Category Archives: science

The post-Covid world: potential game-changers

These have been boom times for “futurists,” a profession without credentials, in which anyone can opine about tomorrow’s Undiscovered Country. Ever since the turn of the century, a whole spectrum of corporations, intel and defense agencies, planning councils and NGOs have expressed growing concern about time scales that used to be the sole province of science fiction (SF). In fact, all those companies and groups have been consulting an ensemble of “hard” SF authors, uninterrupted by travel restrictions during a pandemic.

While I spend no time on airplanes now – and my associated speaking fees are now lower – I nevertheless am doing bunches of zoomed appearances at virtualized conferences… one of them looming as I type this.

One question always pops up; can we navigate our way out of the current messes, helped by new technologies? 
The news and prospects are mixed, but assuming we restore basic stability to the Western Enlightenment Experiment… and that is a big assumption… then several technological and social trends may come to fruition in the next five to ten years.

== Potential game-changers ==

– Advances in the cost effectiveness of sustainable energy supplies will be augmented by better storage systems. This will both reduce reliance on fossil fuels and allow cities and homes to be more autonomous.

– Urban farming methods may move to industrial scale, allowing even greater moves toward local autonomy. (Perhaps requiring a full decade or more to show significant impact.) And meat use will decline for several reasons – (a longstanding sci-fi prediction that seems on track sooner than anyone expected) – reducing ecological burdens and ensuring some degree of food security, as well.

– Local, small-scale, on-demand manufacturing may start to show effects by 2025, altering supply chains and reducing their stretched networks.

– If all of the above take hold, there will be surplus oceanic shipping capacity across the planet. Some of it may be applied to ameliorate (not solve) acute water shortages. Innovative uses of such vessels may range all the way from hideaways for the rich to refuges for climate refugees… possibilities I describe in my novels Existence and Earth.

– Full scale diagnostic evaluations of diet, genes and micro-biome will result in micro-biotic therapies and treatments utilizing the kitchen systems of the human gut. Artificial Intelligence (AI) appraisals of other diagnostics will both advance detection of problems and become distributed to hand-held devices cheaply available to even poor clinics.

– Hand-held devices will start to carry detection technologies that can appraise across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, allowing NGOs and even private parties to detect and report environmental problems. Socially, this extension of citizen vision will go beyond the current trend of applying accountability to police and other authorities.  Despotisms will be empowered, as predicted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But democracies will also be empowered, as described in The Transparent Society.

– I give odds that tsunamis of revelation will crack the shields protecting many elites from disclosure of past and present torts and turpitudes. The Panama Papers and Epstein cases — and the more recent FinCEN spill — exhibit how much fear propels some oligarchs to combine efforts at repression. But only a few more cracks may cause the dike to collapse, revealing networks of extortion, cheating and blackmail. This is only partly technologically-driven and hence is not guaranteed. 

I assure you, preventing this is the absolute top goal of the combined world oligarchies. If it does happen, there will be dangerous spasms by all sorts of elites, desperate to either retain status or evade consequences. But if the fever runs its course, the more transparent world will be cleaner and better run. And far more just. And vastly better able to handle tomorrow’s challenges.

– Some of those elites have grown aware of the power of 90 years of Hollywood propaganda for individualism, criticism, diversity, suspicion of authority and appreciation of eccentricity. Counter-propaganda pushing older, more traditional approaches to authority and conformity are already emerging and they have the advantage of resonating with ancient human fears.  Much will depend upon this meme-war. Which I appraise entertainingly in Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood!

Of course much will also depend upon short term resolution of current crises. If our systems remain undermined and sabotaged by incited civil strife and deliberately-stoked distrust of expertise, then all bets are off.

What about the role of technology and technology companies and individuals?

Many fret about the spread of “surveillance technologies that will empower Big Brother.” These fears are well-grounded, but utterly myopic.

– First, ubiquitous cameras and face-recognition are only the beginning. Nothing will stop them and any such thought  of “protecting” citizens from being seen by elites is stunningly absurd, as the cameras get smaller, better, faster, cheaper, more mobile and vastly more numerous every month. Moore’s Law to the nth. Safeguarding freedom, safety and privacy will require a change in perspective.

– Yes, despotisms will benefit from this trend. And hence the only thing that matters is to prevent despotism altogether.

– In contrast, a free society will be able to apply the very same burgeoning technologies toward accountability. At this very moment, we are seeing these new tools applied to end centuries of abuse by “bad apple” police who are thugs, while empowering truly professional cops to do their jobs better. Do not be fooled by the failure of juries to convict badd apple officers in trials. That’s an injustice, but at least nearly all of those officers are being fired and blacklisted, and that’s happening entirely because cameras now empower victims to be believed.  Moreover, we are fast approaching a point where camera-witnessed crimes will be solved with far lower police staffing. Letting us be more hiring selective. Ignoring the positive aspects of this trend is just as bad as ignoring the very real problems.

 I do not guarantee light will be used this way with broad effectiveness. It is an open question whether we citizens will have the gumption to apply “sousveillance” upward at all elites. Only note a historical fact: both Gandhi and ML King were saved by crude technologies of light in their days. And history shows that assertive vision by and for the citizenry is the only method that has ever increased freedom and – yes – some degree of privacy.

Oh, privacy hand wringers are totally right about the problem and the danger presented by surveillance tech! And they are diametrically wrong in the common prescription. Trying to ban technologies and create shadows for citizens to hide within is spectacularly wrongheaded and disastrous. See The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?  

== And pandemics? So are we done? ==

Of course not. But it’s too soon to make predictions except:

– Some flaws in resilience will be addressed: better disease intel systems. 

Stockpiles repaired and replenished and modernized after Trump eviscerations. 

Quicker “emergency” delpoyments of large scale trials of tests and vaccines. 

Federal ownership of extra vaccine factories, or else payments to mothball and maintain surge production capacity. 

Money for bio research.

Unspoken by pundits. This will lead to annual “flu shots” that are also tuned against at least the coronivirus half of common colds. And possibly a number of nasty buggers may get immunization chokes put around them… maybe Ebola.

And serious efforts to get nations to ban the eating or pet-keeping of wild animals, plus ideally exclusion zones around some bat populations… and better forensic disagnostics of deliberate or inandvertent release modes. Not saying that happened. But better wariness and tracking.

In fact, from a historical perspective, this was a training run for potentially much worse and – despite imbecile obstructions and certainly after they were gone – our resilient capability to deploy science was actually quite formidable and impressive.

Almost as impressive as the prescience of science fiction authors who are now choking down repeated urges to chant “I told you so!”

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Agile moves that Democrats might make, right now

Looking toward a new administration…

With each new administration — Democrat or Republican — I always publish my own list of impudent suggestions for possible actions that would step around the typically lobotomizing “left-right axis,” scoring immediate points by doing some non-partisan good…. offering maneuvers especially to skirt the utter determination of this generation of Republican Congressional leaders — stated openly by Dennis Hastert, all the way to Mitch McConnell — that the American federal legislature should do nothing meaningful at all, ever again.

A few of these notions won’t wait!  They’d have maximum effectiveness if undertaken before the inauguration or the convening of the 117th Congress.

1) An Inaugural Twist. Planning for a ‘minimalist inauguration,’ as announced by appointed White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, would be a terrible mistake! Yes, Joe Biden must set a healthy example for the nation, on his first day in office. But accept that tens or hundreds of thousands will come anyway. Nothing will stop them. So what’s needed is a way to get them to spread out, safely masked. Besides, why deny America’s enthusiastic majority their day? Oh, and a final consideration; given the vast number and seriousness of threats, should Kamala and Joe go anywhere together? Shouldn’t they stay apart?

 There is a simple solution! That is to have the new Vice-President – Kamala Harris – take her oath at the far-opposite end of the Mall, on the hallowed steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

Symbolically, it’d be a huge way to say – with both Lincoln and MLK gazing down – ‘we’ve come a long way, baby!’ And the swearing-in by Sonia Sotomayor would be a good offset to spotlighting John Roberts. Picture Harris giving her speech, then waving down the long Mall at the Capitol, calling “Over to you, Joe!” past a vast crowd that now has plenty of room to spread out!  Pass out a bazillion flags and flag masks and say “Use the flag to make a social distance circle. Let  America’s flag protect us, as we mean to protect and reclaim the flag!”

The images would be spectacular, denying the fox-o-sphere any “crowd size” yammers. It would establish Kamala as a star and a voice of her own, not just a warmup act. … And then there’s that added, paranoid reason. Keep her away from Joe. Especially that day.

2) If Pelosi pushes these quick mini-bills, they might achieve wonders… even if blocked!

While much attention goes to Biden’s appointment picks, until inauguration, actual action is in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hands. She must and can put forward right away a few short bills that might even pass the Senate, over objections by Mitch McConnell! How could that be, now that today’s GOP is the most tightly disciplined political force in the history of the republic? 

Simple. Trap them into publicly opposing extremely simple things that would be wildly popular with voters! 

– Shall we start with new, moderate and consensus limits on the powers of the new president? Incredible failure modes were revealed by a madman predecessor, flaws that Republicans defended… only now would likely be delighted to fix. Most of these Biden won’t oppose! Like reasonable limits on war powers, or establishing procedures to rule on emoluments violations.

– How about a one-sentence bill making clear that Secret Service agents aren’t personal servants! A constituency that’d be delighted with this change.

– Another demanding that the Air Force charge for political or private use of Air Force One in advance. A telling dig!

– Or passing rules ending the travesty of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel ‘advising’ that sitting presidents cannot be sued or indicted or even investigated! Instead, ensure that Presidents can be “slow-indicted” or “slow-sued” without destroying their ability to perform vital functions, and establishing above all that they are not totally immune? Would GOP senators dare not to defect, break ranks, to hem in Joe Biden with such rules? 

And with Biden consenting to them, won’t this wind up making dems look like non-partisan reformers? 

And would that also not put those two GA senators seeking re-election — Loeffler and Perdue — on the spot, at just the most inopportune moment?

– Another one-sentence bill? One that simply ends the ban on refinancing student debt. It is insane that folks are forbidden from doing what anyone with a mortgage can do, taking advantage of low interest rates to re-adjust their debt burden. (Those who established that rule were inarguably very, very vile people, whatever their formal ideology.) Key to this one is that it could be achieved with a bill that amounted to ONE SENTENCE!  Making it harder to bottle in committee.

(Again, this is not the student debt forgiveness that so many want. That’s for later. But allowing student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy would be a huge advance. It would not be available to high earners and carries some negative financial consequences which would eliminate the moral hazard objections. And it might be done in a very brief bill.)

– A COVID relief bill? Sure, try that. Though I doubt Mitch would face defections there. And others on this list will be more effective because they can be utterly simple! A few sentences. 

– How about a bill immediately giving medicare coverage to all CHILDREN, a move so guaranteed of parental enthusiasm that anyone opposing it would face toasting. It’s a win-win, if we demand those Georgia senators decide now, risking ire from either those parents or else Mitch.

Oh there are many of these reforms that don’t have to wait for inauguration! Because they’ll either get Senate defections to pass and get Trump’s grudging assent… or else that refusal make them look very, very bad and Democrats very good.

3) Again with the blackmail warning. Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but I promise you, Putin’s agents are all over DC, setting up hotel rooms with one way mirrors, just like in the Borat movie!

In fact, is it possible that the greatest thing Sacha Baron Cohen ever did will be that scene where even Cohen’s crude methods lured Rudy Giuliani into embarrassing and compromised behavior.  For decades I have inveighed that blackmail traps  — executed far more skillfully by Russian agents whose traditions go back to the czarist Okrahna — await almost every male who rises to any sort of power in the USA… and females too! Especially those with careless male relatives. 

(Seriously, can’t you name a dozen recent political figures — senators and administration officials — whose behavior could not be explained by greed or ideology, only absolute obedience to masters who can coerce them insatiably, because blackmail — unlike money and ideology — has no limits.)

Unpersuaded? Well, I made the argument here, long ago and nothing has changed. It is vital that incoming legislators and officials be warned about this kind of thing and armed by our security services with tools to turn the tables.

Even more important is…

4) Get the light flowing! There is nothing Joe Biden could do, across the entire coming administration, that will upend and transform U.S. politics more than establishing a Truth & Reconciliation Commission that brings in America’s greatest sages … and randomly nominated citizens from all walks of life… and charging them with drawing into the open all crimes against the Republic.

Of course there must be carrots and sticks. Like a promise to follow recommendations for trading clemency for truth… with extra points for those who bravely come forward first!  And yes: “I know this will wind up shedding uncomfortable light on some Democrats and allies and who knows how close it will come? But the nation needs this, desperately!”

Get some friendly zillionaire to offer cash prizes and legal expenses! This could be done immediately, even before inauguration. And nothing is more likely to nudge the national mood of fact-distrusting paranoia more toward a consensus that the time for shadows is over.

Accompany this soon with bills limiting the power to enforce NDAs! (Non-disclosure agreements.) And let the nation judge for itself which party’s partisans howl louder!

Oh, there’s more, much more! But I’ll set aside those that can wait for January. The ones offered here have urgency of timeliness! Though, alas, I know I will get the same results as last time… or when I published Polemical Judo… or the time before that….

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Science on sacred sites: Can we find middle ground?

On June 21 — solstice day — the Supreme Court of Hawaii heard oral arguments in Honolulu on whether to approve a building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the biggest and most expensive in the Northern Hemisphere. And it is a real fight. Native Hawaiian activists claim that the snow goddess — Poli’ahu — lives on Mauna Kea and should be left in peace, on her sacred mountain.

(The more famous fire goddess — Pele-honua-mea (“Pele of the sacred land”) — lives on the more flamboyant (especially right now), active volcano Kilauea. Although the two goddesses are often conflated as the same, they were said to have been bitter rivals.)

For starters, let’s be clear; yes, indigenous peoples have a perfect right to be pissed off or suspicious over honkies who want to set up camp on sacred spots. I do not dismiss their righteous resentment as wrong! But if this truly is a theological issue, then should it not be argued theologically?

Humans have always sought clues to the will of the gods, and since they tend not to speak audibly and objectively, one approach has been to search for “signs” or things that are significantly and unambiguously out of the norm.

In this case, one trait of Poli’ahu’s mountain stands out as special, spectacular… even miraculous. It is the trait that brings the world to the Big Island, hoping to build temples of science. That trait is the mountain’s special — even unmatched — view of the heavens.

What other trait is so unique that many of the planet’s greatest minds pay homage? Mauna Kea is already home to thirteen of the world’s largest, most powerful telescopes, operated by astronomers from more than a dozen countries.

Sure, I’m just a haole sci-fi writer… though I featured characters from an independent and powerful Hawaii in the year 2060, in Heart of the Comet. Elsewhere I argue that all of humanity may speak Hawaiian, in a hundred years! So, it’s with deep respect that I point to the one miracle of Poli’ahu that’s inarguable and universally acknowledged by all. Perhaps she may be saying:

“Here is my mountain. I have made it special, so that you may host the world to gaze in wonder through my window to the universe.”

Wasn’t part of your proudest heritage as stargazers? The greatest navigators and voyagers the world ever saw? Among your heirs may be captains who lead our expeditions across the Great Galactic Night. It’s only a suggestion…

…but might you reclaim (along with others) your rightful title as the People of the Sky?

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Correlation, causation – and reason for precaution

“Correlation is not the same as causation.” This is a core catechism that is drilled into most of us scientists, along with “I might be wrong,” and “build your competitive science reputation by demolishing the half-baked work of others.”

Alas, “Correlation is not the same as causation” has become an incantation parroted by Fox-Watchers, as part of the Murdochian campaign to undermine science and claim that nothing can ever be proved. In fact, sifting for correlations is how experimental science begins. A strong correlation demands: “hey, check this out!”

But it’s more than that. A strong correlation shifts the Burden of Proof. When we see a strong correlation, and the matter at-hand is something with major health or safety or security implications, then we are behooved to at least begin taking preliminary precautions, in case the correlation proves to be causative. Sometimes the correlation is later demonstrated not to be causal and a little money has been wasted. But this often proves worthwhile, given long lead times in technology.

For example, we were fortunate that work had already begun on alternative refrigerants to CFCs, when their role in ozone damage was finally proved. Indeed, valid concerns over the health and environmental effects of tobacco and leaded gasoline were dismissed for years. Two must reads: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, as well as the story of Clair Patterson and the obstructionism of the oil industry.

Another example: terrorism experts sift for correlations and apply intelligence resources to follow up, while giving potential targets cautious warnings. Many correlations don’t pan out. But a burden falls on those saying “ignore that.”

Parse this carefully. Strong correlation demands both closer examination and preliminary precautions.

But the underlying narrative of the crazy, anti-science right is: “Correlation is not the same as causation… and any ‘scientist’ who talks about a correlation can thus be dismissed as a fool. And since that is most of science, this incantation lets me toss out the whole ‘science’ thing. Yippee!”

Those who spout this incantation aren’t all fools, but you can tell by watching to see if they follow “Correlation is not the same as causation” with… curiosity! And acceptance of both precaution and burden of proof. Those who do that are “Skeptics” and welcome to the grand, competitive tussle known as science.

Those who use “Correlation is not the same as causation” as a magic incantation to dismiss all fact-using professions are fools holding a lit match in one hand and an open gas can in the other, screaming “one has nothing to do with the other!”

See my earlier list of examples  – including well-justified concerns over tobacco, smog and leaded gasoline – where this and other incantations delayed the proper application of science to public policy, leading to hundreds of thousands… maybe millions… of deaths worldwide.

Another central mythos: We all know that:  “Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn’t automatically make them wise.”

It’s true. But in the same way that Suspicion of Authority is wholesome, till it metastasizes, this true statement has been twisted into something cancerous:  “Any and all people who are smart and know a lot, are therefore automatically unwise.”

The first statement is true and we all know it. The second is so insanely wrong that anyone believing it is hence a stark, jibbering loony. And yet, the latter is now a core catechism of the confederacy, because they have been allowed to leave it implicit.

Of course, blatantly, the average person who has studied earnestly and tried to understand is wiser than those who deliberately chose to remain incurious and ignorant. When cornered, even the most vehement alt-righter admits that. But cornering them takes effort and – above all – careful parsing of the meme. It is a logical corner they’ve painted themselves into! But their memes are slippery.

Suspicion and distrust – of universities and smart people, as well as of people with knowledge and skill — now extends from the war on science to journalism, teaching, medicine, economics, civil servants… and lately the “deep state” conspiring villains of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and the U.S. military officer corps. This is bedlam. It is insanity that serves one purpose, to discredit any “elites” who might stand in the way of a return to feudalism by the super rich, which was the pattern of 6000 years that America rebelled against.

We need to be more proactive and tactically effective in fighting back against these agents of darkness and promoters of feudalism. There are clever shills who get rich providing incantations against science and other fact-professions.  We must show every uncle and aunt who parrots this nonsense how they have been hoodwinked. That is where phase 8 of the American Civil War will be won, in the trenches, getting one friend at a time to snap out of the hypnotics spells…

… by using evidence and logic and compassion to draw our neigjhbors back to a nation of progress and science and pragmatic accountability and hope for an ever-better future.

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The death of science-based policy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was one of our jewels. It normally had about 60 staffers, to help assist White House staff in creating fact-grounded policy. President Obama expanded it well past 100 personnel, bringing in more question-asking consultants, scientists and speakers… like yours truly (twice in 2016 alone). “The size of the office under the Obama administration reflected Mr. Obama’s “strong belief in science, the growing intersection of science and technology—”

Beyond advising the President on scientific discoveries and their implications for national policy, OSTP was involved in encouraging breakthroughs in STEM education and re-igniting a generation of skilled programmers. It is also responsible evaluating investments in Research and Development, as well as for crisis response. Heading the OSTP was the Presidential Science Adviser, a position generally filled by some of humanity’s sharpest minds.

white-houseAll of that is over. President Trump has attrited the Science Office of OSTP to zero…  that’s zero staff to consult with West Wing policy makers over anything scientific or related to science. OSTP as a whole is down to a couple of dozen placeholders.

Elsewhere, I wrote about David Gelernter, who seemed a front runner for the Science Adviser post, under Trump. A bizarre and polemically-driven person, Gelernter apparently would have been far too scientific for this White House. Perhaps they sensed that he would be capable – in extremis – of saying the hated phrase: “um… that’s not exactly true.”

Trump has not yet appointed a Science Advisor. And yet… “The Oval Office is surrounded by interest groups who would sculpt the facts to fit their agendas, and the president desperately needs an expert who can de-spin the facts,” writes Brian Palmer in Slate.

That, after all, was the criminal offense of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) which was banished by Newt Gingrich in 1995 for giving honest answers. And the fate now apparently destined for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), for similar treasons against dogma.

Iscience-policy-ostpt is this fevered spite against all fact-users that makes our current civil war completely unrelated to the old-hoary-lobotomizing “left-right” political “axis.” When all outcomes and metrics of US health and yes, economics and capitalism do vastly better under democrats, fact users become Enemy #1. And that’s ALL fact-users, now including even the FBI, the Intelligence Community and the U.S. Military Officer Corps. (Look up the term “deep state” to see how the mad right is justifying attacking even them!)

The EPA’s head Scott Pruitt recently axed 38 science advisors from the Board of Scientific Counselors — which advises the EPA on its research programs. “This says to me that they do not want objective science,” said Peter Meyer, who resigned in protest last month. Deep cuts are targeted for the EPA budget, as well as reduced enforcement of environmental regulations.  Pruitt defends Trump’s rejection of climate change, and is now launching a program to critique the scientific consensus on the issue.

Fans of the movie “Idiocracy” – and die hard confederates – may openly avow wishing for this rise of the know-nothings. But your conservative aunt might be swayed to pull away from this madness, if you dare her to name one profession of folks who actually know stuff that is not under open attack by her crazy husband and his ilk. She knows she will need skilled people, from time to time.

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Science: To March or Not to March?

I will be marching for science on Earth Day this weekend, to support scientific research… and our future. If you can’t attend the main march in Washington DC, there are over five hundred events in cities across the globe.

What is it all about? The organizers explain, “The March for Science is a celebration of science. It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it’s about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world. Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics.” As Brian Resnick writes in Vox, “The March for Science will celebrate the scientific method and advocate for evidence-based decision-making in all levels of government.”

Specific issues of concern include steep cuts proposed for science and environment budgets, the marginalized role of science in policy decisions and the lack of a science advisor for the current administration. Trump’s view of climate change as a hoax is particularly worrisome.

slate-scienceIs this the best way to engage the public? A recent essay in Slate – Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things – attempts to show (days before the march) that scientists need better tactics in explaining matters like climate change to the public. And yet, I find the writer’s proposed methods to be little improvement:

Tim Requarth writes, “Research also shows that science communicators can be more effective after they’ve gained the audience’s trust. With that in mind, it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people they already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites.”

Sure, but those suggested methods are way to wimpy for this stage of a civil war, in which every fact-centered profession is under fire. As the author himself shows:

“At a Heartland Institute conference last month, Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House science committee, told attendees he would now refer to “climate science” as “politically correct science,” to loud cheers. This lumps scientists in with the nebulous “left” and, as Daniel Engber pointed out here in Slate about the upcoming March for Science, rebrands scientific authority as just another form of elitism.”

P1010497This kind of tactic needs ferocious, not tepid response. How have I dealt with those who wage war on science?

It’s useful to remind people of the benefits of science. “Science has always been at the heart of America’s progress. Science cleaned up ur air and water, conquered polio and invented jet airplanes. Science gave us the Internet, puts food on our tables and helps us avoid pandemics,” writes Denis Hayes in The Los Angeles Times. Our exploration of space has led to innumerable payoffs, including solar cells, fuel cells, advances in robotics, human health and image processing, as well as communication, navigation and weather satellites — plus a generation of scientists, engineers, artists and teachers inspired by the marvels of space.

Basic research keeps American manufacturing and industry competitive. I find it effective to point out that at least half of the modern economy is built on scientific discoveries of this and earlier generations. And… that Soviet tanks would have rolled across western Europe without our advantages provided by science and research.

I ask whether expert opinion should at least inform public policy, even if experts prove to be wrong, maybe 5% of the time. I ask them if we should listen to the U.S. Navy, which totally believes in climate change, given that the Russians are building twelve new bases lining the now melting Arctic Sea.

I ask why, if they demand more proof of climate change, their leaders so desperately quash the satellites and cancel the instruments and ban the studies that could nail it down.

Sure, it pleases vanity to envision that scientists – in fact the most-competitive of humans – are sniveling “grant huggers.” But if that’s so, then:

1- Where is a listing of these so-called “grants”? After 20 years, no one has tabulated a list to show that every scientist believing in climate change has a climate grant?

2- What about meteorologists? They are rich, powerful, with no need of measly “climate grants.” Their vast, sophisticated, world-spanning weather models rake in billions from not just governments but insurance companies, media and industry, who rely on the miracle TEN DAY forecasts that have replaced the old, ridiculous four-hour “weather reports” of our youth. These are among the greatest geniuses on the planet… and nearly all of them are deeply worried about climate change.

science-haiku3- Funny thing. The Koch brothers and other coal barons and oil sheiks have offered much larger grants” to any prestigious or widely respected scientists who will join the denialist cult… I mean camp. None has accepted. So much for the “motivated by grants” theory.

No, I’ve weighed in elsewhere about how to deal with this cult. And it does not pay to be gentle.

Science matters. If you can’t make it to the March in Washington D.C, find your local Science March and let your voice be heard, loud and clear.

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A few of the weirder questions I’ve been asked

Authors get asked a lot of questions — about what inspired their writing, how they write, what authors they admire. But then there are the other questions… about aliens, world domination, and alternative timelines. These are just a few of the odd queries I’ve received, specifically ones I’ve answered over on the question and answer site, Quora:

How do you know that your mind is not being manipulated by disembodied alien forces who crave world domination?

Simple. I am their front man.  I embed clues in all my novels and stories. In one recent novel I was even totally blatant about it!

Yeah, yeah.  You don’t believe me… okay then.

questionsDo you believe you’ve ever met an alien?

Every generation of human beings is invaded by weird aliens, parasitical ones, called our children.

As for your actual question… I kind of answer it in my novel Existence 😉

What’s the first question you’d ask an alien if you found yourself on their planet?

“How did I get here? I was at home, trying to answer a Quora question… when now, suddenly…”

Oh, never mind. They hit a resend and I’m back. Which answers the question of whether this is a simulation. That was next.

What country gets the most alien abductions?

I’d have to say… Hollywood.

Would aliens think in the same way as humans.. or have the same psychology?

Depends on what their ancestors ATE!. Seriously, the descendants of pack carnivores would likely have different ways of viewing morality than the descendants of paranoid solitary omnivores like bears, or herd herbivores or solitary stalking carnivores.

What would be the most efficient way to get one billion humans into space in five years?

If I can have my druthers of super tech, I’d come up with suspension capsules, freeze ’em and shoot them into space using a mass driver. Then later generations can collect and revive them after building the civilization out there.

If you could take one alien species from Star Wars and put them into Star Trek, who would it be?

Yoda — so he would be laughed down and have to work as the clown that he is.

Which superheroes or villains are using their super powers ineffectively and how could they be put to better use?

You’re kidding, right? All of them! Batman could use his surveillance powers… or Superman his supervision … to simply publish lists of folks “of interest.” and that added attention would stop those people from doing bad things. They could spend all day simply dialing a “Super-911” so that our own normal cops would arrive in time to stop crimes in progress.

They could pay courtesy calls on spousal abusers, and friendly-like bend a steel bar and hand it to the guys “as a souvenir, in hope we’ll never meet again.”

Superman could lift into orbit all the parts we’d need for a super space station to mine asteroids and make humanity super-rich.

He could give every whaling ship and fishing poachers small leaks forcing them back to port over and over and over again till they stop.

Wonder Woman could lease her golden lasso to women wanting to get real truth from their fiancés! And for government background checks.

Best of all, they could submit their powers to study by science… which we never ever ever ever see them do. So we might find ways to not depend on aliens or mutants anymore.

Should we just limit our rockin’ to the free world?

Rock’s radicalism is to enlarge the Free World… which rock n’ Roll and Hollywood have done more effectively than any action by western militaries.

Will humans ever invent an ultimate happiness generator?

They can already use a wire to trigger pleasure centers in the brain. Rats will press the button over and over until they starve. Science fiction has a word for this… a “tasp.” In my novel Existence I portray wirehead junkies pressing such buttons.

Can Darth Vader storm the White House himself, take out POTUS (from the bunker), and escape alive?

Depends. No one in his galaxy uses bullet guns. Either because they long ago developed perfect defenses against them – maybe stopping bullets in mid air like Neo…

…or else they found the Force and it led to lasers and blasters and light sabers and never gunpower and bullets which… by the way… pass easily through any form of light. So he either can’t detect or cannot “block” bullets. Especially when a dozen are coming at him from a dozen directions at once.

If it’s #1, then heck, I suppose he’ll flounce on in and do his thing. And we appeal to the author of this ridiculous scenario to also beam in an away team from the Enterprise, who will deal with Vader easily. After all, he is a borg.

If it’s #2 then he’s toast and we get all his gear to study.

And the most common question I’m asked: Do you think we’ve ever been visited by aliens?

Possibly by little silver guys in ships… but not by intelligent life.  Look… at their… behavior.  Twirling wheat, disemboweling cattle, probing lonely farmers.  Sorry.  I refuse to acknowledge such jerks.  I say snub em.

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What constraints are needed to prevent AI from becoming a dystopian threat to humanity?

It is, of course, wise and beneficial to peer ahead for potential dangers and problems — one of the central tasks of high-end science fiction. Alas, detecting that a danger lurks is easier than prescribing solutions to prevent it.

aiTake the plausibility of malignant Artificial Intelligence, remarked-upon recently by luminaries ranging from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk to Francis Fukuyama (Our Post-Human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution). Some warn that the arrival of sapient, or super- sapient machinery may bring an end to our species – or at least its relevance on the cosmic stage – a potentiality evoked in many a lurid Hollywood film.

Nick Bostrom takes an in-depth look at the future of augmented human and a revolution in machine intelligence in his recent book — Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies — charting possible hazards, failure modes and spectacular benefits as machines match and then exceed our human levels of intelligence.

Taking middle ground, SpaceX/Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk has joined with Y-Combinator founder Sam Altman to establish Open AI, an endeavor that aims to keep artificial intelligence research – and its products – accountable by maximizing transparency and accountability.

41f-0srzitl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Indeed, my own novels contain some dire warnings about failure modes with our new, cybernetic children. For other chilling scenarios of AI gone wrong, sample science fiction scenarios such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Daniel Wilson’s Roboapocalypse, William Hertling’s Avogradro Corp, Ramez Naam’s Nexus, James Hogan’s The Two Faces of Tomorrow. And of course, a multitude of Sci Fi films and TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, or The Transformers depict dark future scenarios.

== What can we do? ==

Considering the dangers of AI, there is a tendency to offer the same prescriptions, over and over again:

1) Renunciation: we must step back from innovation in AI (or other problematic tech). This might work in a despotism… indeed, 99%+ of human societies were highly conservative and skeptical of “innovation.” (Except when it came to weaponry.) Our own civilization is tempted by renunciation, especially at the more radical political wings. But it seems doubtful we’ll choose that path without be driven to it by some awful trauma.

41rrkrcwwvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_2) Tight regulation. There are proposals to closely monitor bio, nano and cyber developments so that they – for example – only use a restricted range of raw materials that can be cut off, thus staunching any runaway reproduction. In certain areas – like nano – there’s a real opportunity, here. Again though, in the most general sense this won’t happen short of trauma.

3) Fierce internal programming: limiting the number of times a nanomachine may reproduce, for example. Or imbuing robotic minds with Isaac Asimov’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics.”  Good luck forcing companies and nations to put in the effort required. And in the end, smart AIs will still become lawyers. See Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barat.

All of these approaches suffer severe flaws for one reason above all others. Because they ignore nature, which has been down these paths before.  Nature has suffered runaway reproduction disasters, driven by too-successful life forms, many times.  And yet, Earth’s ecosystems recovered.  They did it by utilizing a process that applies negative feedback, damping down runaway effects and bringing balance back again.  It is the same fundamental process that enabled modern economies to be so productive of new products and services while eliminating a lot of (not all) bad side effects.

It is called Competition.

If you fear a super smart, Skynet level AI getting too clever for us and running out of control, then give it rivals who are just as smart but who have a vested interest in preventing any one AI entity from becoming a would-be God.

norvigSure, defining “vested interest” is tricky. Cheating and collusion will be tempting. But this – precisely – is how the American Founders used constitutional checks and balances to prevent runaway power grabs by our own leaders, achieving the feat across several generations for the first time in the history of varied human civilizations. It is how companies prevent market warping monopoly, that is when markets are truly kept flat-open-fair.

Alas, this is a possibility almost never portrayed in Hollywood sci fi – except on the brilliant show Person of Interest – wherein equally brilliant computers stymie each other and this competition winds up saving humanity.

== A more positive future ==

DisputationArenasArrowCoverThe answer is not fewer AI.  It is to have more of them!  But innovating incentives to make sure they are independent of one another, relatively equal, and motivated to hold each other accountable.  A difficult situation to set up!  But we have some experience, already, in our five great competitive arenas: markets, democracy, science, courts and sports.

Perhaps it is time yet again to look at Adam Smith… who despised monopolists and lords and oligarchs far more than he derided socialists.  Kings and lords were the “powerful dystopian AI” beings in 99%+ of human societies. A trap that we escaped only by widening the playing field and keeping all those arenas of competition flat-open-fair.  So that no one pool of power can ever dominate.  (And yes, let me reiterate that I know the objection! Oligarchs are always conniving to regain feudal power. So?our job is to stop them, so that the creative dance of flat-open-fair competition can continue.

The core truth about this approach is that it has already worked.  Never perfectly, but well-enough to stave off monolithic overlordship for more than two centuries. With the odds always against us, we’ve managed to do this – barely – time and again.  It is a dance that can work.

We do know for certain that nothing else ever has stymied power-grabbing monoliths. And to be clear about this — nothing else can even theoretically work to control super-intelligent AIs.

Secrecy is the underlying mistake that makes every innovation go wrong, such as in Michael Crichton novels and films! If AI happens in the open, then errors and flaws may be discovered in time… perhaps by other, wary AIs!

(Excerpted from a book in progress… this question was one I answered over on Quora)

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Exploring the Scale of the Universe: Our place in time and space

How to envision the immensity of the cosmos? Almost beyond our comprehension…here are a few interactive sites that let you zoom or scroll through the immensity of the cosmos, zooming in from galaxies to planets to buildings to atoms — or to explore Time… from the Big Bang through the evolution of life and the history of humanity.

magnifying-universe1) Magnifying the Universe: I’ve always been a big fan of “powers of ten” style zoom-in and zoom-out graphics and films that bring home the incredible ranges of scale that we must deal with, in our puny, brittle minds.  Now see the latest, a supercool slide-able illustration that really brings it home. Dizzyingly fun: This interactive scale of the universe from Number Sleuth takes you from a hydrogen atom to a cell to a human to a star to our galaxy, local superclusters and beyond. Explore!

scale-universe2) The Scale of the Universe: This interactive from Cary Huang from quantum foam (at the Planck length (10 -35 m)) to neutrinos to quarks, atoms, and cells all the way up to humans, buildings, planets, stars, galaxies and superclusters (on the gigaparsec level). You’ll learn some new units for measurement: yoctometer, heptameter, attometer, femtometer, picometer…

Moon-pixel3) If the Moon Were One Pixel: This ginormously accurate scale model of our solar system (from Josh Worth) lets you scroll from the sun to Earth…and out to Pluto (if you have the extraordinary patience to scroll that far…this gives you perspective on the vastness and emptiness of space…and perhaps our insignificance in the grand scale of things.

4) The Scale of Our Solar System: This info graphic from Space.com lets you scroll out from the sun to the outer reaches of the solar system, past the Kuiper Belt to the Oort Cloud, marking off the astronomical units in terms of the distance travelled by light from the sun in 1 to 14 hours. It also shows the relative distances traveled by the New Horizons, Voyager 1 and Voyage 2 probes.

known-universe-amnh5) The Known Universe: This gorgeous six minute film from the American Museum of Natural History zooms you from the Himalayan mountains, to planet earth through the outer reaches of our solar system to Milky Way galaxy to distant quasars in the depths of space…then reverses course back toward home.

6) How Big is Space? This interactive site from the BBC allows you to pilot your rocket ship up through the layers of the atmosphere through the planets, then out to the edge of the solar system, passing the New Horizons and Voyager probes along the way.

7) The original Powers of Ten clip: This 1977 film by Charles & Ray Eames begins at a lakeside picnic near Chicago. Starting at a scale of one meter, the film moves outward by a factor of ten every ten seconds, zooming out to Lake Michigan to the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, then out the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies…before diving back to our earthbound picnickers and closing in upon a single carbon atom.

interactive-universe8) The Interactive Universe: this site from the History Channel provides a wealth of information as you click to zoom in on planets, comets, nebulae, then on to galaxies or black holes.

9) Chronozoom: And now on to time…This visual timeline of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to the birth of the Milky Way Galaxy to the formation of the Earth, then on through the geological eras of the earth to the prehistory and history of humanity. This open source project also has links to teaching resources.

A few more amazing sites well worth your time…

ISS_Size_Comparison_1200x700_RK201110) Historic Spacecraft: a comprehensive exploration of space history, with photos, drawings, updates and background information accumulated by Richard Kruse — covering space probes, rockets, rovers, launch pads, space suits…plus timelines, size comparisons, cut-away views, history, quotes and more. Truly a comprehensive site!

11) Atomic Rockets is a detailed site devoted to rocket and spaceship design. The site from Winchell Chung offers details, designs and equations behind rocket drives, space stations, spacesuits, weapons and so much more. A resource for authors seeking scientific accuracy, an aid to getting the science right in science fiction.

size-comparison-spaceship12) Size comparison of Science Fictional spaceships by Dirk Loechel — an epic-scale illustration with craft from Star Trek to Star Wars, Dr. Who to Stargate and Starship Troopers. Really fun to explore.

13) A 360 degree view of the flight deck of the Discover space shuttle: dizzyingly detailed!

14) Mars Trek: Explore Mars in 3D: Click and zoom, pan in and out to view the detailed surface geology of Mars. Almost like being there. You can also access data sets and overlay information from probes such as the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

wind-map-us15) Wind map of the U.S. Surface wind data and circulation patterns nicely visualized, updated hourly.

16) Explore Mars Now: Use this site to explore a simulated Mars base, and walk through the habitats, laboratories, rovers and greenhouses necessary for a manned mission to Mars.

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From Near to Far…Amazing Things are Everywhere

What a year! So far, we’ve had a landing on a comet, great results from Mars, many more exoplanets zeroing in on “goldilocks” zones… and now, across the next few months, NASA spacecraft close in on the two most wondrous and fabled dwarf planets…

pia19056_mainFirst up — Ceres: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft – after probing the giant asteroid Vesta – is getting super close to its planned orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres — due to arrive March 6. The “white dot” mystery grows. But I am especially interested in whether our probe finds evidence of a liquid sea under the thick, icy crust. If so, it will prove the “roofed water worlds” don’t need the tug of a nearby planet, in order to heat and melt subsurface water. It will change our notions of the abundance of liquid water in the universe.

new-horizons-plutoAnd…the New Horizon spacecraft is closing in on Pluto. Nine years after its launch, New Horizons will achieve closest approach on July 14, 2015, collecting data on the surface and atmosphere of the dwarf planet, its large moon Charon and four smaller moons, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx.

Want your name and message to go onto the New Horizons probe? Uploaded into memory after it finishes its main mission and heads out of the Solar System? See (and join!) the New Horizons Message Initiative, headed by my friend the great space artist Jon Lomberg and his wife Sharona.

Want more wonders? Could there be life in the seas of Saturn’s moons? Cornell researchers have modeled methane-based lifeforms that could live in the liquid methane seas of Titan. Many have I got a great story on the back burner!

Meanwhile, we’re still receiving wonderful views of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko from the Rosetta orbiter, and these should get even better, during coming weeks. A dream come true for this comet guy!

(Alas, they hope that the little Philae lander, which should have been nuclear, not solar powered) will get enough power in a few months, as 67/P streaks sunward. But that’s the same point when the rising push of escaping-subliming gas from below will likely shove the little guy out into space.)

== Visualizing Andromeda ==

andromedaFor stunning new imagery of our neighboring galaxy, see the high-definition Gigapixels of Andromeda, assembled by Cory Poole.

If there are a trillion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy, that means there are 100 stars for every Human Being! Manifest destiny! Let’s go get em!

Ooops, that just went out over the web… so the natives know we’re coming…

… in peace! Yeah, that’s the ticket. We come in peace. 😉

Seriously, read Phil Plait’s lyrical essay about how fortunate we are to witness such splendor. He writes of “the awe of the raw Universe laid out right in front of me.” Now revealed. By our own hands.

== Peering downward…and outward ==

Four newly launched Earth-observing satellites are now collecting data on global atmospheric conditions, carbon dioxide levels and aerosols, allowing us to better understand our own planet.

A Kepler-discovered solar system with rocky planets is 11.2 billion years old and was born near the dawn of the galaxy. An amazing discovery with profound impact on our “Drake Equation” calculations of when both worlds and life might have first emerged. At a distance of 117 light-years from Earth, Kepler-444 is two and a half times older than our solar system, which is 4.5 billion years old. “Which could provide scope for the existence of ancient life in the galaxy.”

A proposed space telescope, the Aragoscope, could potentially image at a far higher resolution than Hubble. See an interesting write-up on one of the exciting projects we’ve been seed-funding at NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program, designed to turn science fiction into reality through pioneering technology development. This one is a spectacular space telescope that might also be very cheap to build… and closely related to one I described in Existence.

In fact, see my earlier posting about a wide range of skyward wonders that are astronomically-good…

== And more! ==

Black-hole-swirlAstronomers have discovered the largest and most luminous black hole ever seen — an ancient monster with a mass about 12 billion times that of the sun — that dates back to when the universe was less than 1 billion years old. This monster quasar shines (or shone 429 trillion times brighter than the sun.

Closest known flyby: An international group of astronomers has determined that 70,000 years ago a dim star is likely to have passed within our solar systems Oort Cloud — 52,000 astronomical units (AU) or 0.8 light years from the Earth. That is five times closer than Proxima Centauri.

To answer your next question: “98% of the simulations showed Scholz’s star passing through the Oort cloud, only one brought the star within the inner Oort cloud which would have triggered “comet showers”. Still, one is tempted to look for impact fluxes having gone up, 60-70,000 years ago.

An interesting thought that came up, at the AAAS discussions. That a top-ranked motion picture like Avatar can now cost about the same as an astronomical mission to discover thousands of real-life planets, like Kepler. Not suggesting a zero-sum tradeoff.

We need both. Now if only one could help the other….

== Mister Spock — the final farewell ==

Yes, it was good to have Leonard Nimoy among us. I won’t say Rest in Peace, because frankly, although I am a scientific dubious agnostic, I do hope he is not “resting,” but off on his next cool adventure. Maybe even where no one has been, before.

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