Voter ID Laws: Scam or Accountability?

During this (or any) electoral season, it pays to get off the left-right political axis – and examine particular political issues on their own merits. So let’s take a closer look at one of them… Voter ID laws. (Feel free to watch this essay given orally, on YouTube!) Voter-ID-laws-blog

To some, these laws deal with a problem — electoral fraud, when cheaters pretend to be someone else to cast illicit vote. Statistics show such voter fraud is extremely rare. (See “Voter Fraud is Rare, but Myth is Widespread.”) Still, when it happens it is a bad thing.

Opponents to this spate of laws – which have nearly all erupted in “red states” – denounce them as infringing on the rights of, not just poor people, but the ill-educated, or recent citizens, and the young, who often lack clear ID. In particular, this presents hardships for women, who may have failed to re-document after marriage or divorce. Some on the left call this another front in the “War on Women.”

Fundamentally, Voter ID laws are supported by red state white-older voters because – and let’s be frank – there is an element of truth in what they say. Voting is important. It is reasonable, over an extended period of time, to ratchet up accountability – and to ask that people prove who they are. That reasonableness lets these politicians propose these laws as a necessity – and implicitly, those who oppose them must have some agenda: SHOW-ID

“If you don’t want voters to show ID, it’s because you want to cheat.” This is how you get a reversal of those who are blatantly cheating accusing others of cheating. It’s important to parse this issue.

To reiterate this point: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with gradually ratcheting up the degree to which we apply accountability to potential failure modes in society. This is what my book, The Transparent Society, is all about. We apply reciprocal accountability to each other. For example, we have poll watchers to make sure there is no cheating during elections.

(Is it also reasonable to demand accountability from the manufacturers of voting machines? Nearly all such companies are now controlled by men who have been high level Republican partisans, at one time or another. Should this be deemed… suspicious? Especially in those states (mostly red) where no paper audit trail is required?) RespectandProtectVoteButton

Is there a test that would nail down whether Voter ID laws are, as their proponents say, merely ratcheting up accountability – or, whether they are, as the opponents of these laws say, blatant fragrant attempts to cheat and steal votes away from poor people, minorities, young folks, and women.

Is there a way such a simple and clear test?

There is.

== The crucial metric of hypocrisy: compliance assistance ==

According to the conservative thinkers and agendas going back to Buckley and Goldwater, regulations that are onerously placed on business should be accompanied by assistance so those businesses can meet and comply with these new regulations. This is standard conservative dogma. compliance-assistance

Indeed, Democrats agree! Almost always, whenever new and onerous regulations are applied to business, there are allocations of money to set up offices, call-lines, visiting experts and grace periods with the aim of helping corporations – and the rich – comply with the new regulations. It’s called compliance assistance.

You can see how this applies to the topic at-hand. The fundamental test here is this: In any of the red states that have passed new Voter ID laws, or other laws that restrict the ability of poor people young people, women and so on to exercise their franchise, were any significant funds appropriated or allocated for compliance assistance?

Were any new offices, call-lines, visiting experts and grace periods set up to help them comply? “Here is an onerous new burden upon the poor, women and so on — but we are going to show our commitment to assist voters with these new regulations, by allocating money.” A serious effort to go out into the communities and help the poor, minorities, recent immigrants, women, young people – to obtain the identification they need to exercise their sovereign right to vote. voter-id-laws-video

Note! This type of outreach would not just help them with voting, but would likely help them to STOP being poor! By helping them get on the path to helping themselves. This should be what conservatives are for.

Instead these efforts are sabotaged, deliberately and relentlessly. Not one red cent has been allocated for compliance assistance in any of the red states that have passed these new voter ID laws. Not one red cent.

== Dealing with vampires: always seek the silver bullet ==

There you have it, you liberals out there. Don’t make this a matter of goody-goody, or of denying a long term need to ratchet up accountability. It makes it look like you’re in favor of cheating. Or it gives fools that excuse.

Make it a matter of hypocrisy. Of lying. The blatant lack of sincere compliance assistance provides clear-cut and decisive proof that these are attempts to steal elections – just like gerrymandering. NEUTRALIZE-GERRYMANDERING

(Indeed, gerrymandering is being erased in one blue state after another, as those citizens rebel against unfair districting, often even overcoming the objections of Democratic politicians. These rebellions have taken place in California, Washington, Oregon, and – we can hope in a few weeks — in New York. Meanwhile not one red state has seen a rebellion of its citizens against the blatant theft and cheating called gerrymandering. Just as you’ll see no rebellions against the blatant theft and cheating called Voter ID laws. This is a cultural matter. In some parts of the country – it seems – cheating is just fine, “so long as it is my side doing it.”)

Your silver bullet. This is what you use. The fact of zero Compliance Assistance exposes the hypocrisy here.

That is what makes the difference between people who say, “We need to have more accountability in the voter rolls” and blatant, lying, hypocritical thieves, for whom no excuse or shelter can excuse the title of traitor. voter-repression-laws

Make this clear to your uncles and cousins. If, when they hear about this, they are still supporters of these horrid hypocritical robber, then the tar sticks to them as well.

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An Unstable World? Part One: Russia and China

People have lately been asking me why I seem so calm.  It seems that every week brings news of yet another brewing disaster, with the world apparently spinning into chaos.  So much for Francis Fukayama’s famous line – around 1990 – that the rapid and unstoppable spread of liberal democracy would soon bring an “end of history.”

unstable-worldA few years earlier, I had made a different prediction. That the Cold War and the communist empire would soon shatter… (few believed it even remotely possible)… but that our struggles would move on to cultural strife between a rising world-liberal culture… and one branch or another of machismo… traditionally male dominated cultures upset over the prospect of seeing their women become like ours. At the time, I could not say which it would be… Latin, Hindi or Muslim machismo, though I guessed the lattermost of these. With the saving grace that – thereupon – the other two would swing our way.

But never mind that. Lately I’ve heard a lot of: “Brin, you warned us, way back a year ago, that 2014 could be world-shaking! You said the last three centuries began in their fourteenth year! Aren’t these ructions around the planet signs that you’re right?”

Well… yes… perhaps.  But here’s how to tell when someone really is in the future biz.  He doesn’t wed his ego to any one forecast! Or any twenty! I am in the line of posing possibilities to explore. Being proved right? I’ll leave that for others to judge.

In fact, looking at the crises of the moment, I have not yet broken a sweat. Maybe I’ll tell you why, later in this series.  But first, some specific trouble zones.

== What’s up with Russia? ==

ukraine-rebelsFascinating! The pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk (eastern Ukraine) are resurrecting Soviet symbols, incantations and methods, even collective farms — and (as described in this article), it was already happening in other disputed territories like South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

We already know that Russian President Vladimir Putin called the breakup of the USSR “History’s greatest tragedy.” But… but… he’s also supervised the most spectacular rise in oligarchic-moneyed inequality since the days of Ivan the Terrible. So… what gives?

I have to tell you that I lay 30% odds that Vladimir may be something that no one on Earth suspects. Sincere.

I may be alone in thinking it is possible. But lonely observations are what I do. (Why does no one even consider what I deem a 20% possibility: that the absolutely uniform chain of destructive-to-America outcomes from the GW Bush presidency might have been “manchurian”? It does parsimoniously fit the facts, much better than the standard theories: dogmatism, venality and stupidity.)

What do I mean by sincere? Ah, well, if you ever actually read Karl Marx (which I assume no member of my generation ever has done), you’d realize how easily the present situation in Russia is “adaptable” in Marxist-Leninist terms.  A couple of hundred oligarchs have consolidated all wealth, capital and power in a few hands? That is actually a well-described Marxist phase. When the time comes… but I will leave that as a what-if hint. Remember, I only laid a 30% on this one. But it fits.

Oh, one last item.  Look up this fellow: Fyodor Dmitrievich Berezin is a Ukrainian science fiction writer. In the Ukraine Civil War he currently serves as the deputy Defense Minister  of the People’s Republic of Donetsk.  His sci fi always features virtuous Russian or revived Soviet forces destroying decadent-smug American hegemons.  Wowzer.

== China: a humble historical correction ==

great-vault-forwardChina and the West are clearly heading toward an inevitable — and we hope very peaceful — reconfiguring and renegotiation over trade and other relations. Why? Because the trade imbalances… tsunami flows of money, capital investment, knowledge and intellectual property … have achieved their main historical purpose, lifting China in history’s Great Vault Forward, transforming that ancient land into a modern marvel. For which let us all say mazeltov! Let us get used to – and welcome – the idea that a billion talented and creative people are joining the world ranks of prosperous problem-solvers. It will be a better planet… after they adapt and finish their own, self-guided transformations.

(Indeed, they have started contributing to humanity’s highest art form — science fiction! You have heard me praise Liu Cixin’s terrific Three Body Problem trilogy. Coming this fall from Tor Books.)

We are obliged to be welcoming and glad about this Great Vault. Indeed, let us recall that Americans were intellectual property thieves, once upon a time. (Though we never stole so much that it killed the goose.)

east-westWhat we are not obligated to do, however, is swallow a narrative that is circulating over there. A smug and self-flattering tale that all of this happened because China invented just the right mix of state capitalism and clever, predatory, mercantilist ruthlessness. Or that any and all tactics – such as the rampant appropriation of intellectual property – can and should go on forever, for two reasons:

(1) Westerners are decadent fools and their proper role is to serve as (figurative-commercial) prey or cattle (that exact metaphor is used).

(2) That all tactics are justified as recompense and pay-back for centuries of oppression and colonialism by the West.

Oh, sure, there is some moral justification there in number 2, though Chinese leaders played a huge role in their nation’s slide from world pre-eminence, centuries ago. Still, the victim narrative only goes so far, for one simple reason.  And you all should be ready to deploy it, over the years ahead.

Let me reiterate that I say this in a spirit of friendship and respect. But the basic fact is… that in all of its 4000 year history, China never had a real friend.

Except one.

Indeed, one reason for that lack of friends was Chinese policy — proclaiming to all that they were Chung Kuo… the center of the world, an attitude that we are seeing glimmers of, again, across Southeast Asian seas.

And then, yes, came the abuse by many foreign powers, when China was no longer able to enforce that centrality.

Only, across all that time there was one nation that generally treated China well, or at least better than anyone else did. Just one nation that stood up for China (sometimes tepidly but at other times with ferocious loyalty) when China was down. Just one nation who (admittedly) did make some mistakes with China, and did a few wrong things, but generally could be seen trying, far more often than not, to be generous and fair. china-us

That friendly outsider was the United States of America. And if your reflex is to deny this, then in fact you know no history. No one else stepped up to tell the European powers to stop their expanding “concessions” and refused to seize any of our own.

No one else stepped up to help China resist brutal invaders – in the 1930s – and went into a savage war for which we were unready, and paid dearly, directly due to standing up for China, in its hour of existential need.

Even the long enmity of the Cold War was all about the U.S. choosing one “China” over another. All right, perhaps more subtlety was called for, then, and for a couple of years Chinese and American soldiers killed each other, each considering the other pawns to distant masters. But just as soon as Mao put his hand out, there was Nixon ready to shake it.

Again, there were mistakes! On both sides. But there is no way that China’s attitude toward the U.S. can be informed or ever justified by “getting even for colonialism.” If, across 4000 years, you can point to any substantial nation that was ever as good a friend… or that at least sometimes tried to be… then maybe we’ll listen to the “colonialism” guilt trip. But you cannot. And we should not.

Walmart-EconomyAnd we are still at it. Because the narrative about 40 years of trade imbalances could be viewed in another way, dear friends. We have raised up the billion people of the Central Kingdom, by the magnificent method called “foreign aid via WalMart.” The greatest uplifting in all the history of our species.  And it was not the act of bleating, helpless sheep, but deliberate policy, established by Marshall, Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower and so on, to establish counter-mercantilist trade flows. The only “pax” imperium ever to do such a generous thing. (China did nothing of the sort, when it was on top of the world.)

It merits real respect, this rise of yours, from the dust, to standing next to us, as brothers and sisters and equals. Well done!  But it also merits some gratitude. You’re welcome.

== So where’s the optimism? ==

ISIS-CRISIS-SYRIASorry, not this time. You’ll have to wait for me to plumb the “ISIS-Crisis.” And the endless disappointments between Israel and Palestine. And Ebola! And so many other modern ructions that make it seem that I was right about the “fourteenth year.”

Well, sure… I might be right.  Or I might be crazy.

But I am starting to perk up a bit, imagining that… I might be wrong.

====================================

== Food for thought ==

A fascinating quotation from George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” –

1984“…it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction — indeed, in some sense was the destruction — of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance…”

diamond-social-structureThat is, indeed, what would-be lords fear most. The trend after World War II to create a diamond-shaped society, with an empowered and educated middle and working class so large that it outnumbers the poor and politically dominates the rich… this was key to every piece of good news since civilization’s nadir in 1943. It led to all fine things, from science and moon landings to the plummets in world poverty and (per capita average) violence that Stevn Pinker documents in his book that I cite below.

It would lead, eventually, to Star Trek and to a society in which a person might get rich – through smithian competition and new goods or services… but there would be no way for him or her to pass on to children the kind of obligate lordship that was the fiercely obsessive goal of every generation of brutal men, during all of the millennia leading to our Enlightenment Experiment.

It cannot be allowed to happen again! Orwell gave us a graphic warning…

…and yet, Orwell was crude in his interpretation of method. War, as a means of keeping society pyramidal, instead of diamond-shaped? Well, sure… but it is a chaotic, unreliable, destructive method, especially when an educated populace, if even 5% of it truly understands, will have the technological means to shatter everything.

tyrannies-futureNo… here is the fellow who got it right. The one who will win the old argument. Aldous Huxley. Tyrannies in the future will have to fool the majority into thinking they are still in charge. Distracting them, not with pain, but with pleasure.

Without any doubt we should all have skeptical hackles, whenever a president or politician raises a clamor for war. Indeed, elsewhere I have carefully parsed the differences between democrats and republicans in HOW they wage war, a stunningly opposite matter of style and effectiveness.

But here I want to point out that cases like our present ISIS-crisis are no-brainers, if you want the era’s “pax” power to have any credibility, at all. And that, in turn, hinges on whether you can stomach the era that we now live-in… Pax Americana.

It has lasted all our lifetimes, since WWII saw the passing of the last vestiges of Pax Brittanica… the “British Peace.” (The term refers originally to Pax Romana or the Roman Peace that kept the Mediterranean placid and open to commerce for 600 years. Pax Sinica refers to similar epochs across China and east Asia.) War21Century-Pax

Here is the crux. Almost every Pax era has been better for average people on planet Earth than almost every era without a pax empire, when competing kingdoms would send armies slashing and burning and looting across each others’ territories. Average humans today live in more peace than at any time in the history of our species, as shown in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, with only a few percent ever experiencing personal and direct contact with war in their lifetimes. One top benefit: Pax-protected world trade has uplifted 2/3 of the world’s children out of poverty.

Are there costs, whenever there is a ruling imperium? You bet! When the First Emperor – Chin – squashed the Five Kingdoms and unified China, peace then reigned… along with one of the most brutal tyrannies ever, and a collapse of the vibrant, cultural competitiveness that had prevailed, before. Minority cultures had plenty to complain about, under Pax Parthia, Pax Alexandrine, Pax Romana, Pax Mughal etc… Where Pax Americana is different is in having reduced most of the bad outcomes of a pax era. Rigid domination, imperial mercantiism and repression of diversity. A priesthood with a lock on “truth.” Outright and barefaced conquest.

Suspicion-of-authorityIs Pax Americana perfect? Hell no! Many crimes, yes, I could name several dozen without even trying. But the memes that it spreads – especially through Hollywood – are critical memes, such as suspicion of authority and admiration of diversity, that you express, even as you fume at me for praising the pax that taught you all those values. Memes that encourage criticism of the pax power even (especially) by its own youths! Indeed, many of you are expressing that memic upbringing, as you glower at these words.

Here is more about Pax Americana: Pondering Pax Americana and the Government Shutdown.

Was PA awful at times? Sure… except compared to every single other nation that was ever tempted by such power. If you make that comparison, PA is day to their night. Was PA drooling-insane-stupid under both Bushes? Sure. So much so that you have to wonder if that Saudi-owned family did it on purpose.

Should Pax Americana be replaced with something grownup, at last, bringing an end to all empires? Sure! Would Star Trek be better? Sure! We’d all love to see your plan.

Will it happen if PA simply goes away or stops enforcing peace? Baloney. Before you prescribe NOTHING as a replacement to the current pax power, please find for us, across 6000 years, a lasting era when that prescription worked well.

PA is the only empire that ever had as its (hypocritical) policy “there should be no empires.” That hypocrisy has one saving grace…

…it will make itself come true.

== finally, too-big means get-smaller ==

The Federal Reserve is pushing the biggest U.S. banks to shrink so that they’re less of a risk to the financial system. Fed proposals include imposing additional capital requirements for the eight largest banks — including JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America — that exceed the levels mandated by international regulators. “Capital surcharges” would increase in proportion to how risky the regulators deem a bank to be. ken-burns-roosevelts

Ken Burns documentaries are always a great buy, for your viewing time. His most recent — “The Roosevelts” — focuses on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. Terrific. Fascinating stories. Only… I find my own thoughts drifting from the past, to the present and the future…

Galt’s Gulch Chile? One common theme that spans from leftist-hippies to followers of Ayn Rand is the notion of anarchic utopianism — that those who have free spirits and the right ideology can create an ideal community, free of the ills they perceive in our complex, compromise-ridden civilization. On rare occasions, these communities have thrived… ironically those that have been run patriarchally by brilliant administrators, replicating feudalism-of-old, with a patina of egalitarian catechism. But most swiftly collapse. As in the case of the AnyRandian ideal community described here.

This is not the only libertarian dream community in the works. Perhaps more sturdy, but still problematic, are seasteading efforts propelled by Patri Friedman and Peter Thiel.

LIBERTARIANS-PROPERTYIn the end, however, this is tragic for us all. Libertarianism might have served as a rational and pragmatic counter-balance to the tendency to try solving all problems with statist approaches. It might also have held true to the sane vision of Adam Smith – to do what is needed in order to maximize the number of skilled and capable young COMPETITORS in a flat-fair-open society. Instead, it has been hijacked by solipsists who never, ever mention the word “competition” anymore, in their obsessive defense of towering accumulations of PROPERTY, never noticing how this serves the proto-feudal wishes of the oligarchs who were denounced by Adam Smith, and have always been the greatest enemies of markets and freedom.

See my dissection of Any Rand here: http://www.davidbrin.com/aynrand.html

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The Spirit of Exploration: Comets, Pluto, Titan and Mars

NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz for transportation of humans (at $70 million a seat). It’s about time! It also makes clear the advantages of competition, which Elon’s company has restored. How interesting that SpaceX is being paid only a little more than half what Boeing will be paid, for the same number of crew/cargo deliveries.  If Elon is trying to make a point… he is succeeding.

philae== Comets! ==

As a licensed cosmet… I mean cometologist, I find this truly exciting news: In early November, the Philae lander — currently tucked inside the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft — will drop down to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Philae will make measurements while anchored to the comet by a harpoon. Scientists have just chosen Site J — located on the comet’s head for touchdown. Landing will be challenging: the surface of the 4 km double-lobed comet is jagged — with unpredictable outgassing jets that will become more active as the comet approaches the sun.

This cool online item visualizes Rosetta´s 10-year journey to explore a comet, with all important moments, current positions and also upcoming steps of the mission.

67P-Aug6-albedo-TR-580x417Upon approach to Comet 67P, Discovery.com reported: “A spacecraft chasing a comet in deep space has found that its target is surprisingly dark in color. Instead of arriving at a bright, reflective, ice-covered heavenly body, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe found that its target comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or 67P/C-G), appears darker than charcoal…”

In fact, this is old news. When the Giotto spacecraft flew past Halley’s comet in 1986, there was “shock” that the dusty material was so dark. Though in fact we should have guessed, because other than water, a lot of material in the outer solar system is carbonaceous. At the time, my doctoral thesis on comets was new. It had predicted the dust layers, but not quite how dark they would be. In fact, that prediction was only made in one place, a sci fi novel called Heart of the Comet!

== Cosmets and the Red Planet! ==

maven-marsElsewhere in the solar system… MAVEN — the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN craft arrived at Mars on Sunday Sept 21. After a ten month journey, Maven begins its study of the Martian atmosphere. Scheduled to arrive two days later is Mangalyaan — or Mars Orbital Mission — India’s first interplanetary spacecraft. MOM?  Seriously?  As in Mars Needs Moms?

Ah… but then, few weeks later….

Comet Siding Spring is heading toward a close encounter with Mars on October 19. Planetary scientists were worried about cometary debris harming delicate instruments on Mars orbiting spacecraft while could in turn hurt our relays from the rovers. The latest assessment indicates there should be minimal danger. But I’ll be biting my nails, while eagerly peering at the science data!

 ==On to Pluto!==

New-Horizons-PlutoNASA’s New Horizons probe was scheduled to cross the orbit of Neptune on Monday (Aug. 25), 25 years to the day after Voyager 2’s encounter. (Voyager was our only probe ever to visit Uranus and Neptune.) New Horizons is now streaking toward a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 that should return the first good images at the distant dwarf planet and its moons.

Now Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston has produced created the best-ever global color map of Neptune’s big moon Triton, by enhancing images taken by Voyager 2 probe during its flyby of Neptune and Triton, a generation ago.

(Alas “crossing the orbit” does not mean a flyby. There will be no Neptune science this time, from New Horizons.)

==And beyond==

Trailers for scientific papers? Hollywood has borrowed relentlessly from science (occasionally even respectfully), so why not turnaround? Sean Carroll reports that some young physicists have created a truly fun and cool trailer that in one minute teases you to know a lot more than you did before… about superfields and super-gravity and inflation! 

Yes, books have trailers too! Some of you have seen the amazing video preview-trailer for Existence, with incredible art by Patrick Farley!

Copernicus-Complex-ScharfHow Rare is Intelligent Life? Just released: The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities by Caleb Scharf argues that Earth will still be special, even after all sorts of alien worlds are catalogued. Unlike Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, who argued in Rare Earth that intelligent life on Earth relied on so many unlikely accidents that we are probably alone in the universe, Scharf doesn’t think it’s likely we’re entirely unique, just rare. See more articles on SETI.

NASA is expected to sponsor a contest to build better airships, breathing new life — and funding — into the idea. High-altitude airships are still in their relative infancy. None has ever flown at 65,000 feet for longer than eight hours. But a recent study from the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech suggests that a more capable airship may not be far-off.

Mind you, we have been reading “revival of airships” stories for thirty years! But the technologies now seem especially ripe. See my own portrayal of the vibrant future of towed zeppelins in “The Smartest Mob.”

==Toward Titan and Mars==

Super-ball-botSee the Super Ball Bot: this flexible tensegrity-style robot can land with a bounce — and roll to explore planetary surfaces — funded by NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts Group (NIAC). (I am on the external board of advisors for NIAC.) Researchers are considering Saturn’s moon Titan for the robot’s first mission.

Looking ahead: is it time to re-evaluate beamed power from space?

Win a trip to space — and back! – aboard XCOR’s Lynx Mark II Spacecraft, a fundraiser to benefit MarsOne, and their plans to build a human settlement on the red planet.

Read also about Elon Musk’s plans for a Mars colony — he calls Mars a serious fixer-upper.

Mars-curiosityRecommended: a look at the teams of scientists and engineers who designed, built, launched, landed, and now operate the Mars Rovers: Curiosity – An inside look at the Mars Rover Mission and the people who made it happen, by Rod Pyle. These individuals are the ones who keep pushing at the frontiers of exploration…

Finally: Um… didn’t I already do exactly this, in a novel? “NASA Announces Plans To Launch Chimpanzee Into Sun.” — from The Onion!

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How Far Conservatism Has Changed

All right, it is an important U.S. political season.  As a registered Republican and a frequent speaker at libertarian gatherings, I remain hopeful that this will be the year that several million temperamentally conservative Americans wake up to the way their movement and the GOP have been hijacked. And that only a shattering drubbing at the polls will send the American right back to the drawing boards — learning to do politics again. Including negotiation about real problems. Oh, but it will be so hard!

The oligarchs who have done the hijacking have ordered up so many narratives, from “birther” paranoia to climate denialism, from preaching “oligarchy is gooood for you” to utter lies about U.S. history. I will explicate the best and most hilariously most damning example below — the George Soros Effect.

thats-not-austinBut first — In That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right WingProfessor Michael Austin examines dozens of books, articles, speeches, and radio broadcasts by such figures as Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Larry Schweikart, and David Barton to expose the deep historical flaws in their use of America’s founding history. In contrast to their misleading method of citing proof texts to serve a narrow agenda, Austin allows the Founding Fathers to speak for themselves, situating all quotations in the proper historical context.

What emerges is a true historical picture of men who often disagreed with one another on such crucial issues as federal power, judicial review, and the separation of church and state. As Austin shows, the real legacy of the Founding Fathers to us is a political process: a system of disagreement, debate, and compromise that has kept democracy vibrant in America for more than two hundred years, but that regularly comes under attack.. How extreme has been the veer off any path of sane conservatism?

A commenter on the New York Magazine site said: Nothing underscores the change in the Republican Party more than to read Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 Republican Platform: government-head-heart

PHILOSOPHY: “Our great President Eisenhower has counseled us further: “In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. Government must have a heart as well as a head. “

LABOR: “Workers have benefited by the progress which has been made in carrying out the programs and principles set forth in the 1952 Republican platform. All workers have gained and unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions. “

EDUCATION: “Republican action created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as the first new Federal department in 40 years, to raise the continuing consideration of these problems for the first time to the highest council of Government, the President’s Cabinet.”

FOREIGN POLICY: “We shall continue vigorously to support the United Nations.”

SAFETY NET: The Federal minimum wage has been raised for more than 2 million workers. Social Security has been extended to an additional 10 million workers and the benefits raised for 6 1/2 million. The protection of unemployment insurance has been brought to 4 million additional workers.

ENVIRONMENT: “We recognize the need for maintaining isolated wilderness areas to provide opportunity for future generations to experience some of the wilderness living through which the traditional American spirit of hardihood was developed. Added more than 400,000 acres to our National Park system, and 90,000 acres to wildlife refuges.”  

==On George Soros==  soros-globalization

All right. Here is one of the most powerful examples of the mad-right’s narrative machine, and how sadly incurious millions of our neighbors have become, nodding and swallowing anything that gets fed to them on Fox. Use this!  Ask your crazy uncle what he thinks of a man named… George Soros. He’ll tell you all about Soros! How he is a criminal mastermind with a huge media empire that has suckered millions in Blue America into raving socialist-communist frenzy. Never mind that Soros’s wealth and media “empire” are minuscule compared to the triumvirate of Rupert Mudoch, the Koch boys and the Saudi royal family, all co-owners of Fox. Folks following the narrative call George Soros a “super-leftist” master-demon.

A special moment: they nod in terror when Glen Beck howls “Soros toppled EIGHT foreign governments!” In fact, that’s true! For once, Beck ain’t lying at all. George Soros did help to topple eight foreign governments! He is, indeed, a formidable fellow. Alas, in a sign of how far GOP intellect has plummeted since days of Goldwater and Buckley, not one audience member of the Beck or Limbaugh or Fox riefenstahl-rallies ever lifts his head to ask … “Um… Glen? Rush? Sean? WHICH eight foreign governments do you credit Soros – the “super leftist” with toppling?” In ten years of daring these guys, none of the Fox-ites I’ve  confronted has ever been able to name even one of those toppled foreign governments. It just never occurred to them, to ask.

Are you ready to ask? Ready for the list? Here are those eight foreign governments Beck/Limbaugh/Fox credit George Soros with toppling.

The communist dictatorship of Hungary.

The communist dictatorship of Poland

The communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia

The communist dictatorship of Romania

The communist dictatorship of Bulgaria

The communist dictatorship of Estonia

The communist dictatorship of Latvia

The communist dictatorship of Lithuania

And mind you it isn’t just uber-conservative Beck and Limbaugh who credit Soros with this terrifying feat! The Heritage Foundation and AEI and most conservative pundit-castes have repeated it! Along with many GOP candidates. (Though sometimes the figure is nine since it rightfully should include East Germany.) Indeed, Soros’s relentless efforts to undermine the USSR and communism made up his core life’s work and even many sane modern political observers credit him substantially.

soros-EULet’s make this explicit. Glen Beck and all those other right wing mavens officially credit terrifying leftist George Soros with the toppling of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Warsaw Pact, the liberation of hundreds of millions and the victorious end of the Cold War. Huh. I thought it was that other liberal (compared to today’s GOP) Ronald Reagan. In fact, they both share equal credit with Michail Gorbachev and with the plan’s architect – George Marshall. (With Jimmy Carter deserving more of an assist cred than you’d believe.)

Look, the crux here is not who actually tore down the wall. Hey,let’s credit the people of those nations, above all. No, the crux is this: why are the viewers of Fox and Beck/Limbaugh so cosmically stupid that they never — any of them — ask enough questions to notice the tsunami of ironies and contradictions at their Nuremberg Rally? So… um… where does this ghastly example of looniness, incuriosity and knee jerk obedience to declared dogma leave the credibility of today’s monster that has hijacked the once intellectually solid American conservative movement?

Oh, pity Barry Goldwater. spinning 6000 RPM in his grave.

== Make that 10,000 RPM… ==

I have long believed we should be dealing with crises with a multi-pronged approach. The far-left, in opposing even experiments in (say) ocean fertilization, is almost 10% as crazy as today’s entire US right. (Yes, that crazy!) Both sides poison pragmatism, which is portrayed on this page about ways to ameliorate the incredible harm that carbonate-driven acidification is doing to our oceans. phforecast But yes, there’s no doubt it is the Denialist Cult doing the worst harm.

Ocean acidification is the silver bullet, boys and girls. It is undeniable. It cannot be armwaved away with Fox-nuremberg-style sieg-incantations. It is pure fact, and caused by human generated CO2. And it threatens our children. Furthermore, those who would sneer us into doing nothing – refusing even to negotiate moderate improvements in energy efficiency that would save consumers billions – are complicit with murdering the future.

Do not let them get away with the tactic of yelling “Squirrel!” and pointing elsewhere to change the subject. Repeat it. “The oceans are going acid. The oceans are going acid. The oceans are going acid. The oceans are going acid. The oceans are going acid. The oceans are going acid. The oceans are going acid. The oceans are going acid…. “…And if YOU guys keep this up, and the seas die, we will remember you. Yes you. By name.”

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Sci Fi Flicks! Some looks back & forward

AutomataKurzweil & co give us a sneak peak at the forthcoming movie Autómata: “Starring Antonio Banderas, here we have a believable future (2044, thirty years from now) in which desertification is threatening society, and a single company is leading the way in intelligent robotics.” says one George Mason university blogger.  Indeed, it appears to be part of the new crop of films that treat AI with some attempts at subtlety.

Of course, like most of you, I am eagerly hopeful about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. There appears to be some indication that it will offer us all the optimistic, can-do kind of confidence-building sci fi that this civilization desperately needs, after decades of stylishly-imitative cynicism. A theme that Luc Besson kind-of, sort-of, went for in “LUCY” (an under-rated film) and that Nolan’s protege murkily tried for, but failed to achieve in “Transcendance.” Marc Zicree and his team are clearly trying for this sensibility in “Space Command.”

LucyAbout LUCY. Now, first off, I am a Luc Besson fan — though I always make sure to tune down my IQ and mental age dials, whenever I go to see one of his films. I did that for LUCY and was rewarded by having a very good time. Though on this occasion… alas… well, this film was kind of tragic, because the IQ downshift should not have been necessary! Look, I am not looking for something as deeply thought provoking as Leslie Dixon’s wondrous screenplay for LIMITLESS

… but just five minutes of dialogue-doctoring could have shifted LUCY’s “we use just 10% of our brains” howler (that offended so many) into some much more plausible-sounding blather that we could more-easily shrug off. A little work with some sober science-advisers and hard SF idea guys could have soothed you nerds out there enough to make this film a real success. Likewise, some of the most “magical” scenes could so easily have been replaced with equally cool tech-manipupation stuff.

Having said that… LUCY has many moving and thoughtful scenes, along with gobs of Luc Besson’s trademark fun. And it does not go for the cheap idiot plot that is so common these days — that all our human institutions, neighbors and professionals are useless fools. Indeed, most are portrayed here as fairly smart and trying very hard.

HerEspecially, in the penultimate scene, when Morgan Freeman holds the super USB drive containing… well… no spoiler. But it represents a notion that is unabashedly Faustian and friendly to unlimited human ambition. That is refreshing, compared to the cliched, Crichtonian-nostalgic rant against science that pervades most media.

I saw this also in the lovely-gentle film HER.

The crux? I found myself won over more than I expected to be. Many good aspects of the film far outweighed howlers — like the ditzy villains. It is what Luc Besson does. As in The Fifth Element, this film is like a golden retriever who jumps on your lap and licks your face and pours love all over you until you surrender.

== Why this is rare ==

It is an uphill struggle for any film maker! Note the relentless number of dystopias, especially aimed at teenagers, that go for the cliched but timeless message: “I am a star-shaped peg that YOU (society/parents/schools) are pounding into a conformist square hole! Just you WAIT until I find my real friends and my real talents and powers!”

young-adult-dysopian-movieWho can compete with that timeless theme? Indeed, I praise and support the basic, individualistic, non-comformist love of tolerance, diversity and eccentricity that pervades most Hollywood dramas and sci fi novels! It is the only way we’ll get the self-preventing prophecies we desperately need, while keeping up our momentum of self-criticism toward a better world.

But when “warnings” become “idiot plots” that never once show the possibility of a decent civilization… that ONLY portray teen angst and repetitious chosen-one pablum, then we have a problem.

Below, I will offer up my comments (at last) on the flick Gavin Hood made from Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”… and my reaction may surprise you!

But first… and be warned I am about to go VERY fan-boyt geeky on you now…

== Star Trek Lives! ==

axanarFirst… a couple of added notes about “Axanar” the cool looking indie film being developed in the pre-Kirk (and pre-JJ Abrams) Ortho Trek universe.

1) Reiterating — do have a look at the “Prelude” online. This is way cool and I hope you will support the Kickstarter.

2) All praise to Paramount for having taken the simultaneously noble and excellently profitable route of allowing wide latitude for indie and amateur play in this beloved universe, one of the very few that expresses belief in a better human tomorrow.

f61e3e22cad3740dcbea23faa355ad1b3) One small note… I have long been rankled by the tendency of Trek producers to admire the Klingons as macho dudes — kind of the way Frank Miller praises Spartans… when both were/are horrific slaver-holders and vile oppressors, deeply and savagely cruel. Yes, you must wind up with the Klingons of Deep Space Nine, who have reformed a lot and have (by that point) become gruff-macho but decent allies. But clearly they had to suffer many major losses before finally cleaning up… as did the Kzin in Larry Niven’s Known Space cosmos. One of those setbacks was the Chernobyl-like calamity shown in one of the Kirk flicks. Axanar will be the earliest of these setbacks for the earlier, super-nasty Klingon types. Fine..

But how about a glance at the slave races, languishing under Klingon conquest-rule? (If Klingon territory is comparable to that of the federation, there would be a lot of such oppressed systems.) Even a nod toward them changes the equation! As even a momentary sight of the Spartan Helot-slaves would destroy our sympathy for the vicious Queen Gorgo in the wretched “300” series by Frank Miller and Zack Snyder.

I hope the AXANAR script will show some slave planets rebelling and helped to join the Federation! With others promised… “someday, we’ll free you, too.”

Into-darkness4) Finally, about the J.J. Abrams spinoff series. Okay, okay, things could be way worse. Compared to the vast majority of Hollywood sci fi betrayals, they are fun flicks and Abrams seems to actually think he is paying homage to the Roddenberry vision. He does not get the need for an underlying theme of can-do optimism, but at least he’s not doing the opposite.

That is, except for killing off Planet Vulcan and raising James Kirk as a traumatized, bratty orphan. But yes, that works, too. Sort-of. At least Abrams is handling Chris Pine’s character well.

Only… here’s the rub… ** Has the original Kirk Universe been erased? **

It is a major bone of contention when you discuss the range of possibilities in multiverse and parallel universes! And artistically, it is one thing if the branch point (when Kirk’s father is killed) created a NEW track without destroying the original. It is another — with many philosophical ramifications — if it is an erasure and replacement. (For one thing, it means Abrams’s cosmos could likewise be erased, at any moment!)

Sure, this may be worrying the bone way too much! But it is a sign of how deeply this mythos has wormed its way into our hearts that it really does matter!

star-trek-spock1Indeed, what’s all this with the old (Nimoy) Spock having sworn never to tell anything or interfere? To what end? All the paradoxes are already in place. His words of advice are needed! Especially since, on this track, the Federation has been robbed of one of its strongest members — Vulcan itself. Old Spock should be putting a number of advice gems in a can — like Hari Seldon does for the First Foundation… and JJ Abrams could be doing this NOW, while Leonard Nimoy is still able!

One of those gems should show Nimoy’s Spock saying:

The universe I came from has not been erased. It stands alongside this one, unreachable, but just inches away, sturdy, like a trellis on which the vine of your new adventure now grows. All of my friends, their triumphs and losses and accomplishments still flourish… elsewhere. But this timeline… this path… is yours.”

That statement would give solace and comfort to the millions of fans who are (frankly) just a bit cheesed off at Abtrams over the genocide of Vulcan and Kirk’s lost childhood. It also (hint-hint) lays the seed for a way-cool encounter between enterprises (and ChrisPine-Kirks) in some possible sequel.

And that’s my earnest (urgent) advice to JJ Abrams, as one storyteller about destiny to another.

== Ender’s Game ==

Enders-game-movieOkay, we finally rented Ender’s Game for a viewing of four families, having all delayed until we could share it, cheap. (That’s the trick, if you need to see a flick, legally, but want only pennies to go to the makers. And yes, it had many of the flaws I expected. And yet…

1) It is still the formula Card perfected so well. A demigod chosen-one Nietzchean ubermensch-child garners reader-viewer sympathy by seeming really weak and standing up to bullies… finding his “true friends and talents and powers” and showing those bullies what-for.

2) He feels really really BAD about every brutal use of power that he was forced… forced!… to engage in. Luring the reader or audience member to say: “Ender, don’t be so hard on yourself! They made you do it!”

That’s what I like about cardian demigods. They are so soulful and angst-ridden. When they take over the world, they never enjoy it. It’s always for our own good.

UnknownGavin Hood’s screenplay softens some of this stuff. For example, Card’s relentless tirades that all democratic institutions absolutely cannot ever be trusted and are guaranteed to be corrupt, and that rule-by-demigod is the only rational choice. Those are gone from the film and the core villainy of the Earth Military is portrayed in a fairly plausible way. Indeed, that particular failure mode can – and has — happened! The quickie incorporation of the Formic Queen from “Speaker for the Dead” was okay and left out the truly horrific rationalizations in the original novel, reducing it, instead, to a fairly sweet paean to tolerance. Fine.

As a flick, it is only so-so. Ender only earns his rapid promotions by passing unscientific “tests” that are designed to fit the schoolmaster’s tendentious expectations. There is never a rising-from-equals that would truly be dramatic, as we see in “Hunger Games” for example. Still, without question, Hood’s film is an improvement over the dismally anti-civilization, demigod-worshipping originals.

I kind of enjoyed it, in fact.

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The right narrative to fight voter-suppression candidates

I sent the following suggestion to the campaign of Jean Schodorf, who is running to oust the “worst Republican in the world” – Kris Koback – from the office of Kansas Secretary of State. Schodorf is that rare creature, a genuine prairie conservative who would have been republican all her life, till she realized that the madness that has hijacked today’s GOP is not temporary and recently switched parties. Unlike the millions of sane but in-denial “ostrich republicans” who have buried their heads, moaning and hoping the craziness will just go away, Schodorf is taking it on, head-to-head. Zeroing in on Koback’s blatant and extreme efforts to suppress thousands of native born Kansans from exercising their right to vote.

Here is my suggestion… which any of you are free to pass along to your own favorite candidates-for-sanity.

 ————

Dear Jean Schodorf,

voter-suppression-laws-voteDavid Brin here – best-selling author and scientist – with a suggestion how to manage the voter-suppression issue in your coming electoral campaign.

Let’s start with the obvious: You will get almost nowhere just proclaiming that Voter Suppression laws are unfair.  That will be dismissed as “the whining of losers.”

There is a much better “judo” argument that will expose the Voter ID campaigns as hypocritical cheating… a much more powerful accusation.  Please carefully read my argument below, which is cribbed from one of my more well-known postings: Steering Our Outrage in Wrong Directions.

“In fact, as a moderate, I am not opposed to gradually increasing the demand that voters prove who they are! Even though at-precinct voting fraud is virtually nil, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with improving care and accountability. People who are against voter ID improvements in any form are probably dogmatic, too.

voter-repression-laws“But — and here is a very big “but” — if these laws aren’t aimed solely at stealing elections for the GOP, then the states in question would have accompanied the new regulations with measures aimed at helping their citizens to comply with the new burdens.

“States routinely give “compliance assistance” to major corporations, when new regulations apply to them. 

 “But apparently not one cent has been appropriated in any red state to help the poor, or young, or women, or minorities to get the required ID, a move that would also help them in so many other aspects of life.  In some cases, simple access to ID might help them to STOP being poor.

“Please dig that well, because it is the alarm and utter proof of both cheating motives and lying hypocrisy. How much have red states allocated to help newly disenfranchised citizens to comply with onerous new state regulations?  Not… one… red… cent.

Hypocrisy“Hypocrisy is still punished by some voters. If this point of compliance is hammered home, maybe ten percent of the voters might be swayed, and that’s a lot.

“Hammer that this is what the once honorable and intellectual movement of Goldwater and Buckley is reduced to. Not winning elections based on the merits of their evidence or by comparing the outcomes from their party’s past periods of rule. Rather, all efforts go to cheating and more cheating. And if you support this cheat, then no amount of arm-waving will let you escape the clear fact — that you are a cheater, too.”

Yes, that is a very aggressive way to put it.  But this issue could be a killer for candidates opposing the swarm of vipers who have taken over the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

http://www.davidbrin.com

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Watching the Watchers of the Watchers

transparent-coveillanceKevin Kelly’s Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, not Fight it, in WIRED, prescribed “transparent coveillance” as the best practical solution in a world where information sloshes and duplicates and flows. I’ve known Kevin for decades as one of the sharp guys who “got” the notions in The Transparent Society long before most did.

Now it’s Home Depot reporting a massive hack-leak of customer information. A couple months ago it was Target and 110 million files. Before that? Open SSL, a critical security backbone. And before that? Shall I go on? Read this article about “Data Breach Fatigue” and how people are starting to shrug in resignation, rather than shout in outrage.

“We are in the trough of disillusionment,” says Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan. “Over 1,000 retailers have been hit; it’s not limited to Home Depot. There are 999 others that no one’s talking about.”

When will it sink in that Everything Leaks and that our best security measure will be to stop assuming there’s some solution out there, and instead adapt so that we will not be harmed — and can thrive — in a world where most information simply flows, like water. Believe it or not, we might be stronger and safer and even have more privacy, if we finally face that fact.

smile-video-cameraIn Smile, You’re on Video Camera, Futurist Virginia Postrel offers an interesting little thought experiment about the future spread of cameras and omni-veillance in our lives. The upside potential is vast… providing we remain calmly reasonable about negotiating carve-outs and exceptions. And – above all – if we demand that the light spread “upward” – at least as much as downward.

== Watching the watchers of the watchers ==

Matthew Reed Bailey wrote in, suggesting that the solution to citizen-police tension is not only to record authority, but to “layer” these recordings so that there will never be a way for cops to avoid it:

WATCHING-WATCHERS“One person directly films/videos the Authorities. Another person (or two or three) films/videos the interaction (from varying distances if possible) of the interaction between the first camera and the Authorities. And, then have several “Backup”…”

Indeed, what he describes is the absolutely necessary next step, after last year’s fantastic victory — the 2013 declaration — by both the courts and the administration — that citizens have an absolute right to record their interactions with police… the most important civil liberties decision in 30 years. Yes, it was vital! And predicted in The Transparent Society.

Of course, the next phase was obvious — a plague of cell phones and cameras “accidentally” broken by police, etc.

What I also predicted in TS was that this phase would be short lived, as a layering of recordings would take effect, with cameras at increasing distance from the action watching the watchers of the watchers. What I did NOT expect was how swiftly this transition would happen. Before 2013 was over, we got to see a man in an orange jail-jumpsuit being sentenced to a couple of years in prison, for breaking the camera-phone of the man he was arresting. Because someone further away caught him in the act.

police-shutdownThis is why we must resist attempts to give police the power to shut down all phones in an area. At minimum, we must demand that our cameras still work, in such a shut-down!

You “get” the idea. This is not so much anti-police as anti-bully. We have a right to insist, via accountability, that our police departments hire calm adults.

Take a look at What Battlestar Galactics can teach us about the Militarization of Police: A fascinating… if flawed… rumination about what several thoughtful science fiction films illustrate about the balance of powers among citizens and their protectors, the military and police.

==Transparency Apps==

Transparency-AppsBoycott and BuyPartisan are downloadable apps that let you scan product barcodes and find out if the company… or its officers… have actively supported some cause that you like… or loathe. One would hope that people use these things in moderation… except when it comes to Koch companies. At which point stringent ferocity is called for, lest the Confederacy win this round of the ongoing American Civil War.

Worried about emergency response times? The Peacekeeper App allows you to call upon neighbors in case of an emergency, sending an alert for crises Medical, Fire, Intruder, or Abduction. You can join an Emergency Response Group (ERG) or set up your own alliance of neighbors. The web site has a slightly redolent political aroma… but if it does what it claims, who cares?

Meanwhile the FTC declares that many mobile shopping apps lack sufficient transparency on privacy policies for consumers’ rights.

==Overseeing the Government==

transparency-governmentForty-seven U.S. federal Inspectors General signed a letter this month highlighting problems with access to federal records — problems they say slow their investigations and threaten their independence. In fact, the current use of IGs is scandalous — with many of them forced into conflict-of-interest, owing their appointments to the very officials they are charged to scrutinize.

I have long proposed sets of reforms that might improve the effectiveness of civil servants while simultaneously reassuring citizens that bureaucrats ARE “servants,” accountable and obeying the law. Foremost among these proposals has been IGUS — creating the office of Inspector General of the United States.   

The notion of a separate “inspectorate” dates back to Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, in 1911. If all departmental and agency IGs reported to a truly independent IGUS, the shift could be so simple that the bill might fit on one page. Yet citizen confidence and trust could be multiplied several-fold.

censorshipFinally…  a very interesting analysis of censorship in China. Researchers find that “Criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are routinely published, whereas posts with collective action potential are much more likely to be censored,” because these create “actionable information” for the authorities.

Seventeen fake cellphone towers were discovered across the U.S. last week. Owned by mysterious entities, they look like Verizon or AT&T towers etc, but sift and steal messages, texts… anything they want. Interceptor use in the U.S. is much higher than people had anticipated. One of our customers took a road trip from Florida to North Carolina and he found eight different interceptors on that trip.

Rumor check: a partial “debunking” or clarification of the fake cell tower story….

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Will we uplift other species to sapience?

uplift-sapienceThis time, let’s veer into an area wherein I actually know a thing or two!  The matter of whether humanity might someday… or even should… meddle in other creatures on this planet and bestow upon them the debatable “gift” of full sapience — the ability to argue, ponder, store information, appraise, discuss, create, express and manipulate tools, so that they might join us in the problematic task of being worthy planetary managers.

These scribbles were created (as you might guess) as part of an interview.

What first inspired you to write about uplifting?

Some other authors (e.g. H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Mary Shelley, and Cordwainer Smith) dealt with this general concept before, but always by assuming the process would be abused — that the humans bestowing this boon would spoil things by enslaving their clients of creations. Of course that is one possible (and despicable) outcome. Those were good “warning” stories with wholesome messages.

uplift-booksBut that vein is overworked, so I wondered — what if we someday begin modifying higher animals — and I think we clearly will — guided by the morality of modern liberal society?  Filled with hyper-tolerance and eager for diversity? My uplift novels portray a future in which sapient dolphins and apes serve on our councils, offer their own styles of wisdom, art and insight, enriching an Earth civilization that is no longer only human.  It’s an attractive outcome…

…but the path to get there is fraught with dangers and moral hazards.

How close do you think we genuinely are, scientifically, to being able to uplift certain species? And is there a scientific imperative to do so?

SCIENCE-UPLIFTWe are rapidly tracing the genetic mutations that empowered a sub-population of Homo erectus to transform into something theretofore never seen on Planet Earth – or possibly anywhere in the galaxy.  It appears that only a few dozen protein and regulatory genes made the crucial difference.  Already, some of these alterations are being tried in laboratory mice, so we can better understand some tragic human ailments.  There are – at present – rules against doing such insertion experiments on higher creatures like apes. But when the prospect looms closer, can you doubt trials will begin? If it isn’t allowed in the open, western scientific community, then it will happen in secret, elsewhere.  Frankly, I’d rather see this realm explored in the open, under relentless transparency and scrutiny, than let it turn into some secret, Michael-Crichton-style excuse for I-Told-You-so regrets.

MOUSE-SPEECH-GENEA recent article in Popular Mechanics: If You Give a Mouse a Human Speech Gene, It Learns Faster. Mice that receive a human version of a speech and language gene display accelerated learning! Don’t expect these findings to lead to a rush of smarter, “uplifted” animals—though they might just reveal something new and fascinating about the evolution of human speech and language.

“What surprised me most was that the humanized gene actually improved the animal’s behavior rather than messing up the system,” says behavioral neuroscientist Kyle Smith. Science writer Charles Q. Choi notes,  “The gene for the protein called FOXP2 has been firmly linked to human speech and language. Humans with just one functional copy of this gene experience difficulties in learning and struggle with spoken and written language. The gene itself is not unique—chimps have a version of it. But because the human and chimpanzee lineages diverged roughly 6 million years ago, they don’t have two key changes in amino acids that humans have evolved.”

And so, it begins.

You talk about how ‘many other species on Earth appear to be stuck under a firm glass ceiling’ – can you expand on this?  

uplift-barloweA while back, we were told that only humans used symbolic speech and tools.  Later, it was only dolphins and chimpanzees who could parse simple sentences.  In recent years, both rudimentary language skills and tool use have been documented in grey parrots, corvids (ravens), sea lions, elephants, every variety of ape, and even prairie dogs! Some people — admirably empathic folks — have declared that “this means we humans aren’t so special, after all.” And yes, in a sense it does mean that. Certainly, it is right that we expand our respect for Nature’s other wonders and fight to preserve them.

But there is another way to look at this. If so many species — all coming from different directions — appear to have plateaued at about the same level, then it implies that both Darwin and Mother Nature are generous, but only up to a point. “This far, you may rise easily, many of you! But no higher.  There is a glass ceiling through which you may not pass!”

Think about it.  If so many species achieved rudimentary linguistics and tool use today, would it not have been equally likely for the top-brainy dinosaurs?  Were velociraptors equally endowed? Can we ever know? Alas, because none of them managed to put together a space program, all dinosaurs helplessly perished.

No, the lesson from all this is to be even more amazed that humanity pushed through this glass ceiling.  Smashed through it, actually, by orders of magnitude! Which then demands of us not to feel overweening pride, but a sense of duty and obligation.  To use our titanic brains to benefit the planet, not just ourselves.

But it goes beyond that. If getting past the barrier is rare, then don’t we owe it to our neighbors and cousins to turn around and offer a helping hand?

What are your takes on ethical arguments against uplifting?  

uplift-word-cloudThose arguments are strong and persuasive and perhaps compelling!  For example, here’s one: “Other species have their own honor and dignity and beauty and styles of intelligence!”

Yes, I agree on all counts.  And if commencing a program of uplift on, say, Tursiops dolphins would cause all of those things to vanish, then I would say stop.  But that is zero-sum thinking. And it is fallacious.

We must preserve and help the bright dolphins and elephants and parrots and sea lions foremost by restoring and expanding their habitats and natural populations.  But any uplift project would work only with a small, selected sub-population that would soon be a new and different species, on its own path of destiny. All the richness of the old root stock would be preserved. You can retain the old — and everything worthy of respect — while creating the new.

UPLIFT-UNIVERSE-BRINLikewise, the proclamations that uplift would be typical “human arrogance, playing god,” seem easy to answer.  How about typical “human generosity”? Lending a hand to others across nature’s chasm, so they might then join us building starships?

Or so their ingrate teenagers might eloquently blame us for their adolescent angst, sneering “Hey!  I didn’t ASK to be this smart!”

The one argument against uplift that I find most compelling is the simplest. Yes, the goal is a beautiful one, to vastly expand the diversity of Earth’s sapience, with dolphin and chimp and bonobo and gorilla and even elephant sages sitting on our councils and sharing unique insights? Great. I portray them having problems, in my novels, but the product is still a lovely dream. (To be clear, while artificial intelligence might be possible, uplifted sapience is demonstrably beyond plausible, even very likely.)

All of that sounds fine. Only… in order to get there, the chosen sub-populations will have to go through generations of awkward fits and starts. No matter how carefully and lovingly we move ahead, there will be some pain. And I can understand folks who declare that they would – on that account alone – oppose uplift, no matter how wondrous the final outcome might be.

Salk-Good-ancestorIn the end?  I (very) respectfully disagree. All generations are built for one purpose… the one fine goal that Jonas Salk spoke-of… to be good ancestors.  To suffer what we must, for our grandchildren. I can think of no greater function than to sow, so that those descendants may reap.

Dolphin parents make similar choices every day.  If they could envision what their heirs might become… the earthly and alien seas they might explore… I think they would volunteer.

 Aside from the ethical reasons you’ve presented, what would be the benefits – commercially or scientifically – in doing so?

StartideThe oceans of planet Earth are a vast mystery, filled with both physical wealth and unique treasures to preserve.  We are trying to learn to be good planetary managers (often stymied by other members of our own, short-sighted species.) But I doubt we could fill that role all by ourselves, anywhere near as well as if sapient dolphin partners (and critics) were by our side.  The same holds for countless other opportunities for both profit and wisdom.  (I believe that — and portray in stories — descendants of elephants might be the perfect living inhabitants of asteroidal colonies!)

Our biggest danger is not the one preached by Michael Crichton and so many others — human ambition and hubristic pride.  No, our biggest danger comes from zero sum thinking. Proclaiming that we cannot seek – and sometimes achieve – the win-win. Doing well while doing good. 

What measures can be taken to protect the rights of animals if uplifting as a practice is pursued?  

SECRECY-NEWI’ve been a little unkind to Michael Crichton in this interview.  But in fact, every single one of his dire-danger scenarios preaches a single valuable lesson, and it is not “don’t do new things.”  If you read the books and watch the movies, you soon realize that the true lesson is: “don’t do new things in SECRET.”

The only possible way that uplift, or any other grand project, can be done well is if it is performed in the open, subjected to relentless criticism by opponents who seek out every flaw, every danger and mistake.  Only then, ironically, will the project move ahead with some strong chance of minimizing the pain… and maximizing the benefits for all.

Anything else you’d like to say on the matter? 

aficionadoI think you’ll like my novella “Aficionado.”  It takes a while to get to the uplift part.

See a page dedicated to the Uplift Universe

and my article Intelligence, Uplift and Our Place in a Big Cosmos.

Above all, let’s not paint our kids in a corner, binding them to our vows, based on this generation’s obsessions.  Those kids will be smarter and better than us.  If we make a civilization of decency, tolerance, maturity, thoughtfulness and fun… then they will answer all of these questions better than we slightly advanced cavemen ever could.

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Discerning Left vs Right

Okay, this blog entry is going to be a bit rambling and angry… somewhat of a drunkard’s walk, while ranting at the lamp posts! Hope it at least entertains. Here goes.

bullshit-asymmetry-brandoliniWe’ve all known this and said it for a long time. I laid it out in explicit detail in my Dispuations Arenas article. Still, it’s nice to see a cogent naming of the Phenomenon — Brandolini’s law – or, as Alberto Brandolini suggests, the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

== Heading for war? ==

democrats-republicans-wage-warOn the left side of the spectrum, and in some places on the right, folks are asking whether “Obama is playing into Bush’s bad policies. Now he’s taking the U.S. back into Iraq with more bombing.”

Sorry, this is a wrongheaded reflex. Back in 2002 – 2003, the issue was never “should Saddam Hussein be toppled and replaced?” Nor was it “should the Taliban – who supported and helped bin Laden to attack us be toppled and replaced?” We needed to do both things. (Though in Saddam’s case it deserved genuine policy debate and not a festival of Bushite lies.)

No, the real issue, re US involvement/meddling over there, is and was “should it be done in the stupidest and most expensive ways possible? In a calamitous, gruesomely thuggish methodology that would cost us trillions, damn-near ruin our military and our reputations and leave only two winners: Iran and Haliburton?”

If you actually (astonishingly) think that there will be any resemblance between the coming Obama-led engagement and the Bushite quagmires, you really need to read about the diametrically opposite ways that democrats and republicans wage war.

==Decaying Infrastructure== 

decaying-infrastructureAmerica’s transportation infrastructure, once a continental engine of mobility, productivity and opportunity, has fallen into such disrepair that it’s become an economic albatross. Consumers shell out billions of dollars for extra car repairs every year. Insufficient and poorly maintained roads mean costly bottlenecks for businesses, which discourage expansion and hobble American companies competing in the global economy. We all have heard of 60,000 bridges in desperate need of maintenance. Why is almost nothing being done?

At a time of steeply declining budget deficits (always true during democratic administrations and never true during GOP ones) it might seem simple to put middle class blokes back to work, stimulating the economy with high velocity cash while fixing the damaged streets and bridges and getting tons of benefits. One obstacle though. The do-nothing US House of Representatives… the laziest and least accomplished in the history of the republic… has refused to fund infrastructure repairs.

Moreover, several gopper congressfolk have openly admitted their reason — that the resulting improvements and economic boost might help democrats at the polls. It is the Hastert Rule. Never cooperate or negotiate in good faith with democrats, ever. (The last GOP leader who did that – Newt Gingrich – was dumped and jettisoned by Hastert, DeLay, Boehner and other leaders of the madness that has taken over today’s Republican Party.)

Anyone who continues to support this mutant betrayal of true conservatism/libertarianism is a rationalizing fool.

 ==War against Nerds==

war-against-nerdsSalon runs a fun article eviscerating how explicit has become the mad-right’s Assault on Nerds. It has got so clear and full-pitch that even William F. Buckley’s once-intellectual National Review has joined the War Against All Smartypants. Scientists and members of every knowledge caste have been driven out of today’s hijacked version of conservatism. God help us if this relentless campaign drives them all the way across — past moderate liberalism — all the way to the opposite madness on the far left.

I doubt that will happen. All we want is a sensible society where adults negotiate with each other mixed-pragmatic solutions to problems, aiming for a future that will be vastly better than the past that nostalgic loonies (of both the far-left and the entire-right) yearn for.

More evidence?  In late May, the Republicans in the House put an amendment in the Defense Spending Authorization Bill that forbids the Defense Department from spending any money preparing for the consequences of climate change. This article - on an admittedly liberal site – nevertheless lays this latest lunacy bare and lists an impressive array of serving and retired officers and military contractors who are deeply concerned.

 

The Bill is now in the Senate.

One of you in the community commented: “Our military wargames all kinds of scenarios. Preparedness is part of the job of our military planners, and having a plan prepared is the first step to winning a fight. I expect that somewhere the US military has a plan to deal with a threat from just about any conceivable direction. Oh, but not waves of hungry and thirsty refugees from all over the world, not that. We cannot plan for that contingency.”

==Divisive Politics==

HaidtSocial psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have thrown another grenade. “Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity-particularly diversity of viewpoints-for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity.”

Read that between the lines.  It is an indictment of the political correctness that rules in several hundred university soft studies departments.  Along with San Francisco, Berkeley and Illinois, these are the places where you get to see the reason moderate liberals are rightfully wary of their lefty allies.  And I will not be squelched in reminding you folks that there is danger there!  But again… a few hundred university soft studies departments are a far cry from the worst danger to our republic and freedoms and planet.

I am wary of that direction.  I am bloody furious at the New Confederates who are (at present) vastly more damaging and lethally dangerous to civilization.

== Ironies abound ==

sovereign-citizensMy sci fi author colleague John Shirley dissects “sovereign citizen”… a cult-like movement among those who take the anti-government wing of our widely shared Suspicion of Authority ethos to an extreme that denies any legitimacy of common bonds with three hundred million fellow Americans. While I agree with John, on many levels, I believe his approach is more left-versus-right than it needs to be, regarding this matter. (Indeed, while they are fewer – today – there ARE would be tyrants whose metaphors of outrage and hate come from (shall we say) the opposite direction. Surfaces can be misleading.)

In fact, it can be dissected very simply. Those who deny any validity to shared institutions that derive their legitimacy from the electoral political processes, that in-turn reflect consensus of a great and educated nation, are not simply asserting autonomy — (while hypocritically depending on that nation, utterly). They are either ignoring 6000 years of brutal feudal rule by armed thugs, or else deeply committed to becoming precisely those same armed thugs and feudal lords.

Civilization-FlashI attempted to portray this in The Postman, way back in the 1980s… and it is one part of the book that Kevin Costner translated to the film with utter accuracy! Especially Will Patton’s delightful General Bethlehem, who conveyed where all this would inevitably lead.

Indeed, I wrote The Postman specifically as a direct answer to these fellows. How average folks would not just cower before the would be lords, but instead might (if properly inspired) rise up to restore that gracious consensus nation, once again.

Having tasted civilization, many of us will gladly fight to the death, to keep it.

In an impromptu interview at a Portland restaurant, I gave a six minute run down of why I think the American political process has so broken down that we are effectively in phase eight of the US Civil War. Not one of the factors that I mention has a scintilla to do with so-called “left-versus-right” or any of the matters that you are being told to hate-over.

==The Tea Party and the Confederacy==

Here’s a somewhat too-radical but interesting essay about how the Confederacy lost phase four of the Civil War, in 1865, then won phase five with the collapse of Reconstruction and minority rights, in 1877. Indeed, things have swung back and forth, ever since, including the Civil Rights phase that was won by Blue America – finally crushing the vileness of segregation – but at a cost that resulted in the complete flip-reversal of the two US political parties. In that light, today’s raging “culture war” is only the latest phase.

TAXES-REVOLTClearly the Tea Party is not heir to the 1776 Founders. Their romantic delusions about that Revolution are discussed elsewhere…

… but the crux is clear; instead of wearing three-cornered hats, our Tea Party neighbors should wear gray, for they are the neo-confederate party. In fact, more and more of them are realizing this. Their devotion to the rising, worldwide oligarchy is identical to the feudal loyalty that their forebears gave to plantation lords. The aim – to tear down the future-oriented, change-welcoming, scientific and pragmatic Blue America, in order to replace it with classic nostalgia and feudal hierarchy – is identical to that of the southern tories who rode with Cornwallis and Tarleton.

My own, earlier take: The crucial phase of the Civil War, phase three, started in 1852, when waves of southern irregular cavalry began 8 years of violent raids into Northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. This was never the “war of northern aggression.” It was the diametric opposite. And it is time to re-learn the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

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Peering into the Future: AI and Robot brains

Singularity-word-cloudIn Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future? on Slate, Zoltan Istvan writes, “The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don’t like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don’t like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don’t like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs.” See what the proponents of these words mean by them…

…and why the old talmudic rabbis and jesuits are probably laughing their socks off.

==Progress toward AI?== 

Baby X, a 3D-simulated human child is getting smarter day by day. Researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute Laboratory for Animate Technologies in New Zealand interact with the simulated toddler, reading, teaching, smiling, playing games, even singing into the computer’s microphone and webcam. The blonde youngster mimics facial expressions, laughs, reads words, even cries when he is left alone.

1400832509352“An experiment in machine learning, Baby X is a program that imitates the biological processes of learning, including association, conditioning and reinforcement learning. By algorithmically simulating the chemical reactions of the human brain— think dopamine release or increased oxytocin levels— and connecting them with sensory digital input, when Baby X learns to imitate a facial expression, for instance, software developers write protocols for the variable time intervals between action and response. Effectively “teaching” the child through code, while engineering such a program is no cakewalk, the result is an adorably giggling digital baby with an uncanny ability to learn through interaction,” writes Becket Mufson, in the Creators Project.

This is precisely the sixth approach to developing AI that is least discussed by “experts” in the field… and that I have long believed to be essential, in several ways. Above all, by raising them as our children – even fostering them to homes in small robot bodies – we will gain many crucial advantages – that I lay out (somewhat) in Existence.

Meanwhile, Cornell’s Robo Brain is currently learning from the internet — downloading and processing about 1 billion images, 120,000 YouTube videos, and 100 million how-to documents and appliance manuals, all being translated and stored in a robot-friendly format, accessible to ‘helper’ robots who will function in our factories, homes, and offices. “If a robot encounters a situation it hasn’t seen before it can query Robo Brain in the cloud,” said one researcher. Follow its progress on the Robobrain website.

Meet Jibo, advertised as “the world’s first family robot.” Kinda creepy but attractive too…

Asimov-three-laws-roboticsEver hear of “neuromorphic architecture?” Silicon chip design that uses transistors — (5 billion of them in the latest IBM chip) – to create analogues of the nonlinear response patterns of biological neurons. The latest version, from IBM, is called “True North” and it is simply spectacular. Its prodigious pattern recognition capabilities are only matched by its stunning (by four orders of magnitude(!)) power efficiency. This is where Moore’s Law, augmented by new neuronal and parallelism software, may truly start delivering.

Now… How to keep what we produce sane? And where on the chip – pray tell – do the Three Laws reside?

Ah, well… I have explored the implications (yin and yang) of the Asimovian laws in my sequel which tied up Isaac’s universe – Foundation’s Triumph. Meanwhile, serious minds are grappling with the problem of “how to keep them loyal.” For example…

==Creating Superintelligence==

bostrom-superintelligenceNick Bostrom has published the book “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies,” that is well-reviewed by Andrew Leonard in Salon.

“Risks that are especially difficult to control have three characteristics: autonomy, self-replication and self-modification. Infectious diseases have these characteristics, and have killed more people than any other class of events, including war. Some computer malware has these characteristics, and can do a lot of damage…

“But microbes and malware cannot intelligently self-modify, so countermeasures can catch up. A superintelligent system [as outlined by Bostrom would be much harder to control if it were able to intelligently self-modify.” writes Bostrom.

Nick Bostrom makes a persuasive case that the future impact of AI is perhaps the most important issue the human race has ever faced. Instead of passively drifting, we need to steer a course. Still, his litany of “be careful what you wish for” parables is taken straight from the pages of a century of science fictional “what-if” scenarios. Geeky sci fi archivists need to be present, during the programming, to point out: “you may want to rephrase that… cause way back in 1947 Leigh Brackett showed that it could be misconstrued as…”

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.” Interesting article! In fact the mystery of the First Great Renaissance… the burst of human creativity around 45,000 years ago… is discussed in EXISTENCE!

But — if I may mention it — the real correlation with this notion… that sexual selection resulted in gentler, more “feminized” males, was presaged by this paper of mine… Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution.

==Developing Brains==

EMPATHYResearcher Talma Hendler has found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. One type she calls mental empathy, which requires you to mentally step outside yourself and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. Parts of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortex that make up this network. The other type she calls embodied empathy; this is the more visceral in-the-moment empathy you might feel when you see someone get punched in the guts. Very cogent and thought provoking.

This interesting article in Wired explores how movies exploit both of these networks to make you identify with the characters. Only the manipulation is now going scientific!

And veering a bit… When did modern humans arrive in Europe, and by how much did they overlap with our fading cousins, the Neandertals? New studies suggest it all happened earlier than most had assumed, perhaps around …45,000 years ago.

Now throw in…. Children and adolescents with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain, and this excess is due to a slowdown in a normal brain “pruning” process during development.

Hmmmmm.

==and organs==

Scientists have for the first time grown a complex, fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting cells that were originally created in a laboratory to form a replacement thymus, a vital organ of the immune system.

By deciphering the detailed gene expressions by which a lizard regrows its tail, scientists hope to re-ignite regrowth processes in mammals like us, that have been dormant for 200 million years. Both of these stories are straight from my story “Chrysalis” in this month’s ANALOG!

==Miscellanea==

Scientists report using laser light in ultrafast pulses to control the quantum state of electrons contained inside nanoscale defects located in a diamond, and also observe changes in that electron over a period of time. The findings could be an important milestone on the road to quantum computing.

SCIENCE-TECHNOLOGYAnother team has devised a way to make microscopes magnify 20 times more than usual. This magnification allows scientists to see and identify substances and matter as minuscule as or even smaller than a virus.

Direct synthesis of ammonia from air and water? At low temperatures and pressures? If this membrane method can bypass the usual harsh processes, the news can be significant for liberating poor farmers everywhere to make their own fertilizer.

Looks plausible… if amazing! A transparent luminescent solar concentrator developed in Michigan can be used to cover anything that has a flat, clear surface. Visible light passes through. But organic molecules absorb invisible wavelengths of sunlight such as ultraviolet and near infrared, guiding those packets to the edge of the solar panel, where thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells pick it up and convert it into energy. Fascinating… another potential game changer.

Stanford scientists develop water splitter that runs on ordinary AAA battery.

How to tell if a Chelyabinsk style meteorite came from an asteroid? Here’s the basic rule of thumb. “The speed of whatever collides with Earth’s atmosphere depends on its orbit, which in turn depends on its source. The impactor’s entry at 19 km/s means that it came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, not from a ballistically launched missile, whose speed is less than 11.2 km/s; a short-period comet, with an average speed of 35 km/s; or a long-period comet with an average speed of 55 km/s. As investigators began retracing the path of the meteor that blazed across the sky, their reconstructed orbit bore out that provenance.”  

Oh, anything much faster than 60 kps either fall naturally from outside the solar system… or was accelerated by someone with boojum powers and maybe ill intent!

what-if-munroeRecommended: what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (of the brilliant xkcd).

Researchers from UC San Diego’s structural engineering department are using drones to capture unique views of the earthquake damage to Napa’s historic landmarks. Our own Falko Kuester explains how this new tech is helping.

And finally:

Don’t bogart that puffer, my friend. Dolphins pass around a puffer fish — apparently to get high off its toxins. After a few chomps, you no longer give a fugu.

  

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