Asteroids, Super space drives, and Io volcanoes!

Are we a target? 

Did you hear that a solar storm spewed forth a major spray of energetic, charged particles that passed very close to the Earth, a while back? Read up on the 1859 Carrington Event that fried telegraph systems — if it struck today, our electronics-dependent civilization could suffer real damage. Contemplate that… then consider this. There may have been a truly monumental coronal mass ejection around the year 775 that hit the Earth with a strength that was about 20 times the 1859 Carrington Event.

And yes, the solution is to get out there!  Members of Congress introduced a bill to protect property rights for commercial exploitation of asteroids. The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), is called the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act. Alas, during our current civil war, there is no chance of an actual political process in the USA.  But when this phase ends, as it must, the bill will be ready for action by a restored, scientific and forward-looking nation.

More Science: Microbes, Pathogens & Parasites

By some estimates, your body houses ten times more bacteria than cells with your DNA.  But that is only the start of our humiliation! DNA surveys now suggest that humans have thousands of viral species in and on us. Most of them likely coexist within our gut in peace and harmony. This notion - of relatively harmless viruses that therefore have escaped notice by science - has been around a while. It features prominently in my short story “The Giving Plague.

AfterManyThe importance of the micro-biome - the vast array of symbiotic bacteria living in human bodies, especially the gut, was portrayed vividly in a 1930s novel by Aldous Huxley — After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. But only now are we truly dialing into the importance of what Huxley then called “intestinal flora.” Now read how scientists are at last uncovering hints of huge communities of viruses that lurk below our notice, possibly affecting our health. We have a lot to learn.

Seems that that engineered probiotic bacteria (“friendly” bacteria like those in yogurt) in the gut produce a therapeutic compound that inhibits weight gain, insulin resistance, and other adverse effects of a high-fat diet in mice. “Of course it’s hard to speculate from mouse to human.”   In fact, we are finding ever more longevity-related mouse results that have no bearing on humans! Still…

Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?” My talk at TEDxUCSD For a generation, we’ve been taught that the best way to deal with our problems is to get mad as hell! Recent science exposes this as a scam that has produced the largest and most disastrous addiction in civilization. Sometimes problems merit indignation! But are we abandoning our greatest gift – the ability to actually solve problems.

Our next big crisis...Would you believe phosphorus?

== The crisis you never heard of… unless… ==

 phosphorus-crisisAn inspiring TED talk attempts to bring to world attention a coming “phosphorus crisis” — the rapid depletion of this elemental resource that is vital to life — a crisis that I revealed to many of you in EXISTENCE. This TED talk by biologist Mohamed Hijri (in French but with excellent sub-titles) not only clearly elucidates the problem, but also puts forward one element of a solution that could save several billion lives, when the phosphorus deposits dry up. 

Commencing a bio-science miscellany-fest…

biology-r-usIt seems brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence.
 
You’ve heard about this second hand… now the science of how the adolescent brain differs and grows. This fascinating article, Dude Where’s My Frontal Cortex, by Robert Sapolsky tracks the last part of us to develop, the prefrontal lobes responsible for planning and impulse control. A thorough, insightful, compassionate and well-written piece.

Ways to make civilization robust

The resilience of our entire civilization is increasingly reliant on a fragile network of cell phone towers, which are the first things to fail in any crisis, e.g. a hurricane or other natural disaster… or else deliberate (e.g.EMP or hacker) sabotage.
 
I have been nagging about this for almost two decades. My recommendation — offered to national and corporate leaders since 1995? That our pocket phones should have a backup communication mode that is peer-to-peer, that could pass messages from phone to phone through any afflicted area until they reach a zone with cell service, at which point the messages would spill into the continental network.
 
This would be frightfully easy to accomplish, especially for simple text messages. In fact, the technology has been incorporated in Qualcomm’s latest chip sets. Though the major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc — have all refused to activate it. This despite the fact that they would be perfectly free to bill for any P2P-passed messages — that’s easy. For years I asked national officials to require this backup, as a matter of overall robustness and public safety. Access to working phones made the biggest difference between two disasters… 9/11 - “the Day of the Citizen,” when average folks were able to self-organize and step up - vs the calamitous collapse of civilization during and after Hurricane Katrina.
 
P2PNow comes terrific news. “Qualcomm and other wireless companies have been working on a new cellular standard—a set of technical procedures that ensures devices can “talk” to one another—that will keep the lines open if the network fails. The Proximity Services, or so-called LTE Direct, standard will be approved by the end of the year.”

A challenge story! Just 140 words long. Action! Mystery! Romance!

I’m a sucker for a challenge. I’ve done stories that were precisely 250 words. And precisely six words long. (One of those 6-worders had three separate scenes, action, conversation and pathos!) Heck, I’ve even written in second-person, future tense, though that one is problematic, because some readers obey.
Now comes a silly-ass dare from that meme-wallow, the Internet. GISHWHES (pompously promoting: the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt The World Has Ever Seen) is a charity fundraiser by Supernatural star Misha Collins. This year, one item on the list (#78) is a sci-fi story –140 words in length, or under - written specifically for the hunt. Alas, according to one source“overwhelmed sci-fi authors aren’t too happy about it.”
GISHWHES-elopusOh, in 140 words or less you are supposed to mention Misha, the Queen of England, and an ELOPUS… a hybrid between an elephant and an octopus. (See image.) Which is doubly ironic, since in several stories I have already portrayed ELEPENTS, future-modified pachyderms, adapted for work in space, with crude gripping hands, a prehensile tail and a trunk for fine manipulation! I think my gene-mod-uplifted creatures are far more likely to come about than Elopusses! (E-lopi?)
But here we go. Misha… the (or rather “a”) queen… and a symbolic elephant-octopus. Yeesh. Despite these handicaps, I tried to pack in a lot of events, drama and back story. (Oh and I did it in exactly 140!)…..

 

The True Origins of the American Revolution

The American Revolution serves as a Rorschach test that reflects the obsessions of each succeeding generation. In the 1920s, Marxist notions of class struggle dominated and thus even anti-communist historians viewed the rebellion as a phase shift from monarchal domination to empowerment of the bourgeoisie. In the forties, literalist scholars started instead taking the Founders at their word — that the Revolution was an idealistic exercise in limiting the scope of government.

During the cynical 1960s, fashions changed again, to viewing the rebellion as a manipulative putsch that allowed local gentry — the caste of Washington and Jefferson — to displace others at the top of the heap. A lateral coup, with just enough populism to keep the middle class placid.

Peoples-historyWhat these generations of scholars all seemed to agree upon was that the colonists weren’t rebelling over the raw magnitude of taxes. Indeed, many expressed puzzlement that there were any grievances worth fighting and dying over! Certainly it all seemed rather far-fetched, given how comfortable life had been for most American colonists, especially compared to the mountain of crimes committed against the people of France, by the Bourbon ancien regime.

In fact, despite the hairsplitting obsessions of academic scholars — and the puerile tendency of textbooks and politicians to mention only tea and stamp taxes — it is pretty clear in historical records that the colonists revolted for a host of genuine grievances:

Science that threatens… and promises wonders

George Dvorsky has a piece on iO9, How Artificial Intelligence Will Give Birth to Itself,  summarizing many of the worrisome aspects of a possible runaway effect, when self-improving artificial intelligences (AI) get faster and faster at designing new and better versions of themselves. A thoughtful reflection on how the Singularity might (or might not) go out of control.

Alas, George left out a process issue that makes all the difference. That issue is Secrecy, which lies at the root of every Michael Crichton science-goes-wrong scenario. (Not one of Michael’s plot drivers would have taken place, if the “arrogant scientists” had done their innovating in the open - as most scientists have been trained to prefer - exposing their new robots/dinosaurs and so on to truly public, error-correcting criticism.)

secrecyEfforts to develop AI that are subject to the enlightenment process of reciprocal scrutiny might see their failure modes revealed and corrected in time. Those that take place in secret are almost one hundred percent guaranteed to produced unexpected outcomes. And most likely dangerous ones.

The worst example of AI research that is secret and extremely well-funded, while creating AI systems that are inherently amoral, predatory and insatiable? It’s a danger that I explore here: Why a Transaction Fee Matters to You. Automated investment programs… of which High Frequency Trading is only one example… represent probably the most dangerous AI research on our planet today.

The Immigration Fury: one of many cliches you believe - that are “opposite to true”

Not far from where I live, demonstrators in Murrieta California have been blocking a facility designated to hold families and children who were recently intercepted attempting to cross illegally into the United States. The demonstrators’ chief effect — (other than keeping kids on stifling busses for a few hours, till other centers came online) — was to make a noisy statement about the recent flood of young border crossers. Fair enough. That border youth-surge apparently arose when commercial “coyote” crossing-traffickers discovered and publicized a glitch in the Bush era immigration law, treating children with more legal niceties than adults. The Obama Administration is scurrying to adjust and staunch the flood. But such details are not my reason for raising the topic, today. In fact — — the sound and fury over illegal immigration to the United States has put me in a rebellious and contrary frame of mind! I intend to upset everyone… from left to right… by pointing out that everything you believe about this issue is probably wrong. Indeed, what you believe — about who is better at defending the U.S. border, and maybe a dozen other major issues — may be diametrically opposite to true!

May I bring up climate change?

Recall a while back, when I cited Greg Page, executive chairman of Cargill, Inc., who leads a large group of very conservative agri-businessmen that — despite strong GOP bias — broke with the Fox Party Line on climate -- turning instead to face our desperate need to save the planet.
 
Climate-changeThey aren’t the only ones! Think. What businesses will be hurt most by the ever rising instabilities we face? 

News item: an insurance company is suing nearly 200 Chicago-area towns for failing to do more to prevent damages it says are linked to climate change. Farmers Insurance is asking the communities to return flood claims from the spring of 2013, which caused at least $218 million in losses. The towns should have done more to fortify their sewers and stormwater drains, the group argues.
 
So, as the smart-practical conservatives peel away, what is the Fox-Koch end game plan for when obscurant denialist delaying tactics hit the inevitable wall? It happened before, to “cars don’t cause smog!” And when — after 25 years and 20 million lost lives — the Tobacco Lobby finally surrendered and admitted “we lied.” Campaigns that used some of the very same advertising and public relation gangs … I mean firms.
 
What happens then. Will they declare “we never obstructed!”

Polarization Is Asymmetric—it’s not about physics... but politics

Isaac Asimov once commented"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
 
Or take this from another commenter: “Everywhere you look these days, America is in a rush to embrace the stupid. Hell-bent on a path that’s not just irrational, but often self-destructive. Common-sense solutions to pressing problems are eschewed in favor of bumper-sticker simplicities and blind faith.”
 
Hm, replace “bumper sticker” with “snarky Facebook Jpegs.” This depressing article — America Dumbs Down — in Canada’s MacLeans Magazine certainly offers a litany of statistics suggesting that at-minimum, the citizens of the United States are splitting in twain — with half the country going out o’ its ever-luvin’ mind.

Can Citizens Become a Political Force?

Is there one thing that an average US citizen can do, right now, to help end the current phase of America’s ongoing civil war?
 
may-day-pac-lessigOnly a few days are left in the crowd-funding campaign for Lawrence Lessig’s citizen-centered Super Pac: MAYDAY-PAC. Aimed at changing the playing field, so that raw money is less of a force in U.S. politics.

Mayday PAC was started by my colleague, Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig (co-founder of Rootstrikers and Creative Commons) — a “super PAC” using the power of kickstarted funds from ordinary citizens to fight the power of big money donors that control America’s political system.
 
You are summoned! To spend one minute – in a minuteman-tradition – to make a difference.  Make a donation  to help reduce the power of influence in politics — they have five days left to meet their goal.

lesterlandStart with the excellent 2013 TED talk by Professor Lessig called “We the People …and the Republic We Must Reclaim" — with over a million views.
 
Lessig’s ideas are further expounded in his ebook, The USA is Lesterland: The Nature of Congressional Corruption — “a map for a democracy we could reclaim.”
 
USA-lesterland-lessigSummarized by Lessig: ”Less than 1/20th of 1% of America are the “relevant funders” of congressional campaigns. That means about 150,000 Americans, or about the same number who are named “Lester,” wield enormous power over this government. These “Lesters” determine this critical first election in every election cycle—the money election. Without them, few believe they have any chance to win. And certainly, neither party believes it can achieve a majority without answering the special demands these “funders” make. Our Congress has thus become dependent upon these funders. In this sense, we are now “Lesterland.””
 
Or view Steve Wozniak’s 3-minute video: America’s Operating System is Broken.

Our greatest responsibility...to be good ancestors

Elsewhere, the topic came up… to what extent is it fair to judge men and women of the past by OUR modern moral standards? And to what extent does that set us up for rebuke by much better descendants?
 
Certainly some who engage in the modern drug high of sanctimony chide their neighbors partly to lower their own “karma” … but also as a kind of aggression. (See my video on this: cited above!)
 
And yet the world does need to be saved! And we owe much to heroes who stood up — in days past — to question the “common wisdom” of their own times, when it came to racism, sexism, classism or environmental neglect.
 
Salk-Good-ancestorThere is a litmus that I apply to historical figures and I am willing to see it applied to myself.  Yes, they were products of their times — as am I.  Hence, what I ask is "did you try to be at least two standard deviations BETTER than your times?"
 
Did you try — and succeed — to shift the momentum or arc of your times in better directions?  By that metric, Thomas Jefferson gets some added slack and Abraham Lincoln is let completely out of purgatory.  Sure it’s self-serving. This standard lets me continue to eat meat, for example, so long it is judicious and sparing and I keep a nagging conscience affecting how I behave as a much-reduced carnivore. And so long as I am part of the movement to keep applying pressure for better empathy and treatment of animals… plus the technological push for tissue culture meaticulture that may take away the ethical conflict with our evolved natures… I don’t feel too guilt-wracked.
 
Or is that rationalization? Sure, my pisco vegetarian wife has better karma than I do. She’ll live longer, too! I expect I’ll reevaluate next year… and the next.
 
Likewise, I fight for a better world hard enough to know that I am trying and I cannot be judged as not having cared… yet I still fly in airplanes, drive a car.  I’m not in this to lord my virtuous nature over others, nor to win your approval.  I am in it to be (as Jonas Salk demanded) a “good ancestor.”

Can the Ocean solve the sky’s problems? Can youth “cure” old age?

Amid all the sturm und drang over climate change, and whether to try “geo-engineering” or ban even discussing such alternatives, it seems that polemics had trumped science. Leaving “progress” to be done in a fly-by-night fashion. Which brings us to —
 
GEO-ENGINEERINGHas ocean fertilization been proved? Early indications may be spectacular. 

I’ve long favored careful experiments in this one kind of “geo-engineering,” which simply replicates nature by providing missing elements to some of the vast (90%) of ocean zones that are nutrient poor deserts, almost devoid of life. A senseless enviro-puritan reflex has blocked simple, controllable experiments, which are inherently retractable — and which I portrayed way back in EARTH (1989). Frustrated by this eco-prudity, a Native American tribe in British Columbia financed the distribution of 120 tons of iron sulfate into the northeast Pacific, in 2012, hoping to stimulate a phytoplankton bloom which in turn would provide ample food for baby salmon.

 

Brave Citizenship beats a Scorched Earth Policy


scorched-earthMost of us in the west were raised with legends, myths and movies that taught Suspicion of Authority (SoA).  Thanks to the great science fiction author, George Orwell, we share a compelling metaphor — Big Brother — propelling our fears about a future that may be dominated by tyrants.
 
Whether they emerge from Big Government or a corporate oligarchy or the traditional feudalism of inherited wealth, it is the end result most of us dread… a return to the brutal, pyramid-shaped social order that dominated 99% of human societies — only now empowered by fantastic powers of technological surveillance and enforcement.
 
Finding ways to escape that fate - and instead preserve this narrow, fragile renaissance of freedom - is the common goal of activists across the spectrum. Though we are hobbled in this effort by the “spectrum” itself, whose artificial divides make us deride potential allies, proclaiming simplistic, spasmodic prescriptions.
 
Nowhere is this sad reflex more prevalent than in the lobotomized modern debate over how to handle information.