Thursday, June 30, 2016

Expanding our view: Science and technology and unimagined possibilities!

Okay, this is going to be one of those spills of one cool (or amazing or scary) thing after another!

Hubble finds universe is expanding 9% faster than expected! Astronomers keep refining their measurements of Cepheid variable stars and type 1a supernovae, resulting in the best-yet determinations of the age of the universe and the Hubble Constant showing how fast the whole shebang is expanding. And now, in addition to Dark Energy and Dark Matter there is talk of Dark Radiation.  Wowzer.  The more you know….

Updating the Periodic Table: Nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og) are the newest elements - atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 - on the Periodic Table to receive names.  The first three are named for where they were discovered. The last for Russian nuclear physicist Yuri Oganessian, a pioneer with achievements including the discovery of superheavy elements.  

Looking ahead.... In his latest book, The Inevitable: Understanding the Twelve Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, tech guru Kevin Kelly provides an optimistic road map for our near future, showing how the coming changes in our daily lives — from virtual reality in the home and on the street to robots in the workplace, from an on-demand economy to ever-present tracking, as well as artificial intelligence embedded in nearly everything we manufacture — Kelly proposes these trends can be understood as the result of a few long-term, accelerating forces; by embracing these coming changes, Kelly says we can better steer toward a positive future. You can watch Kevin Kelly discuss these major trends at the SXSW conference.

Thinking beyond Asimov's laws: This article discusses how to plan for a future with ethical robots.

Continuously rising: One simple, 40 second gif shows you the simplest path of global temperature rise since 1850, in a way that automatically adjusts for season. You can see the effects of industrialization accelerating, especially in recent years. Seriously, there's plenty to argue about, like how to adapt and fix and (in some cases like Florida) let go. So why are we still pretending there's room for argument about "whether"? There is no whether, only worsening weather. And denialists are direct harm-doers to our kids and our future.

== What we are... Where we've been ==

If the Guinea worm is pushed into extinction this coming year, then it will be just the second human disease to be eradicated after smallpox.  And former President Jimmy Carter will deserve a lot of credit for the accomplishment, having eliminated a painfully debilitating illness that afflicted 3 million people each year, when he left office. Said the 91 year old Carter: "I'd like the last Guinea worm to die before I do."

Sci fi sometimes creeps up, then pounces!  Top scientists recently held a closed meeting to discuss building a human genome from scratch....

...a topic explored in more detail in the recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History, by Pullitzer Prize winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, who offers insight into our modern quest to understand our genetic heritage, how we are shaped by our DNA... and how modern science is now picking up the tools to reshape our genes and those of other creatures.

Indeed, journalist Jennifer Kahn ponders whether new CRISPR genetic tech opens up the possibility of altering entire species forever. “How will this new power affect humanity? What are we going to use it to change? Are we gods now?” A fascinating TED talk.

Researcher Yang Hu thinks food affects tolerance. He found that people from rice-growing provinces such as Guizhou, Fujian and Sichuan, where a large proportion of farmland is devoted to rice paddies, are significantly more accepting of premarital sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality, when compared with those from wheat-growing provinces such as Jilin and Shaanxi. This may not be about nutritional value, though. “For centuries before the prevalence of modern machines, rice plantations relied heavily on close cooperation between farmers for the provision of irrigation, while wheat tended to be managed by people working alone. The need of cooperation for the production of food—a necessity for survival —in rice-growing regions may have helped to cultivate a higher level of interpersonal dependence, mutual understanding and tolerance.

Chinese scientists suggest that complex single-celled organisms may have appeared on Earth up to a billion years earlier than previously thought.

A new book by Peter Ward and Caltech professor Joe Kirschvink, A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth, challenges many of our ideas about the origins and evolution of life. New research indicates the monumental importance of catastrophic events in shaping our planet (the "Great Oxygenation Event", Snowball Earth) as well as the development of life... for our ancestors had to deal with "fire, ice, hammer blows from space, poison gas, the fangs of predators, pitiless competition, lethal radiation, starvation," as well as war, plague and ever-changing ecosystems, each event leaving "its mark in the total sum of DNA now extant."

A French cave contains a ring of broken stalactites arrayed in a way that could only be intentional… and has been dated to 175,000 years ago. Long before any other known form of art or construction. Wow.  

Eating the right amount of dietary fiber from breads, cereals, and fruits (appears to) be the single largest factor in helping us avoid disease and disability into old age.  

== Tech updates ==

The RoboBee micro sensor-drone weighs 4-thousandths of an ounce and can fly and now – perch against almost any surface using controlled electrostatics. 

Smart dust: increasing miniaturization will bring cameras the size of a grain of salt.

Stretching from the U.S. to Japan, Google's faster (60 terabytes per second) undersea cable goes live.

The World Economic Forum's Top Ten Emerging Technologies of 2016, including nanosensors, organs on chips, next-generation batteries, blockchain and optogenetics.

The proposed “hedgehog” asteroid rover uses a unique flywheel system to propel itself with great simplicity… an endeavor that we funded at NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC.)  

Here's the original video for the first CTO Challenge at FiRe Conferences.  The first of them, dealing with the "cell phone of the future." Now, a decade later, British researchers and Google each claim to have independently developed revolutionary concepts for Lego-like modular interactive mobile devices. But see our slides from 2007!

Soldiers need better hearing. To pick out sounds of danger… and to reduce the impact of harsh noises. These earbuds promise to do both

Onward! With confidence (and some caution and compassion.)  Ever-onward.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Trump, Tribalism and Diatribes

Both Fareed Zakaria and 538’s legendary Nate Silver have issued apologias and post-mortems for having failed so utterly to predict Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.  Interesting reading.  And yet they seem determined to double down on mistakes.

1. Voters are more tribal than I thought.
2. GOP is weaker than I thought.
3. Media is worse than I thought.

Oh, certainly these have some general truth. And yet, does Donald Trump’s triumph in GOP primaries reflect on all “voters”? Or on the 6% or so of qualified U.S. citizens who cast ballots in his favor in primaries, so far?

More significant is the fact that another 4% or so backed raving reactionaries like Ted Cruz, with very few supporting the mainstream GOP pols whom Rupert Murdoch is used to having at his beck and call.  Sure, Trump is appealing to “tribalism.” But he has swayed a subset of a subset, so far.  

It will only be fair to impugn American voters, in general, if the supporters of Bernie Sanders prove too “tribal” to see the practical value of joining the general democratic alliance.

Is the media “worse” than Nate Silver thought?  Oh sure. But the tribes supporting Donald Trump are not swayed by general media, rather by a subset that was fine-tuned, at great expense, by the Murdochian machine, by Clear Channel svengalis and by Heritage/AEI  incantation-rationalizers. After inciting millions into a resentful, grievance-driven froth that includes a bilious war against science and every other “smartypants” profession in American life, the owners of that specialized wing of media now blink in astonishment at what they have wrought. Having whipped their horse into a populist frenzy, they cannot believe it when an expert rider hopped aboard their already-raging beast and snatched the reins right out of their hands.  

(As happened to the so-smart 1930s German Junkers lords who thought they could control racist populists because “we own the newspapers.")

Nate Silver blames the “weak” GOP on a failure of coordination, ignoring the fact that the 21st Century Republican Party was - until very recently - the most tightly disciplined political entity in the history of the republic.  

For a couple of decades no major GOP officeholder dared utter a word that did not comply with talking points issued by Roget Ailes. And woe unto any who violated the (Dennis) Hastert Rule by negotiating with democrats over matters of public substance. It was for that sin, rather than his divorce scandals, that Newt Gingrich suffered exile into the political wilderness. (And contemplate Newt's possible revenge.)

Sure, that formerly tight discipline appears to have been shattered, this year.  But look underneath. House and Senate republicans are still marching in utter lockstep, with no one breaking ranks, except a few gutsy senators daring to diss Trump. As far as policy is concerned? Sticking to the GOP method of doing almost nothing for the republic? Anything at all?  No change.

No, Nate, the fault does not lie in GOP "failure of coordination." My own theory is that Murdoch and his ilk deliberately bent their wills and massive resources to re-igniting our 250 year old, ever-simmering American Civil War. "Red" America is gray, and we have been down this path before. And setting fire to this match was not just treason.  It was spectacularly stupid.

== How does Donald Trump do it? ==

Scott (Dilbert) Adams has analyzed how DT's most outrageous or fact-free statements aren't meant to convince, they are designed to move the Center of Narrative, so that we're arguing over how much or little DT has exaggerated a core truth. The essence is "there must be some fire under all this smoke I am blowing, right?"  Now see an even closer analysis of Trump's polemical method, which is brilliant. While it seems he's babbling, a simple word analysis reveals fiendish precision.

Watch this video! Share widely this appraisal of how Donald Trump’s polemic is so skillfully planned and executed, down to the number of one, two and three syllable words. A brilliant svengali! It will not persuade a single fervid Trumpist. But it can affect fence-sitting conservatives. Above all, it will show the True America of Jefferson and Franklin and Clemens and decent argument and of science and of people who can talk at a tenth grade level... that this truly is a fight worth taking very seriously.

After that amazing decryption of DT’s method, Nerdwriter then analyzes how news media and politicians and citizens helped make the Trump phenomenon. Though I'll warrant only for the 40% who are confederates. The greater number of blue/Union Americans will send him packing as we did Jeff Davis. 

See this: a guide to the almost-endless list of conspiracy theories espoused by Donald Trump.

== Vice Presidential choices ==

Recently I posted my own quirky take on the factors that Trump must consider in picking his running mate... a choice made far more problematic by the fact that few seem to want the job... and that whoever he does select may betray him for political advantage, either before the election or else - in the unlikely event they win -- very soon after. If you haven't seen these almost-scifi scenarios, go see how plausible they are, and how closely DT himself should pay attention to the minefield.

In this parsing of possible Democratic VP picks, I lean strongly toward Al Franken. Also Virginia’s TIm Kaine. Both reach out beyond their obvious traits, are sharp-witted and truly substantial minds.

As for the other veep choice? Okay I'll dip back in, since it is so fascinating.  This article from The Washington Post shows how, with Trump, the spread is so wide, it’s like an entire Dr. Seuss bestiary -- alas most of it similarly nonsensical.  Does he want his veep choice to help shore him up with the establishment? That is starting to seem likely. Only then that will mean he’s NOT planning a hard veer to the center. 
If he does veer toward the middle (and I elsewhere called that a potential benefit for the country, if (say) the GOP presidential candidate were to publicly drop insane voodoos like supply side and climate denialism) then in that case he’d need a veep from the radical right who would protect his base, while he performs his centrist feint.

A deciding factor between those two options? Donald Trump always thinks of #1 first. And picking a mainstream, establishment republican politician would be political - perhaps even real - suicide.  Follow the logic. If he chooses an establishment republican who is in Rupert Murdoch’s pocket (meaning nearly all of them), then the gopper lords could solve their Trump Problems by getting rid of DT on any pretext, after the inauguration. Forget the “JFK” scenario. Just impeach him! On any excuse at all. Most dems in Congress would go along (possibly foolishly) so Murdoch would not even have to supply his own majorities.  And then? DT fades into an historical footnote. Your establishment puppet is in and you get all the Supreme Court picks and possibly a re-election.
What a perfect plan! What on Earth could prevent it? DT will provide some pretext, early on. And the dems would never have the discipline to stand back and tell Paul Ryan: "do your own dirty work." Indeed, if the election looks lost, this betrayal could happen a month or so before the November polls.  (Okay, I repeated some of my earlier argument. But see it all laid out clearly here.)

This is why - for his own protection from both kinds of lynching - I am putting $5 on him nominating a maniac.

Though given how DT thinks?  A woman for sure. He’ll think that helps. Wait. Did I just describe Sarah Palin? Eep!  Far better… Ivanka Trump?  Oooooh. This year is giving me a headache.

== Paul Ryan embraces Trump ==

This stunningly Orwellian puff piece for Paul Ryan proclaims: “Paul Ryan in many ways is the antithesis of Donald Trump; he’s everything that Donald Trump is not. He’s a decent human being. He is a conservative. He is steeped in public policy. He cares about ideas. He’s a person who conducts himself with civility and grace in public life. He doesn’t put down his opponents.  He’s aspirational in his message and philosophy. He’s inclusive. He’s an admirable human being, and Donald Trump is not.”  

What stunning malarkey! Mr. Ryan may be softer-spoken, but he has been an utter partisan warrior on behalf of the pro-oligarchy madness that has transformed American conservatism from a movement containing some real intellect, respect for science and willingness to engage in adult negotiation into what we now see – a frothing frenzy of fervidly intransigent dogmatic hate-peddling.

The last Republican leader to actually engage in “politics” – or argument aimed at advancing policy in service to the American people – was Newt Gingrich who – while a sometimes-offensive culture warrior – would also pause now and then to negotiate with Bill Clinton, getting actual bills and debt-reducing budgets passed.*

Gingrich was toppled by a cabal of neoconservatives led by Dennis “role model for all boys” Hastert, Tom “convicted felon” DeLay, Tearful John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who combined to establish the Hastert Rule that any Republican who ever again negotiated with a democrat would be harshly punished. Their dedication to electoral cheating – e.g. gerrymandering – was unprecedented even in Tamany Hall days. 

The Congresses they led were not only the most dogmatic but also the laziest and most worthless, not even trying, feebly, to pass long stated Republican goals – not even when the GOP owned all three branches of government and could do anything they wanted (2001 to 2007).  All that passed during that span were gifts to Wall Street and the uber-rich and resource extractors. That… is… it. That and utterly absurd wars.

The rest of this insipid rationalization by Mike DeBonis is worth scanning if only to make sure that you don’t exist in an isolation booth. You blues are better than confederates because you are willing sometimes lift your gaze to hear other sides. At least you should be.

More from Ryan: “It’s a question of how to move ahead on the ideas that I — and my House colleagues—have invested so much in through the years. It’s not just a choice of two people, but of two visions for America,” Paul Ryan said today in endorsing Donald Trump. But unlike every other commenter or pundit, I care less about  surfaces like this endorsement than the utter gall of Ryan, contending that he has a "bold and clear vision" of ambitious actions on the GOP agenda.

What a towering liar. Okay, this bears repeating. The Republicans have held the House for 20 of the last 22 years and both houses for 16. For 6 years (2001-2007) they owned every single branch of government, Congress, the Courts and the presidency and could have passed anything they chose.  What did they choose... from their long, long list of ranted grievances?

Did they deregulate or banish any departments? Not a-one. (In contrast, democrats have deregulated many things, the ICC, CAB, AT&T, GPS and the whole freaking Internet.) Did twenty years of GOP Congresses cancel environmental regs? Did they do a push on abortion?

Nope, except for the Bushite disaster trillion-dollar wars, all they did was pass gusher arterial wealth transfers into the open maws of Wall Street, bankers, resource extractors and other parasites. That... is... it. NAME another major thing they did with all that power!

Again, because no one else will say it -- the last five GOP-run Congresses have been the laziest in the history of the republic. Members spend nearly all their time fund-raising. Or passing futile-bizarre retractions of Obamacare. They achieved not only record breaking lows in legislation proposed or passed, but lows in the number of days in session, hearings held, subpoenas issued.  And if you subtract frippery Benghazi and Email hearings, almost none at all.

The utter nerve and Chutzpah of Ryan, to use an "ambitious agenda" as his reason to support that screaming svengali Donald Trump?  Hypocrisy exponentiated, as we would expect from an apprentice to Dennis "role model for all boys" Hastert, convicted felon Tom De-Lay and Tearful-John Boehner.

When I assert they are all traitors, that is political polemic. But when I call them, lazy perverts, that is a matter of record.

== Splitting parties ==

Conservative columnist Thomas Friedman calls for a “New Republican Party” to become the healthy center-right movement in America. He’s not the only one. Elsewhere I describe how Jennifer Rubin, the “Right Turn” columnist for the Washington Post, has said similar things, citing Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb) as a (rare) example of sanity on that side, who might serve as a crystallization seed for such a reborn conservatism, rising from the well-earned ashes of the mad confederacy ignited by Rupert Murdoch.

Alas, if Friedman and Rubin and their ilk weren’t so blinded by stereotypes, they’d realize that the party they’re calling for already exists. It's HALF of the Democratic Party.

Let me explain. Today's Democratic Party is not a center right party... It *contains* America's center right party.  The DP is - in fact - the entire spectrum of moderate politics in America. It is where people who truly want to argue and negotiate pragmatic mixes of state and private and corporate views gather to try to concoct solutions to 21st century problems. Want to see this in every detail?  Look at California, where the 3/4 democratic majority has resulted is far more vigorous debate, not less. The far-more-moderate-than-national republicans in the state assembly are very influential, using their votes to horsetrade between the DP's liberal and moderate wings.  Oh and by the way, California under Jerry Brown is the best-run, cleanest and most effective state in the Union.

Hence the DP is ill-disciplined and hard to typify… a good thing!

In effect, the Democratic Party is the House of Commons and the GOP is the House of Lords and when the Lords have a majority they have just two priorities - to perform rip-offs of the people and (2) to prevent politics from functioning at all.

If the GOP vanished tomorrow, Thomas Friedman's wish would instantly come true as the DP would then almost instantly split in half. San American moderate conservatives would get a party that loves science and the Earth but is also pro-enterprise and flat-fair business competition... one that argues like adults with the somewhat pink wing of slightly socialists.

If the GOP vanished tomorrow. Oh, not till November.  Then make it so.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A look at Science Fiction webcomics: Part 3

What makes a science fictional webcomic? Many offer insights into science or space, artificial intelligence or how technology impacts our lives. Some have speculative fiction plotlines and are set in the distant future… but not all. A  good number depict spaceships, colony planets, faster than light travel, time travel, or alternate universes… but not all. Many portray alien species or talking anthropomorphic animals -- and reflect on the nature of humanity. 

More than a few explore post-apocalyptic scenarios after a fall from plague or widespread war; others have more mundane modern day settings, but deal with technological quandaries. Some offer drama or adventure; others are humorous or wry... and a few are rather dark. They tend to avoid tales of wizards and superheroes… or excess magic or mysticism. 

TV Tropes offers an extensive source of information about the common concepts of sci fi webcomics. 

This is a follow-up to my earlier postings on science and Science Fiction related comics: Part 1 looked at many excellent works such as Dresdan Codak, Schlock Mercenary, Girl Genius, SMBC, and xkcd; Part 2 moved on to Brewster Rockit, Outsider, Freefall, Drive, Quantum Vibe, and many others.  Here in Part 3 we'll do cleanup, covering some neglected treasures and others that you readers suggested, down in comments. (And yes, the Contrary Brin comments community is one of the oldest and most articulate/interesting blogmunities on the web, consisting mostly of erudite folks who care about ideas... and almost troll free!)

== Continuing our Web Comic Roundup ==

First a suggestion. Support these talented webartists -- and those listed in Parts 1 & 2 -- on the crowd-funding site Patreon – for these talented artists consistently post their work online for free.

Questionable Content, by Jeff Jacques, has been running since 2003, with well over 3000 episodes. A “slice of life” comic, the light-hearted, humorous series is set in Massachusetts in the near future. It follows the ever-evolving relationship dramas between Marten Reed, an indie-rock fan, his friends Faye and Hannelore (who grew up on a space station), his mischievous and often sociopathic robot Pintsize, and a cast that expands as the series progresses. Most tech is present day, other than the anthropomorphic sentient robots -- called AnthroPCs. 

The storyline takes many twists and turns over the years, at times developing the more futuristic and science fictional aspects of the plot, such as androids and artificial intelligence. See Issue 2017 for the start of their trip to the space station.   

Trying Human, by Emy Bitner follows Rose Marie Williams, a secretary for the New York City police, who wakes each morning suffering form insomnia and nosebleeds. Under hypnosis she discovers she is being abducted by aliens, the telepathic Greys; one male, Hue, has become fixated on her. Unknown to Rose, her boyfriend has become an agent of the secretive “Majestic 12” – a "Men in Black" - like unit which monitors alien activity on Earth. 

On a parallel plot line, flashbacks from the 1940s follow Phillis, a translator for the Air Force, who develops a special connection to an alien, EBE1, who has been recovered from a crashed ship. The title comes from a “trying human circuit” – which aliens use to appear human during their time on Earth. Start from the beginning here.

Trekker, by Ron Randall: This retrofuturistic adventure story begins in the gritty city of New Gelaph in the 23rd century, but later expands to encompass an interstellar society. It centers around the no-nonsense, kick-ass Mercy St. Clair, a bounty hunter or “Trekker,” tracking down criminals, gang members, underworld bosses, “…alive or dead, the pay’s the same.” In more recent issues, she takes on political intrigue and war as she ventures out to other planets and colonies. Wherever she goes, trouble always finds her. 

Released in print by Dark Horse in the late 1980’s, the series has been revived online. Nice artwork, vivid story with lots of action and fight scenes. Start from the beginning here, or indulge in the collected Trekker Omnibus

Inhuman, by Icarus, is set 1000 years in the future, after aliens have contacted earth. Near light speed travel has been achieved and Jump Gates enable rapid interstellar travel. A militaristic religious group, Rulerism, has spread across the galaxy; violence and massacres have followed as they forcibly seek converts with the mantra, “Save everyone’s soul. Save them from themselves.” Many of the (animalistic) aliens are prejudiced against humans for their role in the Ruleristic cult. Grey, a blind, mute, schizophrenic human, covered in scars, has escaped from an alien psych ward… and the Rulerists are desperate to find him. Flashbacks and hallucinations begin to fill in the often dark backstory. Hand drawn in ink and watercolors … a reflection on what it means to be human. Start at the beginning here.

Crowded Void, by Mike West offers one of the more unusual concepts. Finding Earth too crowded and people rather distasteful, Vincent Foxwell thought he could find peace when he took a job on a cargo vessel, hauling junk in space, with only an AI for company. Space turns out to be more crowded than he imagined…. when his spacecraft is swallowed by a massive space worm, where there is already an intestinal civilization of over a million humans and aliens, jockeying for position in the worm's digestive cycle. He must find a way to escape… before digestion is complete. But first he must deal with the The Joint Intestinal Monarchy, which controls the worm, harvesting parts from spaceships. No end of good material for humor… a new theory of wormholes? Start at the beginning here.

O Human Star, by Blue Delliquanti, tells the tale of Alastair (Al) Sterling, an inventor whose work sparked the robot revolution, but didn’t live to see it. Sixteen years after his sudden death, Al wakes up in a synthetic replica of his original body, with his memories intact. His technical designs have become reality; advanced robots coexist with humans. Meanwhile Brendan, his former business partner and best friend, had tried but failed to resurrect Al. However, Brendan did succeed in generating a synthetic being, Sulla, that looks like Al -- but decided to become female. She’s like him in every other way, except that she doesn’t have all his memories. Flashbacks illuminate Al’s formerly intimate relationship with Brendan (some sex scenes). And now Al must struggle to figure out who had him resurrected -- and discover his role in this new world of ever present artificial intelligence. Start at the beginning here.

Sunset Grill, by Kat Feete, is set in in a bar in the year 2426, in the gritty streets of Kieselburg, somewhere in the Midwest. “Earth is a patchwork quilt of restive, squabbling Domains, loosely joined under the mantle of the Empire, whose primary goal is to present a united front to the dozens of technologically advanced, land-hungry, and not particularly moral alien races.” The serial comic centers around the bar’s owners, workers and patrons, as well as the street kids, criminals, gangsters, corrupt cops, prostitutes, drug dealers… the low-life of the city’s slums, as well as glimpses of the justice system and Imperial officers. Science fictional elements are rare (genetically-engineered greenies) and some advanced technology. 3D computer graphics, with lots of backstory on the website. Start at the beginning here... and see it reviewed more extensively on Tangents Review. 

The Wandering Ones by Clint Hollingsworth An action comic set in the post-apocalyptic world of the mid 21st century, after a man-made viral weapon, a plague bomb released from orbit by religious zealots (as they were leaving earth) - has killed off most humans. But not all. The comic follows the stealthy scouts of the Clan of the Hawk, in the Columbia River area of the Pacific Northwest. These rebels, led by the tough female Ravenwing, use their survival and tracking skills (as well as some modern technology and a fair amount of mysticism) to live off the land as they struggle against the encroaching fascist Farnham’s Empire, aka The Reich. Start at the beginning here.

A Miracle of Science, written by Jon Kilgannon, drawn by Mark Sachs. This light-hearted webcomic ran from 2002 to 2007. Set in the year 2148 in an interplanetary civilization that extends out to the Jovian moons. This romantic comedy follows two members of the Vorstellen Police, whose job it is to track down and stop a virulent plague of… mad scientists. Bwa ha ha ha! The onset of Science Related Memetic Disorder (S.R.M.D.) has led to rogue scientists conducting dangerous research (to make robot armies) to achieve world domination. Lots of chase scenes and explosions, plus advanced tech like AI, androids, big attack robots, orbital cannons and terraforming. Fun. Start from the beginning.

Thunderpaw: In the Ashes of Fire Mountain, an animated comic by Jen Lee. This is a buddy roadtrip tale with anthropomorphic talking dogs. It was the brightest night… when humanity suddenly disappeared. “They’re not coming back are they?” Doggy pals Bruno and Ollie are trapped inside a car when fire rains from the sky and breaks open the vehicle. They can’t help but wonder…If only they hadn’t chewed up the garden, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Bruno and Ollie wander across a post-apocalyptic fiery wasteland, with danger everywhere… and they just want to return home to their doggy bed and backyard where treasures are buried. Lee’s gray and orange panels jitter and flash to create a sense of immediacy. Start at the beginning here.

Sluggy Freelance, by Pete Abrams. This humorous strip has been running since 1997; longer story lines developed over time. The main characters are Torg, his inventor friend Riff, Zoë, Gwynn and a psychopathic switchblade-wielding, talking mini-lop rabbit, Bun-Bun. They encounter aliens, monsters, ghosts, demons, vampires, mad scientists, and alternate universes.. with large doses of pop culture references, puns, parodies and gag lines.  Read the New Viewer’s Guide  or sample the Sci-Fi Adventure, where Riff invents a “dimensional flux agitator which opens rifts in random reality paths,” intending to blast Bun-Bun into another dimension – but of course things go wrong…. 

Anna Galactic, by Christopher Baldwin (creator of Space Trawler), is a sci fi web comedy. The spaceship Mary Celeste has landed on a carbon-based world when their lauridium power cube nearly died. But why were no SOS signals sent? And why hasn’t the captain gone in search of lauridium on the planet? 

Passengers Foxglove and Anna, with crewmember Dilvan -- and a nannybot Pewter -- suspect something’s amiss… and head off to the planet surface seeking answers. They encounter bizarre and hostile alien lifeforms and landforms and a mysterious colony settlement. Start at the beginning here.

Stand Still. Stay Silent, by Minna Sundburg is a post-apocalyptic adventure webcomic set in Iceland, which sealed its borders after a virulent pathogen wiped out most of the “Old World.” Ninety years later, a poorly funded research crew has set off to explore the outside territories of the Silent World – and gather info about those dark lands outside the known world, which consists of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Their journeys bring them in contact with a multitude of dangers -- beasts, giants, trolls and monsters – many the result of mutation from the plague. Elements of Nordic mythology arise, as much of the population has reverted to worshiping the ancient Norse or Finnish gods. Start at the beginning here.

Space Junk Arlia, by Alex Miller and Orange This relatively recent space opera follows a gang of pirates aboard the frigate Dela-Ru, their tough captain, Rana Borlei (known as Lady Luck) and their partly alien crew. Anyone going up against her “is gonna need all the luck they can get.” Even so, these pirates barely eke out a living, smuggling goods, avoiding the law when possible. When they agree to secretly escort a member of royalty, they find themselves under attack, enmeshed in webs of conspiracy… even as Rana’s past comes back to haunt her. Vivid space battles and starships. Start at the beginning here.

Erin Dies Alone, written by Cory Rydell and drawn by Grey Carter. A darker offering, this comic is about “isolation, mental illness and videogames.” It centers around a writer named Erin, a lonely young woman who has not left her condo in two years, her meds delivered through a slot in the door. Erin spends her days immersed in video games, hallucinating and talking with imaginary video game characters, particularly Red Panda, “the one who will save us all.” Is it all in her head… and can she step back into the real world? The strip satirizes classic video games from Sonic the Hedgehog to Halo and Final Fantasy, video violence, and leveling up. Start at the beginning here.

Brief Looks:

Space Mullet
Space Mullet, by Daniel Warren Johnson, is “an episodic style comic about a washed up, Ex-Space Marine trucker named Jonah, and his alien co-pilot, Alphius. Together they do their best (and usually fail) to do good throughout the galaxy.” (>Pictured to right.)

Relativity, by Beck Kramer: “When Irina Novak set off on NASA’s first light speed travel mission, she knew the flight would change her life. She just had no idea how much.”

Bicycle Boy, by Jackarais, is a post-apocalyptic story: “Our protagonist – a cyborg who calls himself “Poet” – can not recall anything before they day he woke up in the middle of the desert, surrounded by corpses." (Pictured to left.)

Space Corps, by Bryan Richmond and Gannon Beck: this series follows “a platoon of Space Marines fighting in a planet-hopping campaign in an intergalactic war.”

Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life, by Kit Roebuck and Alec Reed. "A philosophical road trip about two unemployed robots on an improvised interplanetary voyage of self discovery."

Greasy Space Monkeys, by Reine Brand and Mark Kestler, tells “the adventure of two idiots in a dead end job on a run-down space station.”

Velocidad by Kasey Quevedo
Velocidad  Bikers in Space, by Kasey Quevedo is “a sci fi genre webcomic about fast ships, space-heists, and even faster space bikes.” (Pictured to right.)

Supermassive Black Hole A!, by Ben Chamberlain. A hard sci fi webcomic, the story follows “human civilization at the center of the Milky Way galaxy,  an area of space dominated by a gigantic black hole, where energy is abundant and life is cheap.” 

Am I recommending all of these? Well some are better than others, but I leave that to you.  Also, many of the very best were listed already, in Parts 1 & 2.  But the number one consideration is this...

...enjoy!  But also protect your lifespan and productivity! Our wondrous civilization is filled with distractions. Have fun. But ration yourself and get done what needs doing! Then... rewards await...

              and Part 2: Science-fiction webcomics

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Even Modernists Can Get Stuck: Why we must keep revising even good ideas. (Plus some other cool stuff.)

Might things get better? Can you be an agent of that transformation? 

Peter Diamandis is the founder of XPRIZE, Singularity University, and many other fascinating initiatives. He formulated his provocative 'laws,' about how to be vigorous, pro-active and make the world around you change. They are now available as a handy poster.

Looking to the future.... on Quora I was asked whether the next century will be as transforming as the last one was.

Of course there is a strong possibility of a “singularity” — a tech driven leap that either replaces humankind or exalts us to a profoundly different level. In fact, I would give that 50% odds of happening … along with another 25% chance that we’ll blow it, bigtime, and either destroy ourselves or topple back into ultra-conservative feudalism - the normal condition of our ancestors, going back at least 6000 years. 

Which leaves 25% in which we move ahead - maybe a lot - but remain the kind of future folk seen in most sci fi. Still lovin’ and fightin’ and being dumb and having great escapades in space and battling dystopic villains and so on. The grist of almost all our sci fi flicks n' novels.

Looking back, it is tempting to suppose the last 100 years - while hugely transforming compared to what came before - was only prelude to more of the same -- flashier and with techie toys, but propelled by identical moral flaws. 

And yet it is in the moral realm that I see the most progress! As I pointed out back in 2000, discussing the Clarke-Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are ethically so, so different  from even the 1960s that it's almost like a different species. 

Consider. Exactly a century ago Woodrow Wilson was seen as the moral guiding light of the planet, speaking up for international order, for a breakup of colonial-imperial oppression and self-determination for all peoples. 

Now? From our later perspective, Wilson comes across as a racist-segregationist pig, because “all-peoples” in his mind meant all white folks… and Japanese. Oh, and he said European powers should surrender their "concessions" and leave China alone. But Africa? India? The segregated U.S. South? He shared many of the prejudices of his upbringing. So, are Princeton University students right to demand his name be taken off buildings and institutes, because he was only a whole lot better than his time? 

Are slave-owners Jefferson and Washington to be spurned, because the half-hypocritical and half-wondrous advances that they led reveal them lacking by our modern standards? Just remember that their (to our eyes) hyprocrisy only became revealed as we pushed those new standards to yet-higher levels, by standing on their shoulders. It calls to mind a line by François de La Rochefoucauld:  

          Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.

Oh, sure, it's not an easy maxim to understand, at first. But well-worth the effort when you finally go "aha, I get it," because the aphorism helps to explain why it's all right for us move ahead, as a society and as a species, in incremental steps. Indeed, incrementalism may be frustrating -- and an easy target for sanctimonious purists -- and yet it is how standards themselves keep rising as we keep ratcheting outward our horizons of tolerance and inclusion. So long as it remains incessant and propelled by men and women of conscience, incrementalism is not to be despised.

In that 2001 essay, I show how we have come at least as far, ethically, as technologically, with the Star Trek Prime Directive and Gandhi and King pointing us in the direction of ever-greater responsibility. Even when we flagellate ourselves for our moral faults…and we still have many(!) … that reflex of self-criticism is itself huge progress. And those who completely lack that reflex (we see some in politics today) should never be trusted with power.

Just as we should forgive Wilson, since he tried to be better than his times, we should also be willing to notice how far we have come. And how much closer we are - despite a myriad remaining faults - to being worthy of the stars.

== How a dumb theory can make us brittle ==

After suffering too many such disasters in recent years, the people of Japan and Ecuador are digging out from yet another pair of devastating earthquakes.  I’ll be donating blood soon. 

Nevertheless, it seems apropos to mention that recent disasters have caused Japanese thinkers to re-examine their 40 year love affair with a management theory that originated with American quality guru W. Edwards Deming. His teachings about perfecting product quality were vital and American manufacturers only embraced the lessons after getting the snot kicked out of them by superior Japanese products in the 1980s. 
Still, a Deming doctrine called the “just-in-time” supply chain has proved to have… faults.  In wake of each of the recent Japan quakes, Just-in-time collapsed! On this occasion — “Toyota Motor Corp said it would suspend production at plants across Japan after the quakes disrupted its supply chain.”

As it happens, running a manufacturing company based on just-in-time delivery of parts and components and resources is a lot like being a swimsuit model. Eating just enough to stay healthy and absolutely nothing more, a swimsuit model will probably not do well if stuck on a life raft or stranded in the desert, or simply on the street with morals but no cash. And certainly not in a post-quake-apocalypse. 

In fact, I've added just-in-time efficiency to my list of dire brittleness perils that I tell to members of the governmental protector caste, whenever I travel east to offer sf'nal finger-wags and warnings. At minimum we should not, by policy, reward such anti-resilience practices. Simple tweaks in tax-law  could instead incentivize parts stockpiling, rather than punish it, adding to our society's ability to stay robust in coming (and they will come) emergencies.

== Where liberalism and libertarianism overlap ==

It has been long assumed that you best help the world’s poor with closely supervised and targeted programs that – for example – teach skills or build infrastructure.  And indeed, nothing would help the US economy more right now than the high-velocity  stimulation of passing the much needed Infrastructure Bill, so long delayed by the Republican Congress.

Still, we should be trying a range of approaches. For example, recent experiments have – to great surprise – suggested that poor families and villages do best when simply given a reliable stream of raw cash, to spend as they wish. 

“Experimental tests show that the poor don’t stop trying when they are given money, and they don’t get drunk. Instead, they make productive use of the funds, feeding their families, sending their children to school, and investing in businesses and their own futures. Even a short-term infusion of capital has been shown to significantly improve long-term living standards, improve psychological well-being, and even add one year of life," writes Michael Faye in Slate. 

This is somewhat consistent with the Peruvian experiments of Hernando de Soto Polar, which were loved by both leftists and libertarians, strenuously working to vest poor farmers with the paperwork documenting their ownership of land that was already theirs.  Only with papers, they could then borrow and improve and become more productive.

The followup experiment by GiveDirectly aims to provide at least 6,000 of the poorest Kenyans with a basic income for 10 to 15 years, and rigorously analyze the impact. You can donate directly to provide a basic income on the GiveDirectly site.

== Miscellaneous Interesting things ==
What are the chances? A fascinating fact of life that gives us all chills is the amazing moments when coincidences beggar our sense of likelihood and make us imagine hidden causality, even conspiracy.  A look by mathematician Joseph Mazur the author of Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence.

An inspiring story about one school district that changed from chronic absenteeism to vigorous parent involvement and almost perfect attendance.

And so it begins… Resettling the first American‘Climate Refugees.’ The first allocation of federal tax dollars to relocate an entire community – the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.

The opposite of uplift?  This man “downlifts” himself to move like and mingle with goats. Thomas Thwaites (of The Toaster Project: a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Appliance from Scratch) developed a goat prosthesis that allowed him to walk and graze on four legs, an adventure he summarizes in GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.  Really? While I approve of a vivid society that lets people strive for some eccentric accomplishment, I am somewhat more impressed with the blacksmiths and potters and swordmakers and rodeo cow-sorting champs (there’s one named “David Brin”- see below) and amateur scientists and school volunteers and Habitat for Humanity workers… But okay, this guy has his niche. He’s doing a thing.

Sudden oak death: This fungal pathogen has killed a million trees in California, leaving a fire hazard for the dry season to come. And that's nothing next to THIRTY million California pines killed by invasive bark beetles after being weakened by climate change. The fires will be huge. And some of you are complicit.

When inequality is visible... Flights with a first class section were nearly four times more likely to suffer incidents of 'air rage.' Is it because those in coach are unconsciously pissed off to see people get legroom and human treatment?  Folks, the thing to be angry about is the rise of private and corporate and charter jets for the rich, subsidized by taxpayers!  We should mob those terminals (where they board without TSA agony) and drive our lords bac into First Class, where they belong!  Once they share our airport experience, that expience will change.

Who's looking to the future? A list of sixty futurists on Twitter -- from Kevin Kelly to Jamais Cascio, Elon Musk, and more. 

Cynical-funny snarkers rejoice! Wow, the guys who resurrected CRACKED magazine and turned it into a kinda-cool satire site just got $39 million for it. Scripps Media’s buy-in follows the purchase of a 40% stake in satire company The Onion Inc. by Spanish-language media owner Univision Communications. 

Okay, back to that other, studlier side of "David Brin." Betcha didn’t know I was this talented, or had this much fun in my side-hobby! “Wayne Frederickson & David Brin Sorting 6 Cows Time 59.88 sec Arena Wittmann Az.”