There are so many levels I want to write about, in responding to the horrible tragedy in Japan. I’ll offer just two that come to my stunned mind, and follow up later.
First of all, this is breathtaking in its transfixing horror. The images and video footage show both how technologically advanced and well prepared the Japanese were… and how woefully lacking any preparations can be, in the face of such overpowering natural force. We live on a planet that has allowed our numbers to swell into seven billions, largely because it’s been so calm and predictable throughout the holocene epoch (since the ice ages ended). Nowadays, we fret over tiny atmospheric wobbles like snowstorms or tornadoes or piddling hurricanes, while taking for granted the glassy smoothness of oceans, around whose rim we’ve perched most of our cities, utterly depending on them not to vary height even to a hundredth of a percent! A degree that would be imperceptible in your bathtub.
While our hearts and prayers — and urgent aid — must go out to the people of Japan (which also happens to be one of the most future-and-SF-oriented nations in the world), let’s also ponder what we can all do to enhance the resilience and robustness of our own homes, communities and civilization. (One of my frequent themes.) You’ve heard me promote CERT training, for example, but there are so many other things, all the way down to keeping a vegetable garden. And helping reverse the trend toward absurd grouchy nostalgia that’s sweeping both right and left. Seriously.
Point two — the news from Japan is clearly a setback for those of us pushing for a gradual, prudent resumption of US endeavors in nuclear power. (This movement includes many of the “tech-liberals” like Stewart Brand, helping turn it into a bipartisan movement.) In fact, the negligence of the operating company — Tokyo Power, which has been cited for violations frequently in the past — is appalling!
“The central problem arises from a series of failures that began after the tsunami. It easily overcame the sea walls surrounding the Fukushima plant. It swamped the diesel generators, which were placed in a low-lying area, apparently because of misplaced confidence that the sea walls would protect them.” (From the NY Times.)
This was supremely bad management and the whole world will suffer, because of new suspicion of nuclear power. This was so avoidable. Such a blatantly stupid failure mode would never happen here, where there are backups to backups to backups… and we have other stupidities, all our own.
On the other hand, it slaps the face of all those who said that US nuclear regulations have been “obviously” absurd.
There is no single direction to the lessons here. It has long been obvious that some streamlining and fast-tracking of a return to nuclear in the US is called for. In fact, Obama pushed through the first speedup and simplification of nuclear licensing in the US in 50 years, though tepidly according to some of the zealots. (It will still take years.) Nevertheless. This is something we must process, meticulously. And Fukushima illustrates that there is a place for nitpicking and quadrupled precautions.
Here’s a wonderful interactive graphic from the New York Times: How a Nuclear Reactor Shuts Down & What Happens in a Meltdown. For more technical details of the nuclear issues, see How Black is the Japanese Nuclear Swan? For accurate info on the nuclear aspects of this disaster, try the IAEA site.
=== KINDLE YOUR INTELLECT! ===
Announcing the availability of The Transparent Society on Kindle!A bargain at just $9.99. Called one of the most important works on freedom and privacy in the last three decades and winner of the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.
=== HOW SHOULD ADULTS REMAIN CHILD-LIKE? ===
I was asked by the editors of Psychology Today to join with other notables in answering a very specific question: “What smart move comes naturally to kids, but not so much to grown-ups?”
My reply: I would choose the childhood habit of seeing the world as filled with possibility for dramatic change. Children know that their future will be different than their present. Change may bring instability and pain — youth can be a fearful time. But there is often an accompanying sense that the changing future will be theirs to engage with a personal power that increases, gradually, day-by-day. The dawning of ambition to “become” an adult of substance in the world to come.
This is seen in childrens’ storytelling tastes — the fantasy and science fiction that are sometimes dismally dismissed as “childrens’ literature” by minds that have lost all flexibility and that cling desperately to an illusion of static “eternal verities.” Young people know less, but they are certain that change will come. And they are much more courageous about facing it.
This amazing pictorial chronology of Science Fiction, by Ward Shelly, charts the genre’s rise from fear and wonder, legends and mythology, on to Space Opera, the Golden Age, New Wave, and Cyber Punk, with side branches toward Gothic Novels, fantasy and horror. Click on the high resolution image to see details.
=== FOR THE PREDICTIONS REGISTRY! ===
Someone file this in the predictions wiki! ”I think that may be the most important thing to notice, as we turn away from the past and face the future. The road ahead remains long, hard and murky. Our achievements often seem dim compared to imperfections that are left unsolved. But at this rate, who will bet me that a woman or a person of color won’t preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars?”
That is from my year 2000 essay about “2001 and the real milestones of progress.” I had forgotten about that! Gee willikers! What does it take to get some cred around here!
And while we’re at it… one more for the predictions registry! This appears to validate the notion of my “probationers” in my novel SUNDIVER. ”The latest neuroscience research is presenting intriguing evidence that the brains of certain kinds of criminals are different from those of the rest of the population.” (Someone please go post these!)
=== ALL SORTS OF NEWS AND INTERESTING ITEMS ===
“Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences.”
The Atlantic published an article on the potential obsolescence of the human male, who seems very good at inventing civilization but less suited to living in it, was explored in my novel GLORY SEASON.
See also Man Down, by Dan Abrams: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About Everything Else.
A research team at Georgia Tech hopes to make augmented reality (AR) on smart phones more useful by developing an open standard for it.
Alien Planet is a 94-minute docufiction, originally airing on the Discovery Channel, about two internationally built robot probes searching for alien life on the fictional planet Darwin IV. It was based on the book Expedition, by sci-fi/fantasy artist and writer Wayne Douglas Barlowe, who was also executive producer on the special. It premiered on May 14, 2005.
An absolutely stunning virtual walk through of the Lascaux caves and their prehistoric artwork. You’ll feel like you’re there. In fact, since they are closed to the public. This may be as close as you’ll ever get… Alas. Try to imagine them doing all this by torchlight. Imagine their lives and thoughts. This was part of the first great awakening.
The other day I was in Palo Alto, at a workshop held by the Institute for the Future about “open fabrication” — the future of “desktop factories” that will empower pwople to design components or items by computer and then print them out, much as they print a document today. (I was poking at this field as long ago as 1979!) There I met Scott Summit, a young guy whose small company makes stylish and cool outer “farings” for artificial limbs. This slide show is worth seeing. But he brought samples of others that were even cooler. One woman client of his has ordered a dozen different limb covers in different styles and now she wears skirts!
See some cool goin’s-on in this area! e.g. Welcome to the Thingiverse. “This is a place to share digital designs that can be made into real, physical objects.”
Perhaps you thought the four-legged BigDog robot wasn’t eerily lifelike enough. That’ll change soon. BigDog’s makers are working on a new quadruped that moves faster than any human and is agile enough to “chase and evade.”
Physicists have built the world’s first device that can cancel out a laser beam – a so-called anti-laser. The device, created by a team from Yale University, is capable of absorbing an incoming laser beam entirely. But this is not intended as a defense against high-power laser weapons, the researchers said. Instead they think it could be used in next-generation supercomputers which will be built with components that use light rather than electrons.
What would YOU spend a billion dollars on? The question is posed to a number of scientists by Scientific American.
“Life” observed in another meteorite? Ah. As I wrote, the very day the story broke, the telltale is the source journal with a hifalutin name – the “Journal of Cosmology.” I’ve dealt with these people before. They are champions of the Panspermia Theories of interstellar life-transmission promoted by Chandra Wickramasinghe and are far from unbiased on the matter. Indeed, I find this “journal” to border on the amateurish. Articles that appear there may be credible… but should be viewed tentatively, contingently and with caution.
That is not to say that comets or asteroids won’t ever show signs of lifel! Wickramasinghe’s speculations, while a bit wild, are not entirely implausible. In HEART OF THE COMET (1984) I forecast exactly this kind of discovery! I just feel we should exercise care when judging “science articles” and always consider the source.
Dr. Anthony Atala, a regenerative medicine specialist at Wake Forest University, is pioneering the use of printing techniques to reconstruct and repair human flesh and organs. The basis is a combination of cultured human cells and scaffolding built or woven from organic material. In one staggering setup, a patient lies on a table and a flatbed scanner literally scans her wound, followed by a printer that adds just the right types of tissues back on at the right depth. The next evolving step is the use of 3-D printers, which I wrote about on Tuesday, to rebuild human organs.
An important shift in transparency law! Read all of this posting by the federal trade commission regarding truth in advertising, which is undergoing important changes. It’s all interesting and important. But four paragraphs down you’ll find that even amateur blogger must make some kind of disclosure if they are pushing a word-of-mouth campaign for a product, and they have a pertinent, substantial relationship with the company making or offering the product!
Do not expect the endorsement police to come crashing in on you. This is mostly for celebrities or the new generation of “super-shopper” folks who spread viral fads on purpose and for profit. Still, it is worth keeping up to date on this trend. A trend that is good, overall, but that bears some caution, agility, and ongoing awareness.
See a blog that lists some of the best blogs written by… authors!
Eek! Creepy! Way into the Uncanny valley. “The Geminoid family, a series of ultra-realistic androids, each a copy of a real person, has a new member: Geminoid DK, a . The robot has lifelike facial features and movements, blinking, smiling, frowning with incredible realism. The Danish researcher, Henrik Scharfe of Aalborg University, teamed up with Japanese animatronics firm Kokoro and roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro to create his robot twin, which he plans to use to study human-robot interaction and cultural differences in the perception of robots. This is the first Geminoid that is not based on a Japanese person; it’s also the first bearded one.”
Spike-driven uplift? Oy! “Sex would be a very different proposition for humans if — like some animals including chimpanzees, macaques and mice — men had penises studded with small, hard spines….
“Published in Nature, the research also suggests a molecular mechanism for how we evolved bigger brains than chimpanzees and lost the small sensory whiskers that the apes — who are amongst our closest relatives and with whom it has been estimated we share 96% of our DNA — have on their face.
“Inserting the chimpanzee sequences into mouse embryos revealed that the former sequence produced both the hard penile spines and sensory whiskers present in some animals. The latter sequence acted as a kind of brake on the growth of specific brain regions — with the removal of its function appearing to have paved the way for the evolution of the larger human brain.”
Okay, now this is starting to look scary-like uplift…
—- And finally —
Cute look at a japanese exoskeleton at work: Skeletronics.
And finally. The future we could’ve had! These retro-futuristic images date back to 1910. Flying firemen. Mechanical barbers. Wiring books directly into student’s brains – powered by a handcrank! A home fireplace heated by radium.