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View From a Hotel Window, 4/21/17: Los Angeles

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/21/2017 - 20:19
Look, it’s LA, being LA.  I’m here for a few days! I get to catch up on my sleep! Wheee! No event today, but tomorrow I am signing books at the Mysterious Galaxy booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (3pm-4pm booth 368), and then on Sunday at 1:30, Cory Doctorow and I […]

Science: steps forward... through a minefield

Contrary Brin - Fri, 04/21/2017 - 19:00
Girding yourself for Saturday's Science March? This article - Donald Trump Should Not Appoint a Science Advisor - will steam you, offering much more detail on the White House Science Adviser office -- which Donald Trump has refused to fill -- first officially established by President Eisenhower. A partial list of responsibilities:

"Manage NASA strategy and budget. Work with the Office of Management and Budget on federal research and development investments. Deal with climate change, both in terms of mitigating it and diffusing the controversy. Testify before Congress. Oversee the National Science Foundation. Execute whatever the classified work on national security and homeland security might be. Forge science and technology cooperation agreements with nations like Brazil, China, India, Russia, and Korea. Support the State Department on other science-related initiatives. Put the president in contact with top outside experts when necessary. All in all, (Obama Science Adviser John) Holdren worked in approximately 70 different science fields at any given time." - writes Brian Palmer on Slate.

Even when the office was demoted, under George W. Bush, the WHSA - Jack Marburger - was a prestigious scientist who remained in a science-unfriendly administration because of crucial roles in the National Security Council -- roles that are now, under science-hating Donald Trump, deliberately left unfilled.

Now look again at my recent posting about the fellow who was Trump's top candidate for the Science Adviser role - David Gelernter - and see how this whole thing just gets weirder and weirder.

Seriously. Marching and chanting are among the least effective things we can do. But they are at least a bit effective and they take the least effort and can get our blood up for this fight to save civilization. Be out there on Saturday. If you can't make it to the DC March, there are over 500 marches, worldwide. Even if just alone on a streetcorner with a sign: SUPPORT A SCIENTIFIC NATION.

== The Singularity looms? ==

Ray Kurzweil, one of the principal thinkers regarding the Singularity, encourages lively debate about how to make the coming transformation a friendly one.

His popular website has published one of my essays - Preparing for Our Post-human Future - about this very matter: how we can teach "ethics" to the looming Artificial Intelligences... and whether ethics is even the right tactic to try.  While reviewing several recent books on AI, I ask whether more might be achieved using a different set of tools. 

What will happen as...Our computers learn to code themselves?
For more on how we will incorporate robots and AI into our lives, see Novum's latest podcast exploring Robots, Asimov, and... avoiding the Robot Uprising.
We need to rethink the mechanics of how we think. For a century, the neuron was thought to be the active element, turning on and off like a switch. Then the many synapses that flash between neurons seemed to resemble circuit elements in our computers.

Now we realize that dendrites make up more than 90 percent of neural tissue. Dendrites are the pickups that receive input from synapses, and they vastly outnumber the axons that deliver that input. Now it appears that dendrites engage in substantial internal information processing, far more than is done in the soma, or main body of the neuron.
“What we found indicates that such decisions are made in the dendrites far more often than in the cell body, and that such computations are not just digital, but also analog,” one researcher said.
This is an example of what some of us long expected… “intracellular computing” or multiplying manifold the processing power of each neuron. (Note, some speculate that computational or processing elements may exist within the body of the soma, too.)
This suggests that the brain has more than 100 times higher computational capacity than was previously thought! Not great news for those who expect Moore’s Law to imitate human mentation “any day now” by emulating the number of processing elements inside our skulls. (See Kurzweil's How to Create a Mind: The Secrets of Human Thought Revealed.)

On the other hand, it makes the Human Leap Forward all the more amazing.
== Altering Our Children ==
Speaking of which... are we ready for human gene editing?An influential science advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine on Tuesday lent its support to a once-unthinkable proposition: clinical efforts to engineer humans with inheritable genetic traits.” 
This has long been a red line that worried ethicists. 

“Just over a year ago, an international group of scientists declared that it would be “irresponsible to proceed” with making heritable changes to the human genome until the risks could be better assessed and until there was “broad societal consensus about the appropriateness” of any proposed change.”
Indeed, it’s why Robert Heinlein may be best remembered, a century from now, for the clever solution he recommends in his novel Beyond This Horizon, how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — allowing couples to select which naturally produced sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but forbidding them to actually alter the natural human genome.
Consider the elegance of this proposed compromise. Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. (No fashionable feathers or lizard tails, just kids who are the healthiest and smartest and strongest the parents might have had, anyway. Though I would make an exception for the flow-through lungs of birds. I want those!) 

It is a notion so insightful that biologists 40 years later have only recently started to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

A more pragmatic concern driving the committee was the likelihood that the technology would be adopted elsewhere, in countries like China, where some pioneering research on editing human embryos — without the intent to gestate them — has already taken place.

“If we have an absolute prohibition in the United States with this technology advancing, it’s not like it won’t happen,” said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the committee’s other leader. Many European countries that have signed a treaty to refrain from human germ line editing.

== Delusion: our greatest gift and curse ==

A UCSD anthropologist has recently asserted that our ability to persist in a belief despite evidence may be the reason humanity launched to high levels of intelligence – because only denial would let us endure the obvious futility of life and the looming inevitability of death. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs and the Origins of the Human Mind, by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. I do not believe this theory by the way; I have my own explanations for the human launch to sapience, as I discuss in Human Neoteny and Two-way Sexual Selection.
Oh, I avow that delusion is the greatest human talent. Even here and now, in the most scientific and fact-centered civilization of all time, we are awash in subjectivity and made-up narratives. Even scientists - trained to utter the sacred phrase: "I might be wrong" and to seek their own mistakes - only catch some of them.  For the rest, we rely on the greatest of all human inventions: reciprocal accountability through criticism. In which others, who don't share your particular delusions, can point them out for you... and boy will you eagerly return the favor!

When it works, reciprocal criticism leads to the only successful human civilization that ever happened. Ah, but there are those conniving right now, to ensure that it stops working. (A perennial theme of mine, because I believe if we solve this, and restore our delusion-penetrating processes - then all our other problems will resolve.)

Meanwhile, another exploration for the evolution of human intelligence and creativity is offered in: The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional by anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, drawing upon archeological and genetic evidence to pinpoint the roots of the spark that ignited the human mind.
In both Earth and Existence I speculated about resurrecting extinct species, like mammoths and Neanderthals. Now the Mammoth project is looking closer at-hand. 
     And I am involved in an endeavor to grow Neanderthal brain organelles and fly them… in space.

== Tech advances ==
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announces that its subsidiary Jigsaw (Google Ideas) is developing a machine learning technology - Perspective - that will promote more civil discourse on the internet and make comment sections on sites a little less awful, by helping web publishers to identify toxic comments that can undermine a civil exchange of ideas.

Ultra-thin temporary electronic tattoos can now turn body blemishes into touch-sensitive buttons, letting you control your smartphone with a stroke or a touch. 
A biofoam, laid across dirty or salty water, can use sunlight to separate out clear water.
As Earth Day approaches, you might be interested in a passionate essayist’s short piece on ideology, science, politics and sustainability.
Okay, get out there and do something to defend the only real chance at civilization against barbarians from without... and within.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

View From a Hotel Window, 4/20/17: San Diego

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 04/20/2017 - 18:06
Parking lot in there. Just barely. Tonight: San Diego! Mysterious Galaxy bookstore! 7pm! Be there or be somewhere else! Tomorrow: Nothing! I have a travel day and a break. BUT Saturday and Sunday I’ll be at the LA Times Festival of Books. I’m signing at the Mysterious Galaxy booth an Saturday at 3, and on […]

View From a Hotel Window, 4/19/17: Seattle

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 04/19/2017 - 12:59
Not a parking lot, but there is street parking, so that maybe counts? Tonight: I’m at University Temple United Methodist Church for an event sponsored by the University Bookstore (if memory serves the church is across the street from the bookstore). That’s at 7. Come see me then (but remember it’s a ticketed event)! Tomorrow: […]

View From a Hotel Window 4/18/17: Aurora, CO

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 04/18/2017 - 17:33
That’s almost the Platonic ideal of the hotel parking lot photo. Tonight: I’m visiting Boulder for the first time ever! My event is at the Boulder Bookstore at 7:30. Hope to see you there if you’re in the area! Tomorrow: Seattle — one of my favorite stops — and University Bookstore (actually it will be […]

Those were the days... When was America 'great'? And who has Steve Bannon reincarnated?

Contrary Brin - Tue, 04/18/2017 - 14:07
Have you heard of “Godwin’s Law?” It asserts that: “If an online discussion (regardless of topic) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will invoke Hitler.” In practice, it is used to shame or chastise those who make any sort of comparison to the fascist hellscape of the mid-20th Century.*  To be sure, an overused, hyperbolic cliché can be tiresome.** 

Mike Godwin must be going crazy, right now, amid the tsunami of post-election comparisons. For the record, I do not think Donald Trump wants to, or will, become a Hitler. Parallels with Mussolini are creepy though, starting with Il Duce’s fervid rallies and relentless slogans, calling on Italians to rebuild classical glories and — translated literally— “make Rome great again.” 

Sure, I’ve made my own parallels with 1933 Germany, and they remain apt. Just as the Prussian barons, or Junkers aristocrats, fostered the racist-populist brown shirts as a counterweight to socialists and communists, so Fox News, Breitbart-Limbaugh-Jones and the Kochs deliberately whipped non-college white male boomers into a froth… exacerbated by their grouchiness over getting old and seeing the world change around them.
As those so-clever 1930s lords did then, today’s oligarchs stare in disbelief that a gifted shaman leaped aboard their carefully-trained beast, threw off the intended jockeys and grabbed the reins for himself.*** Back eight decades ago, at least a few of the Junkers had enough honesty to proclaim: “Mein Gott, what haf we done?” Alas, do not expect any such honor or decency from Rupert Murdoch, or the Worst Man in America, George F. Will.
Yet, I take solace from history. Back in the 1930s, as today all over the planet, common folk were mesmerized by new communications technologies. Back then it was radio and loudspeakers, that amplified the hypnotic voices of gifted, polemical svengalis, who took over almost everywhere, plunging humanity toward an abyss.
But not in the English speaking world.  Our parents and grandparents were captivated by gifted orators, too. But here, and in Britain, those gifted speakers were on our side, urging us — as Pericles did in Athens — to make the most of our democracy. Which brings us to a question that blue Americans really need to ask their red neighbors:
When do you envision that America had its “great” golden age?  “Make America Great Again” implies a clear notion of a time. So when was that?
It would seem that generally folks are referring to the era of the Greatest Generation – the boomers’ parents -- who overcame the Depression and Hitler, contained communism, built a booming market economy and got us into space, while too-gradually, but deliberately, taking on so many longstanding prejudices and injustices they inherited from their parents and a thousand other generations. 

Oh, but a funny thing about those folks in the World War II generation. They voted high taxes on the rich, which the rich patriotically paid. And they admired labor unions.
Above all, that clade of Americans had one favorite living human, a man adored by his people, his fellow citizens.
No wonder the New Lords have spent hundreds of millions and decades portraying Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Satan, incarnate.  All while invoking nostalgia for the “great” American era of the 1940s and 1950s, sweeping aside one fact -- that every notable aspect of that period was Rooseveltean. A time - I must reiterate - when unions thrived, the rich paid taxes, science was admired, and moving forward was in our blood. 
Oh, you sour boomers, don’t you dare to invoke the Greatest Generation!  They were union men, democrats mostly, held no truck with foppish billionaires, preferred facts over assertions, built giant projects, gave the world its first general peace and… oh, yes, can I say it again? Their favorite living human was FDR. And do you know who followed Roosevelt in that slot? Who was the most-admired American during the 1950s? A fellow named Jonas Salk.
Oh, they were far from perfect, my parents and their friends. Their faults were monumental! But they emulated the American Founders, and the soldiers of a righteous, abolitionist blue Union, and others who pushed our fine Experiment forward, notwallowing in nostalgia.  (See how I answer right wing adoration of the 1950s.) Moreover, we are not lesser beings than the Greatest Generation. We benefit by living in the great civilization they built. But they raised us to launch from their shoulders. And yes, we have mightily amplified all of their accomplishments with creativity, science and compassion. 
(BTW, the next generation – millennials, especially – are so much better than us boomers that there’s no comparison. Calmer by far. Generally wiser, nicer, smarter. As a parent I’ll take some credit. The best thing we boomers ever did! And we so owe the kids an apology, right now. We need to get out of their way.)
== They built ‘great’ America. FDR merely summoned their wills. ==
No, fanatics, you don’t get the Greatest Generation, who would be appalled by your quiver-lipped wrath and shrill, drama-queen wails. No. You must flee farther back from their Rooseveltean era, in search of your earlier “great” time!
Here’s a candidate period for you -- one admired by the alt-right and Fox – lauded in a song you might recall:
“Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.Didn’t need no Welfare State.Everybody pulled his weight.Gee our old LaSalle ran great.Those were the days.”
Is it 1929 then, that alt-right and the folks at Trump rallies yearn for? Surely the oligarch-junker lords financing the movement would be pleased to crank-back before FDR.  And yet, we all know that’s not it. 
Forget 1929.
It’s 1861, they yearn for. Only this time a confederacy that’s victorious. Plantation lords and their fervid vassals finally overcoming the blue forces of science, facts and progress. (And let us admit that this round of the civil war, with help from the Czar, the Confederacy has taken Washington.)
Alas, stupidly, they ignore real history and where this can only lead. Their conspiracy will carry us to Paris, 1789.
== Back to Godwin ==
Okay, we’ve drifted. Yes, it is vital to nail the Trumpists by demanding they say when they think America was Grrrrreat! ****  
Still, circling back to the beginning, we started with Godwin’s Law. Recall that I dismissed the likelihood that Donald Trump wants anything Hitlerian. So don’t exaggerate! It just harms your credibility. I doubt he’s personally very racist, while cynically egging on those who are. Though parallels with Mussolini seem apt.
No, I’ve taken you on this journey in order to convey a chilling moment of realization that I had today, when looking at Donald Trump’s White House appointments. A shiver of recognition that can only have come from watching way too much History Channel (before they became the Bigfoot Channel.)  Specifically…
…I looked at the epically prototypical brownshirt who is Donald Trump’s chief aid and ‘strategist’ — Steve Bannon, whose silver-spoon life and cushy parasitism at Goldman Sachs then subsidized a plunge into manipulative populist cant, raging against the civilization that benefited him for decades. (Forecast; no bills will be introduced to actually change Wall St. parasitism.)
I know him, you see. Not directly, but every howl against modernity. Every appeal to Cyclical History (the central incantatory touchstone of the reactionary right.) His contempt-drenched ragings against science and every other knowledge caste. I know the cult of neo-feudalists who aim for a return to the standard human condition of 6000 years, and his raves are identical to their calls for a return to kingship, to dominance by Aryan males, to Church and hierarchy and empire, stirring mobs to crush citizenship. 

Using populism to wreck government by-the-people.
Moreover, in all traits he seems eerily reminiscent of (may Godwin forgive me) a certain historical figure whose arc and ambitions and facestrike chilling parallels. A fellow named --
Martin Bormann
The chief aid, factotum, ear-whisperer, private secretary and ‘strategist’who controlled the flow of information and access to you-know-who. The Grima Wormtongue of humanity’s darkest time.
A stretch? Then photoshop-modify the hair. Ditch the peach fuzz. Hell, drawl the name

Now guess which of them said: ““Darkness is good… That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
Okay, that was Bannon. Here’s the full paragraph: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
And now some of you are mumbling: "Brin are you insane?  Bannon will surely see this! It will stand out and get you on a list." To which I answer, well... ******

I do have to ask: has anymember of this generation actually read Mein Kampf? Anyone? At all? Read it! Or at least skim -- look past the screeching racism and rage at the deeper threads of romanticism and the incantations of cyclical history. The calls for not improvement or progress, but restoration of a spectacular purity and glory that never, ever existed in the past.

Then note while flipping through those pages, it isn’t Donald Trump whose voice you can hear, speaking the lines. (Trump is more like Huey Long or Father Coughlin or yes, Il Duce.) But Bannon is there. His voice.
Oh my Godwin.
== Best friends ==
Do I exaggerate?
Check out who are Donald Trump’s most fervent foreign admirers.---



* I was a participant in a long-ago, early-primitive message group, when attorney Mike Godwin coined his famous ‘law.”

** Speaking of clichés, it can be apt to swap the phrase “Godwin’s Law” into Godwin’s Law: “If an online discussion (regardless of topic) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will invoke Godwin's Law.” 

*** As DT eagerly toes the line of Koch orthodoxy, I have to wonder if he experienced recently a moment like that in the film NETWORK, when Howard Beale meets Ned Beatty's wonderful mogul, Arthur Jensen. Watch it. Watch Network, including the classic "Mad as Hell!" scene... and then my response to it.

**** Tony the Trumpeter Tiger?

******  Will I be put on lists? Oh, sillies, of course I'm already on lists. And other lists of people whose 'accidents' would be probed. I do have some courage and sense of duty to a civilization, planet and species that I love, and so willingly take some risk. But probably foremost is the fact... that I wrote the character Nathan Holn, in The Postman. And there are some tough hombres out there who don't care that I portrayed Holn as a villain. They adore him, anyway. And me as Holn's 'creator. And hence, I've been offered shelter in places where... let's just say it would take an army. Martin Bormann would have envied these 'redoubts.'  Of this I have little doubt.

******* Oh! Late breaking development. I'm not the first to notice the resemblance!  Aw shucks.  And also... relief. 

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Today is International Kristine Blauser Scalzi Day

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 04/18/2017 - 08:15
Today is the birthday of the most fabulous person I know, namely, my wife, Kristine Blauser Scalzi, for whom my love is boundless. If you might wish to offer her felicitations on this most auspicious of days, I think that would be lovely, and I would thank you.

View From a Hotel Window, 4/17/17: Santa Fe

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/17/2017 - 15:15
Not quite pool season in Santa Fe, yet. Tonight: I am at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, having conversation with George RR Martin. As one does! Tomorrow: Boulder, Colorado, at the Boulder bookstore. Really looking forward to that. Hello world! I’m back on tour!

Reader Request Week 2017 Wrapup

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/17/2017 - 07:44
Missed any of last week’s Reader Request Week posts? Here’s the whole set for your perusal. Reader Request Week 2017 #1: Punching Nazis Reader Request Week 2017 #2: Those Darn Millennials Reader Request Week 2017 #3: Utopias Reader Request Week 2017 #4: Haters and How I Deal With Them Reader Request Week 2017 #5: Remembering […]

Reader Request Week 2017 #10: Short Bits

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 04/16/2017 - 09:58
Happy Easter! Let’s close out Reader Request Week by running through a bunch of questions I didn’t otherwise get to, shall we? Tracy Benton: If you were falsely accused of a minor crime that would ruin your life, what would you do? (By ruin your life, I mean cause you to lose the trust and respect […]

Space: near and long-term plans

Contrary Brin - Sat, 04/15/2017 - 14:05
Back from travels and giving speeches about our risk-filled future world. And so, feeling a need to share some optimism, I'll post some cool space and science news... 

...only first a reminder: do find a way to get involved in the Earth Day (April 22) Marches for Science, somewhere near you. This shouldn't be about left or right. It's about our children's survival in a civilization that pays attention to fact-centered professions, evidence and  being vigorously knowing-engaged citizens,

Oh, and note a week later, Independent Bookstore Day marks its third year on Saturday, April 29, with literary parties around the country.  Mysterious Galaxy is my favorite nearby one!

Look around. Surrounding you are the marvels (and half our GDP) that we owe to science. (And to science fiction!) This know-nothing carnage-of-minds must stop. Now.

== Space looms before us! ==

I serve on the External Council of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts program — our daring venture that invests small amounts in brilliant (though maybe sometimes slightly strange) notions just this side of plausibly useful. Have a look at this year’s latest Phase One grants.
Want to play while doing science? With the EVE Online multiplayer game, you can help look for new exoplanets from your computer. In a game called Project Discovery, players can search for exoplanets while receiving real-world astronomical data.  One more example of the kind of crowd-sourced smart-mobbing I described in both EARTH and EXISTENCE.
Are humans heading to Mars? Regarding D. Trump's recently proposed NASA legislation, Elon Musk comments, "This bill changes almost nothing." No substance. No funding to back it up. Though it does appear to shift many efforts away from Earth-sensing and asteroidal resources back to putting more dusty footprints on the (for now) useless Moon. Come on. Couldn't space have been the one place where we could find consensus and do what's scientifically supported? Logical?
The use of contests to spur creative solutions has really taken off, in part thanks to the XPrize Foundation, headed by Peter Diamandis. (I'm on the board of advisers.)  During the Obama Administration, every government agency was told to set up a prize contest, aiming to draw inventive proposals for each agency’s most vexing problem, and results were promising, especially since the prizes themselves amounted to little more than petty cash.
In the latest example, NASA appears quite pleased with winners of the $15,000 Space Poop Challenge prize, for ways to collect human waste emitted by astronauts wearing spacesuits.

Only now late breaking news!  Winners have been announced for the Tricorder X Prize!  "Imagine a portable, wireless device in the palm of your hand that monitors and diagnoses your health conditions. That’s the technology envisioned by this competition, and it will allow unprecedented access to personal health metrics. The end result: Radical innovation in healthcare that will give individuals far greater choices in when, where, and how they receive care."  The lead medical evaluator is Dr. Erik Viirre, co-director of UCSD's new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, where the sciences and arts come together to explore humanity's most unique gift.  
== Our emissaries in the solar system ==
NASA's Dawn spacecraft has spotted organic molecules on Ceres, which some believe may have a subsurface ocean. This opens the possibility that primitive life could have developed on (or under) Ceres itself. Ceres shows clear signatures of pervasive hydrothermal activity and aqueous alteration. "We see compounds on the surface of Ceres like the ones detected in the plume of Enceladus," said a researcher.
Which leads us to NASA’s recently released overall plan to study Europa and then the eight other candidates for “ocean world” status. (I coined and prefer the terms “roofed ocean worlds” or “roofed worlds.)  “By this definition, bodies like Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Enceladus would all be viable targets for exploration. These worlds are all known to have subsurface oceans, and there has been compelling evidence in the past few decades that point towards the presence of organic molecules and prebiotic chemistry there as well. Triton, Pluto, Ceres and Dione are all mentioned as candidate ocean worlds based on what we know of them. (See the planned "Enceladus Life Finder" or ELF mission.)
"Titan also received special mention in the course of the presentation. In addition to having an interior water ocean, it has even been ventured that extremophile methanogenic lifeforms could exist on its surface….”  Wax beings lapping along methane rivers, high above "magma" made of liquid water?  Yipe!
NASA's Juno mission currently orbiting Jupiter.  And sending back amazing images.

What might a final approach to Mars feel like? Unbelievably gorgeous high-resolution images of the topography of Mars.

The Rosetta mission's closeups of Comet 67P showed shifting dunes on the comet.
== Back on Earth ==
In a new study, scientists say they have found evidence along the New Jersey coast that an extraterrestrial object hit the earth at the same time a mysterious release of carbon dioxide suddenly warmed the planet, some 55.6 million years ago. The warm period, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), is often cited as the closest analog to today's rapid human-induced climate change. The study does not explicitly say that an impact triggered the PETM, but the implication is consistent with the authors' previous work suggesting such an abrupt trigger. By contrast, mainstream theory says that the carbon came from volcanism or some other earthly cause, over thousands of years.
Most scientists say that the carbon release at the start of the PETM took anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 years. Many suspect it came from a surge of massive volcanism. The resultant warming may have been abetted by a sudden release of frozen methane from the seafloor, due to warming from the carbon, changes in the earth's orbit or shifts in ocean circulation. Temperatures ascended 5 to 9 degrees Centigrade (about 9 to 16 Fahrenheit), during a nearly simultaneous warm period that lasted some 200,000 years. The planet was essentially ice free, and sea levels drastically higher than now. Many small, single-celled ocean-bottom creatures went extinct.
In 2013 Schaller and James Wright of Rutgers University (also a coauthor of the new paper) published a study asserting that the PETM carbon release was virtually instantaneous. Their evidence: extremely high levels of carbon isotopes that appear in a narrow band of the Marlboro clay representing just about a dozen years. This band, it turns out, is near the newly found impact ejecta layer.

Oh, but then, we're not allowed to look at the planet called Earth, anymore.
== Bold Plans ==
Image: Popular MechanicsMight we create an artificial magnetosphere to protect Mars and its atmosphere from the solar wind? It turns out that by setting up a dipole at the Mars L1 point, it’s not as crazy-implausible as it first sounds.  
Congress told NASA to develop a Europa orbiter and lander, to dispatch on the space agency’s future rocket, the Space Launch System, sometime in the 2020s.
Footage from a Cubesat experiment shows potato plants budding in weightlessness, in Mars-like soils, suggesting that a certain movie may have been on target in its optimism about growing food on the red planet. Providing you can wash out perchlorates and all that. We’ll see. 
Okay, the latest of many informative articles about something NASA claims has never happened – sex in space. Riiiiight.
Similar to what I proposed in my novel Sundiver, a recently proposed quantum cascade laser system is powered strictly by heat, with no electrical input; it produces a cooling effect by emitting light. 
== Striking the Gaia Balance, or why humans can alter the climate ==
On Quora I was asked: Is it plausible that a true "water world" could exist (100% ocean)?
Our world skates the very inner edge of our star’s Goldilocks Zone or CHZ. Earth can only afford the barest minimum of CO2 in the atmosphere, just enough to feed plants. We have to eliminate heat, which is why even a little carbon added to the atmosphere wreaks big effects.
The CHZ extends way out past Mars! Had Mars been bigger, it would today have oceans and a very dense CO2 atmosphere as part of its Gaia Balance. That balance is struck between greenhouse gases spewed from, volcanoes and CO2 removal cause by the weathering of mountains adding calcium, silicon etc to ocean waters, which pull carbon out of the air.Earth may be exceptionally dry for an ocean world, because we are hot (and getting hotter.) But a world without any continents to weather away would lack the ability to scrub CO2 and hence keep getting hotter as volcanoes added carbon to the air. I suppose that heat would evaporate the oceans until continents appeared that could restore the balance. Get it?
== Science is political now ==
Sorry but all this great stuff is in danger.  Have of our wealth and GDP came from science. And from the increased wisdom and fact-centered policies that science engendered.

Steep cuts to Earth science imaging: Ultimate proof of lying hypocrisy. All you denialist cultists who said "we need more data before deciding what to do about climate change!" or "The jury is still out!" At least under the Bushites, science was sabotaged less spectacularly and openly. Now the pretense is dropped.  Science is the enemy, openly declared. Your solution is that of a 3 year old: "If we don't look at it, the problem doesn't exist!"
And finally... Winston Churchill once - in 1939 as war clouds loomed -- wrote a long essay on what would later become SETI… the question of other worlds and other life in the universe. Churchill was a devoted fan of H.G. Wells and began his essay shortly after the 1938 U.S. radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which whipped up Mars fever in the media. He reasoned that Venus and Mars were the only places in the solar system other than Earth that could harbour life.”

March on April 22.  Get out there and let it be seen that microcephalic troglodytes will not be allowed to assassinate our civilization or our children.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Reader Request Week 2017 #9: Writery Short Bits

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 04/15/2017 - 11:51
Coming to the end of the Reader Request Week, so let’s quickly cruise through a bunch of questions relating to writing and/or what I’m doing in my career. DangerKitty: Are you ever interested in doing screenplays for TV series, such as Doctor Who, Star Trek, Black Mirror, etc? Why or why not? I wrote a screenplay […]

Reader Request Week 2017 #8: The Path to Publication

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/14/2017 - 11:24
Teresa asks: From the moment that you wrote the first draft, how long it did it take you to see your first work of fiction published? Heh. Well, it depends on what one means by my first work of fiction. If, for example, my first work of fiction is thought to be the very first complete […]

Reader Request Week 2017 #7: Parents, Their Age, and Their Kids

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/14/2017 - 09:40
Christine asks: I recently had my first (and likely only) child, shortly before my 40th birthday. I’m finding the brainpower needed to parent is something I have a lot more of now, at this age. I have more emotional maturity, coping mechanisms, and perspective than I did even as a 30 year old. Do you […]

Today’s New Books and ARCs, 4/13/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 04/13/2017 - 17:15
As we head into the holiday weekend, here is a stack of very fine new books and ARCs for you to peruse. What here would you like to find in your Easter basket? Tell us in the comments!

Dark Times in American Politics

Contrary Brin - Thu, 04/13/2017 - 14:34
Oy!  Now the news suggests he is being eased out, to make way for Jared.  I had better talk about Steve Bannon while I can. Unless... he's still the Dark Lord and I had better say it, while there's still free speech... and electricity.

Before he got to the White House, Steve Bannon was first a Goldman-Sachs mogul, then a filmmaker. His polemical movies say a lot about what’s on his mind, and how he plans to use the power of the US presidency.  You need to watch this video summarizing the forceful and very clear meaning of Bannon's worldview. He not only believes we are diving into an existential crisis, he has openly stated his intention to provoke one and make it happen.
The scariest part? Bannon passionately believes in "cycles" of history" -- the book he frequently cites is The Fourth Turning.  No historian credits that solidly disproved nonsense. It's a meme-worm that takes over weak-silly minds, susceptible to 3rd-grade-level pattern-seeking and sends them charging, braying, toward catastrophe.

Bannon's firm belief that we must follow an 80 year "cycle" into hell is made extra-ironic by the fact that it is based upon hatred for the "self-indulgent" Boomer Generation (of which Bannon is a member and among the most self-righteous) along with idolization of the previous "Greatest Generation" which overcame Hitler and all that... while Bannon's cult seeks to reverse every single social contract and innovation put in place by the FDR-loving GGs!

Oh and the purported next hero generation? The Millennials?  They voted almost uniformly against everything Bannon stands for.

Oh, but while Steve Bannon stirs his alt-right mob with Straussian ravings (for Strauss & Howe, the Fourth Turning authors), he forgets the ungrateful way that earlier Straussians -- followers of Leo Strauss, like Wolfowitz, Perle, Nitze, Adelman etc - were all tossed aside once their manic cries no longer suited the Bushites' pragmatic, feudalist agenda. Cast out like used tissue. Because the real Masters don't want a "crisis," man.  They know that if one comes, the Millennials will bring tumbrels to collect the plantation lords.

No no, Steve.  You were useful to them.  But you are playing out of your league.

== The long knives ==
But meanwhile...

The purge commences.  Steve Bannon openly stated he plans to purge all dissent – or accountability to law, or even question-asking -- from within the most powerful government in the history of the world. “Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions asked Friday for the resignations of dozens of politically appointed U.S. attorneys held over from the Obama administration, the Justice Department said.   Sessions wanted "to ensure a uniform transition" to the Trump administration,” reports the Los Angeles Times
I've already reported on the extreme peril we're in from the War on Science, which is now wiping out the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and threatens to impose upon us a "science Advisor" of spectacularly weird credentials and beliefs. See "In defense of enlightenment: "science adviser"David Gelernter and the rise of anti-science intellectualism." 

Michael Hayden asks: “What role will facts and fact-bearers play in the Trump administration? Which of the president-elect’s existing instincts and judgments are open to revision as more data is revealed?”
Hayden was director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005 and the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009, And he specifically frets: “Trump is already antagonizing the intelligence community, and that’s a problem.” Read this. Then know things have gone from bad to worse, in the last month. 

But oh, there is a (possible) silver lining.  The last of the fact-reality-centered professions have now been forced to confront an existential threat to the Republic.  The Intel community and the US military officer corps are being treated as "deep state" enemies, just like the rest of us. 
== Discounting Expertise ==
Newt has gone hysterical. 

I hate to say it, since Gingrich has always been at least 30% “interesting” amid the overall insanity. Indeed, he’s written sci fi! And when he was Speaker, a brief miracle happened (in 1995) when the GOP actually negotiated with a Democratic President to get real things done. Moreover note this: at the recent Republican National Convention, only one major GOP leader, between Reagan and Ryan, was even mentioned!  So ashamed are they of their horrific record of governance.  That one: guess who? 

Oh, but now: Gingrich seeks to abolish the Congressional Budget Office... after a negative report about the Republican Health Care legislation to replace Obamacare.
Now, to be clear, the CBO makes mistakes in its estimates, sometimes big ones. Economics is hardly science. But there are three responses. Alas, the Democrats will only offer one of them:
1) The professional accountants and economists and statisticians got their jobs at CBO during a span when Republicans controlled the levers of power in Congress across 20 of the last 22 years, and 30 of the last 34 years. So how plausible is it that they are just a pack of liberal shills? Or “deep state” conspirators?
2) If they are “biased” against a Republican Party bill, after owing all their jobs to the GOP for almost two generations, then that “bias” is the same one that has made Fox & pals compile onto an enemies list scientists and every other knowledge profession  — including the intelligence communities and the US military Officer Corps. Yes, there is a bias. It is the bias known as “fact.” 
3) The GOP and Gingrich have a long tradition of banishing news they don’t want to hear. In 1995, Newt led the charge in demolishing the Office of Technology Assessment or OTA, the science and tech advisors who had been hired by earlier (mostly Republican) Congresses to render neutral advice on what’s pragmatic under physical and natural law. This advice proved irksome to dogmatists, who proclaimed OTA “biased.” Instead of correcting the “bias” by simply adding some conservative techies to OTA, for balance, they burned out the whole bureau, allowing GOP senators and representatives to declare anything they liked to be “true” without quibbles from mere boffins.
(Something similar is apparently in the offing at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) which had been dramatically boosted under Obama. Stay tuned for word on this.)
Proving yet again their myopia, Democrats will speak glancingly to #2 (above) and never mention #1 or #3, nor the grand pattern that now includes every single knowledge profession in American life— including the intelligence communities and the U.S. Military Officer Corps.  Proving that, if Republicans have gone malevolently insane, then Democrats are dumber than a bag full of rocks.
== Misce depressings ==

Masha Gessen on where Trump and Putin converge and diverge, and what it means for America.  

What? You think that the Syria events mean "Trump-Putin" is an obsolete meme? There is a word for this theater. "Potemkin." A Russian word for a completely faked sham. The entire "Syrian" thing is a put-on, staged to save Putin's biggest asset - D.Trump - from the growing consensus that he's under Moscow-KGB control. Come on! What other interpretation even remotely fits the facts?

== Dystopic Visions ==
Which leads us to this article on Reader Supported News, by John Feffer and Tom Dispatch, Preventing the Triumph of Trump's Will, which illustrates in so many ways what is on-target and what is chillingly wrong with liberal media, as it flounders for some way to help us rise against this new outbreak of the American Civil War.  Do read the piece, as Feffer and Dispatch make cogent comparisons between the alt-right frenzy of illogical incantations and the creepily similar era of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”  (Today it could be “Trump of the Will?”)
Alas, the two writers also reveal a stunning myopia that could be the death of all our hopes – by denigrating and lumping together with the mad confederacy all of the dedicated public servants in the U.S. intelligence community and the military officer corps.  They buy into the inane "Deep State" metaphor now spread by the right.
They actually – in profound, almost dizzying stupidity – fall into the trap of assuming those groups are inherent foes, rather than inherent friends of the Republic.  For decades, the manipulators of the Right could not believe their luck, that liberals would give in to an insipid reflex to spurn military and intel men and women because of superficialities like haircuts and rural hobbies, rather than recognize potential allies who share one crucial trait –
-- a belief in the overwhelming importance of fact. Of science and objective reality. The value of outcome appraisal, by which measure, any sane citizen would deem the GOP to be cosmically bad at rational governance.  The U.S. military has been at the forefront of civil rights, since Harry Truman desegregated it in the forties. It has pushed for sustainable tech and confronted climate change harder than any other part of government. And when – in a testosterone-drenched community – they find sexual transgression, the senior generals and admirals have come down harder than anywhere else in the nation. 
Is Trump proposing a hike in military spending?  Sure. As cover to let the Bannonite White House commence with a purge that could make Turkish President Erdogan look mild, by comparison. The stupidest thing we can do is fall for this. The military and Intel officer corps are in pain and will face much worse. If they find friends under our Big Tent, then western enlightenment civilization can be saved by a union of all fact-users.
If we spurn them, then kiss your enlightenment goodbye.


March for science and fact-centered maturity and for your children on April 22!

-->. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Reader Request Week 2017 #6: Reading as Performance

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 04/13/2017 - 12:16
Katrina Archer, who is a writer (and a former student of mine) asks: Since you’ve recently been on tour, I have a question about the mechanics of preparation. Preparation for the *performance* not the travel. As I’m in Canada I haven’t seen what you do on tour, although I have attended your readings at cons. […]

Reader Request Week 2017 #5: Remembering Dreams

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 04/12/2017 - 15:41
Fabrizio Toso asks: Do you remember what you dream? If yes, has anything from your dreams found its way in your books? I do remember a lot of what I dream, yes. Not all of it — some of it slips past me in the morning — but certainly enough of my dreams that I […]

Reader Request Week 2017 #4: Haters and How I Deal With Them

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 04/12/2017 - 11:34
For this one I received a couple of email requests, and I’m going to conflate them into a paraphrased question which goes like this: Your site motto is “taunting the tauntable,” so why don’t you go after your haters more? And I’m all, ooooh, so let’s talk about my haters a bit. My haters generally […]

Spring Has Sprung, 2017

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 04/11/2017 - 17:14
Some pictures from the Scalzi Compound, today, when spring was in bloom.
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