Friday, December 19, 2014

Resilience and Reliability - keys to tomorrow

Whenever I go talk to corporations, agencies or public groups about the future, one word I emphasize is "resilience." Try as you might, to predict the future and anticipate threats -- neutralizing enemies and preparing your professional responders -- sooner or later some surprise is going to hit, hard.  And when anticipation fails, resilience is our 'other thing.'  Our ability as individuals, families, communities to pull together and maintain islands of civilization -- till the islands can swiftly knit back together again.

That's the theme underlying The Postman, which was my answer to all the gleeful, Mad Max type celebrations of apocalypse. It's why I have pushed peer-to-peer text passing for our cell phones, and other simple reforms that could make a vast difference in our empowerment as citizens, to hang on, till help arrives.  Or to be the help for those across the valley, or the nation, or world.

 ==  Resilience on our rooftops and in our pockets ==

Why Elon Musk's Batteries Scare the Hell out of the Electric Company: “(Elon) Musk’s giant battery factory may soon become an existential threat to the 100-year-old utility business model. Beyond electric cars, the facility will also churn out stationary battery packs that can be paired with rooftop solar panels to store power." writes Mark Chediak in Bloomberg Business.

Musk's SolarCity Corp is already delivering solar panels and batteries to power California homes, schools, government agencies and companies including Wal-Mart, eBay and HP. Tesla plans to allow owners to swap old battery packs for new, with the old ones then being ideal to place in solar powered homes, helping them to get off the grid.

One thing I mentioned to Elon… and to sober-minded worriers in Washington: Currently a million homes in the U.S. with solar on their roofs will shut down if there is a power blackout. Instead of being islands of power for their neighborhoods, they are just another problem in an emergency.  

This is intolerable! Picture the increased resilience that we might gain, as a civilization, if those million homes could power just one plug in the kitchen, even during outages.  Enough to preserve much of the neighborhood’s perishable food and medicines like insulin, and to run re-chargers by-day, even if it shuts down at night.

This is a problem that’s a matter of national security… like making sure our cell phones have a backup, peer-to-peer text passing capability, if the networks go down.  I have only been preaching about this resilience issue for 30 years.  Maybe Elon will solve it because no one in D.C. seems to have a clue what really matters.

Want a hint of who has been blocking all this?  “The mortal threat to entrenched interests that ever cheaper on-site renewables pose” comes from systems that include storage, said Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Snowmass, Colorado-based energy consultant. “That is an unregulated product you can buy at Home Depot that leaves the old business model with no place to hide.” And “In Germany, the rapid rise of tax-subsidized clean energy has undermined wholesale prices and decimated the profitability of coal and natural gas plants.”

Ah... yes,  I know some of you (dinosaurs) keep claiming nothing will change! Coal is forever! Fortunately, world changers like Elon are more important than cultish dinosaurs.

Are there other resilience techs that can make a huge difference? Tons!  And some have been reported here, like new systems for water desalination or purification. And local, self-made internet systems.  And the Maker movement, which is restoring can-do competence to new generations.  This should be a priority for our concerned leaders...

... and we citizens should insist.

==  Problems in our roots ==

Very interesting: Sex, Status, and Reproductive Success in the Contemporary United States. Contrary to the anthropological mythology that’s widely spread around, it appears that: 

(1) hunter gatherer (hg) and other low-technology societies have had inter-personal violence rates easily as great as contemporary city populations.  

(2) Those hg and low-tech societies had social stratification, hierarchy and dominance interactions that were statistically similar to modern societies, only without those modern societies’ accountability amelioration systems.  And (3) across the spectrum – even leading to today - high status males appear to both get more sex and reproduce more.

The last seems surprising, in the context of modern, urban society. But we should not be shocked.  This study teases apart high status from high education levels, in which there does seem to be a penalty, the higher you go! What is sad is that the sharpest effect appears to be on women with graduate degrees, whose repro success is severely diminished below less educated women.

 “…for men, intelligence works at cross purposes with income. For men, income increases both potential and achieved fertility, while intelligence decreases potential and achieved fertility for both men and women.”

We cannot get better if we romanticize olden times, or refuse to take into account our biological background.  We can and must choose to be better than our past, baseline modus operandi!  We can transcend best and improve if we admit the baseline was… and remains lurking… and deal with it.

==  Science Miscellany! ==

A clever notion for cooling our cities while side-stepping the greenhouse effect: “There's a kind of heat window in the atmosphere that no naturally occurring substance, trace gas or otherwise, can block.” So?  Use radiative rooftop cooling that emits in these wavelengths that bypass those absorbed by Methane and other greenhouse gases.  I am dubious in the short term.  Still, a “cool” concept!

A startup with $143 million in funding aims to create “a sentient distributed artificial intelligence that sounds like a nice-guy version of Skynet from the cinema flick Terminator.”  One step beyond neural networks? I have my own opinions on what might bring AI of various kinds and threat/opportunity levels.

What are the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” - to hold up against the Pyramids and Great Lighthouse, of old?  Slate’s compilation ignores feats of architecture in favor of unseen miracles that allow people more leverage and power in life… like the vast network of undersea fiber-optic cables that give us instant connection across the globe, and the air traffic control systems that have quietly allowed us to stack incoming and outgoing flights at busy airports, like boxes on a conveyor belt. Drinking water systems… you get the idea… the things we take for granted.

Catch this: a new gear transmission mechanism with no touching parts, based on magnetic forces that prevent friction and wear and make lubrication unnecessary.  “The design uses a magnetic gear reducer, that is, a mechanism that transforms speed from an input axle to another in an output axle (as in a bicycle chain mechanism or the gearbox of an automobile). But unlike a conventional gear reducer, this transmission is produced without contact between the pieces thanks to the use of magnetism.”

Cool and beautiful art forms take shape when top quality single malt whiskey dries in the bottom of a shot glass.  See it scientifically explained.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

News from/about space

What's happening?  Suddenly, there’s been a wave of … inspiration! 

As if in tempo with Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, several short movies aggressively confront the cynical theme that’s dominated this dismal century, so far. (The way so many of you have given in to the seductive propaganda of limitations and despair.) These gorgeous pieces fight back by offering us visions of wondrous possibility.

First… try on this spectacular ode to courage – and our outward spirit – Cinema Space Tribute by Max Shishkin, using the Interstellar score as background, taking us on a tour of vivid SF cinema images of space.  

Even better is one off the finest things I have ever watched, period. Invest four minutes in Wanderers by Eric Wernquist! These amazing scenes all taken (or extrapolated) from reality*, not sci fi!  This is what being human must be about... or else, why bother?

(* Almost all of the places depicted here are real. Many of them extrapolated from photos taken already by our robot emissaries. “We” have already been to these wondrous spots. We are already titans!  On our way to unimaginable greatness. (Though I will keep trying to imagine.))

And see this: From Rosetta to Curiosity and Orion: Highlights from an amazing -- and inspiring -- year in space -- summarized in 60 seconds

Coda: I’ve oft said that centuries tend to change direction dramatically, in their fourteenth year.  Could this wave of "confidence porn" be indicative of our next sudden veer?  Backing away from the cliffs of cynical despair and getting back on trajectory toward ambition, daring and wonder?

Make it so.

== Comets and more comets! ==

Hot on the heels of the European Rosetta Mission’s success at landing on Comet 67P – (incidentally proving my doctoral thesis) -- the Japanese Space Agency announced plans to do a second endeavor to collect samples from an asteroid. The original Hayabusa mission, intended as a technology demonstration, returned samples from a rock-rich S-type asteroid called Itokawa in 2010. 

The new Hayabusa would aim at an accessible – Earth-orbit crossing – asteroid of the carbonaceous chondrite variety, very black and filled with water and organics. “It’s trying to understand the relationship of these (different types of) asteroids, how that fits into the formation of the solar system and how it may have influenced life on our planet.”

The spacecraft carries four rovers that will be deployed to the surface, plus a small impactor probe that will smash into the surface to excavate a fresh crater.  If all goes well, Hayabusa 2’s sample return capsule should land in Australia in December 2020.  Very exciting… and necessary steps toward the goal of getting out there and mining millions of floating rocks, creating so much wealth that Earth can be a park.

More on comets!  This attempt to give Comet 67P’s true color -- and it's not gray!

And... First samples of comet dust found in Antarctica. Much more promising than the old way: “-Until recently, the only way scientists could collect “chondritic porous interplanetary dust particles,” or comet dust, without going to space has been by flying research planes high in the stratosphere. It’s painstaking work: Several hours of flying time typically yield one particle of dust.” 

Oh, yes.  Did I mention results pour in, verifying my doctoral dissertation... on comets? ;-) 

== More space! ==

After a nine year voyage, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has awakened, and is ready to collect data on its approach to Pluto. 

See the One Earth Message -- beamed to the New Horizons probe. Jon Lomberg has partnered with the Arthur C. Clarke Center  on a project to upload messages to the future, doing in software, (once the mission is mostly completed) what the Voyager disk did in hardware.  Sign up to participate at One Earth: New Horizons Message.

28 Months on Mars: See these incredible time-lapse images from Curiosity. 

Watch 3D Printer-bots build the lunar colony of 2050 -- in this ESA video. Actually, we seed funded much of this at NASA-NIAC.  In fact, while 3-D building may be a useful technique, astronauts staying for extended periods may use the cavities we’ve discovered, that appear to lead into underground ancient lava tubes.

The ESA and Russia may partner for joint robotic missions to the moon.

NASA engineers propose combining a rail gun and a scram jet to fire spacecraft into orbit!

The fastest stars in universe may approach light speed.

Some astronomers suggest that dark matter,’ the cosmic scaffolding on which our Universe is built,’ is being slowly erased, swallowed up by dark energy. This conversion could explain why the universal expansion seems to have been slowed down by gravity, some billions of years ago, but now appears to be speeding up… toward eventual dispersal in a vast Big Chill.
Which leads us to... A breakthrough in the detection of dark matter?

And finally, from Kepler to Cassini: Fifteen ongoing space missions you should know about. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Science roundup: Ocean fertilization, uplift, and indoor tropics

Science & Tech - glimmers of hope?

We'll start with one of my own special interests. At last, quietly, we are starting to see real science devoted to the possibility of using ocean fertilization to remove atmospheric carbon. 

I never claimed this to be a panacea.  But to ignore even the possibility of a win-win? Turning some of the vast desert areas of the sea, where almost nothing lives, into “irrigated” fisheries that would both feed the world and reduce greenhouse gases?  Is that not worth at least a little probing? 

(I portray tide-driven systems stirring bottom mud to create vast fisheries, in EARTH. Mimicking precisely what nature herself does, off Chile and the Grand Banks.)

Despite reflexive and ill-thought-out political resistance, some research in this area has proceeded. This recent paper suggests that we might do well to invest a little attention to the possibility.  Says one cautious scientist: “I still expect that increases in the iron supply to areas like the Southern Ocean will increase the biological pump and removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.”

It would, of course, be no substitute for the real solution of ever-increasing energy efficiency.  

Speaking of which… wow.  Solar panels reach 40% efficiency. But it shows that there are plenty of options and opportunities for win-win progress, if only the entrenched and reflexive political "sides" would grow up and accept a little something called negotiation.

Now to the ultimate recycling… of a building. SciFi author Charles Stross shows us an indoor tropical resort that has been built within a former dirigible hanger, east of Berlin. Again, wow.   

== Can humans be replaced on Earth? ==

On the show “Life After People” I pondered not only how and why Homo sapiens might vanish from the planet, but also who might replace us.  I’ve also pondered animal intelligence in a few novels

Now, see the possibility demonstrated in this video: Bonobo builds a fire and toasts marshmallows! Indeed, it seems we can be replaced.  Okay... if Jane Goodall had seen this among the wild troops, I'd be  more impressed! In fact? 

Well... I am still impressed! And - if you ever read Boule's Planet of the Apes
or Poul Anderson's Brainwave - just a bit disturbed.  Ah, but as I recall, other authors have been more optimistic about the potential for  chimps to... well... do our stuff. It’s a brief must-watch.

Addendum: see how chimps in the wild are apparently calm and knowing about fire... they even dance! (Shoulda included this in The Uplift War!)

And now….  another experiment proved several things. Mice have been created whose brains are half human. As a result, the animals are smarter than their siblings.” The altered mice still have mouse neurons – the "thinking" cells that make up around half of all their brain cells. But practically all the glial cells in their brains, the ones that support the neurons, are human.”

Beyond the “uplift” related implications… (contain these buggers carefully!)… it also proves something I have long contended, but which singularity hyper-optimists like Ray Kurzweil denied… that there is clearly more to the computational power of our brains than the mere flashing of neurons. Stuff is going on elsewhere!  Perhaps “intracellular computing” in which a myriad non-linear “calculations” take place within those aqueous bags, for every sparkle where axon meets dendrite. And now possible “calculations” from surrounding glial cells? If this is true, then we are even more marvelous than we thought…

…but his also means it will take many more Moore’s Law doublings than Ray figured, before a box can begin to emulate a human brain.

From the paper: Human astrocytes are 10 to 20 times the size of mouse astrocytes and carry 100 times as many tendrils. This means they can coordinate all the neural signals in an area far more adeptly than mouse astrocytes can.”  This also provides a mouse analogue in which detailed studies of human cells can take place.  One researcher asks: "If you make animals more human-like, where do you stop?"  Um…. Indeed. I think let’s discuss this.

Again, re Uplift… Lassie Text Home: Dogs get wired for technology in the FIDO project (Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations).

See this video of dolphins apparently entranced by human dance!   Cool!  Whenever I despair about humanity, I remind myself... dolphins seem to genuinely like us! That mean we can't be too bad.  Overall.

== From the Kurzweil Files ==

An EEG-based BCI (brain-controlled interface) would detect the patient’s related brainwave patterns, which would be used to trigger a gene switch that would modulate the creation of certain chemical agents (such a drugs): Mind-controlled transgeneexpression by a wireless-powered optogenetic designer cell implant. 

Researchers have identified a molecule that improves brain function and memory recall is improved. “Limitless” anyone? 

Ah, but given how deeply our fellow citizens have bought into the lobotoimizing so-called “left-right axis,” and other self-crippling "duh" metaphors, it seems clear that we desperately could use an IQ-boosting pill! 

Oh but this is cool. Researchers have developed a method for using ultrasound to generate a 3D haptic shape that can be added to 3D displays so that invisible images can be felt in mid-air. “In the future, people could feel holograms of objects that would not otherwise be touchable.” Kind of like Vernor Vinge portrays in RAINBOW’S END… but suddenly I recall the “holistank” used by my characters to feel data with their hands, in “The Crystal Spheres! 

And… answering a question about whether technology will advantage elites, Ray K turns on his optimistic interpreting genius. “Technology starts out affordable only by the rich at a point where it does not work very well. (e.g. early/expensive cell phones or home computers.) By the time a technology is perfected it is almost free. Even physical devices will become almost free with the advent of 3D printing.” Huzzah for optimism!

Yes, but elites have seen this happen and might make other plans.  I portray both imperatives at work… in Existence.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ascension and Interstellar - is boldness back in style?

A mission launched to save civilization…in 1963? See the trailer for Syfy's bold new miniseries -- Ascension -- due to air on December 15. 

I consulted this show about an Orion-style colony-escape vessel launched toward the stars in 1963. I cannot predict or vouch for the final result, yet. But the concepts are excellent and the vibe is simply exquisite. 

See a writeup here: Ascension: Could Mankind Really Survive 100 Years in Space... plus a video interview where I discuss the science behind the show.  Well, in fact, they seem to have edited a real whiz-bang intro out of my comments on the endeavor. Enjoy!

Ascension debuts in 6 episodes over three nights, starting December 15.

== Going Interstellar ==

We saw INTERSTELLAR in an IMAX theater.  It was worth paying extra! I could concoct a hundred quibbles.  Maybe I will, someday.  But it is simply awful that so many of us nerdy types deny ourselves the pleasure of a vivid flick, by going in with prickly eagerness to carp and nitpick! Do what I do.  Set aside that part of your personality to take notes "for later"... then tell that part to "shut the F#*! up and let me enjoy this!"

To receive this gift the way the creator of it intended. The way I might appreciate a late Monet, despite the blurriness caused by his cataracts.

Having done that, I sat back and wallowed in what is simply the best movie I have seen in this century. 

Don't get me wrong... I still have both scientific and storytelling critical faculties. There are serious nits to pick, and I have a list.  Indeed, there are one or two that might be serious enough to ask Mr. Nolan to insert 30 seconds into a director's cut (moral implications).  

But I am determined to wait a bit, to let the initial glow settle....  I am simply way too happy with 4.95 stars. And knowing Mr. Nolan can continue to do whatever he wants to do.

We need stories about confident daring and belief in ourselves.

Oh, for a look at the science behind the movie, take a look at Caltech physicist Kip Thorne's book, The Science of Interstellar.

For another point of view, take a look at Futurist John Smart’s appraisal: Saving Interstellar: A Mental Rewrite of Chris Nolan's Latest Masterpiece.

== Another Nolan... another great Sci Fi Epic? ==

Exciting news... Christopher Nolan's brother and partner Jonathan has announced that his own next project will be to craft -- for HBO -- Isaac Asimov's epochal Foundation Trilogy! Naturally, I am excited, since I wrote the final book in Isaac's magnum opus, tying together all the loose ends in Foundation's Triumph.  But here's more...

Starting with a pair of iO9 essays about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robots universe that has inspired writers from Douglas Adams to George Lucas, and public figures as varied as Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich. In 1966, the Foundation Trilogy received the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series, beating out the Lord of the Rings. And also – apparently -- Interstellar's Jonathan Nolan, who announced he would be writing and producing the adaptation of Isaac’s grand and sweeping science fictional epic.

Part of both reader fascination and dissatisfaction with Isaac's series arose from what I have long thought was the series's greatest hallmark - though seldom mentioned -- the fact that Isaac was constantly arguing with his earlier selves!  First, in the 1940s, he asserted we can model human behavior as gas molecules are modeled purely with statistics. 

But then, a later Isaac objected that there are perturbations! So he solves it with a Second Foundation that guides human events in ways that nudge the Seldon Plan's momentum back on track. 

"But --" a still later Isaac complains "--now you get an inherent ruling caste!" So he over-rules the Second Foundation's human master race with... robots!  The perfect court eunuchs, loyal and incorruptible... 

...only then he realizes: "Robots and humans have reversed roles!  The servants are few and all-powerful and controlling and the "masters" are numerous as grains on a million beaches, helpless and too silly to be trusted."

Can't have that. So he comes up with Gaia/Galaxia, in which humanity rises up higher than the robots in a single leap to a unified mega-mind, as in Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End...

... till still-later-Isaac realizes that humanity now will be squashed into sameness, one mind, thinking one thought. Indeed, he started pondering how to resolve this quandary. 

In fact, there were some pretty clear hints where Isaac intended to go next! In a wonderful head-fake that would take his whole cosmos full-circle! Alas, he was unable to finish the series.

We "Killer Bees"  - Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and myself -- were asked by Janet and Robin Asimov to do the "Second Foundation Trilogy"  though each of our novels aimed to accomplish different things.  While my own capstone novel (Foundation's Triumph) tied loose ends and followed Isaac's hints toward a final resolution of the tales of both Seldon and R. Daneel Olivaw, Greg Bear's book - Foundation and Chaos - closely scrutinized the implications of running a galactic empire and Benford's Foundation's Fear... well... Gregory had a lot of fun.  You will too.

As did I, reading Mark Strauss's rambling exploration-insightful decryption of one of the greatest of all sci fi future histories.  

Here's hoping the Nolan boys will (again) make us proud.