing constructive criticism on the idea, and while it is human nature to lash out at the critic, it is not a very constructive response.

Rob H.

matthew said...

Sealing the moisture in the aqueduct and away from the panel roof is not that difficult a technical challenge. Building envelope technology has come a long, long way in the last few years and has decreased in price pretty drastically. Same thing for the earthquake-proofing.

Worries about dipping the panels in the water if they fail are small apples. The diffusion off of submerged panels would be very very small. I think the main worry would be off the connecting wires, and even that is pretty negligible. It's not like you'd be dipping the constituents into the water in an elemental form.

Costs would be an issue, but the ROI would be quick.

Still think this is a great idea. The battery effect of pumping water uphill into the reservoirs alone makes it a good one.

Jumper said...

Take heart, Robert, none of those are serious problems, construction-wise. I don't think the problems are bad at all for earthquakes; look at what a parking garage has to withstand. Snow load is problematical but not so bad in CA. Wind load is the cost, and stadium construction has a handle on that.
I don't think any part of solar panels are especially water-soluble, either. Except if some contractor tries to replace some adhesives with the wrong kind!
My years in construction management makes me think the costs of the project are tantalizing.

Acacia H. said...

Oh, and I have to think that this would negate a number of Earth's problems in Interstellar. I mean, if you can use a building to grow plants in a climate-controlled setting, then what does it matter how bad droughts are impacting the region? Entire areas could be restored to prairie which is more resilient, food production continues, and while we might not have corn as a staple anymore, food production continues with enough to ensure people don't go hungry.

Hell, you can even use some of that food for cattle and the like if you want to still have beef. And even better, it deals with the phosphorus shortage problem because you no longer waste phosphorus. No doubt it can scale to be used in growing wheat and other such plants that don't require long stalks, so breads will continue to exist.

I mean, it's an interesting concept, but the whole environmental disaster with the Earth? We are already finding ways around it. Human ingenuity, even in an anti-intellectualism environment, would allow us to persevere.

Rob H.

Jumper said...

Progressivism is not the same as incrementalism. To assume that is just obtuse. We have dictionaries.

Speaking of which we can look up "liar loans."

Alfred Differ said...

@Smurphs: Whether it is over use is debatable, but CA has a lot of land area devoted to agriculture. If you include the Imperial Valley, you’ll see where a lot of off-season fruits and vegetables come from in the US. We ship lots in from the southern hemisphere nowadays, but impacting our farmers will impact all the rest of you. What our State government appears to be attempting is to pin the consequences of the drought on the local population and spare the rest of you. Needless to say, there is some debate between all of us about the sense of it. 8)

David Brin said...

MadLib Good for you!

Smurphs, Ag is the big water waster. But it is important to go after urban wasters first, since the drought can be used to alter ridiculous habits like front lawns... and absurd golf courses that should be SAND mostly, with occasional grass traps.

Jumper said...

I need a smart system that can ID the butterfly whose caterpillar is the squash borer, and also tomato hornworms, etc. And a small laser to take care of them automatically. It would be best to hit them where the laser doesn't also blast a hole in the plants. I suppose the FAA will want to be involved.

Alfred Differ said...

I'd prefer lots of flowers in my front yard for my bee security system. Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

Ioan said...

What do you mean we haven't colonized the Gobi desert and Antarctica?

Here is some info on the Gobi's population

As for Antarctica, they have a year round population of about ~5,000.

They also have around 37,000 tourists during the height of the financial crisis.

Imagine how much tourist and perhaps settled population would rise sans treaties? Note: I'm not actually advocating repealing the treaties. I'm just making a point.

PS: Places that are colonized include the Sahara desert and the Atacama desert.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. I'm not saying there aren't people there. When I think of colonization, I expect population and economic growth. A population of 5000 spread across a continent is indistinguishable as a round off error for zero.

Colonies are trading organizations. Tourism in Antarctica is extended camping unless people stick around and trade with those who arrive every year.

Alfred Differ said...

Lot's of stuff going on in Baltimore, but I find it fascinating watching the citizens do what our host says we do in emergency situations. I'm seeing a LOT of non-sheep among the violence images. Mother's extracting children, citizens standing in front of police lines facing the other way, ad hoc clean up crews, etc.

Alex Tolley said...

The Antarctic continent is limited by treaty. ( to keep the continent pristine. Note that no sovereign territory can be claimed, which means no law allowing resource extraction (like celestial bodies).

There was thought of coal mining the Antarctic back in the day, but that is obviously stillborn by treaty. Focus is now on territorial claims in the Arctic, particularly by Russia.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - grow various Lavenders. Good bee and butterfly attractors, green all year, and water sparing.

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper - best to pick the caterpillars off by hand. Yes they are hard to see, but it works, unless you have a lot of tomato plants.

Alfred Differ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Differ said...

I don't know about those tomato hornworms. Vicious critters. Not sure I'd be grabbing them by hand. Last time I tried I got attacked. 8)

Lavender. Definitely. My wife has already started since we expect the lawn to die this summer.

I'm not so sure the OST can prevent resource extraction on celestial bodies. That would require the entrepreneur's nation to act against them or allow court actions against them. The Moon Treaty would be enough, but the US didn't sign that. Where things get tricky is when that stuff is brought back to market. How it is delivered is the key.

Alfred Differ said...

Yah. My civilization does stuff like this. 8)

Anonymous said...

So it's actually 2.3GW of solar in California already, so you'd basically be doubling the amount of solar in the state already.

I bet at that scale you could get it done at $1.50 per watt, maybe less... So I think it would cost something like $4B...

Alfred Differ said...

Cameras recording police actions are having yet another effect.

For those of you who don't live in California, this is evidence that some in our Legislature are a little embarrassed that our local police forces can buy surplus military equipment from the federal government without having to face down the public in a meeting open to us, our complaints, and our cameras. This bill, if passed and signed by the Governor, would cause them to face us openly. That means we get to shed light where they might prefer we not do it. Some locales will still buy this stuff, but the large urban centers would probably face organized opposition at meetings.

This could be big enough to rally forces in support of keeping this kind of purchase from facing the light.

DP said...

Speaking of vat grown meat...

Why can't we grow ivory tusks and rhino horn (actually hair) in vats as well. Then flood the market with genetically indistinguishable ivory and rhino horn, cause the black market price of both to collapse, and eliminate the incentive for poaching - thus saving the rhino and elephant from extinction.

Howard Brazee said...

While my personal experience is pre-revolution - everybody I know who has worked with both Persians and Arabs says we have much more in common with Iran than with Arab countries.

We don't need to keep the snit fit from being kicked out of Iran.

Tacitus said...

I think it goes a bit far to call Central California Ag a "water waster". Sure, a profligate user. Sure, lets look for ways to improve. But even as someone who does not appreciate avocados I would say that the Imperial Valley being green and verdant does more for our society than say, golf courses or George Lucas' lawn.

Robert, good to see you back. I shall be "electronically indisposed" for a few weeks and hand over whatever scepter and clown shoes comes with the position of Official Contrarian. Wield them only for Good.


locumranch said...

In regards to social risk-aversion:

When the primary purpose of any society, organization or organism is self-perpetuation, then the perpetuation of the 'status quo' is Job #1 because any definitive or systemic change is tantamount to suicide.

This principle (self-preservation) leads to a certain circularity of thought, making it virtually impossible for the occurrence of social change in the absence of open revolution, social collapse or rebellious violence.

This is why Obamacare (as a reaction to rapacious commercial third-party insurance payers) is such a failure because it is (in effect) a doubling down on rapacious commercial third-party insurance payers; this is why our fossil-fueled economy resists the elimination of fossil fuel dependence (despite dire climate change warnings) because it would involve the repudiation of a fossil-fueled economy; and this is why our politicians continue 'politics as usual' (despite disastrous political dysfunction) because this would involve a rejection of the political status quo.

Likewise, agriculture in the American West is a big inefficient water waster, but what do you expect from a self-perpetuating (but ill-advised) 18th Century social development policy? Read 'Cadillac Desert', by Marc Reisner, for definitive information on this topic.

Most places in the American West, especially Los Angeles and Las Vegas, should not and could not exist without vast, wasteful and irrational social subsidies, yet (once created) progressives like David will argue to the death that these failed policies and communities must be continued at ANY cost, because definitive correction or policy change is socially inconceivable, being a violation of the socially self-perpetuating organizational principle.


Alex Tolley said...

@Daniel Why can't we grow ivory tusks and rhino horn (actually hair) in vats as well.

For the same reason you cannot grow humans or trees.

Vat grown meat is a just a matrix of muscle cell ("pink slime"). It needs processing to make it more like meat. It certainly isn't anything like a piece of steak. Meat is mainly muscle, which has to be exercised to gain the texture it has for consumption. Otherwise it is more like ground beef. Let meat age too much and it rots down to mush again.

Horns similarly require much development and maturation. Rhino horn has growth layers (rather like tree rings) that build up year over year with growth. To replicate that would be extremely long and expensive, even assuming it could be done. This is really nothing like making synthetic diamond, a mineral that is homogenous rather than structured due to development.

Alex Tolley said...

@locum When the primary purpose of any society, organization or organism is self-perpetuation, then the perpetuation of the 'status quo' is Job #1 because any definitive or systemic change is tantamount to suicide.

Think about this. You are actually saying evolution cannot occur. Social change can and does occur. It does not invoke suicide, unless you mean that death of the old social system. But without change, there is no adaptation, no learning, just infinite stasis.

raito said...


Sorry I didn't catch the sarcasm. We're both on the same page. And naturally, the reason to produce such a program had nothing to do with loan approval, but with being able to blame bad mortgages on the computer.

There's some stuff happening with the military surplus buying here in WI, too. Up north, the tendency is to buy vehicles rather than armaments, though.


It my not sound like it, but I do have a bit of sympathy for those people. To them, having their children be good workers is a step up.

Last night was a school district meeting detailing what's happened since the last long-range planning sessions. I think I made some of the administrators uncomfortable. Good. It is insane that they're now teaching arithmetic in kindergarten, yet providing no opportunity to learn algebra until high school. And one of the goals is to have 80% of their highs school students getting college credit? Geez...

But it's also insane that changing which test scores you use changes who passed from 70% to 38%.


I'm not sure that'll work. You might just end up with chain-of-custody issues, because the 'natural' ivory, etc. will always be preferred. Your assumption is that the demand is rational, and I'm not sure I go for that. But at least such materials would becomes available legitimately, and that's usually a good thing.

Alex Tolley said...

Most places in the American West, especially Los Angeles and Las Vegas, should not and could not exist without vast, wasteful and irrational social subsidies

Most places in the northern latitudes couldn't exist without the vast, wasteful and irrational social subsidies for energy to heat dwellings since we occupied caves. We should have stayed in the E. African Savannah! (Maybe we shouldn't even have climbed down from the trees).

Your analysis is always the same. X is bad. Therefore we shouldn't do X (usually do preceding Y). There is never any scope for saying we can turn X into Y, that produces a better outcome, even if it also causes other negatives that in turn need changing.

Alex Tolley said...

@raito But it's also insane that changing which test scores you use changes who passed from 70% to 38%.

So are we "educating" or doing something else?

I admit that I had a privileged education and that just being a "good worker" was not really an acceptable outcome. Given the employer-employee power imbalance today, "good worker" just equates to being compliant and "fitting in" to employer demands. I don't think that is a desirable situation any more, even if it is a good short term tactic to earn money.

As regards algebra, etc. In the UK there used to be/is "pure" and "applied" math taught at middle/high school level equivalent. I've taught math at university and I have to say there is a case to answer for not teaching some math subjects that just cannot been applied for most subjects. The contrived examples in the textbooks for "application" can make you weep. It would be far better to make students more number literate, and given them math that can be widely applied, so that they will use it, rather than just pass a test and let it fall out of their brains again. If physics or engineering needs it, then fine, but should it be taught to students of other sciences and even humanitarian subjects? Debatable.

Paul451 said...

"A better question to ask is what is the limitation on growth for the available sunlight? How much can the available energy be transformed to maximize crop productivity?"

Many crops have upper limits on their rate of photosynthesis, productivity plateaus even if there's more light available. Flip-side, different plants have different responses to low light levels. C4 plants like grasses (wheat/corn) do badly in lower light and have the highest productivity in strong light, so they do best in wide fields and would be unsuited to vertical gardens unless augmented by strong artificial light. C3 plants, like vegetables, fruit and leafy salad crops, have lower productivity in full sunlight but can tolerate much lower levels of sunlight and still grow well. They are better suited to vertical farms. Dark green leafy vegetables tolerate the least light, and would thrive.

You pick crops that fit the light profile. Depending on power costs, it may be economical to add artificial lighting to extend the growing season.

[Personally, I'm not a fan of vertical farming. I can't see it ever being more than a niche for fresh/local in the biggest cities. The crops most suited for vertical farming are precisely those most suited to greenhouses, which already allow high productivity on marginal city-fringe land.]

"What you don't want is to visualize the vertical surface replacing the horizontal surface. You need to think about the energy falling on the top surface and how that may be maximally used."

Sunlight doesn't fall vertically. Most of the energy for a vertical farm comes from the sides of the building. Shadowing is an issue.

Re: Antarctica.
"which means no law allowing resource extraction (like celestial bodies)."

The Protocol on Environmental Protection extension of the Antarctic Treaty explicitly bans resource extraction (other than fishing/whaling/etc). The Outer Space Treaty does not. Under OST, asteroid/moon mining is just an "operation" which all nations are free to authorise, and none permitted to interfere with the others.

Paul451 said...

Re: Arcologies.
Thing is, land isn't rare on Earth and the air is {waves hand}. There's no benefit to building an arcology on Earth. In space, there's benefits in centralising life-support, and everything else follows from that. On Earth, your basic ECLSS is the Earth.

Re: Antarctica.
Without the Antarctic Treaty, I suspect we'd have seen more development. Exploitation of resources, certainly, and a much greater tourist industry.

Re: Oceans.
The lowest pressure in space is 0 atm, the highest pressure difference is therefore up to 1 atm. The same pressure is reached at just 10m under the ocean. Ie, the difficulty of working in space is roughly the same as the difficulty working in the top 10m of the oceans. Other than fishing, there are few resources within 10m of the ocean surface, and all of it already owned by someone. To expand, you need to not only be able to tolerate hundreds of atmospheres of pressure, but to be able to tolerate varying pressure across your structures and over time.

Space is much easier. The only reason we've done as much as we have with oceans is because the energy to get to the starting point (ocean surface vs LEO) is so much less. If getting to LEO was as easy as getting to the beach, we'd be in the Oort Cloud by now.

(Similarly, exploring and mapping space from a distance is vastly easier. To explore the ocean depths, you have to be right there on site (and at depth.))

"Interstellar" was a "blight" not a drought. A disease that killed everything crop except... corn.

David Brin said...

Paul, I think space is harder than oceans... but yes... corrosion and pressure and many other things make oceans not-easy-at-all.

locum... um I am still bemused that you under-appreciate the only civ that is at least SOMEWHAT agile and self-correcting... still... that comment was cogently argumentative... and who are you and what have you done with locumranch?

David Brin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
matthew said...

Texas Governor thinks that US federal forces wargaming is a move that "his" National Guard needs to watch for potential US takeover of his state.

Governor Greg Abbot's press release - “It is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed,” Abbott wrote. “By monitoring the Operation on a continual basis, the State Guard will facilitate communications between my office and the commanders of the Operation to ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect Texans.”

Support the Troops, right?

locumranch said...

Alex's reflexive rejection of my 'self-perpetuation' argument betrays three things:

(1) Linear historical thinking associated with a 'progressive' or incremental bias;

(2) Magical thinking involving equivocation; and

(3) A self-perpetuating circularity of thought.

By making the absurd argument that 'self-perpetuation' (a life-defining characteristic) is incompatible with 'evolution', he argues that evolution is necessarily incremental but NOT necessarily life-dependent;

By equivocating incremental social progress with biological evolution, he essentially argues that a discrete substance (X) is identical (by virtue of being transformable) to a different substance (Y); and

By arguing that social progress (CHANGE) is necessarily incremental, he reinforces a pre-existing cultural preference for incrementalism.

Unfortunately, reality repudiates his argument: Slavery was not eliminated by incremental baby steps but by bloody conflict; the '3/5th Compromise' served to perpetuate slavery rather than help eliminate it; and totalitarianism did not magically transform itself into 'universal equality' through the incremental magic of communism.

Of course, some things can be 'improved' by minor changes, but a motorcar remains a motorcar despite the application of (even the most progressive) CAFE standards, an aeroplane is not a motorcar just because they share in certain technical advances, and the motorcar did not transmogrify itself into an aeroplane just because of your shared belief in incrementalism.

Jumper also needs to use that dictionary of his:
(1) progress => forward motion or advancement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage.
(2) progressive => happening or developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step
(3) progressivism => the political orientation of those who favor progress (!!) towards a fixed goal, ideal or higher stage.
(4) incremental => of, relating to, or occurring as an increase, addition, graduation or series on a fixed scale.


Anonymous said...

The fantastical notion that there is no carrying capacity is well established in various religious traditions; one need only look to the Chinese Buddhists who some 1500 years ago established inexhaustible karmic treasuries (David Graeber, "Debt"). The usual capitalistic growth imperative ensued, along with the attendant distortions and abuses and eventual government interventions to restore some semblance of sanity. A modern substitution of various dismal science abstractions for the Dharma can be expected to yield much the same outcomes as the Chinese experience. For example, temple spending has been quite high in recent years, with costs there growing faster than inflation; various religious bodies have dumped more spending into new temples instead of maintaining the existing ones, and the ASCE cult has asked for trillions in new tax revenue to try to maintain and grow the existing temple network. Meanwhile, how fares space travel and supersonic flight? The progress there since the 1970s has been quite distinctive.

Alex Tolley said...

By making the absurd argument that 'self-perpetuation' (a life-defining characteristic) is incompatible with 'evolution', he argues that evolution is necessarily incremental but NOT necessarily life-dependent;

That is so backwards. Evolution is a fact. Evolution can be incremental or punctuated (all phyla appeared by the Cambrian).
Despite extinctions, there should be no argument that life has exploded in form,and diversity.

You are so hung up on "ibcrementalism". This is becoming a strawman argument. I can onlt guess that you are thibking in terms of civilization rise and fall, e.g. from teh ancient world, culminating in Rome, then falling back to a dark age before climibling again. Unfortunately while there is some truth in this, the more we learn of this period between teh fall of tegh western Roman empire and the invasion of Britain by teh Normans, the more we understand that this was not a civilizational collapse at all, that positive social changes happened, even if Roman technology was lost. Why you assume that liberalism assumes monotonic "incrementalism" is beyond me.

By equivocating incremental social progress with biological evolution, he essentially argues that a discrete substance (X) is identical (by virtue of being transformable) to a different substance (Y);

Wrong analogy and by implication, inappropriate logic.

By arguing that social progress (CHANGE) is necessarily incremental, he reinforces a pre-existing cultural preference for incrementalism.

Again, that is your assumption, not mine. I think you need to learn about evolutionary systems before making sucjh statements.

Unfortunately, reality repudiates his argument: Slavery was not eliminated by incremental baby steps but by bloody conflict; the '3/5th Compromise' served to perpetuate slavery rather than help eliminate it; and totalitarianism did not magically transform itself into 'universal equality' through the incremental magic of communism.

Why equate communism = incrementalism? It was obviously a radical discontinuity. OTOH, social change can be incremental, as the population changes through changing cohorts. We are not seeing bloody revolution to gain women's rights to vote, nor changing the acceptability of LGBTs from pariahs to mainstream in society, nor allowing "designer babies", or a host of other social changes that I have seen in my lifetime. Most revolutions have in fact failed, the American revolution being one of the few successful ones, almost proving the rule. Steady change without disruption may be preferable to major disruptive changes. Only historical analysis can determine which (and of course it is written from the winners' perspective).

Alex Tolley said...


I can't see [vertical farms] ever being more than a niche for fresh/local in the biggest cities. The crops most suited for vertical farming are precisely those most suited to greenhouses, which already allow high productivity on marginal city-fringe land.]

You may be right. But it is a way to go to increase increase productivity.

Sunlight doesn't fall vertically. Most of the energy for a vertical farm comes from the sides of the building. Shadowing is an issue.

Obviously. BUT, you do need to think in terms of teh sunlight energy falling obliquely. Yes, today vertical farms just use ambient light liht a vertical greenhouse. But that isn't the way to think about it if used as an extensive farming system. Technologies like the Japanese lettuce farm are one possibility, even if very expensive today. It is all about developing cost effective technologies to reduce costs, increase productivity and reduce externalities.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection extension of the Antarctic Treaty explicitly bans resource extraction (other than fishing/whaling/etc). The Outer Space Treaty does not. Under OST, asteroid/moon mining is just an "operation" which all nations are free to authorise, and none permitted to interfere with the others.

It is a lot more difficult than that. Space lawyers are stuill arguing over whether soverignity is necessary or not, and what this allows or doesn't. In my layman's opinion, I think that buccanneering corprations will do what they want as they have done historically, taking profits while they can today, while worrying about costs decades later in fighting legal cases. But many corporations will not invest due to te legal uncertaintaies.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Arcologies.
Thing is, land isn't rare on Earth and the air is {waves hand}. There's no benefit to building an arcology on Earth. In space, there's benefits in centralising life-support, and everything else follows from that. On Earth, your basic ECLSS is the Earth.

There are benefits to Earthly arcoilogies. Think of them as extending the easily habitable surface of the Earth. They are just a more advanced version of coities that have made living in once hostile areas possible. There are a number of other benefits too.

Re: Oceans.
The lowest pressure in space is 0 atm, the highest pressure difference is therefore up to 1 atm. The same pressure is reached at just 10m under the ocean. Ie, the difficulty of working in space is roughly the same as the difficulty working in the top 10m of the oceans. Other than fishing, there are few resources within 10m of the ocean surface, and all of it already owned by someone. To expand, you need to not only be able to tolerate hundreds of atmospheres of pressure, but to be able to tolerate varying pressure across your structures and over time.

I tend to agree with you that the oceans are only populatable at the surface. Deeper makes little sense. Of course the ocean surface is 75% of the total surface of Earth (and getting larger?).

Space is much easier. The only reason we've done as much as we have with oceans is because the energy to get to the starting point (ocean surface vs LEO) is so much less. If getting to LEO was as easy as getting to the beach, we'd be in the Oort Cloud by now.

If only that were true. Space is quite hostile in many ways too. You also need to pack your whole bisophere with you to be truly space dwelling. Can't do that yet. But cost of access to LEO is a [THE?] major constraint. That I can agree with.

Jumper said...

To abandon the entire concept of "progress" because the least common definition of "progressive" is "incremental" would be rather silly. If one is "progressing" towards stocking the larder, and in one fell swoop one acquires a debit card with $50,000 for groceries, I can assure you that progress is considered progress even if it is not incremental but sudden.

One example of a sudden change is the basic appearance of the internet, for all practical purposes, with the WWW and Google in about '99. A great improvement and in many respects not incremental at all.

locumranch said...

First, the terms 'progress' and 'improvement' belie a teleological bias, as does what commonly passes for evolutionary theory.

Second, self-perpetuation (like evolution) is also a fact, so much so that one can argue that evolution represents an 'a priori' copying DEFECT rather than any sort of 'a posteriori' improvement.

Third, the collapse of any civilization can be a very GOOD thing, historically speaking, but I will let Alex speak for me in this regard:

"(The) more we learn of (the) fall of (the) western Roman empire and the invasion of Britain by (the) Normans, the more we understand that this was not a civilizational collapse at all, that positive social changes happened, even if Roman technology was lost".

So, tell me again, Ozymandias, how you know what's best for humanity's future history since the future (by definition) is unknown and only time will tell if we are worshipped, reviled, remembered or forgotten.


Alex Tolley said...

@locum So, tell me again, Ozymandias, how you know what's best for humanity's future history since the future (by definition) is unknown and only time will tell if we are worshipped, reviled, remembered or forgotten.

So let's put you at the height of the Roman Empire, say somewhere in the first half of the millennium CE. So given that you have the advantage of the known possible futures all over the globe for the next millennium and a half, which period would you prefer to live in?

Acacia H. said...

Oh hell, Tacitus expects me to stick around while he goes off and has fun? Curse my sense of responsibility! *shakes fist at the sky*

I have to wonder if the problems Russia has had with another Progress rocket proving defective will result in extra funds to send manned private craft to the ISS. I mean, imagine if this had happened to a manned vessel with an American astronaut on board. Assuming the initial malfunction didn't depressurize and frag the interior of the capsule, we'd be seeing an Apollo 13 situation unfolding.

This is also why SpaceX's capsule is the superior system. Most rockets lose their rocket tower before it reaches orbit, while SpaceX's Dragon can use its Draco engines even IN orbit if need be.

On a related note, I rather liked the new rocket that Blue Origin, I think it was? launched from. I'm used to these tall "graceful" rockets launching into orbit. This was a squat bulbous vessel. And it worked. It's a shame they didn't recover the launch vehicle (more hydraulic issues it seems) but it's nice to see more companies are working on this.

Rob H.

Jumper said...

"if we are worshipped, reviled, remembered or forgotten."
I don't care how some hypothetical idiots view "us" because I think for someone to lump together all individuals as "the civilization of the time" is lazy thinking. I don't lump Stalin together with Alexander Fleming. I can't conceive of anything stupider.

Alex Tolley said...


Unfortunately only the Progress rocket has the energy to push the ISS back to station keeping orbit. I have heard that there is a 12 - 18 month window before drag starts to pull it down inexorably into the atmosphere. No doubt that will be solved in due course, but for now...

Jumper said...

They are due for an ion rocket but I don't know when.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Unfortunately only the Progress rocket has the energy to push the ISS back to station keeping orbit."

Surely even the Falcon - which can deliver a satellite to geostationary orbit - could match orbit with ISS with enough energy/impulse left to lift the ISS orbit a considerable distance

Or is the problem docking/stress??

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - it has to dock. I have no idea what it would take to adapt the vehicle to allow this maneuver.

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper - did you see the USAF's X-37B has launched with an advanced Hall Effect thruster for long term, maneuvering? The high Isp allows for a small xenon propellant tank.

I did hear that the proposed VASIMR engine to keep the station aloft was cancelled.

Jumper said...

I thought NSTAR was going up.

Alex Tolley said...

NSTAR is far too low thrust to work for the ISS. It is only suitable for space probes, not for the mass of the ISS.

Jumper said...

So if thrust was continuous how much do we need on average?

Jumper said...

It looks like you'd need maybe 80 of those suckers if drag on the ISS is .8 Newtons.

Alex Tolley said...

Good question. But without knowing the drag at the desired altitude, I can't calculate it. Right now the ISS uses perioic boosts from Progress in slightly thicker atmosphere. The ISS can also partially stow/reorientate the solar panels which are a major drag factor.

But note NSTAR has just 20-92 mN of thrust. That is very small.

The only pages that come up with "ISS" and "ION" are those associated with VASIMR. As we know, VASIMR is being hyped for the 39 day Mars mission, with a proposed multi-megawatt nuclear power unit. That power isn't needed for the ISS, but, but I expect the small version that was propsed was attractive because it could generate a wide range of thrust, depending on requirements, something ion engines cannot do.

Jumper said...

Apparently drag is avg. 0.7 N from a site recommending electric tethers do it:

Paul SB said...

Alex, it is clear that you are arguing with someone who simply does not know what he is talking about. He misunderstands (or deliberately misrepresents) some very, very basic concepts. Equating biological evolution to a DEFECT (as he puts it) makes it patently obvious he is either clueless or or trying to deliberately mislead and manipulate. Anyone with knowledge of elementary genetics and the modern synthesis knows that mutations are not necessarily defects. Alleles cannot be said to be good or bad without reference to the environment in which it is found. His understanding of evolution is below what is taught in seventh grade, which is usually an indication of his sources of information. Why bother?

K.D. Lang once sang: "I'm happily indifferent to the ones who have consistently been wrong."

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper - good reference. So 300-1100 mN needed.

If NSTAR can generate 20-92 mN, one needs 3-50 NSTARs depending of thrust and ISS drag, assuming they can run continuously as a first approximation.

So you might get close to managing with 3 with luck and keeping the ISS at the highest altitude possible.

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB biological evolution to a DEFECT

Wasn't this an old [religious] argument explaining why life must be recent (created in Eden) and has been degrading ever since? If so, it is like Darwin never existed and all the work on how evolution works both in vivo and with computer algorithms was irrelevant.

Worrying that a physician might think that way.

Paul SB said...

Alfred, I get what you are saying about applying K to humans, and I kind of agree, and kind of don't (how's that for waffle emulation?) The human capacity to change K through technology means that K is a moving target, a number that is continually changing. But humans have overshot whatever K was in their time on more than one occasion and in many regions around the world. When that happens, the results can be devastating. Right now it's popular for historians to question civilizational collapses, but not much of anybody would choose to live in 5th Century Rome or 10th Century Yucatan if they could avoid it. It's kind of like those armchair cavemen who go on about how we would be so much better off living off the land, while sipping their Starbuck's in the comfort of their living room. If we pretend that the laws of nature don't apply to us because we are so clever, we are likely to come up against limits we are not even aware of.

It's not just technology, though, that can make a different. Dr. Brin pointed out something demographers have been looking at for a few decades now - that when women have equal rights and a share of the family income, they generally choose to have fewer children. I've witnessed a couple births, and seen the stats on how many people die in labor. I'm sure I would, too. So there are social variables that have to be factored into any discussion of demographics, too.

If you find my lack of faith disturbing, please consider that I spent my formative years surrounded by manipulative, cynical, backstabbing church nazis. Optimism doesn't come easy to me, but I'm trying!

Paul SB said...

Alex, exactly!

I just finished teaching this unit to my 10th grade classes, and most of my students can explain exactly why medicine borders on hopeless, in some cases doing more harm than good, without evolutionary theory to explain how our bodies and minds work.

One really good resource I have been using for the past few years is a National Geographic video called "Stress: Portrait of a Killer." They spend a fair amount of the hour with Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist and one of the leading experts on stress. They never mention evolution, but if you understand the basics you can see how the mismatch between our evolutionary history and our current civilization creates most of our major medical problems, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and cancer being dramatically affected by this.

I found it on Youtube, so if anyone wants to follow this link, it's well worth an hour of your time.

Ioan said...


"Meanwhile, how fares space travel and supersonic flight? The progress there since the 1970s has been quite distinctive."

Yes it has, thanks for asking. For space travel, we have discovered >3,000 planets in the solar system. We've also orbited several bodies in the solar system that were not possible back then. And best of all, we did it with robotics. No humans required.

As for supersonic travel, we recently sent a robot at Mach 10, a feat which would have been science fiction towards the brave engineers and test pilots of that era.

In short, you're right. It's been quite distinctive ;)

Duncan Cairncross said...

The Musk announcement
"the Powerwall is a home battery system, that comes in a 10 kWh version for $3,500, or a 7 kWh model for $3,000."

Much more sensible pricing - I will be ordering one as soon as I get my current house sold
(I'm building a new home)

Anonymous said...

@Alex, @PSB
Much as it pains me, I have to point out that locum is right - what he said was that evolution could be thought of as a COPYING defect, not a defect in itself.

Which is true, at least for DNA-based evolution.

Paul SB said...

Once again, what geneticists term copying errors or mutations are not usefully conceived of as mistakes. Obviously something like PKU is hard to imagine as being a good thing under any circumstances, but a modified keratin protein that makes curly hair rather than straight, for example, gives people an advantage in hot climates, while the straight version is advantageous in cold climates. Without these copying errors and mutations, there would be no life on Earth except bacteria. By using the word /defect/ with its highly negative connotations he is deliberately misleading his audience - or else he's stunningly ignorant. One is the modus operandi of the creationist, the other is entirely typical of their dupes. But as Larry Hart might say, he can do two things.

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - glad it will work for you at that price. I expect this will galvanize other suppliers to compete driving down prices, much as happened in the PV market.

people have been developing alternative battery technologies since I was in school back in the 1960's, but the last decade has seen a phenomenal interest in, and development of, alternatives. If they were available for businesses back during the Enron shenanigans, California businesses wouldn't have been held hostage to power station supply games with the support of FERC. For residences as well, all those short term power glitches could be banished, as well as lowering bills by buying at off-peak rates.

Alex Tolley said...

@raito - a Guardian article about math teaching:

There was a Planetary Society radio talk on the same subject too, although as you can imagine, most guests were very pro-math education. (How can you do astron0omy and engineering without lots of math?)

Re: Germ line engineering. I see Francis Collins has said the NIH will not fund anything that allows human germ line engineering. Usual cautions about safety, but interestingly doesn't seem to even consider the issue of fixing genetic defects. The assumption is that genetic testing and termination is the solution, which is ridiculous given the GOP's stated desire to make terminations extremely hard to get and that all human life is precious. Total disconnect.

raito said...


Your link doesn't seem to be working for me.

I should also correct my earlier comment. The 70% to 38% was for reading. The 8th grade algebra test passing rate was 2% -- because it's not offered.

As for not teaching math to anyone but engineers and scientists, I disagree. There's a whole lot of application of math to various professions that goes unused, precisely because the people in those professions didn't think it was useful, and so don't have the background to see its use (a sort of cyclic ignorance). Most humanities could do with a good dose of statistics, anyway.

But I also think that there's far more use to some subjects (math and music immediately spring to mind, though art is probably one, too) than the idea that you'll use the knowledge someday. Studying a subject changes how your mind works. And it's that change that's beneficial. And in most cases, even more than the knowledge of the subject.

Take some of the current focus on having every child learn to write computer programs. Most people will never have to do it, and won't miss not being able to do it. But there's intrinsic benefit to being able to break an arbitrary problem down into a precise set of steps according to inflexible rules that benefits nearly everyone.

At my high school we had an odd mix. On the one hand, most of the university professor's children went there. On the other, we had a large influx of the first generation whose parents escaped the interior of Chicago.

What happened was that those children figured out that they had an opportunity not available to any of their ancestors -- and took advantage of it. In the end, there was not difference in graduation rate or college career between those two economically diverse segments of my graduation class.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Regarding batteries with solar power systems: It is critically important that everyone who can afford it have a solar power system with battery backup.

There are a large variety of events that can knock out the bulk power grid for a very long period of time. A cyber-attack is the most likely.

The "774-775 carbon-14 anomaly" has been mentioned here before. It now appears to have been a geomagnetic storm about 20 times larger than any previously-known geomagnetic storm. The electric power grid operators are simply totally incapable of handling such an event.

We know from observing stellar storms on other stars that such geomagnetic storms caused by our sun are both rare and inevitable.

People tend to concentrate on the word rare and avoid thinking about the word inevitable. When it comes to a potential civilization collapsing event, this is a terrible mistake.

Alex Tolley said...


The radio link:

I absolutely agree statistics should be taught to everyone. Stats are considered part of arithmetic rather than math, but this may be a British distinction. (EVERYONE needs to be taught arithmetic).

The argument is that math should be more of an elective - ie teach the universally used maths, but reserve some subjects for those going into disciplines that need specific math approaches. I don't disagree that math (indeed any subject) can be mind-expanding, but that doesn't mean that this should be forced on the student if they hate it. There are also plenty of opportunities to learn any subject outside of formal instruction for those interested. Arguably that is how of our learning is nowadays. I even have a raft of math books in my library, almost all of which was not taught in my formal education period.

The other issue is how to teach math. There is room for new approaches as well. But that is a different topic of discussion.

Alex Tolley said...

@Jerry - but would a solar storm also ruin the battery, or the very least the electronics unless it is totally disconnected from the grid? Maybe that is a good use of satellites to provide warning so that grid disconnection can occur automatically, protecting the periphery from damage.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

@Alex - A solar storm would not ruin the battery, and would be very unlikely to damage the electronics at all.

The direct radiation effects would probably be limited to damage to space assets. (The high carbon-14 levels from 774-775 were apparently caused by radiation, primarily protons, hitting nitrogen at the top of the atmosphere and converting the nitrogen into carbon-14, which then floated down to the surface.)

The damage to the electric grid occurs because of very low frequency, almost DC-like, currents getting into electric grid components that are designed for 50 or 60 Hz. AC. This occurs because of disturbances to the Earth's magnetic field inducing currents in long power lines.

The main damage is to large transformers from two effects. The first is direct overheating caused by running DC through a transformer designed for AC. The second effect is called "half-cycle saturation." The magnetic field in the core of the transformer is upset by DC currents flowing through the windings. This distorts the sine wave of the AC in the electric grid and further overheats the transformer core.

So both the transformer core and the transformer windings overheat.

The only damage that could happen in a home is in the unlikely event that this very distorted waveform gets into your home equipment for any length of time.

In previous severe solar storms, the grid transformers burned out (or overloads tripped the grid off) before any consumer damage could occur. This is likely to be the situation even in much more severe solar storms. (This is an area where severe solar storms are very different from things like nuclear electromagnetic pulse that cause a fast pulse at ground level.)

The latest significant geomagnetic storm problem was in the South African power grid in the "Halloween storms" of 2003. Even though South Africa has about the same geomagnetic latitude as Florida, 14 major power grid transformers burned out in this solar storm, but no consumer problems were reported (other than loss of power).

Jerry Emanuelson said...

The Internet Archive captured one interesting technical paper, with photographs of damaged transformers, that tells all about the damage to the South Africa grid in 2003. It is at:

Acacia H. said...

Given your disdain for the Moon and your belief it is a "trap," Dr. Brin, what are your views of the new ESA head calling for a permanent lunar base to be built on the far side of the Moon? Johann-Dietrich Wörner does seem to view this as an international effort, much like the International Space Station, but open to all nations (ie, the U.S. can't say "no Chinese allowed"), thus making this both an international effort and also a means of developing the technologies needed to build bases on asteroids, other planets, and moons.

Undoubtedly, building on the far side of the Moon also allows for better radio telescopes that don't have to worry about interference from Earth signals and the like. Or light pollution from the Earth for more traditional image-based telescopes.

Rob H.

Alex Tolley said...

@Daniel - re synthetic rhino horn. Well damn.

OK, so they are turning it to powder, rather than making an imitation horn.

Alex Tolley said...

@Jerry - Thank you for that explanation. I must be watching too many SF movies with special effects. I just assumed the plasma storm would put a current overload in the wires and overload the house wiring, damaging peripherals, rather liek a lightening strike or unprotected power surge.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

@Alex - You're not the only one. The U.S. Space Command commissioned Bill Nye to help make a short film called "Hollywood vs. EMP" to show to their incoming people. The purpose of the film is to get popular misconceptions out of the heads of people who will have to deal with real electromagnetic effects.

Unfortunately, that film is not available to the general public.

David Brin said...

“The incoming leader of the European Space Agency is keen on establishing an international base on the moon as a next-step outpost beyond the International Space Station (ISS).” Oh, but sorry, this is just plain wrong. Probably an effort to stand out, without doing any cost-benefit appraisal… which would quickly conclude that the Moon – a sterile desert without any use, at the bottom of a deep gravity well – is not our best-next destination in space.

(Indeed, George W. Bush’s call to return there fit into his patterns of never, even once, setting course in a direction that would do America or the West the slightest good.)

Look, I am fine with finding ways to use the moon. You got a use for Helium3? Fine. Google “David Brin” and “Lift the Earth” to see how I want to use the far side! But there’s nothing there that this generation can use. One small asteroid can provide water for fuel. Ten years later, another will crash the platinum markets by providing all we need.

David Brin said...

Now... onward

siska said...
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