Saturday, March 30, 2019

Uplift, evolution, biotech... and Yuval Harari's worries.

Putting aside politics... at least till the end... you may enjoy this video of a cool Clarke Center event: an evening with Freeman Dyson and Gregory Benford. Fascinating topics.  

If so, a possible game changer: A scientist working for the U.S. Navy has filed for a patent on a room-temperature superconductor, built using a wire with an insulator core and an aluminum PZT (lead zirconate titanate) coating. Others claimed to have invented a room-temperature superconductor in the past. Last year, two Indian scientists pointed to wire with particles of gold and silver. Other physicists are using pressurized lanthanum and hydrogen. In Earth I speak of perovskites, which recently held the record... and make up the most common mineral in the mantle. Um... so far it's sci fi.

== Uplift: pro vs. con ==

This rumination on animal uplift is interesting - citing me and others re: the ethical quandaries involved. It also points out the tradeoffs that nature faced, as each species reached an equilibrium between smarts and reproductive strategy: “Those species moving toward higher intelligence by way of larger brains must balance that increase against the deficit of fewer children. In the midst of a genetic arms race, ten less-intelligent children is better than one brilliant one, so long as they survive to pass on their genes.” A tradeoff portrayed in the idiotic-fun-yet-thought-provoking film “Idiocracy.”

Initial experiments show that “the uplifting of non-human animals to a small degree, through the use of technology, selective breeding, and genetic engineering, has already been achieved. Supposing a continued increase in these areas of research, it's reasonable to assume that the level to which we could increase brain function of humans and non-humans will continue to rise.” 

Of course, this leaves out work being down in secret labs in Siberia and Xingkiang.

Excellent summary. Though in fact, Knapp's argument against Uplift is the best argument in favor! Since the original species would be preserved, fallow in a natural ecosystem (that we should fight to save/expand) there is no harm done to that original species. No "insult" and no replacement. The newly sapient sub-species would have its own destiny, conversing, imagining, arguing with a wider diversity of opportunity and wisdom on a planet no longer dependent on just one (human) way of seeing things. 

And if neo-dolphins and neo-chimps use their new political power to help secure jungles and clean oceans, speaking for their fallow cousins, so?  And your complaint is?

Consider, if you had one child, who decides to ditch her human body and head to the stars as a cyborg, you might be sad.  You'd likely feel different if she could both send a duplicate and remain here on Earth with ypu and your grandchildren. 

Yes, there's plenty of moral hazard, e.g. the first few dozen generations of such a project would necessarily entail mistakes, and most likely some pain. Indeed the latter outcome is the only argument against uplift that stands up to scrutiny; it certainly makes me uncomfortable!  As for the "colonialism" dig, well, those making it are themselves examples of a new maturity that is enabling humanity to face its old mistakes. Without that gradually emerging wisdom, I'd be the first to say: "don't do this!" But ironically, the objectors exemplify why we may be (almost) ready.

See my earlier posting: Will we uplift other species to sapience?

== Bio & Biotech ==

DNA's ingredients, called nucleotides, are four components called adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine that fit together in sequences making up the genetic code. New kinds of synthetic DNA include those components as well as four others in a new double-helix structure that works to store and transfer information. Hachimoji DNA, in Japanese, means "eight letter." This kind of research can shed light on potential kinds of alien life. But there are implications you won’t read about in the science press.

First, this has implications for the future of experimental life design. If new, potentially dangerous life forms are required to utilize at least a few, vital proteins that can only be made using these new codons, then those life forms – or related nanomachines – will be utterly dependent on “nutrient” materials made only in a few human run factories. Such bottleneck control could prove crucial in the event of a blunder. And blunders happen.

Second, before we get all misty about the likely variability of life across the cosmos, note that the same sort of nutrient restriction might bar us from colonizing far-off interstellar worlds, if the native ecosystem provides nothing colonists can eat.

Only I’m not sure I buy it. The reason is… adenine, one of the four nucleotides we use in DNA and RNA. It’s the easiest on to make – almost trivially in Miller-Urey-Orgel experiments. It’s also the backbone of the other main chemical of life, ATP which mediates use of energy from sugars. 

I doubt and water-carbon-light based life will forego use of this keystone molecule. Which means that thymine (which pairs with adenine in DNA) and uracil  (which pairs with adenine in RNA) are likely prevalent, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are then dynamic/chemical reasons why cytosine and guanine would also be favored (look at how they nestle next to Adenine and thymine) leading to pretty much standard DNA and RNA.

If  you find bio beings using other codons, I'd suspect they had artificial ancestors.

== Philosophical musings ==

From Yuval Noah Harari’s tome Homo Deus: “Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social, and political changes... Consequently we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future.” And yet, in fact, humans have led far more predictable lives than any of their ancestors.

Harari does envision a glorious expansion of human capabilities: 
Homo sapiens is not going to be exterminated by a robot revolt. Rather, Homo sapiens is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process.” 
But he cannot bring himself to see a win-win. Rather, this tech-apotheosis is portrayed happening in a way that mimics the past calamities. 
Once Google, Facebook and other algorithms become all-knowing oracles, they may well evolve into agents and finally into sovereigns.”

Oh, it’s true enough that 6000 years of dismal, recorded history shows this happening time and again. Wondrous capabilities do seem often to be monopolized or hoarded by elites, or used as tools of oppression. Likewise, these new tools might be gathered up by topmost hierarchs like kings, priesthoods or Googles. 

What is missed by Yuval Harari is not that darkly obvious extrapolation, but any seeming awareness that we have alternatives and some recent experience using them. Like the democratization of powerful technologies. Today, every citizen carries sophisticated instrumentalities, starting with powerful cameras, but soon to include chemical and environmental sensors. (In the U.S., their right to aim them at authority is now “settled law.”) Hence, it is at least conceivable that we may incorporate Google-developed tools of info-management not in a centralized-dystopic way, but as dispersed agents who are loyal to each of us, even as additional personal organs, the way that humans layered-in the prefrontal cortex quite recently (in evolutionary terms). 

Again, as in many other potentially Orwellian trends, the deciding factor may be a matter of social choice. (I depicted this possibility long ago in a story “Stones of Significance.”)

== Political lagniappe ==

Just a reminder of what pundits have been too stupid to point out... that the only thing the Mueller Report "cleared" Donald Trump of was direct collusion with Kremlin acts of war against the American Republic during 2016. The Trump Tower meetings and WikiLeaks and calling publicly for Russian hacking... they were bad, but always the weakest parts to prosecute.

That's it. Nothing else is exonerated. And the following jpeg is way obsolete -- a couple of months old. The counts are still rising.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Capitalism, corruption, civil war...

Well, your RASR uncle (residually adult-sane Republican) has a week of gloating and joy. Let him wallow in Attorney Gen. Barr's summary no-collusion conclusion...even though its negative about Trump-Russia collusion specifically concerns only Russian 2016 election interference during the 2016 election (always the weakest link to Trump), and has nothing to do with the blatant collusion that's manifested since then, in demolishing our alliances, sciences, intel-services and every other U.S. fact based profession.

Consider: Six essential cons that Define Trump's success: This article by Jonah Greenberg (except for the last (silly) paragraph) cogently dissects six ways that Donald Trump has “succeeded” by cheating. 
By lying his net worth vastly upward to get loans…
…by lying it vastly downward to evade taxes…
…by ripping off contractors and lenders till only Deutsche bank would work with him, laundering Russian mobster money…
…by assaulting the very existence of things called (facts).
…by portraying perpetrators as victims.

Never mind all that. Right now, just one U.S. citizen matters. Chief Justice John Roberts. If he swing the decision to decide in favor of basic justice and the American Experiment, political gerrymandering will be banished. If he is a hack - or a blackmail victim - then we will have no easy path out of this phase of the American Civil War. It could wind up pretty harsh.

== Essences of Capitalism ==

As I’ve long predicted, some of the RASRs and saner libertarians are gradually realizing that oligarchy is no friend to open-accountable-competitive-creative market enterprise.  Investment guru John Mauldin is one I’ve long been urging to end his ostrich denial. Now, in his influential newsletter, Mauldin quotes from Jonathan Tepper’s new book The Myth of Capitalism: Monopolies and the Death of Competition

In industry after industry, (Americans) can only purchase from local monopolies or oligopolies that can tacitly collude. The US now has many industries with only three or four competitors controlling entire markets. Since the early 1980s, market concentration has increased severely. We’ve already described the airline industry. Here are other examples:

·       Two corporations control 90 percent of the beer Americans drink.
·       Five banks control about half of the nation’s banking assets.
·       Many states have health insurance markets where the top two insurers have an 80 percent to 90 percent market share. For example, in Alabama one company, Blue Cross Blue Shield, has an 84 percent market share and in Hawaii it has 65 percent market share.
·       When it comes to high-speed internet access, almost all markets are local monopolies; over 75 percent of households have no choice with only one provider.
·       Four players control the entire US beef market and have carved up the country.
·       After two mergers this year, three companies will control 70 percent of the world’s pesticide market and 80 percent of the US corn-seed market.

The list of industries with dominant players is endless. It gets even worse when you look at the world of technology….  The federal government has done little to prevent this concentration, and in fact has done much to encourage it. Broken markets create broken politics. Economic and political power is becoming concentrated in the hands of distant monopolists.

Mauldin avows that some industries require such massive scale that they can only support a small number of producers. Passenger aircraft, for instance. 

In turn, I have pointed out examples where capitalism is clearly working, when steered by enlightened regulation. One example is the burgeoning of solar and wind power. Another is surprising, till you think on it… automobiles. 

With twenty major players, worldwide, competition is fierce, with the result that every year auto showrooms feature better cars that last longer, are built sturdier, offer spectacular standard features and safety, all at declining inflation-adjusted prices. Spurred by regulations, auto-makers deliver vastly improved efficiency, saving consumers billions at the pump, and -- after prodding by some geniuses -- are shifting to electric at a rapid pace.

So the problem is not what young sophomores are reciting on campus, capitalism at its competitive, AdamSmithian basic. No, the problem is that markets have always been distorted by cheaters!  

It’s what humans do, when they get the power to do so. And hence, as Smith himself said, we need governments to transparently and carefully regulate, especially in ways that keep the playing field flat and fair.

And yes, that includes investing heavily in R&D that’s beyond any corporate ROI horizon. And it especially means investing in all children! Because what is a competitive playing field if it is biased to handicap most players, from the very start? 

Most liberal programs – those that aim to uplift all kids out of poverty – are defensible in strictly capitalist terms! And those who deny this aren’t actually Smithians at all. They are oligarchists. They are feudalists.

== Short takes ==

Right now, Democrats still retain a monopoly on expertise and evidence-based policy. They should not relinquish it easily.

Nearly 400 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced sexual misconduct allegations in the past two decades, two newspapers found, with as many as 700 victims — some as young as 3. And this is just one section of the evangelical Baptist movement.  There are reports of over a thousand such cases among “independent” Baptist pastorages… among the most fire-breathing and radically anti-modernist. Oh, do preach to us.

Poseidon: Russia's New Doomsday Machine describes Moscow's unmanned automated drone submarine designed to deliver a 100-megaton warhead to inundate U.S. coasts with nuclear tsunamis, leaving the most populous parts of America drenched-radioactive wastelands. Author Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is one of the nation's foremost experts on nuclear weapons and strategy, director of two Congressional Advisory Boards.

There’s an aspect to this that’s scarier. Throughout the Cold War, we got a stream of defectors who blew the whistle on crazy Soviet plots. Kremlin muscovite craziness hasn’t gone away, but Putin (raised in the KGB) has made it his highest priority to make sure we get few defectors this round, despite planning such horrifically heinous weapons. 

How? Our inflow of defectors in the Cold War depended on our ability to: (1) protect them, (2) offer decent prospects living in the West, and (3) maintaining the moral high ground. Consider how Putin and his agents have undermined each of these systematically.

== Short takes ==

WODI = “What If Obama Did It?”  Latest example, emerging news that Donald Trump used threats and money and oligarchic favors to get not one, or two, but all of his high school, military academy, college and SAT records secured and hidden forever. Now why would he do that? “Former officials of the military academy that President Trump attended say wealthy alumni directed them in 2011 to remove and hide Trump’s academic records.  

The same fellow who demanded Obama’s birth certificate, then refused to believe it (nor dozens of 1962 copies of the Honolulu Advertiser birth announcement, found in garages all over the islands) and has lied about the IRS audit of his tax returns, and who allows no US officials anywhere near his secret debriefings with communist and “ex” communist dictators, now want us to have no way to verify his “stable genius.”


And finally....

From the Axios China report: The ideological tightening inside China has contributed to a more rigid and shrill group of PRC diplomats. Earlier this week Bloomberg reported on this trend... “[F]oreign diplomats in Beijing say that the behavior of Chinese officials has become far more aggressive and assertive in private meetings in recent years. Their discussions have become more ideological, according to one senior foreign envoy, who described the behavior as a strong sense of grievance combined with increasing entitlement about China’s international role and rights.

If you want to understand how the top officials at the PRC rationalize their fierce determination to centralize power over their people and the world, I go into it here. They are very smart. Maybe a quarter as smart as they think they are. And therein lies danger for us all.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Wonders from space... and beyond

Naturally, I'll have much to say about the Mueller Report, but not today. (Well, maybe in a coda, at the end.) For now, let's boost our spirits by...

... looking toward space!  Starting with...

 stream of terrific shadow selfie images from Japan's Hyabusa-2 probe touching down on  asteroid Ryugu, then getting blown back as it fires a bullet to kick up sample material. 'If all goes according to plan, these three samples will come down to Earth in a special return capsule in December 2020.” And this after deployment of three mini-landers.

This seems a perfect partnership with NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex probe, sampling another asteroid. Below, I'll discuss how the U.S. and Japan plus a few tech wizards should go do these treasure rocks (where the vast wealth is) while letting China, Russia and all the other Apollo-wannabes scamper to sterile-useless Luna for their coming-of-age rites. 

And yet.... we now find that incoming asteroids may be harder to break than scientists previously thought

== It's quiet out there... maybe too quiet ==

My paper on the ethical, logical and theological  bases for METI – Messaging to ET Intelligences – is now in the journal Theology & Science. ‘The “Barn Door” Argument, The Precautionary Principle, and METI as “Prayer”—an Appraisal of the Top Three Rationalizations for “Active SETI.”’ Yes, so far it is restricted by subscription. But let me offer you the abstract:

“Proponents of Active SETI, or METI, defend their messaging-to-aliens agenda with fallacious arguments like the Barn Door Excuse, that technologically advanced extraterrestrials must have already listened to our radio leakage, (e.g. “I Love Lucy”), hence more direct beaming will not betray Earth’s location. 

"Further, they claim that sending pinpointed, collimated messages will only lead to positive outcomes. In fact, laser-like “messages” are far more powerfully detectable at great distances than old-time television, and concerns about potential downsides should be appraised by scientific risk-assessment. It is argued that METI is psychologically driven as a version of the ancient human practice of prayer.”

Yes, there truly was a reason it got published in Theology and Science.

== Yes, humanity should keep exploring the moon ==

We’ve learned so much from lunar bits, especially taken by the Apollo missions. This Apollo14 sample apparently formed deep under the crust of the Earth, then got blasted to Earth’s surface, then blasted to land on the Moon, got buried and modified, then got blasted onto the moon’s surface to be plucked by an Apollo14 astronaut. How do we figure all this? We’ve learned to track an amazing suite of physical and chemical and isotopic clues thanks to … well, science.  Federally funded R&D that propelled half of our economy, since WWII.

And yet...  Come see a screed of utter-drooling nonsense –  declaring that China is “winning the new space race‼!” Oh, no! They just put a tiny solar rover on the Moon!  "The stakes are high: Who will be able to obtain the vast resources in space, for example, water/ice, iron, titaniumplatinum and nickel; secure the routes of trade; and write the rules of space commerce such as trade in energy propellant and precious metals."

Sigh. I am forced to get repetitive. The moon has what? It has absolutely none of those things except possibly some buried water as a source of propellant, at the difficult to access poles. And even that is likely to be eclipsed by vast amounts of water available in asteroids... along with actual, rather than make-believe gold, platinum etc. 

Why pretend to justify joining the Apollo-wannabes with faux claims of lunar 'resources' that don't exist? Even the normally smart and cogent Isaac Arthur breaks his arms desperately waving away any need to justify that claim with actual numbers. Oh, and here’s another cock n’bull story about moon mining and Helium 3 mythology, without a hint of due diligence on actual numbers or plausibility.

The only way that China wins any "space race" would be either militarily (as in the first chapter of Ghost Fleet; and yes, be wary) or else if the $%$#! Republicans force us into a "united/international consortium to go back to the moon." In that case – a lose-lose for the U.S. -- we'd have to transfer all our technology, boosting the Chinese and Russian while gaining nothing. 

Show us the "ores" you blithely armwave to be on the moon! Show us clear charts how it would be a 'way-station" to Mars. You can't. Oh, but with no one else apparently calling out this insanity, with a sigh, let me reiterate. 

The moon started out resource depleted because it came from Earth's crust, after most metals sank into our planet's core. Then the newborn-molten moon fractionated again, sending most of what was left settling into it's own core! As for what remained, there were no water processes which concentrated most useful ores on Earth. 

True there's aluminum and silicon and smidgeons of titanium in Luna's crust... and all of it is in super tight oxygen bonds that will take truly major energy input to separate -- possible, but hugely non-trivial. A little scattered meteoritic iron might get collected by dragging magnets endlessly through dust. Or we could go where it came from...

In contrast, half of the asteroids seem to have come from a shattered proto-planet. Some of them come from its carbon-volatiles-water rich outer crust. Some from the stony middle and many of them from the purified metal/iron/gold etc core. Pre-refined metal! 

Again, the only resource advantage of the moon is purported Helium Three. And please show it to me. Show me a customer. Hold me back from strangling the next cultist raving "Helium Three!" 

Yes, I do think we should keep exploring Luna!  Humanity is going back there, no matter what. And that's fine, Chinese and later Indian, Russian and Saudi and European and billionaire tourists will skip about, planting footprints in that dusty, useless, utterly resource-free plain. (And the U.S. should sell them services, maybe landers! Indeed, we might send a few small robots to explore some of those lava tube tunnels, partly to prevent the Chinese from claiming them all. But joining their mad rush for footprints? Why?)

Their surface reasons will be 'scientific,' but we all know it will be tourism and national pride. Having their Bar Moonzvah (“Today I am a man!”) 

Mazel Tov. The Americans and Japanese and Diamandis-ovs and Musk-ovites should transmit congratulations. Let's blow them kisses from the asteroids where we're getting spectacularly rich, doing things that only we (with our fellow true modernists) can do.

Wake up and smell the platinum.

== More news about deadly rocks ==

Fascinating evidence suggests that two of the super-Earths orbiting very close to a Kepler studied star may have collided in the past and that one of them is so dense it might consist only of the stripped iron core of an earlier, larger version.

Evidence suggesting that the rate of asteroids impacting the Earth-Moon system actually went up, starting about 290 million years ago, and the rate probably rose by 2.6x.  Perhaps a major asteroid broke up around then. In any event, all the more reason to support the B612 Foundation’s work, helping count and study potential impactors and concocting plans to deal with them.

Meanwhile, the theory that Earth’s volatile elements arrived through the steady bombardment of ancient meteorites during the Late Heavy Bombardment has been challenged by those who propose that a catastrophic collision between Earth and a Mars-sized object, sometimes referred to as Theia, some 4.4 billion years ago --- which many believe created Earth’s moon – may have delivered those volatiles.

== Go-go! ==

In preparation for it's first potential test fire, followed by hover trials, SpaceX had moved Elon's Starhopper suborbital vehicle to a launch pad at its Boca Chica test site near Brownsville, Texas

== And finally ==

Ah, but then there’s the Chinese orbital tracking station in Patagonia, operating without the slightest supervision by Argentina’s government or public. One more highly… assertive… international action. Only note that Patagonia is also where some of the world’s oligarchic elites have been buying up whole mountains for their post-apocalyptic retreats. All based on their weirdly smug assumption that we all won’t know exactly where they’ll be, when we decide to get mad.

Can you see patterns under the patterns? If Alien meddlers wanted to ensure our failure... or get hilarious reality TV ... the perfect plan is is to use their agents -- (Rupert? Vlad) to craft what we see right now. Oh, but let's not get all science-fictional!  Not till next time.