Monday, May 25, 2015

Salvaging a Sane "Indispensable" American Involvement with the World

We are hearing the word "indispensable" a lot, in conversations about the role of the United States in an ever-changing world.  A word almost as misused as the phrase "American Exceptionalism" as a way to create false dichotomies and substitute reflex for thought. 

I’ll get to dissecting some of this flawed analysis of foreign policy in a sec.  But first –

== Doubling down on insane delusions ==

Well, Republicans are nothing, if not consistent. Having doubled down on “Supply Side” fantasies for 30 years, they relentlessly promise that every new tax cut for the rich will “pay for itself and erase federal deficits,” after the rich use each new largesse we pour unto them, to invest in productive enterprises. 

Ah, but then how inconvenient is it to the narrative, that they never did that thing? Instead, as Adam Smith himself said of the “rentier caste,” they almost always pour any excess funds into rent-seeking and asset bubbles.  (Techie billionaires are, of course an exception: but they tend to be democrats and urge credits for RandD, not across the board gifts to the aristocracy.)

And so, instead, every tax cut for the rich sent us deeper into steep deficits and debt. Now? Are they correcting a single assumption, based on 30 years of contrary evidence?  Hah! They're doubling down on the voodoo!

Let's be clear about the contrast: switching to well-proved “demand side” would have hired half a million workers to repair bridges and infrastructure — things we will have to do anyway -- sending high-velocity cash passing quickly through poor pockets and stimulating the economy. They know it would work.  But that would mean admitting Keynsians were right. Indeed, preventing that hi-velocity recovery is one reason the GOP blocked the Infrastructure Bill. (And when bridges collapse and trains topple, you will know whom to blame.)

So, what do they want now? To end the Estate Tax, a cut costing the treasury $269 billion over a decade, “that would exclusively benefit individuals with wealth of more than $5.4 million and couples with wealth of more than $10.9 million. That’s a tax break for only the 5,500 wealthiest households in the country.” And as proof of pure stupidity, the “populist” Tea Party movement backs up this proposal, to the hilt.

Read this article: Republicans push for a permanent aristocracy! Only it leaves one thing out. The Estate Tax need never be paid! Just create a foundation and use most of your riches to do some cool thing in the world, in your name, instead of pursuing the ancient and animal-reflex ambition of inherited aristocracy.

See proof of supply side’s failures here: Do Outcomes Matter More than Rhetoric?

 No wonder they hate science and facts. Feudalism failed across 6000 years.  So those aiming to bring it back must rely — as the Lords always did — on incantations and fantasy.

== Thay’r Baaaack!  The neocons lift their heads… ==

At the urging of economics guru John Mauldin, I’ve read Ian Bremmer’s new book, SUPERPOWER: Three Choices for America's Role in the World.  Alas, I must say that I am less impressed than John is.  Bremmer sets up three possible future scenarios for how the United States (both government and people) might interact with a rapidly changing world.  

Alas, the “scenario” process of engaging with the future is fraught with mental perils and one of them is tendentious leading-the-conclusion.

Of Bremmer’s three scenarios, Moneyball America (aggressive self-interest) and Independent America (isolationism) are clearly set up as strawmen for the author to knock down - knowing that his readership will reject them. He does this in order to extoll an oversimplified third option called Indispensable America – still the key planetary player that must remain engaged with the world, helping it to move ahead toward better and presumably more lawful times.

Well... um… duh?  I am on-record elsewhere demanding that critics of Pax Americana offer up any plausible scenario that would have handled the last 70 years -- setting aside some awful blunders --better in the broadest sense, maintaining a general peace that allowed most (not all) nations and peoples to prosper as never before.  Name one past “pax”… or period of interregnum… that was handled even 1% as well.

Oh, but those "awful blunders" have done harm!  Especially devastating America's ability to continue in a benign leadership role.  And here you get to the tricky part.  Because "Pax Americana" is not just one thing.  When well handled, in the traditions of Marshall, Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower, you get something that at least tries, sometimes, to be decent and mature. At least tries.  More often than not.  Enough to average positive. And proof of that is the plain fact that the USA is clearly the least hated pax in the history of the world.

In sharp contrast, when the U.S. "pax" is pushed as an imperial dominance trip -- the approach declared gleefully by neocon madmen like Wolfowitz, Nitze, Perle, Cheney and both Bush presidents, raving manifest destiny babble concocted by an insane philosopher named Leo Strauss -- then you get calamities that wreck American influence and prestige and even USA power.

Of course we all know that, now.  Both Bushite eras revealed domestic and foreign policy stupidity on a scale of insipidity that might be better suited to 12 year olds, playing DandD, while stoned on Wild Turkey. I have open challenges for republicans to name a single unambiguous and attributable statistical metric of US national health that improved across either span of a Bush Presidency.  (Most such metrics have improved markedly across the Clinton and Obama spans.) This disparity of outcome is so devastatingly clear – like the demolition of Supply Side “economics” fantasies – that it explains the current GOP fixated hatred of science.  Anything having to do with facts is now anathema. 

Bremmer cannot defend the neocons openly, so he goes for a trick, a bit of polemical legerdemain. He proclaims that this mania crosses every partisan divide: "US foreign policy has been reactive and improvisational for 25 years. And we can no longer identify a Democratic or Republican approach to foreign policy."

This amounts to "All right, I am forced to admit that my side has been awful, but... but our opponents are just as bad!"  The clarion call of any modern Republican who has retained a glimmer of sapience.

But it is… um, wrong.  In fact an outright lie. Indeed, I show here that Democrats and Republicans handle matters of war and peace in diametrically opposite ways.  Democrats do fight!  But in totally different styles.  Likewise in every domestic policy at-contention, the differences are total and as clear as they were in 1863.

 Those on both the entire right and the far-left who assert “They’re all the same” are playing up a narrative with one agenda, to staunch the arterial bleeding of sanepeople from an insane GOP, a fevered exodus by almost every person of skill and knowledge.


Sure, there were very cogent moments in Bremmer's book! He is a bright fellow and there are decent observations, on a case-by-case level. But sorry.  It is clearly a polemic, arguing slyly that we should let the basic neocon perspective back in, for another go.

No way. America is indispensable for the foreseeable future... and indeed, "exceptionalism" has certain merits. But not as excuses to give reins of power back to the maniacs and morons who today constitute the entirety of the "intelligencia" of the American (confederate) right.

== Others are saying this ==

Sometimes a journalist sums things up just right: "None of the conservatives running for president want to be associated with the last Republican president — not even his brother (for whom stepping away is rather complicated). After all, George W. Bush left office with an approval rating hovering in the low 30s, and his grandest project was the gigantic catastrophe of the Iraq War, which we're still dealing with and still debating. If you're a Republican right now you're no doubt wishing we could talk about something else, but failing that, you'd like the issue framed in a particular way: The war was an honest mistake, nobody lied to the public, and anything bad that's happening now is Barack Obama's fault."

In this cogent and compelling piece -- George W. Bush didn't just lie about the Iraq War. What he did was much worse -- Paul Waldman dissects this assertion both ways. 

If the trillion dollar debacle of Bushite Wars - whose only winners were Iran and Bush-Cheney family companies like Halliburton - was based on lies, then the entire Republican establishment shares decadal and epic levels of blame for outright treason. 

But supposing that George W. Bush and the GOP establishment actually believed those delusional rationalizations… as his father believed it was right to over-rule Gen Schwarzkopff and betray Iraq's Shiite majority, laying bitter dragon seeds for us to harvest … then in fact, the narrative turns even worse. Instead of their treason the blame is our stupidity, for having failed to remove power from the hands of idiots.

The absolutely unalloyed record of negative outcomes from Bush eras - in every statistical metric of US national health - would then reflect a "marching morons" effect of staggering magnitude and implications.

Only it gets worse, as the latest scion of that monstrous family calamity for America now asserts that Iraq is all Obama's fault.

 ooooog… What does it say about today’s Republican party that James Baker is persona non grata and John Bolton is a hero, urging war with Iran on the op-ed pages of the New York Times?

Notice that I am no longer calling on “ostrich republicans” to lift their heads and notice what has happened to the once-proud movement of Barry Goldwater.  There is only one solution left.  To end this phase of the American Civil War the way the others did.  The Union simply has to win.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Space: Past and Future

At NIAC -- NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts group -- we aim to nurture bold ideas with small, seed grants. Have a look at this year's phase one recipients, including some that are darned interesting, daring, even risky. And you are a member of a civilization that does stuff like this. 

See also endeavors like this one, learning to create a closed ecosystem on Mars...  And these, that are a bit farther along than our little (but bolder) NIAC grants!

Speaking of which... and on a somewhat bigger scale... congratulations to Jeff Bezos and his team at Blue Origin, for their successful test launch of the New Shepard suborbital vehicle and capsule.  It will be an important element of our renewed-confident adventures as a bold, interplanetary species. 

== Looking back on the Hubble ==

Happy 25th Birthday, Hubble.

The Hubble space telescope achieved genuine wonders, that others have certainly noted.  Among my many favorites were the arrival of space images -- such as the famous Eagle Nebula -- that gave us all a truly three-dimensional feel. You could clearly see and envision that this column of brilliantly illuminated gas and dust stands glowing in front of that proto-planetary system being-born... and then somehow you would manage to wrap your mind around the multi-parsec scale of it all.

Helping to determine the age and destiny of the universe, that's a lot to get for our tax dollars. But again, others will talk about that.

What I find almost equally fascinating is the back story of this prodigious scientific instrument, revealed when the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) suddenly handed over to NASA two more Hubbles!  

Well, two space-ready telescopes with identical structure and mirrors, but lacking many components and any scientific instruments.  The surprise gift revealed to us taxpayers an interesting truth -- that Hubble was based directly on a family of U.S. spy satellites. Should we be surprised, then, that a mirror originally designed to look downward at Earth suffered some problems, when it was repurposed to stare into deep space?

What kinds of synergies and conflicts are thus revealed? Was Hubble meant, all the time, to serve as a cover story for intelligence RandD?  Did this design overlap serve to reduce Hubble's original cost, in economies of scale? Or was NASA, instead, subsidizing the NRO?  I don't expect to ever learn the answers. But it does suggest that we keep our eyes open for other coincidences, in the future.

NASA officials view these "added Hubbles" as mixed blessings. They fret that these telescopes might draw vigor away from the next great leap -- the James Webb Space Telescope.  While the new pair are worth hundreds and millions of dollars and will let us expand astronomy, properly equipping them and launching them will cost hundreds more. And of course, there are tussles over what kinds of science they should be applied-to. Such as, for example, keeping one in reserve, in case the Webb fails?

Bottom line, this "problem" is our fault, for allowing science to be "warred-upon," instead of shrugging off the dismal cynics... and electing Congresses that see value in the future.

No, we aren't leaving the Hubble Era. Even after the original is allowed to plummet Earthward -- (I'd rather use electrodynamic tethers to send it outward, in a parking orbit, for late-21st Century hobbyists to refurbish) -- it seems that Hubble's sisters will still be working for us. Obsolete? Never heard of the word. 

We can move forward on many fronts, at the same time. We can be larger than we are. 

That was the dream... and it will be, again.

== Looking toward asteroids and the moon ==

Planetary Resources, founded by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, aims to pave the way to humanity mining asteroids for vast wealth… as the B612 Foundation hopes to detect and track asteroids that threaten civilization’s survival… a real case of synergy of purpose. (I've been helping both.)

 Now news that Planetary Resource’s latest test prototype of systems for the Arkyd exploration probe was successfully lofted into orbit aboard the recent SpaceX crew resupply mission to the ISS.  Huzzah.  

Meanwhile....“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 (presently plausible) use, void of applicable resources, 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 pattern of never, even once, setting course in a direction that would do America or the West the slightest good. Not once, in any way, ever.  Name a counter-example. One.)

Look, I am fine with finding ways to use the moon. You got a use for Helium3?  Fine.  Go view my posting “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 and gold and silver and rare-earth markets by providing all we need. So much you'll drive a gold-plated car.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A look back at our origins


We are the first human civilization to remove our envisioned "golden age" from an imagined-nostalgic past and instead plant that better-than-the-present era (tentatively) in a potential future.

The irony? We can only achieve that great accomplishment if we learn as much as possible, about where we came from.  How we (species, society, individual) came about. What parts of our heritage must be overcome, and what hidden, potential gifts have yet to be realized, or even discovered.

Exploring all of this is exciting stuff. And so, in honor of a newly minted Physical Anthropologist we happen to know, let's start as deep in time as possible.....

...like how about a newly discovered missing link between prokaryotes and eukaryotes? Amazing. Of the three major super-domains of cellular life on Earth – bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes (which include metazoan, multi-celled organisms, like us), it now appears that we are more closely related to the archaea, which were discovered as a separate clade not so long ago and were at-first thought to be a relic corner of life’s diversity. This sure puts Greg Bear’s weird novel VITALS in a new light. 

== Galaxies and deadly rhythms! ==

Did Dark Matter Doom the Dinosaurs? “We know there’s a lot of dark matter in the Milky Way, and it’s possible dark matter isn’t evenly distributed but occurs in dense clumps. Maybe our solar system passes through clumps of it periodically." If those clumps are dense enough to wreak havoc, they could knock comets loose and cause collisions...

... or else maybe heat Earth’s interior and cause massive volcanic eruptions?  Or somehow set loose all sorts of other species-obliterating disasters. That’s the premise behind a recent paper by New York University geologist Michael R. Rampino.

Back in 1984 I had an article in ANALOG that calculated a different hypothesis to explain a 26 to 30 million year extinction cycle . What if such a recurring pattern were caused not by the Earth passing through the galactic disk, but by something  'lapping" us, as it orbits, farther in toward Galactic center?  The article was "The Deadly Thing at 2.4 Kiloparsecs," Analog's most popular science bit, that year. Almost any extinction cycle  might correlate with some Lapping Object, which might sear a swathe of devastation on its way around the galaxy, wreaking some degree of havoc, each time it sweeps past our solar system.

I mention this to suggest that there are many potential ways to get galactic time scales in cycles of extinctions.

Speaking of mass extinction events… O-o-okay... folks at CERN now say they might make micro-black holes after all.  And there's nothing to worry about!  In fact, my logical side is not worried.  

But still... I described one potential outcome... in EARTH.

== Becoming Human ==

Do tools make man? Pushing our origins back even further...the world's oldest stone tools have been found in Kenya: stone flakes and anvils found off the shores of Lake Turkana date back more than 3.3 million years ago -- half a million years before the appearance of our genus Homo.

Another re-assessment of our ancient family tree comes from a partial jawbone discovered in Ethiopia, radiometrically dating to nearly 2.8 million years ago -- which makes it the oldest known fossil of our genus Homo. 

How has biology shaped humanity? How did humans rise to dominance on planet earth? In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari tracks the evolution of homo sapiens from the Paleolithic to modern-day, charting three major upheavals...

the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and most recently, the scientific revolution, that shaped the trajectory of humanity and human civilization -- covering some of the same ideas as Jared Diamond's 1999 classic book, Guns, Germs and Steel. See an extensive review of Sapiens in the Wall Street Journal.

== Bottlenecks of Evolution ==

Indeed, genetics has shed light on what may have been “bottlenecks” in human evolution.  One of them, purported to have been 70,000 years ago, might have reduced the population of human ancestors under 10,000 and threatened extinction. 

Now, another bottleneck is proposed that might have occurred as recently at 8,000 years ago, while early agriculturalists were preparing to leap into urban life. By studying Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA, scientists are able to deduce the numbers of female and male ancestors a population has. It's always more female, which is consistent also with mammals, in general. Not all males get to breed.  But the normal human ratio is about 1.3 female breeders-to-one male. Apparently is was much bigger disparity, during a period around 8000 years ago. Explanations range from a sudden advantage to certain kinds of males to some sort of weird virus that only affected males across the whole globe, just before large villages formed towns.

Or did agriculture itself, often requiring brutally hard physical labor, play a role? Might the "taming" of human males, making them suitable for denser living, have had some weird side effects? Will we ever know? See: A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture.

Another look at a leap for human evolution: Did humans -- and their dogs -- help drive Neanderthals to extinction? See this explored in The Invaders: How Humans and their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, by Pat Shipman. 

More evidence for 'recent' human interbreeding with Neanderthals: Genetic analysis 40,000-year old jaw from Romania revealed that 5 to 11% of this ancient European man's DNA was Neanderthal -- indicating that he must have had a Neanderthal ancestor in the previous four to six generations. 

Insight into the darker side of the human past: Paleolithic remains show cannibalistic habits of our ancestors -- at sites in England dating back about 15,000 years ago.

== even weirder ==

Marshall Brain’s new book “The Second Intelligent Species: How Humans Will Become as Irrelevant as Cockroaches” wins a prize for telegraphing its point in the title, alone!  

It explores how the future will unfold as the second intelligent species – Artificial Intelligence (AI) -- emerges.  Well, well.  

We are getting plenty of folks taking up extreme apocalyptic or utopian views of all this.  But I just don’t think that way.

Where are we headed? Looking ahead: The Atlantic Council has reprinted my brief future projection: The Avalon Missions: Race for the Stars.

== Mickey points the way? ==

Disney is “betting a billion dollars on a magical wrist band.” A new ticketing method that will let each member of your family get personalized treatment from the instant you enter the park, always welcomed into the correct line, walking out of stores with merchandise paid for without visiting a cashier, ordering food before arriving at a restaurant and sitting at any table, knowing the food will arrive….

…And if someone doesn’t add this to my predictions registry wiki, then I don’t have fans anymore! 

Read this chapter from EXISTENCE --- The Shelter of Tradition -- set at the Shanghai World of Disney and the Monkey King, in the year 2045.  And tell me Disney shouldn’t at least give me a nice family pass. Only the date was wrong.  

Stuff catches up with science fiction faster and faster.

Friday, May 15, 2015

SF on the big screen...and TV

What is Science Fiction? Here’s my take on the Literature of Change – nicely edited into a vividly animated clip-vid by Trekspertise.

So now Yahoo is creating original sic fi content? "Other Space" is a comedy by Paul Feig …. another garbage scow headed into the galaxy? (Does anyone get that reference?) 

Wow, the SyFy Channel has really veered back into realstuff scifi!  Here is the Childhood's End teaser (based on the classic by Arthur C. Clarke) -- to premiere on SyFy in December.  

Another series....based on Philip K. Dick's award-winning novel, and executive produced by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), The Man in the High Castle explores what it would be like if the Allied Powers had lost WWII, and Japan and Germany ruled the United States.  Watch the first episode -- free on Amazon.  

We've just started watching Person of Interest, a Sci Fi crime series directed by Jonathan Nolan. A mysterious billionaire designs a computer to predict terrorist events; it also generates social security numbers of people who are to be involved in a murder in the next few days... I hear season three gets even more sf'nal.

Today we watched a play downtown: "The Uncanny Valley," a two actor riff on artificial intelligence that was moving and well-written and provocative  and plausible... much more so than "Ex Machina." Keep your eye open for it.

Vintage Sci Fi: And here's a lovely rumination about the old "X-minus-one" radio show from the 1950's, with stories from Bradbury, Heinlein, Sheckley and Pohl, available in podcast. "At its worst, “X Minus One” is dated drama told well, but its better episodes have matured into half-hour exercises in a peculiar and intoxicating form of temporal eavesdropping. They let us watch, with great ease and clarity, people who are straining much harder to see us. Usually they’re looking just slightly off to the side. Sometimes they’re looking the wrong way entirely. But occasionally, in the show’s most thrillingly prescient moments, it’s as if they were staring straight at us."

== On the Big Screen ==

Watch this gorgeous new short/proof of concept by Irish filmmaker RuairĂ­ Robinson: The Leviathan takes place in the early 22nd century, after humans have colonized multiple worlds, and are now on "the hunt" for a whale-like species that naturally collects the dark matter needed by space drives.  Kewl! How much better is set in the Startide Rising universe, though? And now, spurred by this trailer...Twentieth Century Fox has just optioned The Leviathan, with Neill Blomkamp producing.

Getting back to Alex Garland's Ex Machina...The dialog contained some moments of intellectual heft and there’s genuine acting. Best of all, the film proved that a small team can do inexpensive thought-provoking science fiction. Alas, the macro story arc -- and the bizarrely over-the-top villain were banal caricatures of a yawningly predictable Frankenstein remake, including Mary Shelley’s fundamental lesson: the creator is not punished for hubristically picking up god’s tools, he is punished for being a horrible dad. I am saddened most by works that have so very much going for them, yet fail tragically on maybe just one dismal fundamental. 

Garland's next project is an adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer's novel -- Annihiliation. Way to go, Jeff.

Disney's Tomorrowland stars George Clooney, directed by Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof. This could turn out to be worth watching ... at least it seems vivid.  Even if it also appears to be another damned “chosen one” story. Watch the trailer.

In sharp contrast, we watched “Big Hero Six” at home. Yes… I lag a bit! But it is just intensely good!  With a delight in tech and nerdiness and optimism that we badly need. About characters who aren't "fated" or destined "chosen ones," or mutant demigods... but merely way above average.  Like some kid you might have, some day.  Oh, and hilarious!

== Back in Print ==

Back in print! My first short story collection - The River of Timewinner of the Locus Award for best SF collection, in its year, and containing the Hugo winning tale “The Crystal Spheres” -- has been re-released in both e-book and paperback. And...

Just released: an excellent audio version of The River of Time, beautifully narrated by my friend, actor Stephen Mendel! 

Newly re-issued by IDW, my epic graphic novel – The Life Eaters – with spectacular hand-painted art by the great Scott Hampton. This tale starts off from the premise of “Thor Meets Captain America” (found in The River of Time) -- my runner up for a Hugo in the novella category ... taking you on an adventure that confronts the darkest parts of the human soul, with our dauntless potential for courage and freedom.

Sample the stirring video trailer for The Life Eaters! Movieable?

DC printed very few copies. So this improved re-issue will turn heads! The Life Eaters was nominated for one of the “bande dessinee” prizes in France, where the graphic novel is king.

== Sci Fi: A World of Ideas ==

Uri Aviv runs the Utopia series of science fiction festivals in Israel. (see below)  Here he makes some very interesting connections between SF and the history of the eventful 20th Century

Over the years science fiction has inspired the exploration of space and cyberspace and was first to imagine the robot, cyborg, clone and technological singularity. All of these are "mere byproducts" to the real focus of science fiction -- society -- communities, relationships, individuals -- how we transform, mutate and evolve through science and how we use and abuse technology. Science fiction creators imagine the un-imaginable and explore the impossible, they perform huge scale gedankenexperiments and by doing so they give birth to our future, for giving shape to the impossible today, gives shape to the every-day of tomorrow.”

For more about the the Utopia Festival: http://www.utopiatlv.org

==Other Sci Fi ==

Alas, farewell to good old Terry Pratchett.  He was a delight.  And had fun.  And gave the rest of us so much fun. And stayed vibrant and busy till some character with a scythe and bad diction hauled him off.  To Discworld, I hope!  (See him in one of his more humorous roles - in the photo on this site - creating satires of pompous religious and political leaders who take themselves too seriously....)

Cracked has a pretty good stab at laying down a bill of indictments in "6 Reasons The Jedi Would Be The Villain In Any Sane Movie." Ah, but six becomes FIFTY in my fun take-down of this silly-betrayal of sanity -- STAR WARS ON TRIAL. More detail and more laughs, by far!   Still, Cracked does crib from the best ;-)

Oh and Star Wars on Trial will soon be re-issued, in a new Jedi-Mouse edition!  

Check out Living Tomorrow, a new anthology of science fiction stories exploring futures shaped by environmental and biological science and technology, from ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination.

This lovely manga about two gal-roomies-dealing-with-life is utterly sweet and fun. A mutual fan also alerted me that one of the strips refers to me and my work. As a must-purchase to be weighed against buying food! Well now, there’s a tradeoff I hope none of you ever face! Still, if you ever do, I hope you’ll choose wisely. ;-)  

Okay…. This is fun:  Kung Fury

The great web artist Patrick Farley has created a new video book trailer for Cecil Castellucci's new science fiction novel, Stone in the Sky. Patrick’s art is terrific and you should all be following his work at Electric Sheep Comix.

Stefan Jones reminds us of this cool-minimal but evocative animation: Rendezvous: The Murf.

== A few memorable words ==

"Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected, in this case I would think interesting would suffice.” — Spock

"That is the exploration that awaits you! Not mapping stars and studying nebula, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence." — Leonard Nimoy

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Preparing for the Future

Sailing into the future...

How stunningly weird is it, that we’ve been in space for almost 60 years… and our first real-genuine experiment deploying a solar sail is about to be launched (by the Planetary Society), later this month? A human lifespan… to get around to trying something to simple, obvious and inexpensive?   The delay is so strange and unlikely, it almost makes one conjure up sci-fi/thriller/paranoid explanations. 

Support the solar sail on Kickstarter.  Something worthwhile.

Other interesting things, in the offing...

Innovating for the future: an interesting article about the history of and the death… and rebirth(?) of corporate research labs, reports that "innovation may no longer be in corporate-affiliated research parks, but is cropping up in unexpected places... which goes hand in hand with rapid shifts and expansions in the information landscape." 

Ah, but as you'll hear me repeat, those who have sabotaged investment in U.S. research are traitors and enemies of our children.  No less.

Financing the future...will we see...an attack of the algorithms? In a disturbing trend, monetary funds run by robots now account for $400 billion of the worldwide economy.

Mining for the future...Last summer the UN's International Seabed Authority issued the first deep sea exploration permits, allowing companies to start actively looking for places to mine Manganese nodules and other sources of rare earth elements from the ocean floor. As I forecast in EARTH (1989). Might this be a way around the current Chinese near-monopoly on rare earths production?

In the short term. Maybe.  But till we're mining asteroids (including "davidbrin") we won't yet be rich enough.

== Powering the Future ==

Speaking of solar... Bike lanes covered with solar panels follow the median of highways in South Korea: “...for 20 miles between the cities of Daejeon and Sejong, they can be running down the median of a six-lane highway. And what's really special about this one is that it is covered with solar panels, generating electricity and shading the cyclists as they ride,” reports this article in TreeHugger. Sounds nice -- till you factor in noise, danger and exhaust fumes.  Reboot idea source.  Try again.

My own passion is to see solar panels running along the west’s great aqueducts, shading the water and reducing evaporative losses. The energy that’s generated would benefit from a clear right-of-way for cheap power lines.  Add a bike-path? Sure!

Better yet, the aqueducts are (not-quite but sort-of) perfect for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transport system! The main California Aqueduct runs roughly along the I-5 interstate freeway – with, admittedly, a few more twists. The point is that Elon might be able to flexibly hop from one to the other, with the aqueduct portions being much, much cheaper to acquire and build upon than portions running down an interstate median. Now, to power with that water-and-electricity-saving roof of solar cells.

Been musing this idea more and more…

One of you did some of the math: “Just the California aqueduct is 1129 km long and 10 meters wide.  That figures to a surface area = 1.129E7 m^2.  Now, assuming solar energy 1.2 KW per M^2, with 20% conversion efficiency: then this surface area would generate 0.27E7 KW… or 2.7 GigaWatts. Out of California’s current electrical demand ~50GW, that’d be a whopping 6%. Compare this to existing California solar = 6GW, so a complete solar roof over the CA Aqueduct (and that is only the largest of California’s many water channels) would provide half again the existing solar power base in California alone.”

It's been done in India: a canal in Gujarat topped with solar panels. See the picture to the right.

Hm, well, the numbers can be quibbled in either direction.  But not by enough to refute the notion. Now factor in all 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 time and expense.

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 benefit, 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 basic planning.  Still, here's the capstone that makes all of this sound plausible --

Elon Musk tweeted, "Have asked SolarCity if we can do something philanthropic with the CA aqueducts to help the water crisis. Investigating…"

And...what about the All American Canal as well?

== Preparing for worst cast scenarios ==

Battling infectious diseases: There have been missteps. As this article notes, empty Ebola clinics have been reported: “After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and deploying nearly 3,000 troops to create Ebola remedy centers, the United States ended up creating facilities that have largely sat empty: Only 28 Ebola sufferers have been treated at the 11 remedy units built by the United States military…”

Before getting all outraged at this “waste,” perhaps some perspective? All right, the help arrived a bit late and our civil servants learned a lot, so that they’ll do better next time. Which is… um… kinda the point, yes? For all of its tragedy, this Ebola outbreak was on the medium-small scale, compared with the nightmare scenarios we all might face, next year or next decade.

On that broader perspective, this exercise was, in fact, worth every penny! We’ll be quicker off the mark, next time, better skilled and equipped.

 == Educating for the Future ==

Along the same lines as my posting -- How the American Education System Doesn't Fail -- this article - We don't need more STEM majors, We need STEM majors with liberal arts training --  shows both true wisdom and obdurately silliness.  

Yes, we need to double down on America's investment in "breadth" during college.   All around the world, the normative baccalaureate degree is three years, with 17-year olds diving into narrow fields with utter specialization. 

In sharp contrast, the American (and Canadian) Bachelor's Degree takes four years because all STEM majors are required to take a year's worth of humanities/history/Lit etc... and vice versa for humanities majors needing science survey classes. This article's author is only expressing the value system under which she was raised.  One with which I wholly agree! (As a "scientist/novelist" who earns his living across the entire spectrum.) You want MORE breadth?  Fine. I am down with that.

But to not even acknowledge that's already what we do?  Vastly more than any other nation on Earth?  Did you see her mention that? Even remotely?  Nope, just finger-wagging chiding -- the coin of our era -- instead of constructively pondering how to improve the miracle we already have. Pure silliness.

 == Predicting the Future ==

A reminder to you nit-pickers out there that I am willing to live by the principles that I preach! I have talked a lot about how we need “accountability for those who claim to predict. Actually, my fans have noticed the unusual number of "hits" or predictive successes that seem to have been scored in EARTH. These  accurate foretellings... and some that were embarrassingly off-target(!) are now being tracked at this site.

Feel free to suggest ways in which I have been wrong or right!  Not just in that one novel.

Here’s my essay -- Predictions Registries -- on why we should be doing this for everyone!  Especially politicians and cable news pundits and merchants of fear. 

 = And Finally =

What if...Ayn Rand reviewed children's movies? Hilarious!  

I really like the deep and original song by Big Data - “Dangerous.”  Their video is complex, layered and entertaining, demanding full attention: "How could they know, how could they know.. what I been thinking? Like they're right inside my head because they know, Because they know, what I been hiding..."

Then there’s this more shallow and yet deeply disturbing alternate version. Yeouch!