Friday, May 27, 2016

Science wonders... and nonsense...

We'll do a weekend science roundup with some interesting twists.  First...

Are black holes quantum computers?  Might the mega-sun black hole at the center of our galaxy be an uber quantum engine, actually operating on whatever information falls into it?  This physicist thinks that gravitons may thread across the event horizon, providing the ‘hair’ that John Wheeler claimed Black Holes cannot have.  They do this by forming a critical Bose-Einstein condensate… or so a new model suggests, and the insight may open up yet another approach to designing quantum computers.  Now the bigger question… is that where THIS simulation is currently being run?

Speaking of great computers… MacObserver runs an interesting podcast interesting interview podcast series.  This one with yours truly covers a wide range, from my education at Caltech and UCSD to how I got drawn over to the Dark Side -- arts like fiction. Also where some of us hard science fiction authors imagine "things" heading. And why the stars are our destination. (Oh also, some talk about Apple stuff!)

== Skewering BOTH left and right, in turn ==

Fans of the “Sokal Spoof” recall that episode when a post-modernist semiotics journal was fooled into publishing a deliberately nonsensical philosophical paper filled with dazzlingly meaningless jargon… similar to most of the serious articles in that region of “scholarship.” The desperation for relevance in the very-far-left in academia was exacerbated by both the collapse of communism and the ever-accelerating successes of western science. Jealousy toward the latter, especially.

But the thing they fear most deeply is the modern trend toward cross-disciplinary breadth – that many in the sciences and arts are now happily talking to each other, even collaborating, demolishing the old (C.P. Snow) notion of Two (mutually incomprehensible) academic Cultures. (See how we are doing this at UCSD's new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, where the sciences and arts come together to explore humanity's most unique gift.)

Since this undermines their whole premise of smug dismissal of scientists as narrowminded, specialized oppressor-boffins, the trend has led remaining postmodernists to double-down, ironically diving down a rabbit hole of fetishistic obscurantism and stylistically-despondent elitism, wherein the greatest fear is to be comprehensible (and thus criticized) by minds outside their own priestly curia.

Okay, take a breath after that paragraph!  Then hop over to see how this mania keeps exposing the cult to well-deserved ridicule as sokal-type hoaxes keep snaring the editors of obscurantist journals like “Badious Studies.”

Oh, but the weirdo campus left - while it contains some subjectivist bullies - does not compare to the madness on today's right, which now consists of lunacy. For example: here’s why you can no longer find scientists - or any other knowledge profession, from law or medicine to journalism to you-name-an-exception - affiliating with the GOP or allied parties around the world. In Australia, the openly stated goal is to slash the Oceans and Atmospheres division of the national research agency by 120 positions specifically so that there will be ‘no further study or monitoring of climate change.’  Moreover, this aim is specifically, baldly and proudly and openly stated. During an era of severe and growing drought, while most of Australia's population lives right by the coast, at sea level. And that level will rise.

 Truth is inconvenient to the coal barons who currently own Australia… and those who have for generations sought to own America. Scientific evidence has mounted far beyond reasonable proof. So what are the cult leaders to do? Get the cultist-drones to look away!  Look away.  Look away. Lookaway lookaway lookaway ….

As we fret about climate change, the good news is that despite near-treasonous obstruction, technologies for both vastly improved energy efficiency and non-carbon generation seem now to be unstoppable. Creative and scientific folks are winning that fight, irreversibly. Moreover the Paris accords seem headed toward a sign-on by almost every nation on Earth, showing some real potential for major policy action, if the U.S. can rouse itself from political mania and show real leadership.

But soon enough?  As atmospheric carbon continues to build, there remains a lurking possibility that the good  trends will be outraced by the momentum already built into global warming.  For example, if a tipping point is reached that triggers release of gigatons of methane now sealed in Clathrate Hydrate ices along the ocean floor.  That powerful greenhouse gas could send the atmosphere into a runaway.  (See descriptions of the “clathrate gun.”)

If a tipping point seems near, then we’ll have no choice but to attempt palliative measures… such as Geoengineering.  Yes, horrifically politically incorrect!  And some of the proposed methods are… well… unwise on the face of it, like spewing sulfurous gases into the Stratosphere.  I favor research into the method that I portrayed in EARTH (1989) -- (one of the early sci fi books partly about a warming crisis) -- a method that mimics the planet’s own recovery system, stirring ocean bottoms in strategic locales to replicate exactly the method Mother Nature uses to create the great fisheries off Chile and the Grand Banks.  What could go wrong? No, I mean that question seriously. You tell me what could go wrong. You got nothing.

Now to the new item I just learned about: “The Azolla event occurred in the middle Eocene epoch, around 49 million years ago, when blooms of the freshwater fern Azolla are thought to have happened in the Arctic Ocean. As they sank to the stagnant sea floor, they were incorporated into the sediment; the resulting draw-down of carbon dioxide has been speculated to have helped transform the planet from a "greenhouse Earth" state, hot enough for turtles and palm trees to prosper at the poles, to the cooler, more temperate period that followed..”  Huh! Ferns. To the rescue?

== Biosciences and Biotech ==

Consuming fructose, a sugar that's common in the Western diet, alters hundreds of genes that may be linked to many diseases, life scientists report. However, they discovered good news as well: an important omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA seems to reverse the harmful changes produced by fructose.  

Scientists are making some progress in learning how to manipulate the microbiome, a realm that I predict will bring the 21st Century’s first truly major medical transformations – because the array of bacteria living within us, while large and complex, is inherently linear and ought to be well-correlated, soon, with genes, body types, diet and lifestyle. Already there are pushes to alter many longstanding practices, as described in Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, by Martin J. Blaser, M.D.

See also “Why Are Your Gut Microbes Different From Mine?  from The Atlantic.

Add another biometric that will give you away, no matter how cleverly encrypto-techie you are about masking your identity: Binghamton University scientist Sarah Laszlo talks in another interview about an experiment which suggests that biometric "brainprints" could replace fingerprints in the future. Her new study shows that people can be identified "with 100 percent accuracy" using only brain waves.  “Brainprints may carry some potential advantages over fingerprints in identifying people. For instance, if a person’s fingerprint is stolen, there’s virtually nothing that can be done because fingerprints are “non-cancellable,” Laszlo said.   “Brainprints, on the other hand, are potentially cancellable,” she said. “So, in the unlikely event that attackers were actually able to steal a brainprint from an authorized user, the authorized user could then ‘reset’ their brainprint.””  

How did humanity pay the energy costs of our giant brains?  Well, there were some newly discovered efficiencies – our two legged gait is slow and difficult to master, but also extremely efficient. But now researchers know that our solution was simply to pay the difference.  They found that “that after adjusting for size, the humans were burning 400 more calories every day than the chimps and bonobos, 635 more than the gorillas, and 820 more than the orangutans.” And hence many of our innovations involved ways to get the extra food. Sharing food resources and divided roles for hunting and gathering, for example, as well as cooking to free up more calories for less digestive work. Then putting that massive brain to work in other ways. 

A fascinating talk on the Long Now site describes how much more energy and water efficient “C4” plants like corn are compared to C3 crops like rice, the staple food for half the world. If rice can be converted to C4 photosynthesis, its yield would increase by 50% while using half the water. It would also be drought-resistant and need far less fertilizer. This plant biologist is part of an effort to refine perhaps as few as a dozen genes that might accomplish such a wonder in perhaps 20 years.  

Wow… so cool rotating depictions of viral shapes and surfaces in Virus Trading Cards.

== Sci  & Tech Potpourri! ==

Quantum Water?  “No, not some sort of New Age stuff that Deepak Chopra would drink," but quantum tunneling of individual water molecules in 5Å channels of beryl crystals. "This means that the oxygen and hydrogen atoms of the water molecule are 'delocalized' and therefore simultaneously present in all six symmetrically equivalent positions in the channel at the same time. It's one of those phenomena that only occur in quantum mechanics and has no parallel in our everyday experience."

Myths about earthquakes abound. For example that “big-ones” offer the biggest danger. Only one earthquake larger than magnitude 8.0 is on the list of the 16 deadliest earthquakes; about one-third had magnitudes of less than 7.5. Each year, on average, there are one or two quakes bigger than magnitude 8; 15 bigger than 7; about 150 bigger than 6; and so on.

Sperm whales. Among the most fascinating creatures ever, on this planet.  This article (accompanied by an amazing photo) describes researchers who free dive with these titans, correlating sonar expressions with behaviors:

“When their clicks are viewed on a spectrogram, a visual representation of an audio signal, each reveals a remarkably complex pattern. Inside these clicks are a series of shorter clicks, each lasting a few thousandths of a second, and so on.Mr. Schnöller and Mr. Buyle believe that sonar artifacts (like images) might be embedded in these vocalizations — that because these animals are already viewing their world through echoes, they may also be able to send these echoed images to one another. They’ll test the theory by capturing these clicks, sending them back to the animals.”  (Might I add that this notion of communicating via sound-sculpted imagery was in both Sundiver and Startide Rising?)

The Corrosion Resistant Aerial Covert Unmanned Nautical System - or CRACUNS - is a submersible UAV that can be launched from a fixed position underwater, or from an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV). It can stay on station beneath the water, then launch into the air to perform a variety of missions.

Metal foams can be reshaped to make wings that reconfigure in action or allow a submersible to change into an aircraft? Oh, and they offer armor and anti-radiation protection, too.  

From Cape Town, filmmaker Sven Harding looks at how the city's forgotten underground tunnels could help it tackle its drought problem.

Finally, a bit of fun...

Suppose you could bring historic figures forward in time? Could they adapt? Ben Franklin certainly! He'd never drive a car but would soon host a talk-show. Adam Smith? He's already up and running the Evonomics site, filled with weekly insights about how we can save creative market enterprise from its age-old enemy, that Smith despised - oligarchy. 

The time-snatch notion -grabbing histoical figures - is one I played with in a draft novel, long before Sundiver, and the ideas are still cool. But to see it done with some low brow humor, see the podcast show “Great Minds with Dan Harmon.”  See them snatch up Sigmund Freud and Idi Amin. And of course, then, there was Bill & Ted.  Anybody else miss 'em?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Shifting Foundations...

Been busy! The hot new Evonomics site has run part II of my extensive exploration of "micropayments," which may be... the next billion dollar industry.

Today  advertising noxiously controls the Internet. Is there a way out? Last time I showed how all past micropayment systems failed.  This time, I discuss the "secret sauce" that may empower the next one to work -- and save modern journalism.


== The ground beneath us trembles... ==


David Sloan Wilson and Sigrun Aasland assert, on the Evonomics site: "It’s no secret that the Scandinavian nations are doing something right. They consistently lead the world in measures of happiness and quality of life."  

Sure, but how the Nordic countries achieve their success–and whether they can be copied by other nations–is another matter. "One reason that the Nordic nations work well might be because they have not—yet—succumbed to the siren’s song of free market fundamentalism."  What the Nordic counties' success suggests to Wilson and Aasland is that centralized planning won’t work and neither will unregulated markets. Something in between is required, which David Colander calls “activist laissez faire.”  


Though shall we add that Norway has benefited from loads of oil? And that Europeans (and Latin American nations) have been able to spend far lower fractions of their national wealth on arms, armies and defense than any generation before them, thanks to a protective umbrella they did not have to pay for?


Oh, but cynicism is the toxic drug addiction of our age. Take this example:

From UltraSociety by Peter Turchin: "There is a principle in Sociology known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy. It says that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies. This principle was first formulated by the German sociologist Robert Michels in 1911. Michels studied the inner workings of socialist parties and labor movements. Both the leaders and the ranks of these organizations professed a strong belief in equality and democracy. And yet in practice, as the leaders accumulated power, they began to subvert democratic procedures. Power corrupts."

Robert Carneiro, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, describes how the Iron Law of Oligarchy could play out in prehistory: 
"As fighting … intensified, autonomous villages formed alliances with each other as they thought to protect themselves from any attacks. To lead the fighting force of allied villages, war leaders were either chosen or imposed themselves. These war leaders were often village chiefs who, elevated to carry out more urgent functions, found their powers greatly augmented. However, once the fighting ceased and villages returned to their normal conditions of autonomy, a war chief’s power reverted back to what it has previously been. Nonetheless, with each successive war, military leaders tended to enlarge their powers and entrench their position. Moreover, they became increasingly reluctant to surrender these powers when the fighting had stopped. Finally, either through a chief’s peremptory refusal to relinquish his once-delegated war powers, or (less likely perhaps) through the outright conquest of neighboring villages by the chief of the strongest one, the first permanent chiefdoms were established.'

Sound familiar? History does seem to support cynical "iron laws." That is, until you look at the exceptions that awe and frighten cynics. Cynics who shrug off the spectacular examples of when humans chose not to follow those "iron" laws.

Hence the legend of Cincinnatus and the way George Washington shocked the Old World and inspired thoughts of change, by repeatedly refusing power. And the way Pax Americana became by far the least-hated "empire" across history, because folks - even our rivals - can sense that becoming a deliberately domineering empire simply does not interest most of us. (Excluding Bushite neocons.)

The crux: Iron laws may have held much of the time.  But recent generations have proved that they do not have to.

== Challenges from overseas ==

Scott Malcomson describes, How Russia and China are cooperating to dismantle America's dominance of the internet, creating firewalls and filtering information. A theme continued in his book, Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce are Fragmenting the World Wide Web.

In the WorldPost, Nathan Gardels writes“In March 1946, Winston Churchill famously declared that an "iron curtain" had descended across the European continent, casting a decades-long chill between East and West known as the Cold War. A new chill is in the air once again as China and Russia seek to draw a new "digital curtain" across the world in a joint effort to thwart the Western web from penetrating their cultural space.” Continues Gardels, “If the arrival in Moscow last week of China's Internet czar, Lu Wei, to advise his Russian counterpart on how to erect a "firewall" against the West is any indication, a new "Cominternet" for the 21st century seems to be in the works - analogous to the so-called "Communist International," or "Comintern," which linked communist parties around the world from Moscow to Beijing during the Stalin era.”


== ah... contrasts ==


Meanwhile, ISIS’s efforts at changing educational curricula in the regions that it controls have led it to adopt, at the beginning of the 2014 school year, new books for middle school children aged 12 to 15. These texts are almost all lifted - almost unaltered - from the Saudi school syste, including the book Kitab al-Tawhid by the famous Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab—founder of Wahhabism, the fanatical sect that utterly controls life in Saudi Arabia, and that has been exported to Saudi financed madrassas that strive hard to radicalize boys across the muslim world.

This includes a  major toehold in Europe -- Kosovo: "Saudi money and influence have transformed this once-tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe into a font of Islamic extremism and a pipeline for jihadists." And "mosques built here with Saudi government money are blamed for spreading Wahhabism — the conservative ideology dominant in Saudi Arabia — in the 17 years since an American-led intervention wrested tiny Kosovo from Serbian oppression." 

This fact is, of course, devastating for those who try to excuse the Saudi Royal House as somehow not deeply responsible for modern Sunni irredentist radicalism (e.g. ISIS and Al Qaeda), as the Wahhabis are simply a branch of that clan.

It gets better. ISIS changed the internationally acknowledged mathematical symbol for addition (+), replacing it with a new symbol represented by the letter z. ISIS’s reasoning is that the + sign indicates the cross, which is used worldwide as a symbol for Christians.


You laugh?  Is it any wonder that the (partly) Saudi-controlled American right has sabotaged moves toward efficiency research and energy independence - and science, in general - for 30 years? 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Sci Fi Visions

"I define science fiction as the art of the possible. Fantasy is the art of the impossible. Science fiction, again, is the history of ideas, and they are always ideas that work themselves out and become real and happen in the world. And fantasy comes along and says, 'We're going to break all the laws of physics.' Most people don't realize it, but the series of films which have made more money than any other series of films in the history of the universe is the James Bond series. They're all science fiction, too-romantic, adventurous, frivolous, fantastic science fiction!" 
         --  Ray Bradbury’s definition of science fiction(See my own article, asking How to Define Science Fiction.)

Hold on for pocket reviews of some of the more interesting, recent Science Fiction novels.  But first...

Many of you are fans of Eric Flint's marvelous "1632" universe. Perhaps not the most likely alternate history series but by-far the most successful. And fun. Well, okay, I finally broke down and wrote a little story that explores the underpinnings while extending it in unexpected directions... and Erik loved it! My story is the cover-lead in the latest 1632 anthology Ring of Fire IV, along with admirable stories by Charles E. Gannon, Eric Flint, David Carrico, Robert Waters and others. When Grantville landed in 1632, what happened to the town whose place it took? Find out in my story "71" -- which you can now read for free on the Baen Books site!

We discuss this universe in the latest Baen Books podcast, along with other distinguished and creative authors participating in Ring of Fire IV.

Looking for news about future tech? "Scout" is a new experiment in online community exploring the social implications of technology through reporting, science fiction, and foresight - "building a platform that gives you the power to create your own model of the future and to play through possibility with a community of brilliant thinkers." Free weekly news dispatches plus other members-only services. Launched by Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath. Check it out!

The Economics of Thrones and Starships, a podcast on Imaginary Worlds (hosted by Eric Molinsky), discusses a theme at the root of many science fiction and fantasy stories – the economics of scarcity and abundance. How would the world be different if resources were not limited -- if replicators can make anything appear instantly? Or if advances in technology allow us to meet (or exceed) the needs of people worldwide? A theme Peter H. Diamandis took up in Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.

== Brief looks at Science Fiction ==

Keep up with the latest news and books from your favorite authors: A list of Science Fiction authors on Twitter.


Scheduled for release June 7: an anthology of The Best Science Fiction of the Year (Volume 1), edited by Neil Clarke, with stories from Nancy Kress, Ian McDonald, Seanan McGuire, Alastair Reynolds, Carrie Vaughn, Ann Leckie, Ken Liu, Aliette de Bodard, Brenda Cooper, Geoff Ryman, Paul McAuley, and...I have an entry: 'The Tumbleweeds of Cleopatra Abyss.' See the full Table of Contents here. Sample some of the best short science fiction from 2015!

From Blastr: a fun list of 12 SciFi/Fantasy novels that channel the flavor of hardboiled noir fiction, including Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music, George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, China Mieville's The City and the City, Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union
My own Kiln People gets a shout-out here.

Barsk, The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen, was a finalist for this year's Nebula Awards. In this distant future, humans no longer exist, but the galaxy is filled with sapient descendants of animals that humans upliftedThis is a tale of the Fant, descended from terrestrial elephants, who have been ostracized to the planet Barsk. Looked down upon by many races, the Fant are the keepers of the powerful drug koph, prized for its ability to allow certain particularly sensitive individuals (Speakers) to communicate with the dead. But other species desperately seek this knowledge, and will stop at nothing to learn the secrets of this drug. Schoen has developed a beautifully detailed world of anthropomorphic animals - in some ways reminiscent of Cordwainer Smith - that will resonate deeply with the reader.

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor, offers an unusual take on First Contact in Africa, written partly in response to the dismal story of District 9. When aliens land in the waters off Lagos, their first act is to purify the polluted ocean and make the sealife bigger and smarter, even into monsters. A targeted tidal wave sweeps three individuals out to sea, down to the alien ship; they re-emerge, along with a shape-shifting alien ambassador in human form, who claims to come in peace, seeking a new home. Many people of the city seek to use the extraterrestrial for their own purposes. Chaos ensues, with riots, fighting, shooting, and looting. With a sonic boom, a hundred more aliens walk out of the rising waters, in the guise of humans. As these agents of change sweep across the land, Nigeria will never be the same…

Transcendental, by James Gunn, begins a bold new trilogy set in future when a post-Singularity humanity has to deal with a Galactic Federation that is well intentioned, but too stodgy to notice that it is in terrible danger. In a fragile post-war peace, a Riley, a war veteran, sets off an interstellar voyage accompanying pilgrims in search of a machine that promises the fulfillment of transcendence. Along the way, alien and human passengers have their own Canterbury-like tales to tell. But Riley is under orders to find (and kill) the mysterious Prophet -- whose promises of enlightenment are destabilizing the galaxy. The saga continues in the next volume, TransgalacticOne of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction does it again!

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber is science fiction by a non-SF author, a tale where faith meets the alien. Peter, a former junkie, is a Christian missionary who has been selected by the shadowy megacorporation USIC to travel to the distant planet Oasis. There he finds the indigenous population already familiar with Christianity and desperate to hear more from his “book of strange new things.” As Peter builds his church and attempts to communicate and minister to alien minds, he begins to question his mission, and who he is serving. The situation on Earth is rapidly falling apart, with natural disasters and social upheaval, yet Peter’s connection to Earth becomes ever more tenuous, even as urgent messages from his wife pull at him.  Moving at times, slow at others, the novel ventures into territory also covered by Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow and James Blish in A Case of Conscience.

Also, check out Dandelion Seeds, a Collection of Short Stories just released by Steve DeGroot, creator of the always amusing Tree Lobsters webcomic. This started as a response to the Twitter hashtag #FirstLineToMyNovel -- carried out to eighteen science fiction stories, collected here.

Finally... At a recent UCSD filmatic festival, I got to try out “Sonar” - a new VR-immersive 360 degree, 3D experience for the Gear system (using Samsung phones). It takes you down into catacombs beneath the bowels of an asteroid where you finally (SPOILER) encounter alien skeletons. 

Um, does anyone else find that familiar? As in precisely a scene from my novel Existence? Except for the (unexplained) ship collapse near the end… is it possible that the creators - Philipp Maas and Dominik Stockhausen – might owe me at least a dinner? Oh, it is well-directed and the music rocks.  Still.